1) In what way(s) do conflict/Marxist theories challenge the functionalist
understanding of the family? Explain.
To functionalists, like Talcott Parsons (1955), the family is a harmonic system at the heart of
society, considered a sacred institution, an equilibrium-based, male-dominated politically
conservative institution. George P.Murdock (1949) claimed that the nuclear family is so useful to
society that it is inevitable and universal appearing everywhere, the family is universal because it
fulfils essential functions for society, Murdoch (1949) says that the nuclear family is "universal
and natural", (BUT, by taking a cross cultural look at families we see families are diverse, so
nuclear family isn’t universal), he states 5 functions of the nuclear family include: (1)Sexual
regulation, (2)Economic cooperation, (3)Reproduction, (4)Socialization, and (5)Emotional
Support. Another functionalist, Bronislaw Malinowski (1913) said the main function of families
is nurturing their children.
Functionalists have been accused of idealising the family, ignoring conflict and abuse within
families, ignoring gender inequality within families, ignoring the rising divorce rates, ignoring
growing family diversity, etc.
Conflict / Marxist is a theoretical perspective that views society as an unequal system that brings
about conflict and change. Conflict theory looks at the balance between the order and disorder in
the family structure. Conflict / Marxist theories challenge the functionalist view of family as a
harmonic system, as they view family as a diverse system. For example, the role of the family in
maintaining inequalities in male-female relationships is examined. (Marxist Feminism claims
that the origins of the nuclear family are situated within the social relations of capitalism).
Fundamental assumption, shared with general conflict theory include conflict is a basic element
of human social life, and a basic reason for conflict is individuals are motivated to act in
accordance with their own interests. People pursue needs, values, goals, and resources that they
define as important or desirable to them.
According to Conflict / Marxist theorists: Different individuals or groups could want different
things. This is applicable to the family, for example, children argue about use of television,
parents and children disagreeing about issues, etc. Or, different individuals or groups want the
same thing, but there is a limited supply of the commodity. For example, men and women
compete for time, men not doing housework because it isn't profitable, etc.
EXTRA NOTES from lecture and online (I found helpful):
Differences between conflict and functionalist:
Social-conflict theory focuses on competition between groups.
Whereas functionalists focus on balance and stability within a social system,
conflict theorists view society as comprised of social relations characterized by
inequality and change. Structural functionalism says society as a complex system of interrelated
parts working together to maintain stability.
Structural Functionalists: emphasis on general functional nature of relationship.
Conflict / Marxist Theorists: Agree that the family performs certain functions, BUT emphasis
on the way in which these functions are closely linked to the economic structure of any society.
Feminist Conflict / Marxist Theorists: Interpret the relationship between family and wider
society in terms of power relations between men and women, and tend to see institutions like the
family in terms of what they do to support a certain structure within capitalist society.
Feminists argue that the functionalist view of the expressive and instrumental roles as natural
are socially constructed.
Feminists disagree with Murdoch's idea that the nuclear family is natural, believing that there
is no preferable family structure and encourage family diversity.
Feminists argue that the functionalist view of the family encourages oppression of women.
Marxists argue that the functionalist view of the family views those family structures which
support and benefit Capitalism and that the nuclear family is part of the superstructure with the
sole purpose of perpetuating a capitalist system.
Marxists believe that the family socialises its members to accept the false consciousness that
capitalism is good for all and that the government helps the people through healthcare etc.
Marxism rejects the functionalist idea that society is based on consensus; they would say that
current society is based upon a conflict between the small powerful ruling class and the working
Both Marxists and feminists disagree with the functionalist idea that each organ of society
exists for the benefit of society itself and for its individual members, they believe that they exist
for the benefit of the ruling class of either capitalists or men, respectively.
Talcott Parsons states that the 2 main functions of the family in modern society were as
"safety valve" and for socialisation of children and he assigned both these functions to the wife,
meaning the wife should relieve the husband’s stress when he comes home from work and raise
the children. This view has been criticised by the feminists.
Talcott Parsons' Fit Thesis states that the Modern Nuclear family evolved to meet the needs
of an industrial society. However, Parsons' theory has been widely criticised and disproved by
historical evidence. (Notably studies by Laslett and Anderson. Laslett disproved Parsons' idea that the majority
lived in extended families before the industrial revolution by using parish records in England from 1564-1821, which
showed that only 10% of households were extended families. Anderson's study was conducted on a 10% sample of
1851 census data from Preston, which showed that 23% of households were extended families. This evidence seems
to suggest that the reverse of Parsons' idea of the trend from extended to Nuclear family is true, however, it should be
noted that this research is from limited sources. Later Wilmott and Young suggested that Parsons was correct in
identifying a general trend; however, the timescale in which he placed his Fit Thesis was incorrect. )
One criticism of the functionalist view of the family comes from radical psychiatry, who argue
that the nuclear family is too isolated and this results in internal friction and frustration. Laing
(1964) argues that the family can lead to depression and other mental illnesses as its members
spend too much time together. Laing uses the specific example of a girl named Jane who suffered
from schizophrenia and believed she was a tennis ball as she felt bounced from one parent to
another. Cooper (1972) takes a more Marxist approach claiming that the family teaches children
to be obedient and parents behave like capitalists/bosses. This ties in with the general criticism
that functionalism is too optimistic and ignores the levels of violence within the family.
Another criticism of functionalism is that it ignores the positive experience that many have
within diverse family structures. Critics would say that functionalism encourages negative
labelling of family diverse which has can be said to lead to many social problems. Additionally it
could be argued that due to the large amount of diversity it is impossible to argue that the family
has a function.
2) Describe how the roles held by women and men and children in the family
have changed between feudal/pre-industrial to the industrial period. (in
relation to the economy)
There’s been a steady change from pre-industrial to industrial society in terms of roles of men,
women, and children- with respect to the economy and division of labour.
Men: The men from lower and middle class were generally farmers. This made up a large number