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The view that the family in modern Britain is an institution that functions for the benefit of its members, and for society as a whole Essay

In order to discuss the view that the family in modern Britain is an institution that functions for the benefit of its members, and for society as a whole it is first necessary to examine and evaluate views from functionalists such as George Peter Murdock and Talcott Parsons that support the statement at issue. It is also necessary to examine and evaluate views which challenge the statement at issue that come from the Marxists, Friedrich Engels and Eli Zaretsky, the New Right and the Marxists-feminists and the radical feminists, as well as looking at the studies of ‘the dark side’ of family life such as domestic violence.

Morgan (1975) acknowledged four attitudes that may be adopted when describing and evaluating the modern family. The first attitude is that the family is in decline and the claim that this is good, which is a view that is associated with Shorter (1977). The second is a viewpoint of the ‘new right’ and that is the family is in decline and that this is one of the main causes of social problems. The third attitude comes from the Marxist and the Marxist-feminists and they argue that the family is relatively strong and this is bad.

However the fourth attitude is associated with the functionalists who claim that the family is thriving and that this is good. It is also this view that ‘march of progress’ theorists put forward throughout the first few decades of the post war period. They claimed that the family was a thriving institution in modern society, and that this was good. The ‘march of progress’ view corresponds with the statement at issue. As mentioned above, functionalists agree with the statement at issue, that the family is thriving and this is good. Murdock (1949) argued that the nuclear family is a universal phenomenon that has certain basic functions.

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Murdock claimed ‘the family is 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. ‘ Murdock’s belief in the universality of the family was based on a survey of 250 societies which found that although there were a variety of family forms, all forms contained the basis of the nuclear family, which was found in all societies.

Murdock claimed that no other institution could carry out the social and psychological functions of the family, these functions being: sexual, economic, reproduction and socialisation. It was argued by Murdock that the sexual drive is such a powerful impulse that it could not be left without restraint. Murdock also argued that the family is characterised by economic co-operation and in many societies, the family is a ‘unit of production’ i. e. producing goods, however in some societies, especially the west, the family acts a ‘unit of consumption’ i. e. buying goods for the family.

The family is the ideal unit for reproduction to ensure the continuance of society. In addition to this, the family also has the responsibility to undertake the socialisation of the child during its period of dependency. Murdock believed that there is no substitute for the nuclear family, which performs these four ‘vital functions’. Furthermore, Parsons (1959) argues that the functions of the family have been reduced since the pre-industrial period due to these being taken over by specialised institutions e. g. schools are responsible for educating children.

However, according to Parsons the family has retained two functions, the first being ‘primary socialisation’ which Parson argues is the most important, as everyone must learn the shared values and norms of society; without this, social life would not be possible. The second function is ‘the stabilisation of adult personalities’ which Parsons claims the family does in two ways: the first is as marital partners providing emotional support for each other, the second is as parents, whereby through playing with their children they can indulge in their childish side.

Parsons believes that although the functions have decreased, the two remaining functions are vitally as important and he cannot imagine any other institution that is able to perform these functions other than the family. Many criticisms have been made of the functionalist views of the family. Critics argue that the functionalists tend to paint an idealised picture of the family. They picture the married couple living in harmony and effective socialisers of the next generation, when in reality this is not a true picture of all family life.

Because of this, functionalists often ignore the ‘dark side’ of family life and do not pay enough attention to the dysfunctions of the family. The functionalists also tend to overlook the diversity of family life in industrial society. They pay little attention to lone parent families, cohabiting families and also reconstituted families as well as the variations of family life based on class, ethnicity, religion and locality. Critics also argue that Parsons view of the family is sexist as he views the woman as being the care giver and the main provider of emotional support and the man as the breadwinner.

Michael Young and Peter Willmott (1973) carried out a study of family life in London between 1950 and 1970 and from this they suggest that the family has gone through three stages, the pre-industrial family, the industrial family and the symmetrical family. The pre-industrial family was essentially stable, centred on production, united by economic necessity and patriarchal; the father was the head of the household. Due to changes in the law, the industrial family saw women lose their independence – women withdrew from paid employment and became ‘housewives’ and men became the ‘breadwinners’.

The family became ‘semi-matriarchal’ due to the periods of absence of husbands/fathers. Furthermore, due to the absence of a husband, the women turned to each other for assistance, especially mothers and married daughters. The symmetrical family saw the roles of the husband and wife become more equal because the husband helped the wife in the home and with the children. Because of this there was a decline of extended kinship interaction. Young and Willmott argued that the differentiation between the conjugal roles between husband and wife had been reduced in a beneficial way.

However, Parsons argued that it the continuation of this differentiation was necessary to guarantee the efficient operation of the nuclear family as an institution. The Marxist view of the family disagrees with the statement at issue. Marxists have the belief that there is a basic conflict of interest between a small, but powerful ruling class and the rest of the population (the subject class). Marxists see the family as just one of many institutions that help to maintain the position of the ruling class. Engels (1884) attempted to trace the evolution of the family.

Engels believed that during the early stages of societal evolution, (the era of ‘primitive communism’) people lived in ‘promiscuous hoards’. Furthermore Engels also believed that the family as such did not exist and that the means of production were communally owned, therefore society was in effect the family. The monogamous nuclear family came about to solve the problem of the inheritance of private property. The males owned the property, and so needed to be sure of the paternity of the heirs in order for it to be passed down to them. Because of this the men needed to have greater control over women in order to eradicate any doubt.

The monogamous family provided a solution for this and also because it is based on the supremacy of man, serves as the basis of a ‘patriarchal’ society. However modern research suggests that monogamous marriages and the nuclear family exist in hunter-gatherer bands, therefore questioning Engels argument. It has also been argued that Engels’ suggestion that humans lived in ‘promiscuous hoards’ is mere speculation. Zaretsky (1976) views the family as a prop to the capitalist system, which is based on the domestic labour of housewives, who produce the future generation of workers.

Zaretsky also claims that the family consumes the products of capitalism which in turn enables the bourgeoisie to make profit. Furthermore, Zaretsky claims the family is a ‘refuge in a brutal society’ and that the family provides satisfactions which counterbalance the alienating nature of work in a capitalist society. However Jennifer Somerville (2000) argued that, in claiming the family to be a refuge Zaretsky was underestimating ‘the extent of cruelty, violence, incest and neglect’ that occurs within the family. The New Right claim that the decline of the nuclear family has led to many social problems.

They believe that the nuclear family is the best type of family and should be encouraged by way of reward and by reducing benefits to other types of families to discourage them. The New Right argue that it important to re-establish ‘traditional family values’ to solve social problems. Critics argue that the New Right is wrong to try to impose the view that one type of family is right and all others wrong. Furthermore, critics also argue that rewarding nuclear families and depriving others is wrong as it is up to people themselves to choose ‘their’ family life and policies should support all families.

Feminism has had more influence on the study of the family then any other approach to understanding society. Feminists have tended to focus on the effects of family life on women and introduced areas of study such as housework and domestic violence, as well as looking at the economic contribution that female domestic labour makes to society. Feminists have focused on the ways that family members, especially men, benefit more than others from families. Furthermore, feminists have challenged previous views of power relations in a family.

Marxists feminists have many of the same ideas as Marxists, but see the exploitation of women as a key feature of family life. Marxist feminists claim that under capitalism, men take advantage of the labour of women in a number of ways: males attempt to exclude women from the trades; male employers see women as ‘reserves’ to be hired and fired at will; husbands take advantage of and exploit their wives’ unpaid housework. Margaret Benston (1972) claimed that the husband’s bargaining power at work is reduced due to his financial responsibilities towards his wife and children.

Fran Ansley (1972) had the view that wives acted as a safety valve for the husbands’ frustration from working in a capitalist society by providing them with the emotional support needed. Valerie Bryson (1992) identified two characteristics that differentiate radical feminism from Marxist feminism. Firstly radical feminism is not modelled on existing theories. Secondly it claims that the oppression of women is the most important feature of society. It was argued by Christine Delphy and Diana Leonard (1992) that the family is an institution that is both patriarchal and hierarchical where men both dominate and exploit women.

Laura M. Purdy (1997) also believes that women are at a disadvantage and exploited in the family, but she claims that this is because of motherhood and believes that many disadvantages arise from the childcare duties, which is expensive and a long-term commitment in terms of time and energy. Many criticisms that have been made of Marxism are also applied to the Marxist feminists and the radical feminists. The feminists also do not allow for any variation of family life and have a tendency to portray women as being passive victims when in reality many may not be. They may have exaggerated the harm done to women in the family.

As already mentioned it was the feminists that drew attention to domestic violence or the ‘dark side’ of family life. In previous years husbands could exercise control and legally beat theirs wives, many of whom were trapped in unhappy and violent marriages. It was only after years of campaigning that women were freed from this burden. In conclusion, I must agree with the functionalists and claim the family is an institution that does function for the benefit of its members and for that of society, as one cannot function effectively without the other, however the decision as to the ‘make up’ of the family must be left to the family itself.

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