Alevel Sociology Wikia

The Functionalist definition of the family includes a set of definitions that various functionalists have stated on the family. In general, these definitions focus on the relationship between the family and the society and the functions of different family members, and how the family helps its individuals.

G.P. Murdock (1949)

As a functionalist, Murdock saw society as a whole divided into various parts which each had a different role to play and contribute for the organism to operate effectively. After studying some "250 representative human societies," ranging from small hunting-gathering communities to large industrial societies, in "Social Structure (1949)", Murdock defined the family as

  • "a social group characterised by common residence, economic cooperation and reproduction. It includes adults of both sexes, at least two of whom maintain a socially approved sexual relationship, and one or more children, own or adopted, of the sexually cohabiting adults. "

From this definition, it can be concluded that Murdock saw the family as having four essential functions:

  1. Sexual Regulation: The family consists of adults of both sexes and is a place where sexual desires are satisfied, particularly for the men (breadwinner) who comes back to home from a long day of work.
  2. Reproduction: Children should be present in the family as procreation is essential to human survival. In a family with couples residing together, the chances of producing regular offspring are higher and babies are more likelier of surviving with the economic support provided by fathers.
  3. Education/Socialisation: The family is where primary socialisation takes place and therefore where norms and values are taught to children to prepare them for society. Also, "The father must particulate as fully as the mother...older siblings too, play an important role..."
  4. Economic: The family is an economic unit with a division of labor where the men work and the women take care of the family as "All known human societies have developed specialisation and cooperation between the sexes roughly along this biologically determined line of cleavage..."

Talcott Parsons (1955)

Parsons focused on functions of the "modern isolated" nuclear family in the United States during his time. He acknowledged that other institutions now took over tasks traditionally performed by the family, such as growing food and making clothes. He concluded that this process of differentiation has left the family highly specialised.

To Parsons, the two vital functions of the family are:

  1. Socialisation of children: To teach children values and norms of their culture so they can truly integrate into society. This helps create social order and stability in the system.
  2. Stabilisation of Adult personalities: Adults are able to express (with limits) "childish" elements of their own personalities and able to receive emotional support from their partners. Family relationships also help provide motivation for work.

Differentiation in roles:

Parsons also acknowledged and suggested that the roles of men and women in the family are different due to their biology.

  • The men, he argues, are the breadwinners who are more instrumental with the power to make practical decisions
  • The women, on the other hand, are the expressive, charismatic leaders who take care of the family.

Parson's views on the family has been criticised by Cheal, who argued that Parson’s generalizations about family life were often seriously parochial, reflecting narrow experiences of gender, class, race and nationality. In addition, Parson’s theory was set up in the 1950s; focusing primarily on American middle class families, resulting in a lack of representativeness. Also, he assumes that the isolated nuclear family is still prevalent; this is no longer the situation in the modern society with family diversity.

Ronald Fletcher (1973)

Fletcher was a functionalist from the UK who had a more optimistic view of the family and its functions. He argued in "The family and marriage in Britain (revised in 1966)" that families had not lost their functions to the extent suggested by Parsons. His "march of progress" acknowledges the welfare state and argues that it allows the family to consternate on the more "essential functions" as listed below:

  1. Families are still necessary and responsible for child-bearing and child-rearing. Parents supplement children's education learnt in school. Also, elderly members are still cared for in the family.
  2. Families provides both a "physical home" and "emotional home" for its members that acts as a "warm bath," soaking away the stresses from outside. Sexual regulation takes place in the family too, which helps create family stability and thus wider social order and stability.

Neo-functionalism: Horwitz (2005)

While traditional functionalists such as Murdock and Parsons focus more on the links between families and other institutions in broader terms, neon-functionalists concentrate more specifically on the links between individuals and society.

Horowitz suggests that the family acts as a bridge connecting the "micro world" of individuals to the "micro world" of a wider economic society. The essential function of the family is therefore to educate the young of social norms necessary for integrating into society. The family is best suited for this as:

  • family members share a deeper emotional commitment and therefore rules taught in the family are more likely to be remembered and used
  • emotional intimacy leads to better cooperation, as for example, children want to please their parents
  • children can subconsciously learn from the heavier of their parents 

The nuclear family and industrialization

As functionalist definitions of the family focus on its links with different institutions in the society, functionalists argue that the nuclear family is dominant due to it fitting the needs of the industrial society.

Parsons states that the isolated nuclear family is shaped to meet the requirements of the economic system; A modern industrial system with a specialized division of labour demands considerable geographical mobility from its labour force, and individuals with specialized skills are required to move to places where those skills are in demand. The nuclear family is small and mobile enough to cope with frequent movement across long distances.

Nuclear families, with less family ties compared to the extended family, is more suitable for meritocracy as it leads to a reduced amount of nepotism (appointing people in positions based on family ties rather than ability).

Willmott and Young argues that extended families were well suited to pre-industrial domestic system, as family members worked as a team in agriculture and textiles; the team increased in power with more people.

During the early stages of the industrial revolution extended families were still prevalent, as nuclear families within find it beneficial to extend family ties; extended family members act as "insurance" during times of hardship.

As living standards increased, such bonds are no longer necessary; combined with the emphasis on geographical mobility, the nuclear family had become the dominant family type.


Peter Laslett disagrees with functionalists claiming that the industrial revolution led to the popularity of nuclear families. Nuclear families predates the industrial revolution, and before the revolution only 10% of families remain extended. He comes to the conclusion that the popularity of nuclear families has led to the industrial revolution.

Past paper questions

9699/11/M/J/14 - Question 2

4 Marks Questions:

Describe two functions of the family. [4]

The 26 Mark Essay question:

Evaluate the view that the nuclear family is universal. [26]