The Functionalist Perspective on the Family

By Charlotte Nickerson, published April 03, 2022 | Fact Checked by Saul Mcleod, PhD

Key Points

  • Functionalists believe that the institutions that make up societies have roles beneficial and essential to them. Family is one example of such an institution.
  • Functionalists perspectives on the family hold that families perform functions such as socializing children, providing emotional and practical support, regulating sexual activity and reproduction, and providing social identity.
  • Prior to the industrial revolution, family members tended to perform productive tasks differentiated by sex and age. However, the emergence of factory labor shifted this dynamic, provoking families to serve complementary roles in providing support for workers.
  • Murdock argued that families consist of instrumental and expressive roles. Instrumental roles provide financial support and establish family status, while expressive roles involve providing emotional support and physical care.
  • Parsons devised the functional fit theory of the family, and argued that nuclear families, although performing a narrower scope of functions than those of the past, were essential to socializing members and stabilizing adult personalities through the emotional security of marital relationships.

The Functionalist View of Society

Functionalism is what sociologists call a structural-consensus theory. By structural, sociologists mean that functionalists argue that there exists a social structure that shapes individual behavior through the process of socialization.

Functionalists believe that a successful society is based on value consensus, people agreeing about a set of shared norms and values. In this way, people can join forces in society to cooperate and work toward shared goals (Holmwood, 2005).

Functionalists posit that successful societies have a stable social structure in which different institutions perform unique functions that contribute to the maintenance of all of society. This is similar to how different organs in the body perform different functions to keep an animal alive.

Functionalists assume that each of these institutional organs do things that are beneficial, or even essential, for the individual and society. Thus, the essence of the functionalist view of the family is that the family performs several essential functions for society.

Families socialize children, provide emotional and practical support for their members, regulate sexual activity and reproduction, and provide members with a social identity.

A corollary of this essentialist view of the family is the belief that a sudden or far-reaching change to family structure or processes threatens the stability of the institution of family in itself, potentially weakening society (Holmwood, 2005).

Functions of the Family in Pre-Industrial Society

Pre-industrial families (before factories) — meaning those from the 17th to 19th centuries — tended to have large numbers of children. Economies in pre-industrial society were dominated by family-based economies — what Siskind (1978) calls the kinship mode of production.

Typically, all family members worked at productive tasks differentiated by sex and age. The family itself would have consisted of a structure, such as a head of household, their spouse and children, the head's parents and possibly ancillary relatives.

Together, this unit worked productively, producing the things needed to sustain the family's survival. The kinship relation, in this time, represented a binding obligation to work for the subsistence of the family.

In the pre-industrial era, marriages were arranged largely for social and economic purposes, rather than for romantic love. Marriage served as a contractual agreement based on a specific division of labor.

Although people would generally attend to their assigned roles within family units, these tasks may have been flexible, depending on the needs of the family. The tasks and the needs that the family structure could fulfill in pre-industrial society included: 

  • Being a unit of production

  • Caring for the young, old sick and poor

  • The primary socialization and control of children

  • The education of children

Murdock’s Four Functions of the Nuclear Family

The nuclear family is a family that consists of 2 generations; a parental married couple and their kin. In 1949, the sociologist George Murdock conducted a survey of 250 societies and determined that there are four universal residual functions of the nuclear family: sexual, reproductive, educational, and economic. 

1. Sexual

Murdock considered the family to regulate sexual relations between adults, ensuring that they are controlled and socially acceptable. While Murdock did not deny the existence of sexual relationships outside of marriage, he considered family to be the socially legitimate sexual outlet for adults. Murdock believed that stable satisfaction of the sex drive within monogamous heterosexual relationships would prevent sexual jealousy (Murdock, 1949). 

2. Reproduction

This sexual function of the family gives way to reproduction, which, Murdock argues, is necessary for ensuring the survival of society. 

3. Socialization

The family plays a vital role in training children for adult life. The family, as a primary agent of socialization and enculturation, teaches young children ways of thinking and behaving that follow social and cultural norms, values, beliefs, and attitudes. Parents, through teaching their children manners and civility, reflect themselves in their offspring (Murdock, 1949).

4. Economic Needs

Additionally, parents teach children gender roles. Murdock argued that these gender roles are an important part of the economic function of the family.

Murdock thought of each family as having a division of labor that consists of instrumental and expressive roles. Instrumental roles are those that provide financial support and establish family status, which Murdock purported were taken on by men. Expressive roles typically involve work inside of the family, providing emotional support and physical care for children.

Functionalists considered this gender differentiation of roles to be an essential part of the family, because they ensure that the family is well balanced and coordinated. When family members move outside of these roles, Murdock believes that the family is thrown out of balance and at risk of collapse if not recalibrated.

For example, if a father decides to quit his job in favor of caring for children during the daytime, the mother must take on an instrumental role, such as getting paid employment, in order for the family to maintain balance and function (Murdock, 1949). 

Parsons - Functions of the Nuclear Family

According to Parsons (1951), although the nuclear family performs functions that are reduced in comparison to what it did in the past, it is still the only institution that can perform the core functions of primary socialization and the stabilization of adult personalities.

1. Primary Socialization

Primary socialization refers to the early period in a person's life where they learn and develop themselves through interactions and experiences around them. This results in a child learning the attitudes, values, and actions appropriate to individuals as members of a particular culture.

This socialization is important because it sets the groundwork for all future socialization. For example, if a child sees their mother denigrating a minority group, the child may then think that this behavior is acceptable, provoking them to continue to have this opinion about minority groups (Parsons, 1951). 

Functionalists stress gender role socialization as a vital part of primary socialization. If primary socialization is done correctly, functionalists believe, boys learn to adopt the instrumental role in a family, provoking them to go to work and earn wages.

Meanwhile, girls learn to adopt an expressive role, provoking them to do care work, housework, and bring up children (Parsons, 1951). 

2. The Stabilization of Adult Personalities

The stabilization of adult personalities, otherwise known as "warm bath theory," emphasizes the emotional security found within marital relationships. This stabilization serves to balance out the stresses and strains of life faced by most adults.

In addition, the stabilization of adult personalities within marriage allows adults to act on the child-like dimension of their personality by playing with their children, using their toys, and so forth (Parsons, 1951).

Another factor that aids the stabilization of adult personalities is the sexual division of labor within nuclear families. Within isolated nuclear families, people are allocated particular roles in order to allow the unit to function correctly. There are the aforementioned expressive and instrumental roles (Parsons, 1951).

Parsons – Functional Fit Theory

Talcott Parsons (1951) kept a functional fit theory of the family, and devised a historical perspective on the evolution of the nuclear family. According to functional fit theory, the type of family that fits a society's structure, and the functions it performs, change as societies change.

For example, from the 17th to 20th centuries, as Western societies industrialized, the main family type changed from the extended to the nuclear family.

The nuclear family is indicative of greater shifts in the structure of society, and how people subsisted within it. Labor becomes decentralized and specialized, with workers in industrial plants taking on small tasks.

The emergence of factories allowed items that were once made by hand or within families, such as canned goods and clothing, to be manufactured on a mass scale. The family unit no longer needed to account for the large undertaking of self-sufficiency.

Instead, instrumental family members could earn wages which other members could then use to buy necessities. As young children could not contribute to this wage system in the same way that they could to, say, a farm, the need for large families to carry out labor lessened.

Additionally, declining infant and childhood mortality gave rise to the expectation that most children would live to adulthood. 

Out of these broad-level societal changes came the nuclear family, which suited more complex industrial society better, but performed a reduced number of functions. This smaller, nuclear family unit suited the need of industrial societies for a mobile workforce, one that could move to find work in a rapidly changing and growing economy.

Additionally, the need for extended family lessened as more and more functions, such as education and healthcare, were gradually subsumed by the state (Parsons, 1951). 

Criticisms of the Functionalist Perspective on the Family

The possibility that other institutions could perform the functions of the family. For example, a school or workplace may provide daycare services, or government subsidies may help a family stay afloat instrumentally. 

Murdock assumes that all nuclear families function well, ignoring families that are dysfunctional despite the presence of both instrumental and expressive roles.

Feminist sociologists posit that Murdock's argument that the family is essential is ideological, and that traditional family structures typically disadvantage women.

Parson’s view of the instrumental and expressive roles of men and women may have applied during the 1950s, but is now out of date. Women now go out to work and the biological roles as set out by Parsons no longer apply as clearly.

Anthropological research shows that there are some cultures that do not fit the traditional model of the nuclear family. One such example is that of the Nair, a group of Indian Hindu castes, who lived historically in large family units called Tharavads that housed the descendants of one common female ancestor. The marriage customs among this group have evoked much discussion and controversy among Indian jurists and social scientists (Panikkar, 1918).

Some functionalist sociologists disagree with Parson's idea that the nuclear family only performs basic instrumental and expressive functions. Fletcher (1988), for example, argues that the family carries out three essential functions that no other social institution can. These are the long-standing satisfaction of the sexual and emotional needs of parents, having and rearing children in a stable environment, and the provision of a common residence where all family members can return after work or school.

However, Fletcher argues that the family also retains its education, health, and welfare function. Child-rearing and socialization in families are made more effective by state institutions offering resources such as prenatal care, health clinics, doctors, social workers, schools and teachers, and housing officers.

He notes that most parents take primary responsibility for their children's health - such as by teaching them hygiene and caring for and treating minor illnesses. Additionally, parents can guide and encourage their children on an educational and occupational level, as well as provide material and welfare support, well beyond childhood. Children often reciprocate these supports when their parents enter old age. 

Fletcher, while acknowledging that the nuclear family has largely lost its economic function of production, highlights that it has shifted into a major unit of consumption. Families spend a large proportion of their income on home or family-oriented consumer goods.  Willmott and Young (1975) suggest that this can motivate family members to earn as much as possible. 

Historians have suggested that Parson's interpretation of the functions of the family was overly simplistic. These historians have noted the evidence suggesting that industrialization follows different historical patterns in different industrial societies.

For example, in Japan, industrialization stresses the importance of holding a job for life with the same company, and employees are encouraged to view their colleagues as part of an extended family. This extends the kinship network (Jansenns, 2002).

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About the Author

Charlotte Nickerson is a member of the Class of 2024 at Harvard University. Coming from a research background in biology and archaeology, Charlotte currently studies how digital and physical space shapes human beliefs, norms, and behaviors and how this can be used to create businesses with greater social impact.

Fact Checking

Content is rigorously reviewed by a team of qualified and experienced fact checkers. Fact checkers review articles for factual accuracy, relevance, and timeliness. We rely on the most current and reputable sources, which are cited in the text and listed at the bottom of each article. Content is fact checked after it has been edited and before publication.

This article has been fact checked by Saul Mcleod, a qualified psychology teacher with over 17 years' experience of working in further and higher education. He has been published in psychology journals including Clinical Psychology, Social and Personal Relationships, and Social Psychology.

Cite this Article (APA Style)

Nickerson, C. (2022, April 03). The Functionalist Perspective on the Family . Simply Sociology.


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