Understanding the dynamics of the family as a unit in the field of sociology is not the simplest of tasks. The family unit is understood and interpreted differently by different societies. While some communities will consider the nuclear family as a part of the extended family, others will consider it an independent social unit that is distant from the extended family (Turner, 1988). Additionally, the roles and rules observed by the average family in various societies are never identical. In understanding the dynamics of family, sociologists have adopted and employed various theories and perspectives. The theories that explain society are the same theories employed in trying to understand the family unit. The most notable sociological theories that have attempted to handle this issue are the functionalist theory, the conflict theory and the social interactions theory. This paper seeks to evaluate the theories in the context of explaining the family unit, with the aim of establishing the theory that best explains family, in the contemporary American society.
The social conflict theory is based on the assumption that all social connections are determined by power and resources. The theory explains that the social order is shaped by the struggles among members of society to control resources and achieve maximum wealth. According to Karl Marx, arguably the most prominent proponent of this perspective, the theory is founded on the presumption that the most significant aspect in the determining of the society is the work that people do with an aim of meeting social needs and human wants such as shelter, food and attire (Brinkerhoff et al, 2005). The theory further explains that societal factors are based on economic characteristics. This is to say that the legal-political factors are based on the economic situation of the community at a time. Certainly, it is the working class of the society that maintains the existence of society. Turner (1988) asserts that according to the principles of the conflict is the force that molds society.
When applied to family dynamics, the theory explains that family is a group of individuals that are bonded together by the process of continually managing change and solving conflicts. The theory disapproves the myth that family is a group of individuals living in peace and harmony. This assumption, that creates a serene picture of the family unit, is not realistic at all since sociologists argue that where human beings are interacting; there must be disagreements (Turner, 1988). According to the conflict perspective of family relations, the family members are bonded by the process of trying to solve conflicts and manage change. The proponents of the theory explain that the most common way of solving conflicts is improved communication and empathy as well as dialogue. The conflicts within the family are the basis of the interactions since they motivate acceptance of change. The conflicts define the roles of each member in the long run, with the parents being seen as the heads of the family since they are the determinants of the family’s economic status and provision of family needs.
This perspective explains that the family unit is a group of constantly interacting individuals. The interactions theory explains that society is an arrangement of connections and relationships. Introduced in the 1920s by George Herbert, the theory holds that society is a network that is connected by common symbols (Smith, 1973). Such symbols as language and rules are the avenues through which people interact. The proponents of this theory argue that families are social groups since the use of such symbols as language is most prominent at the family level. The theorists explain that the symbols are modified and customized by family members. For instance, they argue that the language used by one family can be unique to the extent that foreign parties cannot appreciate it.
The theory argues that the family members respond to a situation according to the way they understand it. For instance, the way members of family A can react to the death of a family member is not the same way members of Family B will react to a situation of the same kind. This is because the use of symbols varies from one family to another, as much as, the interpretations and understandings of situations vary (Smith, 1973). It is for this reason that different families develop unique characteristics such as the naming of children and capacity to socialize with different types of people. The theory explains that the family unit is based on the concept of self and social identity.
According to the functionalist theory, society is made up of various parts just like the body of a living organism. The same way the human body has interconnected parts, such as the heart and the brain, so does the society (Brinkerhoff et al, 2005). This is to say that society is a network of factions that play different roles. The presumption is that the classes and groups are interdependent and rely on one another. The theorists behind this perspective explain that social institutions such as the family, schools and religions are the body’s equivalents of such parts as the heart, the liver and the head. Thus, there are some classes of society that are particularly salient in maintaining the well being and development of the society.
Applied to the explanation of family dynamics, this theory proposes that various family members play different roles in maintain the relationship with one another. It is worth mentioning that the family members are dependent on one another both directly and indirectly (Bales, 2002). For this reason, each and every member is a crucial aspect of the relationship. According to Durkheim (1859-1917), this theory is based on the principle of division of labor. According to this principle, the members of the family handle different tasks so as to put in to the general welfare of the family. Such duties as the bringing up of children are multipart processes to which all members contribute. In the log-run, shared views and consensuses are established, and the unit is bonded.
The theory, that best explains the family unit in modern day America is the conflict theory. This theory is the most appropriate since it addresses the management of change and solving of conflicts (Bales, 2002). It is an affair of common knowledge that this is an era of radical change. With the advancements of technology and changes in culture, change is inevitable. Where there is change, conflicts are inevitable. This is because people react to change in different ways. For instance, in a family; children are usually receptive to progressive change .On the contrary the parents are resistant to change. As such, the two parties are bound to disagree and differ on opinion and principle .it is for this reason that the conflict theory is said to be the most appropriate. Take the example of dressing. The mode of dressing adopted by the celebrity class that usually targets the young population is not appealing to the parents. On the contrary, such modes of dressing are appealing to the young ones. The differences that may emerge between the close relatives and the young ones can form the foundations of interactions among them. Even so, the conflict theory cannot be used solely to explain the family phenomenon. Understanding family dynamics needs knowledge of all the three theories.
Bales, R. (2002). Social Interaction Systems: Theory and Measurement. New York: Transaction Publishers
Brinkerhoff, D., White, L., Ortega, S. & Weitz, R. (2005). The Essentials of Sociology. Belmont: Thomson Wadsworth
Smith, A. (1973). The Concept of Social Change: A Critique of the Functionalist Theory of Social Change. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd
Turner, J. (1988). A Theory of Social Interaction. Stanford: Stanford University Press