The family in pre-industrial and early industrial Britain and most other societies traditionally had a number of responsibilities placed upon it. These responsibilities are the functions it performs in society. These responsibilities are primarily centred around the preparation of children to fit into adult society.
The case for the view the family has lost its functions
Functionalists like parsons and Dennis, argue that in contemporary society, the family has lost many of its functions once performed by the family in pre-industrial society. They argue these functions have been transferred to other more specialised institutions, such as the National Health Service and the education and welfare systems. Parsons calls this Structural differentiation.
Changes in the family
- Decline in marriage and growth of cohabitation
- Remarriage and the growth of the reconstituted family
- More births outside the marriage
- Growth of lone parent family
- Rising divorce rates
- Decline in family size
- More child centred
- More symmetrical?
- Weakening of extended kinship links?
- Loss of functions
- Growth in ‘single hood’
- Ageing population
Parsons argues this process of structural differentiation has meant the modern, more specialized family has only two basic functions. The primary socialization of children and the stabilization of adult personalities.
The case against the view the family has lost its functions
-Sociologists like Fletcher (1966) and Shorter deny that the family has lost many of its functions in contemporary society. They suggest that in pre-industrial and early industrial society poverty meant functions such as welfare, education and recreation were often not carried out resulting in children being frequently neglected.
-Fletcher argues that the family now has more and not less responsibilities placed on it. For example the health and welfare functions of the family have been strengthened by the welfare state, and parents today are more preoccupied with their children’s health, and take responsibility for minor illnesses and referral to doctors and welfare state.
-Social service agencies with their powers to intervene in families if children are neglected or abused, have increased the responsibilities on parents and not reduced them.
Fletcher says that the family plays an important economic role as a unit of consumption. Modern families are particularly concerned with raising the living standards of the family, often referred to as ’keeping up with the neighbours’ through buying good targeted at family consumers, such as washing machines, TVs, DVD players, computers and package holidays.
-Marxists see this pressure to purchase consumer goods as a means of motivating workers in boring unfulfilling jobs. Feminists writers see the modern family as a unit of production, since woman’s unpaid domestic labour produces a range of goods and services in the family which would prove very expensive if they were provided and paid for outside the family.