The Family: Functionalism and Marxism

The Family: Marxist and Functionalist Views

Fahin Syeda: BSc (Hons) Sociology



This essay examines changes in family life, using two differing theoretical perspectives: Functionalism and Marxism. It summarises the key structure of the family and how it has changed over generations. It also explores recent trends in family life to establish theories in understanding family life, whilst critically evaluating both perspectives.

Functionalism is a consensus theory where “norms and values are the basic elements of social life… that envisage society as a complex system whose parts work together to promote solidarity and stability” (Craib, 1984:60; Macionis and Plummer, 2008:29). Giddens (2009) describe the family as an established institution since they are expected to act upon important responsibilities to preserve social structure, society and its desires.

George Murdock (1965) defined the nuclear family as a “social group characterised by common residence, economic cooperation and reproduction…adults of both sexes, at least two of whom maintains a socially approved sexual relationship, and one or more children”. The definition demonstrates that a typical family has four basic functions; socialisation, regulation of sexual activity, material and emotional security (Macionis and Plummer, 2008).

Reproduction is an important function of society, considering that it generates future members of the society as well as the labour workforce with the purpose to preserve the humankind by producing and raising children (Arias, n.d.). Seidman (2013) believed that each individual is born into a kin group that assigns specific social roles because of ascribed status, which is “involuntary, something we cannot choose” (Schoepflin, 2010) and socialisation. Society “will not survive” (Skolnick and Skolnick, 2011:23) if their needs are not being met, reinforcing the need to socialise children into accepting norms and values of society to keep it going (Thompson, 2008). It is expected that children will be taught to think, act and behave virtuously (Sharp, 2015). Parents also socialise their children into learning the values of routines of labour force; long hours, punctuality, conscientiousness and competitive quality (Sharp, 2015) in preparation for the future employment.

family 5

Another main function of a family is the fulfilment of material and emotional needs, Fulcher and Scott (2007) believed that love and companionship were also seen as essential, so marriage becomes a “legitimate site for sexual expression” (Morgan, 1996:76). However, it was the wives’ duty to manage their husbands’ urges, and their task was to perform to maintain the stability of the marriage (Arber, Davidson and Ginn, 2003). The material needs, known as economic cooperation, are established through the harmony of the family as it has the responsibility to please the needs of its members (Anastasiu, 2012), which comprise of food, household, health and luxury.

On the contrary, Talcott Parsons understood that the functions of family have changed due to industrialisation, which is known as development of machine production, based on the use of non-living technology (Giddens, 2009). In pre-industrial society, subsistence and production process was based on the domestic economy of small-scale producers that leads to the existence of family as a ‘unit of production’ (Kriedte, Medick and Schlumbohm, 1981) emerged. Nevertheless, when industrialisation developed, so did innovations, for example tractors but they were often too expensive to be used for the agriculture. Fulcher and Scott (2007) described that entrepreneurs who are technical experts of the new technology had to “provide them and the direct producers became wage labourers who did not own the means of production” (Kriedte, Medick and Schlumbohm, 1981:113) anymore, and this meant the end of the family as the primary site of economic production (Macionis and Plummer, 2008). Fulcher and Scott (2007) discovered that the family now became a unit of consumption, rather than production as they earned wages elsewhere to buy goods.

The function of marriage declined due to secularisation and, the approval of sexual relations outside of marriage which leads to modern family types, including relationships that involve partners having their own home (OECD, 2011). OECD (2011) revealed that marriage per 1,000 of the population has declined, from 8.1 in 1970 to 5.0 in 2009 with a long-term increase of birth outside of marriage with “47.7% of all babies born outside marriage or civil partnership in 2015” (McLaren, 2016:5). There are different opinions between generations “with older people often disapproving of cohabitation, but younger people overwhelmingly in favour of it” (Summerfield and Babb, 2004:33). Despite the decline in marriage, Walsh (2012) discovered that cohabiting couples believe that their living arrangements is a next step toward marriage. Although, the typical age of first marriages increases (OECD, 2011).

family 7

Parsons recognised two key functions of the family; “primary socialisation and the stabilisation of adult personalities” (Haralambos and Holborn, 2000:509). Primary socialisation is the practice of “teaching children the cultural norms and values of the society and its social skill, social knowledge, and sense of self” (Chambers, 2012; Fulcher and Scott, 2007). Giddens (2009), indicates that it leads to the development of human personalities where the core values of society become moulded in a child’s personality. The stabilisation of adult personalities is provided through “physical protection and emotional support to handle the demands of industrial society” (Macionis and Plummer, 2008:583; Giddens, 2009:370). Walsh (2012) discovered that men and women communicate and behave differently. Similarly, Parsons and Bales (1956) would agree that a man would act as a ‘breadwinner’ to provide the income for his family and, women are more nurturing and caring so the house-work and children is seen as their work so they tend to feel responsible for the well-being of the family as well as the condition of relationships (Cornwall, 1984; Walsh, 2012). Dallos and McLaughlin (1993) identified that women were responsible to provide a virtuous home, for their husbands to be satisfied and happy by being emotionally present to relieve the burden carried by men from the workplace (Walsh, 2012).

Commonly known as conflict theory, Marxism is a critical analysis into social reality as well as the economic system. From the Marxist’s perspective, it is believed that capitalism exploits families into taking responsibility to reproduce future workers whilst offering a ‘haven’ from the burdens of workplace (McKie and Callan, 2012).

In primitive society, there was no real wealth between communities as “property is owned by the community as whole” (Fulcher and Scott, 2007:30). However, private property ownership emerged as the mode of production, which was developed by industrialisation, shifting the production of goods from the household to factories (Thomas, 2010). During industrialisation, Marx (1945) discovered that there was a conflict between proletariats and capitalists, who own the mode of production since the male workers had to sell their labour to receive wage (Macionis and Plummer, 2008) for their families. This meant the expectations of the family were shifting as well, from a ‘unit of production to unit of consumption’ as they had to buy goods rather than “working together to produce their own resources” (Yuill, Crinson and Duncan, 2010:45).

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It is argued that capitalism needs exploitation to function well, “demanding new discipline and long hours from workers” (Giddens, 2009:75), which creates solidarity in society. Hatch (2016) explained that the workers are aware that they are being exploited, yet feel powerless to do anything so they accept it. However, Zaretsky (1982) shows that the family becomes a ‘haven’ for the workers as compensation for the exploitation and hostilities of capitalism. This is seen in the expectations of the women to simultaneously provide a ‘haven’, and to satisfy their husbands domestically and sexually (Jeffreys, 1991).
Engels and Morgan’s (1902) research revealed that rules of marriage were made for women to become an instrument for procreation of children, for them to inherit their fathers’ wealth and properties. This highlights the patriarchy within the family, so the properties do not get passed through the communities like they would in a primitive society. Capitalism needs a future generation of workforce, requiring women to socialise their children into identifying with the institutions and authority in a benign and trustful manner (Cummings and Taebel, 1978) and accepting the exploitation all at once.
Family structures have changed notably over generations. Peplar (2002), noticed that there were changes in the patterns of family life since the 1960s, due to the rise in divorce rate, lone motherhood, cohabitation as well as two parents’ involvement in the workforce.

McLaren’s (2015) report revealed the divorce trends increased between the 1930s and 1990s, because of dissolving stigma as well as increased participation in the labour force for women. This meant that women were no longer financially dependent on their husbands. The Divorce Reform Act 1969 was put in place as a single ground of irretrievable breakdown (Jenkins and Pereira, 2009), making it easier for the couple to separate. Functionalists see this form of family type as a “lack of moral responsibility that is often blamed on the permissiveness of sexual revolution” (Fulcher and Scott, 2007:471). However, Marxists see this as a form of liberation for women, which moves them away from the ideal patriarchal nuclear family and the stereotypical expressive role.
McGregor’s (2012) census report reveals that the average household size declined from 4.3 in 1911 to 2.4 in 2011, which displays the changes in family structure. The ONS (2012) report proves, in which 39% of males and 50% of females aged 20-34 are cohabiting with their partner, not with their parents. The “average earnings of young people increase during their twenties” (ONS, 2012:4), so living with their partners is more affordable as they have disposable income and a partner to share the cost to rent or buy a house. Functionalists reject this as the “female participation in the labour force has increased significantly with increased access to further and higher education” (Social Issues Research Centre, 2008:23).  This moves them away from the expressive role. This means that gender roles are becoming symmetrical, as Fulcher and Scott (2007) mentioned that the proportion of housework done by men has been increasing, and is almost equal to women. So, children have the opportunity to be socialised in an altered household and learn different model of gender roles.
family 3

Despite the passage of the Civil Partnerships Act 2005, same-sex couples did not have the same rights as heterosexual couples. For example, adoption. It was not until the passage of the Marriage (Same Sex) Couple Act 2013, which gave same-sex couples the same legal rights as heterosexual married couples in matters such as property, inheritance, pensions and benefits (Macionis and Plummer, 2008).
Radical feminists argue that the origins of husband-wife conflicts are not based on capitalism, but rather patriarchal (Anon, 2005). Thus men, as ‘breadwinners’, are exploiting the labour of women through marriage (Fulcher and Scott, 2007) to satisfy their emotional and sexual needs to “uphold the dominance of men in patriarchal societies” (Giddens, 2009:349). However, Marxists ignored the dark side of husbands’ and wives’ roles because they believed that it was unlikely that working-class men were the ‘oppressors’ in their own homes (Gamble, Marsh and Tant, 1999). If the wife failed to satisfy the husband’s needs, she “deserved the beatings she received” (Dallos and McLaughlin, 1993:8) to symbolise her failure as a woman and wife. Featherstone (2004) discovered that the economic position of men appears to have declined over time, which reinforces the masculinity crisis, allowing violence and abuse in the household. So, the nuclear family is seen as a “site of unpaid labour and of violence and abuse” (Featherstone, 2004:81). Engels was overly pessimistic about the purpose of marriage, which was to pass on wealth and properties to the next generation when families “carry out various societal functions that are not easily accomplished” (Macionis and Plummer, 2008:585) and get married for romantic love. Eagleton (2011) is noted to have said that Marxism is outdated as it is “time to return Marx to the 19th century where he belongs” (Gamble, Marsh and Tant, 1999:1).
Functionalists were heavily criticised for validating the domestic division of labour between husband and wives to ensure that the domesticated role performed by women is satisfied (Farrelly, 2010) and maintain the stability of capitalism. The role of family in primary socialisation was over-emphasised, “neglecting the role that other social institution, such as government, media and schools, play in socialising children” (Giddens, 2009:370) which meant that children create their own personalities through secondary socialisation.

Marxist and Functionalist theorists ignore the changing structure of family life as they only focus on nuclear family, the perfect model of family while ignoring “their internal conflicts and consequences” (Fulcher and Scott, 2007:450). Post modernism theorists argue that the society is highly diverse (Giddens, 2009), as people have a choice of their lifestyle such as giving birth outside marriage, or cohabiting with their same sex partner.
The Functionalist perspective would be the most useful to explain the changes in family life because it explains the key functions of the family which were described by Murdock. However, it also explained the changes in functions of the family as well as the development of two new functions explained by Parsons. Although, the Functionalist perspective ignores the potential negative aspects of the family as well as the development of a diverse range of family types. On the other hand, Marxism is an economically determinist theory, which focuses solely on links between social institutions, such as the family and the economy. However, Functionalism focuses on a variety of functions and how they benefit society, for example reproduction and socialisation promoting shared values and the solidarity of society.

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