The Family & Social Structure

After studying this section, you should be able to understand:

  • key concepts such as nuclear families, extended families and households
  • how social change, especially economic change, has impacted upon the family
  • the functions of the family from a functionalist, Marxist and feminist perspective

Defining key terms of family structures

Some of the common terms used by sociologists to describe family structures include:

  • Kinship – a concept that refers to family connections between people based on blood, marriage or adoption. It refers to relatives, both in the past and in the present, whether close or distant and whether contact is frequent, infrequent or even non–existent.
  • Household – any person, or persons, who live under the same roof. These may be family members, but they may also be unrelated, e.g. a group of students sharing a house are a household.
  • Nuclear family – the most basic family type which is experienced by the majority of people in Britain. This contains just two generations, i.e. an adult heterosexual couple (usually husband and wife) and their dependent children who live in the same household.
  • Extended families – those family types in which the basic nuclear structure has been enlarged to include grandparents, uncles, cousins, etc. and who either live in the same household or in close proximity, e.g. in the same neighbourhood, or keep in close frequent contact, e.g. contact may be on a daily basis.

The functionalist view of the family

The functionalist approach argues that all social institutions (such as families and the education system) are functional or beneficial because they perform key functions for individuals and for society.

Murdock (1949) studied over 250 societies around the world and argued that the nuclear family was universal throughout the world. He claimed that it had the following features:

  • It is small and compact in structure, composed of a mother, father and usually two or three children who are biologically related.
  • It is a type of household in that its members normally share common residence.

  • It is based on heterosexual romantic love reinforced by marriage and fidelity.

  • Marriage is based on a natural, or biological, sexual division of labour in that women are mainly responsible for nurturing children, whilst men are responsible for the economic maintenance of the household by performing the role of breadwinner.
  • The immediate family comes first and all other obligations and relationships come second. Kinship, therefore, is all important.
  • It is assumed, almost without question, that the family is a positive and beneficial institution in which family members receive nurturing, unconditional love and care.


The influence of these traditional beliefs about family life has been immense. They constitute a powerful conservative ‘ideology’ (i.e. dominant set of ideas) about what families should look like and how family members should behave, e.g. the following beliefs are very influential today in Britain.

  • That women have maternal instincts and that the main responsibility for parenting lies with the mother.
  • That cohabitation does not have the same value as marriage.
  • That lone parents are not as effective as two parents.
  • That homosexuals should not have the same fertility or parenting rights as heterosexuals.

Murdock claimed that this nuclear family performs four basic functions in all societies, which benefit both society and the individual.

  • Reproductive or procreative – this is essential for the survival of society. Without reproduction, society would cease to exist.
  • Sexual – marital sex creates a powerful emotional bond between a couple, encourages fidelity and therefore commits the individual to family life. Sex within marriage contributes to social order and stability, because marital fidelity sets the moral rules for general sexual behaviour.
  • Economic – parents provide the economic things that are vital for sustaining life in children, such as shelter, food and protection, e.g. they take economic responsibility for the welfare of their children by becoming productive workers and bringing home an income.
  • Educational – learning social values and norms via primary socialisation is necessary in order that culture be handed down from one generation to another. The family links to the key themes of socialisation and culture.

Criticism of Murdock

The main criticism of Murdock is that his definition of family life is very much a product of time and place (1940s USA) and consequently is ethnocentric, i.e. it is based on the view that Western, and especially American, culture produces the ‘best’ cultural institutions and that other cultural family types are somehow inferior.

Interpretivist sociologists argue that Murdock fails to acknowledge that families are the product of culture rather than biology, and that, consequently, family relationships and roles will take different forms even within the same society.

Murdock’s model is value-laden and not objective, because it is clearly saying there are ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ ways to organise family life. It is also very dated and fails to take account of modern social processes such as the increased availability of career choices for women, the decline in male employment opportunities, the importance of the contraceptive pill, the relaxation in social and religious attitudes and the increasing recognition, from the 1970s onwards, that family life does not always benefit all family members.

However, despite his tendency to make moral judgements about heterosexuality and marriage, Murdock is largely correct in his view that the family is the fundamental building block of societies. Most members of society see kinship ties as the most important aspect of their obligations to others, whilst socialisation into the values, norms and morals of society, which is responsible for producing the next generation of citizens, mainly occurs within family contexts.

The family and industrialisation

Functionalists such as Parsons (1956) suggest that the modern nuclear family has evolved to meet the changing economic needs of industrial society. Parsons argued that the most common family type in pre-industrial society was the extended family and that this extended unit was ‘multifunctional’. It was responsible for a number of functions, such as the economic function of production, which involved producing its own food, clothing, housing, education, health care and welfare.

Parsons argued that the Industrial Revolution brought about three fundamental changes in family structure and functions.

  • Early industry’s demand for a geographically mobile workforce to work in the factories, opening in urban areas, saw the nuclear unit breaking away from the extended unit.
  • Structural differentiation was also brought about by industrialisation.
  • Specialised agencies developed, which gradually took over many of the family’s functions. In particular, factories took over the economic, or production function, and family members became wage earners as work and home became separate places for the first time. The State eventually took over the functions of education, health and welfare.


Parsons argued that the modern family is left with two basic and irreducible functions.

  • The primary socialisation of children – Parsons saw nuclear families as ‘personality factories’, turning out young citizens committed to the rules, norms and beliefs that make value consensus and, therefore, social order possible.
  • The stabilisation of adult personality – the married couple provide emotional support to each other to counter the stress of everyday life.
  • This idea is sometimes called the ‘warm bath’ theory because Parsons claimed that family life, by providing a warm, loving and stable environment, relaxes individuals and prevents the stress of the outside world overwhelming its members.

The ‘nuclear unit’ provides husband and wife with very clear social roles. The male is the ‘instrumental leader’ and is responsible for the economic maintenance of the family group. The female is the ‘expressive leader’ who is primarily responsible for the socialisation of children and emotional maintenance.

Parsons concludes that the nuclear family is functional (beneficial) to society. Moreover, it is beneficial for the individuals because it provides a stable environment for spouses and children to construct loving relationships.

However, Fletcher argues that the family has not experienced structural differentiation to the degree that Parsons claims. Fletcher argues that the family is still heavily involved in the functions of education, health and welfare. The State has not taken over these functions. Instead, the State and the family work hand-in-hand with each other. Moreover, Fletcher claims that the family is now responsible for the major economic function of consumption – most advertising of consumer goods is aimed at persuading families to spend their income so that the economy is stimulated.

The British functionalists Willmott and Young (1973) took issue with Parsons over the speed of change. This is sometimes called

the ‘internal critique’ because these sociologists agree with Parsons that the nuclear family is the ideal type of family for industrial

societies. Their empirical research, conducted in a working class area (Bethnal Green) in the 1950s, showed that classic extended families still existed in large numbers even at this advanced stage of industrialisation.

Willmott and Young argue that this unit only went into decline in the 1960s. There were three broad reasons for this.

  • State council housing and slum clearance led to extended working class communities being re-housed in new towns and council estates. Most new housing was geared to nuclear families.
  • The Welfare State – opportunities created by the expansion of secondary education, and full employment in the 1950s, undermined the need for a mutual support system.
  • Consumerism became the dominant ideology in the 1960s, especially as home technology, e.g. television, developed. This made the home a more attractive place.


Willmott and Young argued that such developments encouraged the evolution of the symmetrical family, i.e. a home-centred, privatised nuclear unit. They claimed that this would become the dominant family type by the 1990s. In this sense they agreed with Parsons.

The historical critique of Parsons

Historians, such as Anderson (1971) and Laslett (1977), suggest that Parsons failed to acknowledge that industrialisation may follow different patterns in different industrial societies, e.g. modern Japan still retains a commitment to the extended family form.

Laslett’s survey of English parish records reveals that most pre-industrial families were nuclear and not extended, as Parsons claimed. Laslett argues that this was due to late marriage, early death and the practice of sending children away to become servants or apprentices.

Anderson’s research, using data from the 1851 census, found that the extended family was fairly common in industrial Preston. A mutual support system evolved, in reaction to the extreme poverty of the period, to share scarce housing and high rents and to pool low wages.

The Marxist theory of the family

Zaretsky is critical of Parsons, because he believes that instead of benefitting society by promoting consensus and stability, the nuclear family actually benefits the ruling capitalist class at the expense of other social classes. He argues that the family is an ideological agent of the ruling class because:

  • It socialises children, especially working class children, into capitalist ideology, i.e. it is within the family that children learn obedience and respect to those in authority, that inequalities in power are ‘natural’ and that the capitalist organisation of society is ‘normal’ and unchangeable. They grow up into conformist adult workers who rarely challenge exploitation and inequality.
  • The family also acts as a psychological comforting device for the worker against the hardships of the workplace in which problems such as low pay, exploitation or fear of losing one’s job can be forgotten for a while.
  • As the major agency of consumption the family is constantly encouraged by ideological agencies, such as the mass media, to invest in what Marcuse calls ‘false needs’, i.e. consumer goods bought to be conspicuously consumed and which quickly become obsolete (such as designer goods). This ensures that the capitalist class continues to make vast profits.

The Marxist-feminist critique of Parsons


Marxist-feminists suggest that the nuclear family meets the needs of capitalism for the reproduction and maintenance of class and patriarchal inequality. It benefits the powerful at the expense of the working class and women.

The Marxist-feminist Benston (1972) argues that the nuclear family provides the basic commodity required by capitalism, i.e. labour power, by:

  • reproducing and rearing the future workforce at little cost to the capitalist class
  • maintaining the present workforce’s physical and emotional fitness through the wife’s domestic labour.

Benston argues that capitalism essentially gets two labour powers (that of the husband and wife) for one wage. The nuclear family acts as a stabilising force in capitalist societies because workers find it difficult to withdraw their labour power if they have families to support. Ansley (1976) suggests that men may attempt to make up for the lack of power and control in the workplace by exerting control within the family through domestic violence.

The liberal feminist theory of the family

Liberal feminists suggest that in the family boys and girls learn, via gender role socialisation, that they occupy positions of power and subordination respectively. Boys learn that they are more likely to be the breadwinners, heads of the household and decision-makers, whilst girls learn that they are expected to subordinate their lives to the family.

Liberal feminists also believe that the legal and political barriers which have traditionally prevented women from achieving equality in the family and workplace are gradually being overcome, e,g. women have benefitted from changes in divorce laws, rape in marriage is now a crime and the authorities now take domestic violence more seriously than in the past. Women enjoy property rights and inheritance on an equal basis to men and they now enjoy improved maternity rights and pensions.

Liberal feminists consider that progress has been made over time in the relations between men and women and, consequently, family roles and relationships have become more egalitarian.

  • The increasing importance of the service economy has been accompanied by a feminisation of the British workforce as most of the new service jobs available have been taken up by women. This has led to women acquiring more economic power.
  • There has been a radical cultural change in women’s attitudes which Wilkinson calls a genderquake. Wilkinson notes, that compared to previous generations, women today see education and careers as having more importance than settling down to marriage and children.
  • Men may be taking a more active and, consequently, a more egalitarian role within families. There is evidence that fathers are more involved with their children.

However, these changes do not mean that liberal feminists are fully happy about the degree of change. There is still a long way to go, especially in the mass media’s representation of women. There is also some evidence that equality in marriage may be exaggerated and that domestic violence is still a significant problem today. However, liberal feminists believe that gentle persuasion and consciousness raising will convince men that social change aimed at dismantling patriarchy will work for the benefit of all society.

The radical feminist critique

Radical feminists, such as Millett (1970), see modern societies and families as characterised by patriarchy – a system of subordination and domination in which men exercise power over women and children. Patriarchy is an extremely important concept which is frequently focused on by examiners. Know it well! Be able to evaluate the concept.

Millett argues that men originally acquired power over women because of biological factors (i.e. women who were frequently pregnant could not make the same contribution to society as men), but suggests that modern technology, e.g. the pill and modern machinery, has largely rendered this legitimation of male power redundant. However, patriarchy remains in place because of ideology. Both men and women are socialised into a set of ideas which confirm male power through gender role socialisation as children. Moreover, this patriarchal ideology stresses the primacy of the mother–housewife role for women and the breadwinner role for men. This ensures men’s domination of the labour market. Finally, Millett sees the family as legitimating violence against women.

However, some argue that this model is dated as it is unable to consider recent trends, such as the feminisation of the workforce and women’s use of divorce laws. Hakim (1995) argues that this model fails to consider that females might be exercising rational choices in choosing to become mothers and to adopt a domestic, rather than an occupational role.

The interpretivist critique

Parsons has been accused of painting an over-socialised view of children by interpretivist sociologists, who suggest that socialisation is a two-way interaction that can involve children changing and/or socialising their parents’ behaviour, e.g. through pester power. It is also argued that the media is now a stronger socialising agency than the family because of the amount of time children spend watching TV, surfing the Internet or playing computer games.


The post-modern critique

Post-modernists suggest that a number of social changes are undermining the traditional nuclear family and, therefore, the effectiveness of how such a family functions for the good of society.

  • Women now have many more choices available to them compared with previous generations. They are less likely to view romantic love, and therefore marriage, as their primary goal.
  • Pre-marital sex and serial monogamy have become more socially acceptable.
  • Some women are voluntarily choosing childlessness, whilst developments in reproductive technology mean that traditional heterosexual assumptions are undermined, as lesbians and single women use that technology to have children.
  • The variety of career opportunities for women, and male unemployment, mean that females are now increasingly likely to be the economic providers for their families.
  • Children are often fashion accessories, which convey status on their parents.
  • Children are now less likely to be shaped by family socialisation, because many young people today grow up either outside of nuclear family life or they spend more time with professional childminders than with their parents.


  1. In what way does Laslett disagree with Parsons?
  2. In what ways do Anderson and Willmott and Young disagree with Parsons?
  3. What functions does the family retain according to Parsons?
  4. Who benefits from the family according to Benston and Ansley?
  5. What do feminist sociologists mean by ‘patriarchy’?
  6. Who benefits from the way families are organised, according to Millett?
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