sociology of the family

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sociology of the family

sociological inquiry directed at describing and explaining patterns of FAMILY life and variations in family structure. As such, the study of the family overlaps closely with the study of KINSHIP.

One continuing strand of inquiry, which can be traced to social anthropology, has been concerned with the comparative analysis of family and kinship structures. In association with this, evolutionary and developmental accounts of the transformation of family structures have also been important.

A second strand, which dominated much sociological discussion and research up until the 1960s, was the functionalist theory of the family, interested mainly in the ‘universal’ functions served by the family and the distinctive geographically mobile, neolocal nuclear family forms, which emerge to meet the particular functional requirements of industrial societies.

A more critical examination of family structures emerged in the 1960s, especially under the influence of new feminist sociologies and feminist critiques of social science (e.g. Morgan. 1975).

A final strand of sociological thinking, which has a long ancestry, is Marxist critiques of the family, in which an interest in the association between property relations and family structures has been central.

The functionalist theory of the family portrayed the elementary family unit (whether or not it is embedded in wider social relationships) as performing central social functions, such as:

  1. the regulation of sexual activity;
  2. the procreation of children, and the determination of FILIATION;
  3. the primary socialization of children;
  4. the provision of mutual emotional support for the couple.

    These may be considered the core functions but the family usually also performs ancillary functions, although it may increasingly share these with other agencies (‘an erosion of functions’). These include:

  5. the provision of housing and domestic services as well as general economic support for the family group;
  6. the provision of health care and welfare;
  7. support through the long period of education in modern societies.

Talcott PARSONS, a leading exponent of functionalist analysis also argued that within the family unit, while the male performed instrumental roles, the role of the woman was usually to perform ‘expressive’ roles.

Criticism of the functionalist view, and alternative sociological accounts of modern family structure, have made a number of central points and raised a number of general issues:

  1. the existence of a great variety of family forms in modern as well as traditional societies;
  2. the historical oversimplification of the extended/nuclear distinction as applied to preindustrial and industrial society, given that the nuclear family would appear to have preceded industrialism (see HISTORICAL DEMOGRAPHY), and the continued importance of extended kin in industrial society (as shown by Young and Wilmott, 1957);
  3. that the emotional and intimate ties of family conceal a high degree of conflict and in many cases actual violence, so that the study of the family can also be located within the study of social problems (see also WIFE BATTERING, RADICAL PSYCHIATRY);
  4. the importance of analysis of the family and of households in terms of power and authority relations, and also economic relations;
  5. that, at best, the functionalist's ‘“family” [especially functions (a) and (b)] is not the name of an entity which is universally found but a concept which has a universal application’ (Harris, 1985);
  6. the difficulty of even identifying the family group in preindustrial simple societies. It is for this reason that the term ‘family’ has been relatively little used in social anthropology See also MARRIAGE, DIVORCE AND SEPARATION.
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