Theories of the Family (2023)

Information was taken from:

AQA Sociology Book 1 (Including AS Level) - written by Webb, Westergaard, Trobe and Townend

Teacher recommended


  • Sociology
  • Families and households
  • AS
  • AQA
  • Created by: ellahampshire
  • Created on: 17-05-16 15:50

Introduction to Funtionalism

Functionalism is a structural approach, seeing us as being entirely shaped by society.It is also a consensus perspective (harmony), and takes a macro(large-scale) approach to sociology.


  • believe that society is based on a value consensus (a set of shared norms and values) into which societysocialises its members
  • regard society as a system made up ofdifferent parts/sub-systems that depend on each other - this is often compared to abiological organism(like the human body); each system plays a vital role in the wellbeing of society
  • sees the family as a particularly important sub-system- this is argued by Murdock (1949) and Parsons (1955)

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Murdock (1949)

...argues thatthe family performs 4 essential functions to meet the needs of society and its members:

1.Stable Satisfaction of the Sex Drive(with the same person, preventing the social disruption caused by a sexual 'free-for-all')

2.Reproduction of the Next Generation (without which, society could not continue)

3.Socialisation of the Young(into society's shared norms and values)

4.Meeting its Members' Economic Needs(such as food and shelter)

Murdock accepts thatother institutions could peform these functions equally well; this is argued by many other sociologists.

Marxists and feminists reject the 'rose-tinted', harmonious approach that many functionalists take, arguing instead thatfunctionalism neglects the conflict and exploitation within the family.

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Parsons (1955) - The 'Functional Fit' Theory

Parsons argues thatthe functions the family performs depends on the kind of society in which it is found:

  • Pre-Industrial Society (the extended family fits the needs of this kind of society)
  • Modern Industrial Society (the nuclear family fits the needs of this kind of the society

Why Does the Nuclear Family Fit the Modern Industrial Society?

1) The nuclear family isgeographically mobile(it would be difficult for an large extended family to move to where jobs are)

2) The nuclear family issocially mobile(in industrial societies, an individual's status is achieved through effort/ability; the extended family would not be suited to this because if adult sons lived with their fathers there may be conflict if the son were to gain a higher status than that of the father)

Young and Willmott claim that industrialisation actually brought a rise in the extended family for the working-class, as generations relied on each other for financial and emotional support.

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Parsons (1955) - Two Irreducible Functions

Parsons argues that with a change in structure, the family haslost several functions- for example, the family is no longer a unit of production; with industrialisation, work moved into the factories and the family became a unit of production only.

Yet, according to Parsons, there remains to be two remaining functions:

1)Primary Socialisation of Children - to equip them with basic skills and society's values

2)The Stablisation of Adult Personalities - the family is a place where adults can relax and release tensions, enabling them to return to the workplace refreshed and ready to meet its demands

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Introduction to Marxism

Marxism is astructural perspective, taking amacro (large-scale) approach. However, unlike functionalists, Marxist sociologists take aconflict approach.


  • believe society iscapitalist- based on unequal conflict between the capitalist class (who own the means of productions) and the working class (whose labour the capitalists exploit for profit)
  • see all society's institutions (including the family) as helping tomaintain class inequality and capitalism
  • thus argue thatthe functions of the family are performed purely for the benefit of the capitalist system

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Engels - Inheritance of Property

Marxists argue that one of the main functions of the family is the inheritance of property.

  • they argue that early in society, there was no private property - all members of society owned the means of productions
  • however, as society's wealth increased and private property developed, a class of men emerged who were able to secure control of the means of production.
  • this eventually brought about thepatriarchal monogomous nuclear family.

Engels argues thatmonogamy became essential because these men had to be certain of the paternity of their children to ensure thatlegitimate heirs inherited from them.

(In Engel's view, the rise of the monogomous nuclear family represented a 'world of historical defeat of the female sex'; it brought women's sexuality under male control and turned women into 'a mere instrument in the production of children'.

This idea, however, ignores how in socialist/communist countries today, the nuclear family does exist.

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Zaretsky (1976) - Ideological Functions

Marxists also argue that the family today also performs key ideological functions for capitalism.Byideology, marxists meana set of ideas of beliefs that justify inequality and maintain the capitalist system by persuading people to accept it as fair, natural, or unchallengable.

This is done throughsocialisation of children, i.e. teaching them to believe hierarchy and inequality are inevitable. Parents' power over children teaches them the idea that there always has to be someone in charge (usually a man) and this prepares them for a working life in which they will accept orders from their capitalist employers.

Zaretsky argues that the family offers anapparent haven from the harsh world of capitalism outside, where workers can relax; this is largely an illusion as the family arguably cannot meet its member's needs. E.g. it is based on the domestic servitude of women.

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A Unit of Consumption

Marxists also argue that the family is a unit of consumption.

Capitalism exploits workers, and their families, by making a profit by sellfing the products of their labour to them for more than it pays them to produce these products. The family is thus esstential in generating profits for capitalists. Families are often targeted for the sale of consumer goods:

  • Advertisers urge families to 'keep up with the Joneses' by consuming all the latest products
  • The media targets children, who use 'pester power' to persuade parents to spend more
  • Children who lack the latest clothes or 'must have' gadgets are mocked and stigmatised by their peers

Marxists tend to assume that the nuclear family is dominant in capitalist society. This ignored the wide range of family structures found in society today.

Feminists argue that the Marxist emphasis on class and capitalism underestimates the importance of gender inequalities within the family.

Functionalists argue that Marxists ignore the very real benefits that the family provides for its members.

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Introduction to Feminism

Like Marxists, feminists are astructuralapproachwho take aconflict,macro(large-scale) approach towards society. They also have a critical view of the family. Feminists...

  • argue that the family oppresses women
  • reject the idea that gender inequality is natural/inevitable, and argue instead that it is something created by society

However, there are different types of feminist who have slightly different ideas about the family, offering different solutions to the problem of gender inequality. The types of feminist to be studied are...

1) Liberal feminists

2) Marxist feminists

3) Radical feminists

4) Difference feminists

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Liberal Feminism

  • Campaign for equal rights/opportunities, arguing that women's oppression is being gradually overcome through challenging attitudes and the law (e.g. the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act), which outlawed discrimination in employment.
  • Believe that there is nowgreater equality, butmore change is needed
  • Hold similar views to that of Young and Willmott with the'march of progress' view, arguing that there has been progress regarding gender equality in the family

Other feminists argue that liberal feminists fail to challenge the underlying causes of women's oppression.

Marxist and radical feminists believe far-reaching changed are still needed.

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Marxist Feminism

Argue that women's oppressoin is not caused by men, but rather,capitalism. They say thatwomen's oppression performs several functions for capitalism:

1)Women reproduce the labour forcethrough unpaid domestic labour, socialising the next generation of workers and maintaining/servicing the current one

2)Women absorb anger that would otherwise be directed at capitalism - Ansley (1972) describes how wives are 'takers of ****', who soak up the frustration their husbands feel because of the alienation and exploitation they suffer at work

3)Women are a reserve army of cheap labour that can be taken on when extra workers are needed. When no longer needed, employers can simply 'let them go'.

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Radical Feminism

Radical Feminists argue...

  • men are theenemy/source of women's oppression
  • the family/marriages are thekey institutions in patriarchal society

They say that the patriarchal system needs to be overturned and the family abolished. They argue that this can only be done throughseparatism (where women live independently of men)

Some even support 'political lesbianism' - the idea that heterosexual relationships areoppressive because they involve 'sleeping with the enemy'.Greer(2000)argues for the creation of all-female/'matrilocal' households as an alternative to heterosexual families.

Somerville states thatradical feminists fail to recognise that women's positions have improved - with better access to divorce, job opportunities, control over their fertility, and ability to choose whether to marry/cohabit.

Also,heterosexual attraction makes it unlikely that separatism would work.

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Difference Feminism

Difference feminists argue thatwe cannot assume that all women live in a nuclear family, so we shouldn't generalise about women's experiences.

White/black, working-class/middle-class, heterosexual/lesbian women all havedifferent experiences of the family from each other.

By regarding the family negatively, white feminists neglect black women's experience of racial oppression - black feminists view the family positively as a source of support against racism.

However, other feminists argue difference feminism neglects that all women share many of the same experiences. For example, they are all at risk of domestic violence/sexual assault/ low pay.

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Introduction to the Personal Life Perspective

The personal life perspective argues that functionalism, Marxism, and feminism all suffer fromtwo major weaknesses:

1)They tend to assume that the traditional nuclear family is the dominant family type - ignoring the increased diversity of families today

2)They are all structural theories - assuming that family members are simply passive puppets manipulated by the structure of society to perform certain functions.

The personal life perspective (including interactionists and post-modernists) take asocial action view, arguing that we have somechoice in creating our family relationships and we mustfocus on the meaning members give to relationships instead of the family's supposed 'functions'.

This means that they take a'bottom up' approach, emphasising meanings that individual family members hold, and how these shape their actions and relationships.

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Beyond Ties of Blood and Marriage

The personal life perspective takes awider view of relationships than traditional 'family' relationships which are based on blood/marriage ties.

Byfocussing on people's meanings, the personal life perspectivedraws attention to a range of other personal/intimate relationshipsthat may not be defined as 'family', yet give people a sense of identity, belonging, and relatedness. These include...

  • Relationships with friends - who may be 'like a sister/brother' to you
  • Fictive kin - close friends who are often treated as relatives
  • Gay/lesbian'chosen families' - made up of a supportive network of close friends
  • Relationships with dead relatives - who live on in people's memories and shape their identities and affect their actions
  • Relationships with pets - e.g. children often see pets as 'part of the family' (Tipper, 2011)

However, critics question how legitimate it is to count pets, dead relatives, and friends as family.

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Nordqvist & Smart (2014) - Donor-Conceived Childre

In their research,Nordqvist and Smart found that the issue of blood and genes raised a range of feelings.

Some parents emphasised theimportance of social relationships over genetic ones in forming family bonds. For example, Erin, the mother of an egg donor-conceived child, defined being a mum in terms of the time and effort she put into raising her child - 'that's what makes a mother'.

Difficult feelings arose for non-genetic parents if somebody said that the child looked like them. Differences in appearance made these parents wonder about the doner's identity, possible 'doner-siblings' andwhether they counted as family. These questions were the same with couples, who had to consider whether the doner's parents counted as grandparents of a doner-conceived child.

Nordqvist and Smart's study helps us to understand how people themselves construct/define their relationships as 'family'.

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Evaluation of the Personal Life Perspective

  • Recognises that relatedness is not always positive. E.g. people may be trapped in violent, abusive relationships or simply in ones where they suffer everyday unhappiness, hurt or lack of respect
  • The perspective can be accused of taking too broad a view. Critics argue that, by including a wide range of different kinds of personal relationships, we ignore what is special about relationships that are based on blood or marriage

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Theories of the Family? ›

The major frameworks that sociologists use to help the questions we just posed include functionalism, conflict theory, symbolic interactionism, social-exchange theory, and feminist theory. Each theory looks at different perspectives of a family or explains why things happen using different reasoning.

What are the 5 family theories? ›

The major frameworks that sociologists use to help the questions we just posed include functionalism, conflict theory, symbolic interactionism, social-exchange theory, and feminist theory. Each theory looks at different perspectives of a family or explains why things happen using different reasoning.

What are the main family theories? ›

In this chapter we will briefly discuss six such theories: Family Systems, Family Developmental, Life Course, Social Exchange, Ecological, and Feminist. When understanding the family, the Family Systems Theory has proven to be very powerful.

What are family theories examples? ›

Other family theories employed include feminist theory, symbolic interactionism, family development, phenomenology, family power, and exchange theory.

What are the theories of the family in sociology? ›

These include Conflict, Functionalism, Symbolic Interactionism, and Social Exchange Theories; second, Middle-Range Theories are theories derived from specific scientific findings and focuses on the interrelation of two or more concepts applied to a very specific social process or problem.

What are the 7 types of family structures? ›

Types of Family Structures
  • Nuclear families.
  • Single-parent families.
  • Extended families.
  • Childless families.
  • Stepfamilies.
  • Grandparent families.

What are the 4 types of family structure? ›

Some of the more common variations in traditional family structure include single-parent families, step families, extended families, and same-sex families.

What is family life theory? ›

Family life cycle theory suggests that successful transitioning may also help to prevent disease and emotional or stress-related disorders. Whether you are a parent or child, brother or sister, bonded by blood or love, your experiences through the family life cycle will affect who you are and who you become.

What is origin theory of family? ›

Introduction. The term “Family of Origin” describes the family in which a person was raised. An individual's family of origin is composed of the members, consanguine or not, who played a significant role in the early development (infancy and childhood) of the individual.

What are the family stages theory? ›

The developmental phases of a family are referred to as the stages in a family life cycle. They include: unattached adult, newly married adults, childbearing adults, preschool-age children, school-age children, teenage years, launching center, middle-aged adults, and retired adults.

What are the 8 concepts of family systems theory? ›

The eight principles of family system theory are: triangles, differentiation of self, nuclear family emotional process, family projection process, multigenerational transmission process, emotional cutoff, sibling position, and societal emotional process.

What are the 3 major family systems? ›

Family systems can have multiple structures, and the different possibilities are listed below:
  • Nuclear Family (mother, father, children)
  • Non-traditional Family (two parents, children)
  • Single Parent Family.
  • Extended Family (two or more people related by blood or marriage who live together)
  • Family Without Children.
Mar 19, 2023

Why are family theories important? ›

The values and theories of clients about families in general, and about their family, in particular, have significant importance; Understanding their views allows the therapist to understand their world, and what shapes their decisions and actions.

What are the 3 main theories of sociology? ›

These three theoretical orientations are: Structural Functionalism, Symbolic Interactionism, and Conflict Perspective. To understand a theoretical orientation in any profession it is critical to understand what is meant by the term theory.

What are Marxist theories of the family? ›

Marxists argue that the nuclear family performs ideological functions for Capitalism – the family acts as a unit of consumption and teaches passive acceptance of hierarchy. It is also the institution through which the wealthy pass down their private property to their children, thus reproducing class inequality.

What are social conflict theories of the family? ›

According to conflict theorists, the family works toward the continuance of social inequality within a society by maintaining and reinforcing the status quo. Through inheritance, the wealthy families are able to keep their privileged social position for their members.

What are the 12 types of family? ›

Examples of diverse family forms
  • Traditional nuclear family. ...
  • Symmetrical family. ...
  • Nuclear family with house husband or “new man” ...
  • Extended family. ...
  • Beanpole family. ...
  • Matrifocal lone parent family. ...
  • Patrifocal lone parent family. ...
  • Reconstituted family.
Sep 15, 2022

What are the 11 family structures? ›

There are 11 various family structures which include adoptive, blended, childless, communal, de facto, extended, foster, nuclear, same-sex, sole parents and kinship. Adoption is a permanent legal arrangement whereby biological parents transfer their rights and responsibilities over their child to the adoptive parents.

Why aren t families close anymore? ›

Abuse, including emotional, physical, and sexual abuse in childhood. Ongoing toxic behaviors, including anger, cruelty, disrespect, and hurtfulness. Feeling unaccepted/unsupported, including about their life choices, relationships, disability status, and other things important in their life.

What are the 6 types of family life cycle? ›

PIP: The 6 stages of the family life cycle are identified as: 1) family formation (marriage to first birth), 2) family expansion (first birth to last childbirth), 3) completion of expansion (child raising to departure of first child from home), 4) family contraction (through departure of last child from home), 5) ...

What are the 8 categories of family functions? ›

The tasks that families carry out in order to meet these needs are referred to as family functions; the authors divide these into eight categories:
  • affection.
  • self-esteem.
  • spiritual.
  • economics.
  • daily care.
  • socialization.
  • recreation.
  • education.

What are the four key elements of a family system? ›

The key elements of a family system are its members + beliefs + roles + rules + assets + limitations + goals + boundaries + subsystems (e.g. siblings) + environment - a larger system of systems, or metasystem.

What is the Duvall family theory? ›

Duvall's theory is based on the traditional, nuclear, intact family. Families will move through each stage in order across time. A family will move from one stage to the next after all members successfully master the tasks within a stage.

What are the 4 theories of origin? ›

The four theories are evolutionary, force, divine right, and social contract.

Who created family theory? ›

Family systems theory was developed by Murray Bowen, who was a psychoanalyst. Family systems theory is important as it studies human behavior in a family context. The role of the theory is to analyze the complex social system within a family unit, which influences individual behavior through interaction.

What is family economic theory? ›

The family economics approach, pioneered by Becker (1960), maintains that individuals obtain direct pleasure from having and raising children, and from their well-being. Children, and possibly their quality level, thus resemble a consumption good in the utility function of their parents.

What are the 5 family life cycle? ›

Most families go through five stages: 1) family founding; 2) child bearing; 3) child rearing; 4) child launching; and 5) empty nest. If you imagine your life in the family as an on-going cycle, it looks about like this.

What is the parent development theory? ›

Developed over a decade ago, the PDT is a useful theoretical perspective for understanding individuals' parenting perceptions and behaviors. Closely aligned with both social learning and cognitive developmental theories, the PDT posits how individuals construct and modify their parenting point of views over time.

What are the 2 types of family systems theory? ›

Family projection process: The transmission of emotional problems from a parent to a child. Multigenerational transmission process: The transmission of small differences in the levels of differentiation between parents and their children.

Why is Bowen theory important? ›

The Bowen Family Systems Theory posits that understanding one's family story can help to understand their psyche, their human relationship systems, and how they operate within other aspects of their life as well as their physical and emotional nature and processes.

What is the Bowen's theory of triangles? ›

A triangle is a three-person relationship system. It is considered the building block or “molecule” of larger emotional systems because a triangle is the smallest stable relationship system. A two-person system is unstable because it tolerates little tension before involving a third person.

What are the 5 P's of internal family systems? ›

The five Ps are presence, patience, perspective, persistence, and playfulness. So Schwartz is claiming that we all have an essentially ideal human inside of us already. While the self is the natural leader of the family, harmful incidents in the past created exiles and protectors who wrested control away.

What are the six characteristics of the family systems theory? ›

She summarized six key points for family systems theory: 1) family systems are an organized whole, and the elements within it are interdependent; 2) patterns in a family a circular rather than linear; 3) family systems maintain stability in their patterns of interactions (homeostasis); 4) family patterns change over ...

What is the dysfunctional family system theory? ›

Dysfunctional families are fertile ground for neglect, abuse, secrecy, addiction, or denial. In these family systems, children's emotional needs go unmet because the parents' needs take precedence. One or both parents might be suffering from a substance use disorder, personality disorder, or mood disorder.

What are the different types of theory? ›

Sociologists (Zetterberg, 1965) refer to at least four types of theory: theory as classical literature in sociology, theory as sociological criticism, taxonomic theory, and scientific theory. These types of theory have at least rough parallels in social education. Some of them might be useful for guiding research.

What are the four 4 types of sociological theories? ›

Four Major Sociological Theories

The four main theoretical perspectives are symbolic interactionism theory, social conflict theory, structural-functional theory, and feminist theory.

What is Georg Simmel theory? ›

Simmel believed people created value by making objects, then separating themselves from that object and then trying to overcome that distance. He found that things which were too close were not considered valuable and things which were too far for people to get were also not considered valuable.

How do functionalist vs Marxist view the family? ›

Functionalists view the family and its contribution to society as positive, whereas Marxits see it as a negative institution. Functionalists see the nuclear family as essential for social order. They view it as providing adequate socialisation and economic support essential for cohesion.

What is Karl Marx conflict perspective on family? ›

Marxism is a conflict perspective in the family that argues that the working-class, the proletariat, is exploited by the capitalist class, who profit off of their labor. Marx and Engels believed that the monogamous nuclear family emerged from, and benefits, capitalism.

What does functionalism say about family? ›

Functionalists argue that all institutions in society have important roles to play in the smooth and functional running of society, and the family is no different. They argue that the family has important functions both for society and for individuals.

What is symbolic Interactionism of family? ›

Symbolic interactionists argue that shared activities help to build emotional bonds, and that marriage and family relationships are based on negotiated meanings. The interactionist perspective emphasizes that families reinforce and rejuvenate bonds through symbolic rituals such as family meals and holidays.

What is an example of a family conflict theory? ›

Conflict theory and marriage

For example, one spouse may have an interest in specific gender roles within the marriage where they set expectations. The other spouse may not be interested in the inequality that these roles represent, creating the marital strife that follows the beats of conflict theory.

What are the 4 family conflicts? ›

Birth of a baby. Birth of other children. A child going to school. A child becoming a young person.

Who identified 5 types of family diversity? ›

The Rapoports carried out groundbreaking research into family life. They identified a number of ways in which family life was diverse, in contrast to the idea that the nuclear family was the clear norm. They identified 5 clear types of family diversity.

What are the 6 types of family involvement? ›

  • TYPE 1. PARENTING. Help all families establish home environments to support children as students. ...

What is the Rapoport theory? ›

According to Rapoport, the built environment is constituted by the organization of (1) space, (2) time, (3) “meaning” and (4) communication (verbal and non-verbal communication between people).

What do Marxists say about the family? ›

Marxists see families as essentially a conservative institution that helps to preserve capitalism. They also weaken the position of individual workers in relation to the boss.

What is Epstein's theory? ›

The Framework of Six Types of Involvement builds off Epstein's theory of overlapping spheres of influence. The theory distinguishes an interdependent view of school-family-community influences from what could be considered a separate view of influence.

What are the 5 Rs of family engagement? ›

I offer five Rs—respect, responsiveness and reassurance, relationship, reciprocity, and reflection—to help you build trust and promote positive family engagement in your preschool classroom.

What are 3 characteristics of strong families? ›

What makes a family strong?
  • Commitment: They make their relationships a high priority. ...
  • Appreciation: They let other family know, daily, they were appreciated. ...
  • Communication: They talk to each other about big issues as well as small issues. ...
  • Time together: They are deliberate about planning activities.
Dec 2, 2016

How many family systems theories are there? ›

The eight principles of family system theory are: triangles, differentiation of self, nuclear family emotional process, family projection process, multigenerational transmission process, emotional cutoff, sibling position, and societal emotional process.

Who made the family life cycle theory? ›

In 1948, Evelyn Duvall and Reuben Hill initialized the conceptualization of family development as a theoretical orientation with a focus on life cycle staging. Evelyn Duvall (1962) is considered the major contributor to the family life cycle and is credited with the establishment of specific stages.

What is the Bowen's family system theory? ›

According to Murray Bowen [101], family systems theory is a theory of human behavior that defines the family unit as a complex social system in which members interact to influence each other's behavior. Family members interconnect, making it appropriate to view the system as a whole rather than as individual elements.

What are the 3 main dimensions of family systems theory? ›

The Circumplex Model focuses on the three central dimensions of marital and family systems: cohesion, flexibility and communication. The major hypothesis of the Circumplex Model is that balanced couple and family systems tend to be more functional compared to unbalanced systems.

What are the six system theory? ›

He presented a number of real and hypothetical models of global political organisation. His six well known models were (i) balance of power system, (ii) loose bipolar system, (iii) tight bipolar system, (iv) universal actor system, (v) hierarchical system, and (vi) Unit Veto system.


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