Functionalist Perspective Functionalist theories are macro in nature and focus on the structural properties and functions of the family system. They are based on the idea that if a society is to survive and operate with some measure of effectiveness, it has to ensure that specific functions are performed. Although families change constantly, they fulfill recurrent functions in society. Societies are seen as systems of interrelated and interdependent parts (called institutions) which have a built-in tendency to adapt to each other in order for society as a whole to be in equilibrium or balance.
The various parts or institutions of society are seen as performing specific functions that contribute to the adaptation, goal attainment, integration, latency (pattern maintenance and tension control) and continuity of the whole. This means that certain social institutions (like families) are responsible for performing certain functions. The focus is on how the different parts of the system fit together; how they integrate with each other on the basis of moral consensus. Change in one part of the system leads to change in the other parts.
It is seen as slow and evolutionary, and results from processes like urbanization and industrialization. Seen from this general functionalist viewpoint, the emphasis is on the importance of the family in maintaining the stability of society and the wellbeing of individuals. The family is therefore regarded as a part/an institution of society that functions in relation to the other parts/institutions of society. Haralambos and Holborn (2000:508) maintain that an analysis of the family from a functionalist perspective involves the following three interrelated questions.
(1) What are the functions of the family for society? 2) What are the functional relationships between the family and other parts of the social system? (3) What are the functions of the family for its individual members? For functionalist theorists such as Parsons and Murdock, the family is adaptive and functional both for its individual members and for society as a whole. In this regard they stress the importance of the nuclear family (a basic family unit that consists of two parents and their own or adopted children) for the stability, integration and perpetuation of the existing social order. The family is viewed as vital to and the most basic (primary) institution in society.
Functionalist sociologists view families as “systems of interrelated and interdependent parts” (Elliot 1986:9). This means that each part (family member) has a specific function to fulfill in order for the family to continue to exist in a consensual and orderly fashion. Functionalism tends to presume that the family functions in ways that maintain its continuity and the overall stability and integration of society. However, “when societies experience disruption and change, institutions such as the family become disorganized, weakening the social consensus around which they have formed” (Andersen & Taylor 2002:423).
This means that social change causes other institutions (like education) to take over some of the socialization functions that were originally reserved for families. The diminishing of family functions produces further social disorganization (like divorce), since families no longer integrate members properly into society (Andersen & Taylor 2002:423). Functionalist theorists acknowledge that family structures inevitably change as societies change. Different societal forms emphasize different family functions.
For example, pre-industrial and the more modern, industrial societies demand different functions from the family. It is argued in particular that, with the disintegration of extended families and wider kin groups in pre-industrial societies, the nuclear family has adapted to the “loss of wider functions” in industrial societies by retaining only a few essential functions (this is called the “functional fit” of the nuclear family into industrial society). Murdock describes these functions as follow. Murdock’s views on the Family
George Murdock has researched and written widely on the family and is believed to be one of the leading functionalist thinkers on the family. Murdock, as cited in Elliot (1986:7), presented the family as a “universal human grouping”. For him, the universality of the family unit is best explained through the efficacy with which it fulfills certain functions for society. He identified four crucial functions served by the family in order for society to continue to exist. Murdock believes that these four functions are very cardinal for the existence of society and without these, society ceases.
These four functions are: sexual, reproductive, economic and educational functions. The four functions are best served by the nuclear family which is believed to be universal. It is believed that no other institution has yet been devised to match up with the functions served by the nuclear family. The sexual function refers to the regulation of sexual expression between heterosexual adults. According to this view, marriage and the family allow for “orderly” sexual relationships based on a life-long commitment and exclusivity between consenting adults.
Sex is regulated by society and the family in such a way that sexual partners are carefully chosen. An individual, though they exercise freedom of choice, they operate with some family or societal frameworks guiding dating, courtship and marriages. In most parts of Zimbabwe, a young man is not allowed to date or marry a close relative, and in some cases, anyone he shares the same totem with. If this happens, then a breach of societal laws attracting a stern societal penalty follows. In this case, people usual talk about an incestuous relationship.
The second function refers to biological reproduction to reproduce the species or replenish the societal population without which society would cease to exist. The third function refers to the production of life necessities, for example, going to work to earn a living. The fourth function refers to the socialization (or education) of new members of society into the culture of that society so that order and stability can be maintained on the basis of value consensus. Socialization also prepares individuals for a constructive adult role in society.
Family functions for individuals The functions the family fulfils for the individual members are closely linked to the functions the family fulfils for society. The family serves as a source of sexual gratification for spouses and, together with this, provides the strong emotional ties that usually accompany sexual relationships and contribute to the emotional stability of adults in the family. This function also helps to stabilize society in the sense that sexual freedom is prevented and disruptive effects on the social order do not result.
The family therefore provides both control and expression of sexual drives. According to Murdock, this bond is further strengthened by economic cooperation between spouses and their subsequent mutual economic dependency. Haralambos and Holborn (2000:508) illustrate this by referring to hunting and gathering societies where men hunted animals to supply meat for the families and women prepared the food and used the skins of animals to make clothing for the family (men included).
This economic cooperation within the family also contributes towards the wellbeing of society. Murdock referred to the fulfillment of these functions as the many-sided utilities of the family and to its inevitability. His studies on the structure of the family led him to conclude: “No society has succeeded in finding an adequate substitute for the nuclear family to which it might transfer these functions” (Haralambos & Holborn 2000:508). Functions of the family according to Talcott Parsons Elliot 1996:8) views the functions of the modern conjugal family as contributing to both the efficient organization of industrial economies and to the psychological needs of the individual. He emphasizes the stable, affective and intimate relationships made possible by the nuclear family. This type of family serves two main functions: the primary socialization of children and the stabilization of adult personalities (Haralambos & Holborn 2000:509). These functions are particularly important in developed societies that are typified by competitiveness and bureaucratic institutions.
According to this view, the nuclear family (separated from wider kin relations) serves as a “haven in a heartless world” (Elliot 1986:509). Goode (in Elliot 1986:116) emphasizes that the nuclear or conjugal family “evens out” (counter- balances) the effects of insecurity and harshness characteristic of modern industrial society. One should consider the functionality of Parsons’s (gender) division of labour, particularly his instrumental-expressive dichotomy in the family.
The instrumental- expressive dichotomy implies that men are responsible for the instrumental tasks (such as going to work) and women are responsible for the affective, expressive tasks (such as domestic chores and child care) within the family. This division is regarded as “natural” and a direct result of biological differences which make men and women suited to different roles and responsibilities. This task differentiation is not seen as entailing gender inequality, but rather as producing complementary positions of equal value in maintaining society as a functional whole.
Marriage (or the conjugal family) is seen as benefiting both spouses. The wife receives protection, economic support and status; in return, she provides emotional and sexual support, maintains the household, and gives birth to and cares for the children (Andersen ; Taylor 2002:423). Parsons (in Haralambos ; Holborn 2000:509) views society as a system consisting of subsystems. He believes that in order for any system (including society) to continue successfully, four functional prerequisites (or functions) have to be met. Specific institutions in society fulfill these four extremely important functions by working interdependently.
The functions are usually referred to as AGIL, which stands for: • Adaptation (adapting to the environment in order to produce life supporting necessities is fulfilled by the economic institution) • Goal attainment (setting societal goals and ways in which they can be attained are fulfilled by the political institution) • Integration (the minimization and settling of societal disputes are fulfilled by the judiciary institution, also called the societal community)
• Latency (pattern maintenance and tension control are assigned to the fiduciary system Ð referring to the family, and education and religious institutions) According to Parsons, pattern maintenance in the family plays an important role as an agent for primary socialization by, inter alia, instilling religiously sanctioned values and norms into the young members of society. This brings the behaviour of the young into accordance with the cultural prescriptions of society and therefore contributes to the orderly co-existence of members of society. As an agent for tension control, the family plays an important role in the stabilization of adult personalities. More stable adult personalities suggest less conflict in broader society, and a greater willingness and capacity to resolve conflicts when they arise. Criticism of the functionalist perspective
The main criticism leveled against the functionalist perspective is that it presents a very rosy and harmonious picture of “the family”. This is why the nuclear family is seen as an idealized form. Elliot (1986:115) observes that “images of the conjugal family as a ‘haven in a heartless world’ appear in their strongest form in functionalist sociology”. This viewpoint is, however, challenged because conflict theorists and feminists regard the conjugal family as a “prison” rather than a “haven”; they view it as oppressive, repressive and confining. Three opposing positions have been adopted, namely: (1) The conjugal family helps to preserve the oppressive industrial system. (2) The conjugal family oppresses and represses individuality. (3) It oppresses women.