Society is typically divided into units of families; this social institution is meant to allow parents to raise children in the way they wish, imposing values and discipline upon the children and prepare them for the outside world. As the decades go by and the nature of society changes, families must change as well. There are many sociological theories by which to examine the role of families in society, and the roles of individuals within that family, but some lenses fit better than others. In this essay, we will look at the social institution of family through a functionalist, conflict, and interactionist perspective. While functionalist and interactionist perspectives have their place in family analysis, and raise some enlightening points, it is conflict theory that most accurately represents the modern family as it exists today, and does so in a way that allows for generalizations to be made about behavior trends within family members.
Functionalism is a social construct wherein society is thought to exist through a series of components, each of which performs a vital function in the operation and continuation of said society. In the case of family, it is thought to serve the most important function of society, as the familial structure is intended to instruct children the way in which society as a whole works. According to structural functionalism, society is “a system which functions to survive and to reproduce itself, and is integrated by value consensus.” (Mackie 2002, p. 40) Value consensus is defined as the overall opinions toward society as a whole toward a particular moral belief; in this case, it is that the family is everything, and that it must continue.
For an individual operating within a functionalist view of family, it can feel very restrictive. An individual, feeling as though they must participate in the overall continuation and operation of the family, can often feel stirrings of resentment towards the familial unit. They want to be able to strike out on their own, and not have the responsibility of seeing to the function of the family on their shoulders. The individual is asked to fill out a role, and any attempt to break out of the mold are not addressed by functionalist theory. At the same time, the individual is forged out of the factory of the family, whether they realize it or not, and the very existence of the function of family helps create the individual character of a person. (Mackie 2002, p. 40)
When working within a functionalist society, social change is often stagnant. Functionalism does not account for social change very well, as conflict is not often a factor in this view of society. If change happens, it takes place in an organized fashion, with a minimum of conflict. It is often assumed in a functionalist society that there is a consensus that is not typically found in a modern society (Mackie 2002, p. 49)
Society’s views within a functionalist lens are extremely amicable; as previously mentioned, any change that occurs happens with no conflict at all, as value consensus is the norm. When a problem exists, everyone involved recognizes it and works to remedy it. The family functions as a discrete, cooperative unit, where the parents perform their roles and the children perform theirs. Parental socialization forms the character of the individual child; in functionalism, this formation comes through stronger supervision of the children. This is because the functionalist view dictates that the child’s character is created through the work of the parent, and as such, more work creates a better character. (Adams 2010, p. 501) The children are expected to conform to the roles that they have been given, and collective action is performed by the family towards specific goals. There is no internal conflict between family members, and trust is high, each member believing that their other family members are working towards the best collective interests. (Mackie, 2002, p. 51)
Functionalism has its flaws, especially as regards to the social institution of family. While the values presented to the family through this lens are very generous and idealistic, they are far from the realities found in modern society. Family conflict is often par for the course, and children can feel the constriction of their individual character through overly supervisory parents. As a result, trust can be diminished, and the children in the family will act outside the interests of the family as a whole, not providing for the collective unit in lieu of pursuing their own, personalized interests. At the same time, this type of individualism can create a greater loyalty to society as a whole, instead of merely the family unit. (Mackie 2002, p. 54)
In conflict theory, society is much more chaotic and less cooperative than in functionalist theory. People act according to their interests less so than the collective ideal, and value consensus as at its lowest. Where families are concerned, conflict theory raises its head when inequalities are felt in the way the household is run. For example, the children can feel they are being too harshly restricted in their actions and allowances, and the parents can feel an inequality of labor and respect among the children and between each other.
For the individual, conflict within a family means many things depending on their role. For conflict to exist, the individual must want something that is not given; in the case of children, it can be a possession they are not granted, or a much stricter parenting style than they wish on themselves. For the parents, they can conflict with the children when they do not agree or follow through with the instructions of the parents, or perform up to their expectations. Furthermore, the conflict can spread between spouses, as one may feel they are doing more work or earning more money than the other, and thus carrying too much of the responsibility for the maintenance of the household. (Doherty and Craft 2011, p. 63)
In terms of social change, conflict theory is very responsive to new dynamics within the family. Once an inequality is felt, actions will be taken to remedy it. Children will act out or contradict the wishes of the parents in order to get their point across, or act on their own wishes regardless of parental approval. Individual wants and needs are emphasized much more closely in conflict theory than in functionalism, to be sure, as families are not viewed as discrete units but as individuals in constant negotiation with each other to see to their own needs. As long as those needs are met, the family can function in harmony.
In addition to this, families as a whole can feel inequalities placed on them by society; for example, social conditions that leave the primary income-earning spouse out of work (changing policies, the economy) can be seen as injustices that must be fought against. Work-family conflict is very common, as the external pressures of work can transfer into added, unintended conflicts among the family; money is a perpetually sensitive issue among family members, and issues can also arise from the time spent at work, the strain it puts on the working parent, and the behavior that this strain leads to. (Donald and Linington 2008, p. 661)
If the working parent is not making enough money, or if they fear getting laid off or fired, that pressure can extend to unintended conflicts at home. They can feel more anxiety about issues that would normally not be as great a conflict. However, because of the added strain outside forces of work and society place on the parent, they can be more strict than normal, adding to greater inter-familial conflict, as well as conflict between the family unit and society.
Conflict theory has begun to overtake functionalist theory as a much more accurate view of modern society, especially in regards to the family. As the counterculture movement of the 60s showcased a new sense of rebellion from children onto the parents, the harmony of functionalism gave way to the normal conflicts found in society.
In this lens, the children see themselves as an oppressed minority within the family unit, and therefore become agents of change in order to address these problems and gain the power and individualism they desire. Parents, on the other hand, often see work as the outside force that provides their own sense of inequality to the family, much moreso than interpersonal conflicts between spouses. They then attempt to move towards a more harmonious balance between family and work. (Donald and Linington 2008, p. 668)
Interactionism places human interaction at the forefront of all social functions. It examines how a person navigates the world and the social structures within it; by its very definition, it is based around the individual. Within interactionism, the family is often simply another unit that the individual has to interact with, and the way in which the person deals with events related to the family is the primary method of applying this lens to this social institution.
Communication is one of the primary means of exploring interactionism, especially within a family. The individual’s needs, wants and desires must be communicated to the rest of the family, and the family can either choose to accommodate those desires, or the individual must work toward them on his own. It is very difficult to generalize within interactionism, as the needs of every single individual must be considered, and it is useless to predict based on past history and trends.
In the case of families, symbolic interactionism is the most fitting branch of interactionism to apply, as it works on a much smaller scale than the society-wide and much more generalized field of interactionism as a whole. In a family, the parents are the ‘symbols’ from which the children derive meaning; they get these meanings from interacting with the parents, and interpreting what they do as what should be done. (Doherty and Craft 2011, p. 63)
Social change is often a secondary concern, a byproduct of the needs of the individual. By the nature of interactionism, it is difficult to really comprehend the ways in which social change happens; they can only be facilitated on a person-specific level. Subjectivity is the norm when addressing concepts of interactionism; there is no quantitative method of recording the findings of a study through this perspective. (Doherty and Craft 2011, p. 65)
When applying symbolic interactionism to the family, you must take the experiences and interactions of the children and parents into account. For example, in the case of a single mother, the quality of the child-rearing cannot simply be dismissed because there is not a father around to do his traditional part of parenting. The children and parents themselves develop their own ideas of what is ‘normal’ for them, and it will not be the same ideas that any other family carries. (Doherty and Craft 2011, p. 67) Society is not thought of as good or bad from an interactionist point of view, but rather as something else an individual has to navigate and deal with. The context of each situation is important; what one person is confronted with in their life is not the same as what someone else must handle.
Often in non-traditionalist families (single parents, gay couples with children), there is a bit of a difference between what others expect of a family and what this family actually experiences. Interactionism often explores the role changes that must take place in these nontraditional families, especially as said families interact and get in touch with other, more traditional familial units. (Doherty and Craft 2011, p. 68)
As an examination of the family, interactionism is the most accurate on a person to person basis, but is not the method a researcher would like to use if they wish to glean a perspective on more generalized behavior in family units. It focuses too much on the individual, and not enough on the family as a discrete whole. The main value of interactionism (especially symbolic interactionism) as applied to families is to examine more nontraditional families, and how they interact with traditional families and the world around them. (Doherty and Craft 2011, p. 69)
While functionalist and interactionist perspectives have their place in family analysis, and raise some enlightening points, it is conflict theory that most accurately represents the modern family as it exists today, and does so in a way that allows for generalizations to be made about behavior trends within family members. Functionalist theory, while idealistic in its views of the way in which society (and families) work, provides a far too cooperative and harmonious view of family to provide an accurate showcasing of real family interactions in the modern age. Interactionism, on the other hand, is far more accurate, possibly moreso than even conflict theory. However, by the very nature of interactionism, it is impossible to derive trends and make assumptions about families as a whole through the qualitative observations made through interactionist study. What happens to a family that is studied through an interactionist perspective is certainly accurate to that family, but the theory by definition prevents those circumstances and events from being applied to other families, as that experience is confined to the individuals within that particular family.
That leaves conflict theory, which sees the family as a number of individuals, some of whom have power over the other. The family members that feel these inequalities in division of labor and freedom (usually children) often take measures or steps to remedy these inequalities and close the gap. These conflicts arise through the nature of the family unit itself, and are often pervasive and necessary for the continuation of the family. Those in power continue to be in power, and those who feel put upon will continue to conflict with the powerful individuals in order to close the gap in inequality that they feel so strongly. In a modern society, this description fits the social institution of family much more closely than the other two perspectives, and as such must be considered first when applying a sociological theory to said institution.
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