Functional theory of the family

Posted by Winnie Melda on May 15th, 2019

            Functionalists believe that the society has a set of shared values and norms. The norms and values socialize the members of the society and enable them to cooperate with each other for the needs of the society to be met thereby creating social order. The functionalist theory provides a structural and macro view of the family in the form of a top-down structure. Functionalism had remained to be the dominant tenet of the western sociology until the 1960s when it started being criticized by sociologists that favored various sociological perspectives. Functionalists argue that societies comprise of inter-related social institutions including schools, mass media, political systems, the Church, and the family that contribute positively to the maintenance of stability of the society (Klein & White, 1996). The institutions are the functions of the society as a whole. Functionalists argue that societies operate to serve the interests of all the members and thus no reason for any significant conflict in the society. This research paper provides an assessment of the extent to which the functionalist theory of the family is used to explain three family forms in the Caribbean.

            Families differ on how they are structured based on the society, but they carry out similar roles. The major function of the family is to reproduce the society biologically or socially in which the functions are nearly universal since all the families are expected to function similarly. There exist different forms of the family that expand across countries, nations, cultures, and ethnic groups. In the Caribbean, there are various family forms, but the focus of this discussion is based on three family forms including nuclear, matrifocal, and extended families (Smith, 2014). The Caribbean nuclear family consists of two married, heterosexual parents with their legal children. The nuclear family is a conventional type of family in the western part of the world. The children born in wedlock are the basic description of the nuclear family although there have been significant changes like families with increased single-parent families with a woman head. The matrifocal type of Caribbean family is typically considered as the single parent family (Smith, 2014). It comprises of a mother and her children which accounts for about 35% of the households in the Caribbean. About 54% of the separated and divorced women turn out to be the female heads of their households with an average of 3 to 5 children depending on the mother (Mustapha, 2009). There is an increasing proportion of Caribbean female-headed households which projects interesting times in the future. Extended family is used similarly to a consenquineal family that consists of a mother and her children and other people including the family and the mother. The set up of the family is common where mothers lack adequate resources to bring up their children on their own. In most instances, the family type consists of a husband, wife, their children and the family members of the husband’s side.          

            The principle functionalist theorists of the family are Murdock and Talcott Parsons. Mardock argued that the nuclear family was a universal social institution that existed to fulfill the four basic functions of the society including the sexual, reproductive, economic, and education functions (Craib, 2015). However, the other non-functionalist sociologists have claimed that the existence of other family forms among the Afro-Caribbean has become common such as single families, gay, and lesbian families thereby suggesting that nuclear family is not universal and probably the functionalist theory only focuses on the nuclear form and not other forms of families. The functionalist perspective has also been discussed by Talcott Parsons whose theory focused on heterosexual nuclear families and excluded other family forms. According to the Parson’s theory, industrialization was the major cause of the replacement of the extended families by the nuclear families since demands of industrialization led to increased geographical and social mobility (Doherty, Boss, LaRossa, Schumm & Steinmetz, 2009). Geographical mobility is easy for the nuclear families.

            The Caribbean nuclear family structure is based on the similar idea that such families are easy to handle regarding geographical and social mobility aspects. For the extended families, the young adults may acquire a higher social status than their parents through social mobility that causes social tensions within the family, which can be avoided by having the young married adults living separately as a nuclear family. Parson’s argued that, if the industrial societies are to be efficient, their employment success will be determined less by family connections and that the strength of the extended family ties weakens. Industrialization is a major cause of structural differentiation in which new specialized social institutions such as schools, health centers, and factories develop and take over the functions previously performed by the families. The nuclear family loses part of its functions but remains important for the functions of socialization and stabilization of adults. The roles of nuclear families are allocated between husbands and wives according to the assumed characteristics of males and the expressive characteristics of females. However, Ronald Fletcher analyzed the family based on the functionalist perspective and denied that the modern nuclear family had lost its functions as Talcott Parsons suggests. According to Fletcher, the family does not automatically assume the function of production, but instead a unit of consumption as evident on how advertisers sell different household appliances to maintain profits (Starbuck & Lundy, 2015).

            The functionalist perspective applies to the Caribbean societies to some extent though not conclusive. The Caribbean region has related several social structures and institutions that are inter-related. The institutions that include the family, school, church and the government work together with the Caribbean society. The key concepts in functionalism are valued consensus in which members ought to share similar beliefs and norms for the well-functioning of the society (Morgan, 2014). The concept is outdated since the Caribbean comprises of diverse cultural beliefs derived from the European colonizers and the natives of the Caribbean, slaves and laborers.

            Functionalists emphasize consensus and ignore conflict (Starbuck & Lundy, 2015). The Caribbean region is shaped out of conflict through historical episodes as slavery and colonialism. As such, the extended form of families cannot fully thrive in the region despite having several households living as extended families. For such families to thrive in the Caribbean, the members have to live in unity and harmony and shun all forms of conflicts which are inevitable in extended families. The issues of distribution of wealth, resources, levels of income, and relationships among the members of the extended families are common and likely to play out. Thus, the functionalist perspective of families can be applied through its emphasis on consensus where the members of the extended families have to be in consensus for them to live in harmony. The avoidance of conflict is crucial if at all the family can have consensus on how to live together. However, the functionalism perspective does not consider the Caribbean unique history which still affects the society to date. The Caribbean society endured various experiences of slavery and indentureship. It makes the functionalism perspective not appropriate for analyzing the society since it is more diverse than being homogenous. The theory has a view of the society as a system comprising of interconnected parts that together make a whole (Starbuck & Lundy, 2015). All the different parts have to functionally properly, for the entire system to be considered as fully functional. However, for the Caribbean extended form of the family does not seem to function as a system with interconnected parts due to the nature of their diversity.

            From the functionalist perspective, the institution of the family helps to meet the needs of the members involved and also contributes to the stability of the society. Thus, marriage becomes a beneficial mutual exchange between the members of two genders where each has traditional gender roles with women getting protection, economic support, and status from their husbands. Men, on the other hand, receive emotional and sexual support, household maintenance, and produce children from their wives. As such, the functionalist view the family as breaking down due to the strains experienced by the society through rapid social changes. According to the functionalist perspective, the trends such as single-parent households having a female head and increased rates of divorce experienced in the current society is a result of breakdown and disorientation of the institution of the family (White & Klein, 2008). However, the functionalist theory does not take to account the postmodern realities in the society as evident in the different forms of family.

            The single parent families as practiced in the Caribbean are on the rise especially women-headed households which explain how functionalist perspective fails to account for the postmodern realities in the current societal setup. The functionalist perspective argues that families need to have mutual benefit of exchange between the two genders who come together to form the household (Starbuck & Lundy, 2015). The view limits other forms of the family to only nuclear families who have both husband and wives who can exchange mutual benefits in various ways.  Thus, the functionalist perspective did not envisage a situation where a household would have either mother and children only or father and children only especially in the instances where the mother passes on. The functionalist view of social institutions ought to be reviewed through the realization that there are various forms of strains that the social experience and have a profound impact on the nature of families as well as social status.

            The functionalist point of view considers the family as essential in meeting the needs of its members and also enhancing societal stability. As such, there is a deliberate attempt to explain the nature of social order, the relationship between structures of the society, and the contribution to the stability of the society. Using the broad perspective, functionalists view the family as crucial since it meets the needs of the society. Without focusing on the specifics of each type of family forms in the Caribbean, it can be said that all the types of families, regardless of their composition and operation, subscribes to the functionalist perspective that, all families should meet the needs of the society, regulates sexual activity, and provides physical care for the members of the family as well as providing psychological and emotional support to the members (Taylor, Forsythe-Brown, Taylor & Chatters, 2014). This view is based on the idea that all the family forms operate in such a way that the members involved have a desire of achieving common goals in life as outlined. The obvious differences between the family forms do not necessarily negate the very idea as to what families ought to achieve.

            Given the ideas discussed in the essay, it is evident that nuclear family is not the only form of household since the modern society has started to embrace other forms such as extended and single-parent families. The functionalist view is largely aligned to the nuclear form of families which has been phased out with time as criticized by other sociologists. Functionalist sociologists advocate for the idea that the nuclear family is the norm in the society and is a crucial institution for maintaining social cohesion and value consensus. However, the society has largely changed, and the family structure is diverse by incorporating the realities in the society. As discussed the Caribbean forms of families, very little can be attributed to the functionalist perspective regarding the family forms since they society there is diverse and has a unique history in comparison to other European societies. As evident in the Caribbean society, there is a significant percentage of households comprising of other forms of families other than the nuclear families. As such, despite the nuclear family being the building block for other forms of families, the functionalist perspective seems inadequate in explaining the postmodern realities in the society that has seen the rise in other forms of families. 


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Morgan, D. H. J. (2014). Social Theory and the Family (RLE Social Theory). Routledge.

Mustapha, N. (2009) Sociology for Caribbean students. Kingston. Ian Randle Publishers

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Starbuck, G. H., & Lundy, K. S. (2015). Families in Context: Sociological Perspectives. Routledge.

Carolyn Morgan is the author of this paper. A senior editor at MeldaResearch.Com in Online Paper Writing Service. If you need a similar paper you can place your order from Professional Custom Writing Services.

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Winnie Melda

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Winnie Melda
Joined: December 7th, 2017
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