Sociology has always been interested in the impact which various social processes produce on social institutions. Religion, mass media, politics and economics – all these are the essential components of all social processes and are integrally linked to shape an atmosphere of social complexity, which sociology seeks to explain and resolve. Of all social institutions, however, it is family that is viewed as the basis and the major source of social relationships.
It is family that remains the critical social element of the so-called kinship, which “looms large in every known society, shaping people’s behavior” (Allan, 1999). It is also family that is designed for the purposes of reproduction, and which, if the need for changing family membership arises, incurs the highest transactional cost a social institution may cause. As result, family is fairly regarded as the basis for social stability and unity among all societal layers.
Surprisingly or not, but not all sociological theories view family as the nucleus of society, and this paper is designed to review the major controversies and similarities with regard to the functionalist, conflict, and interactionist views of family as a social institution. To begin with, the functionalist perspective in sociology views all social institutions through the prism of their functionality in societies, which they are expected to serve.
When it comes to family, functionalists assert that family is the source of the social stability and works to satisfy the basic societal needs (Giddens & Griffiths, 2006). To a large extent, functionalists have produced irreversible impacts on our understanding of family, and whenever we assert that family is the nucleus of society, it is functionalism that has become the source of its widely-spread belief. In this context, Talcott Parsons seems to have provided the most comprehensive and understandable review of the basic family functions.
From Talcott’s viewpoint, the two basic functions of family include personality stabilization and primary socialization (Giddens & Griffiths, 2006); as a result, functionalist theory breaks down the family structure into a set of functions which either families in general or their separate members are to fulfill. Functionalism seems the only sociological perspective that confirms positive social nature of family; for functionalists, family is the source of positive relationships, care, nurture, and unconditional love.
Unfortunately, functionalist theory does not always work in a way that would promote sociological objectivity and realism. Trying to confirm socially positive nature of family, many of us readily forget about the concepts of violence, aggressiveness, child abuse, and divorce (Giddens & Griffiths, 2006). Here, family ceases to be the source of social positivism and proves that functionalist beliefs about “positive families” are at least overestimated.
Fortunately, sociology possesses a wide range of analytical instruments and theories, which can be used and combined whenever researchers and scholars face another scientific inconsistency. When it comes to evaluating the positive nature of family as a social institution, the conflict theory works to disrupt this deceptive assumption and to provide a different theoretical view. In general, “conflict theory emphasizes the role of coercion and power, which is the ability of a person or group to exercise influence and control over others, in producing social order” (Andersen & Taylor, 2005).
Conflict theory has its roots in Marx’s vision of fragmented society, where different groups conflict with each other in the process of fighting for limited resources. In many instances, conflict theory in sociology is the antipode of the functionalist review of social institutions. Unlike functionalists who view inequality among family members as the beneficial source of social advantages, conflict theorists are confident that inequality is inherently destructive.
Moreover, family is the bright example of the way conflict theorists view the most important social institutions: while functionalists believe family to be the source of social stability, conflict theorists view family as the direct reflection of broader power relationships in society (Andersen & Taylor, 2005).
Gender roles in families are governed by the considerations of power; family roles tend to change under the impact of external economic and political forces; also, stability within families is influenced by other inequality institutions (e. . , poverty), and thus cannot be the source of social stability for the society in general. It appears, however, that functionalists tend to neglect the role which shared values and consensus may play for the distribution of social roles within families (Andersen & Taylor, 2005), but it is interactionism that works to establish a new vision of family as of a collective social institution and a unity of members that constantly interact with each other.
Interactionism is one of the three major sociological theories that are successfully used to look deeper into the essence of relationships within social institutions and the impacts which subjective individual beliefs, perceptions, and values, and behaviors produce on the structure and stability of social institutions and society in general. “Because of its emphasis on face-to-face contact, interaction theory is a form of microsociology, whereas functionalism and conflict theory are more macrosociological” (Allan, 1999).
From the viewpoint of interaction, the way people tend to interpret their values and behaviors of others are the sources of the major social bonds. The latter can either be the source of family stability or the instrument of family destruction. Given the complexity of interrelationships and interactions within families, Allan (1999) provides an interesting example of a poor African American couple with diagnosed sickle cell anemia, who decide in favor of having children, being fully aware of health risks their children are likely to encounter.
It appears that poor African American populations display the growing mistrust toward the system of healthcare and thus consider medical warnings as unreliable and doubtful. Their family relationships and behaviors are shaped by these individualistic attitudes, which are the direct objects of interactionism studies. Certainly, each of the three theories inevitably impacts the views family members hold with regard to their roles within this particular social institution. From the functionalist perspective, all members of family will seek to distribute their roles in a way that corresponds to society’s industrial needs.
In other words, functionalists would tend to pursue the division of roles in a family according to the most conventional principles (Giddens & Griffiths, 2006). Thus, in a functionalist family a man would be expected to work, while a woman would have to be a housewife and to care for family and children. In this context, the members of a functionalist family would view the two working parents or an unemployed man as inappropriate. Unfortunately, in the current economic conditions, where women are more likely to seek decent employment, the functionalist view of family may stand out as outdated and rather distorted.
For functionalist family members, it is the family that should be the source of care for all family members and children, but society also possesses a whole set of instruments, which can provide high quality care for children and other family members (e. g. schools and kindergartens). However, functionalist views are usually associated with the persistent negligence toward these institutions (Giddens & Griffiths, 2006). That is just one out of many reasons for which functionalists are usually being criticized.
Under the impact of conflict theory, family members will distribute their roles in ways that correspond to the distribution of social roles in broader societal contexts. From the viewpoint of conflict theory, and given the current power structures in society, male members of the family are more likely to use and exercise more power against the rest of family members. This power is linked to and is associated with the family member’s gender and has its roots in the widely-spread commitment to male promotion and female discrimination in various social and professional contexts.
Nevertheless, the distribution of roles in families will vary depending on the norms and standards to which society in general adheres; thus, where society values age and holds age as the primary criterion for the distribution of power, older family members will be trusted more authority and decision-making power within the family (Andersen & Taylor, 2005). Simultaneously, these are resources and possessions that will determine the scope of power each family member is allowed to use.
Thus, a family member will view himself (herself) as more powerful in case he (she) earns more or possesses more information than the rest of family members. In conflict families, members view themselves as possessing the right for abuse and coercion; violence and aggressiveness are characteristic of conflict family members. There is always a difference between one’s perceived and prescribed roles, which are also the sources of conflicts. Family members are not always able to find a common agreement with regard to their roles and the amount of power they are delegated in all decision-making processes.
As a result, a member of such family will view himself (herself) as a part of continuous fight for or against the principles of power distribution which society tends to promote (Andersen & Taylor, 2005). In distinction from conflict and functionalist theories, sociological interactionism seems to promote the most humanistic and the most socially appropriate view about family. Interactionism implies “the moral ideal that all members of a family should adopt an identical view of their collective situation” (Allan, 1999), and here family comes out as the complex combination of interactions and interacting personalities.
In this network of interactions and interacting personalities, the concept of the family evolves as a unity of responsibilities and roles, and each family member views his family from a different interactionist perspective. In distinction from conflict theory or functionalism, not broader societal contexts and environments, but relationships within the family assign family members with different roles and responsibilities. Moreover, family members view their family and their own roles as the product of these interactions which may also evolve and change (Allan, 1999).
Each family member derives his (her) understanding of identity from the interactions that take place in the family, and these identity understandings are assimilated and adjusted to form a stable family union. In terms of interactionism, family members will also be more likely to break their previous roles and to change them in accordance with the changes their identities undergo in the process of interacting with others. Given the differences between the three theories, it is easy to see that functionalist and conflict theories are the most responsive to social change.
It should be noted that the concept of social change is rather controversial in itself; sociologists find it difficult to define social change in a simple and comprehensive way. Nevertheless, for functionalists and conflict theorists social change is the essential component of social interaction and growth. Functionalists are extremely responsive to the changes which society undergoes with regard to the distribution of social roles; in other words, where women become more committed to family values, families readily react by expanding the scope of female household roles and care responsibilities.
Simultaneously, these are the functionalists that will tend to change their attitudes toward working mothers as society becomes more female-oriented and open to female employment (Andersen & Taylor, 2005). Unfortunately, the division of labor the principles of which functionalists pursue is far from being unproblematic, and not all family members take this division for granted. Many of them may view their roles as too limited to promote their social growth and development.
That is why there is a never ending conflict between family roles that are expected to serve society’s industrial needs and family roles which family members may view as the most appropriate to them. Conflict theorists are extremely vulnerable to the changes which society undergoes in terms of power distribution. Gender, age, and social shifts inevitably impact family member attitudes toward the roles they are being assigned by power and conflict. Social inequality forms the basis for power distribution among family members.
For example, under the pressure of poverty women will tend to seek decent employment; as a result, their financial independence will grant them more power in family relationships and thus, more power in all family decision-making processes. “From a conflict perspective, all families are situated within larger systems of power and inequality – systems that affect family life” (Andersen & Taylor, 2005); that is why not shared values or common interests, but social inequality and the conflict between social classes and family members will also promote smaller role changes within families.
When it comes to interactionism, however, it appears that not society but individuals are the sources of the social change, and family members are given sufficient power to maintain family stability based on interactions and contacts. To some extent, interactionists base their relationships on the meanings that are constructed in broader social contexts (for example, gender meanings), but these meanings are also subject to changes which occur as a result of closer interactions between specific social groups (Allan, 1999).
Does that mean that functionalists, conflict theorists, and interactionists view society from different family angles? Yes, it does, and while functionalists view society as the complex of social relationships designed to satisfy its industrial needs, conflict theorists see society as the complex network of social inequalities, which are also the most important drivers of social change. In distinction from functionalists and conflict theorists, interactionists view society as the source of social meanings to which they will also adhere in their family relations.
These meanings may also produce stereotypical impacts on family members’ behaviors. For example, as the meaning of marriage in society becomes more important, women will rely on marriage as the source of respectability, which will consequentially provide men with better opportunities to exercise control over women (Allan, 1999). From all three perspectives, family stands out as the complex structure comprising roles, responsibilities, stereotypes, and conflicts.
Family may either serve the basis for the societal stability or may look as the complex of individual relationships and meanings, but under the impact of broader societal impacts all families and family members undergo a strategic meaningful shift, which changes their views on family, society, and relationships between individuals. Conclusion It appears that family is not always the nucleus of society and the source of social stability. Sociological theories work to provide different (at times opposing) views on similar sociological institutions.
This variety of theoretical perspectives is expected to resolve the major social complexities which society members encounter on their way to stability and unity. In terms of family, functionalism, conflict theory, and interactionism provide the three completely different approaches to family relationships and review society and social change from the three completely different angles. These angles, nevertheless, form a general picture of the roles and characteristics families tend to display in the process of their interaction with broader social contexts.