Functionalism, conflict theory, and interactionism are the most fundamental theories that explain the mechanics behind social processes and outcomes. While most people choose to agree with and follow a single theory, it is evident that observing a single institution from multiple viewpoints may result in different conclusions. Therefore, when investigating the family as a social institution, its internal interactions, and individual roles, a researcher should use all theories without prejudice to reach an unbiased conclusion. Only when all theories are used, it is possible to utilize the strengths each theory has to offer and compensate for the weaknesses of each theory.
Functionalism and Family
Functionalism observes society as a system that contains various structures that have to work in coherency for society to function properly. Because it is concerned with both social structures and functions, and because its priority is to focus on larger social structures, functionalism observes the family as a whole institution rather than a group of individuals.
Because of its tendency to prioritize the existing power structures and maintain traditions, functionalism will often neglect individual needs in favor of maintaining group functionality. As any theory, functionalism can have both positive and negative effects on individuals within a family. Within families, individuals will obtain certain roles they have to fulfill. For example, the division of labor in the household between men and women during the 1950s was a structure of gender roles maintained by traditions.
Although functionalism is no longer the dominant approach in sociology, the question of suppression and discrimination among individuals within the family is still troubling. A family structured according to functionalism would require individuals to assume different roles and perhaps sacrifice their own preferences for the sake of the group, especially when the members in decision-making roles prefer the use of force to maintain a certain structure. For example, money is an important asset in the modern world, and people who make the most money within a household could consider themselves the decision-makers for each individual within a family. They could use force to deprive other members of the household of their desires and activities.
According to functionalism every aspect of society has a functional role, and the basic role of the family as a social institution is to encourage reproduction and help children develop social skills. However, while raising children, a family will enforce their own social values and beliefs they consider important for happiness and social interactions rather than allowing children to deviate from the standards. Therefore, some people will consider the role of functionalism to create coherent groups in which traditions and standards are preferred, but not enforced while others will associate it with a rigid and intolerant regime. Despite its rigid appearance, functionalism is not completely against changes.
Approach to social changes. Functionalism was a popular and predominant framework for social research during the 1950s, but it rapidly declined in the 1960s, and its rigid standards and the inability to keep pace with changes in society and movements can be considered the reasons for its decline. Etzioni (2005) argues that the rigid and clear concepts functionalism represents are noteworthy when it comes to lowering crime, drug abuse, or similar social issues, but the downside of functionalism is its rigid structure, and the regime during the 1950s supported norms and traditions that focused on discriminations against women and minorities.
However, Etzioni (2005) claims that the social movements that had occurred during the 1960s could not solve those issues because their attempt was focused on removing existing taboos and norms rather than introducing new ones. According to functionalism, family is a social structure that affects the functioning of society on a broader level, and the quality of its functions determines the quality of society as a whole. Because the previous family concepts and norms had not been replaced with new ones, it is possible to suggest that the functionalism is usually misinterpreted as rigid. Instead it requires a positive approach that offers new solutions rather than a negative approach that focuses on destroying old norms without offering suitable substitutes to help the family remain a functional structure.
Conflict Theory and Family
Conflict theory considers individual contribution and conflict management critical for maintaining a well-distributed power structure, and any form of clinging to previous structures is a display of suppression rather than a path to solution. It also emphasizes the role of external factors in defining the family as a social institution. Despite the chaotic nature of the conflict theory and its proponents, it is possible to reach a solution through conflicts, as long as individuals remain in control of those conflicts.
On an individual level, the conflict theory enables all members to equally participate in the decision-making process by challenging the authority within the family. In fact, the conflict theory argues that the power structure should constantly shift to encourage growth and evolution.
On the other hand, the conflict theory also introduces competition among family members. Just like personality traits, the socioeconomic status of a family is one of the main determinants of the quality of development in childhood and adolescence (R. D. Conger, K. J. Conger, & Martin, 2010). Resources such as material assets, money, time, or relationships determine the power structure within a family. The unequal distribution of those resources can determine the power structure and the position of an individual within the family.
The conflict theory also affects the distribution of tasks within a household. It is evident that gender in a social context is just a construct, but that same construct can define various social views, such as shared decision-making when it comes to family purchases. On the other hand, it is also possible that men and women make decisions for buying certain items exclusively.
Conflict theory changed the perception of family after the decline of functionalism. Instead of thinking about the family as a stable and secure institution, it is considered a dynamic environment where change and differences can cause various conflicts among members. As long as the members of an institution interact, there is a possibility of conflict. Rather than creating norms and taboos for the family members to follow, the conflict theory considers conflict and changes a normal occurrence people should welcome. The only acceptable solution is to develop empathy and willingness to make compromises.
Several researchers also found that social differences, such as class or economic status, influence the perception of family worth. While individuals within a family are also impacted by this aspect of the conflict theory, it also impacts the way society defines a family. For example, various researchers proved that a higher socioeconomic status can have a positive effect on the relationship between a husband and a wife, so their divorce rates will be lower (Conger et al., 2010). On the other hand, a larger difference between social and economic skill among couples can affect their relationship in a negative way.
Approach to social changes. Change is the main reason conflict theory exists because it considers change and improvement in society more important than maintaining a certain distribution of power. The conflict theory is one of the richest theories in sociology because it is used as a fundamental building block for other theories, such as the feminist theory or postmodernism, but the main ideas surrounding conflicts and conflict management to induce changes remain the same.
Rather than working on an individual level, a conflict theory approach would rely on making changes in broader contexts that would ultimately influence the lives of individuals. For example, researchers discovered that exposure to certain chemicals that act as endocrine disruptors is one of the main causes of obesity and diabetes today (Kristof, 2013). Lifestyle disorders are no longer an individual problem, but they are a social issue that requires some fundamental changes on higher levels of society. The conflict theory approach would consider the external factors, such as chemical regulations, responsible for the health situation and demand a change on a higher level of society rather than encouraging a change on an individual level.
Rather than avoiding conflict and preserving the existing social structure, the conflict theory welcomes conflicts and considers it essential for change and improvement. Conflicts should not be suppressed, but they should be managed to avoid severe damage to the family members, such as unresolved emotional issues or divorce.
Interactionism and Family
Interactionism places more emphasis on how individuals contribute and behave within society rather than studying the role of social institutions and how they determine individual views and behaviors. When it comes to families, interactionism is concerned with individual roles and views that determine the family and its functions.
When applied to social research, interactionism focuses on how individual members of the family interact to explain how communication patterns form and how they affect family member roles and power distribution within the family. Although it is hard to define the family and explain social behavior within a family in an objective manner with interactionism, it is one of the fundamental and most important frameworks in sociology. Several social views are enforced upon individuals and determine their views and actions, but individuals also control various factors that can influence society.
The quality of communication, personality traits, and type of interaction should be the dominant factors that affect individuals within a family. Trentacosta et al. (2010) studied the effects of the parents' personality traits on the future development of children and found that promoting positive traits and emotional relationships from early childhood can influence the quality of their parenting once they form their own families.
Approach to social changes. Interactionism believes that interaction between individuals leads to change within a family and ultimately redefine the roles and standards social structures adhere to. However, it is not yet clear how those interactions can affect the creation of standards in society because research through the interactionism model mainly relies on interpreting qualitative data.
Another downside of the interactionist model is its exclusive focus on individuals in the society and lack of focus on how they interact with collective processes and standards. Gentry et al. (2003) argued that future research on gender roles should include the interactionist perspective for a better understanding of how interactions between individuals determine standards and gender appropriate tasks. Without a better understanding of how interactions influence standards and vice versa, it is not possible to understand how changes occur starting from an individual level.
Discussion on Similarities and Differences
Functionalism, conflict theory, and interactionism are mainly opposite theories based on different approaches, but because the objects and goals of their research is the same, it is also possible to find some common ground among these theories.
One of the key differences is the method each approach uses to collect data. Interactionists will prefer qualitative studies because observational methods are the only ways of understanding interpersonal interactions. However, lack of empirical evidence is one of the reasons interactionists face criticism from other theories. However, despite the popularity of empirical evidence in the conflict theory and functionalism, it is not possible to exclude the potential for bias when interpreting data when researchers become too attached to a particular framework.
Another difference is the adaptation to changes. While functionalism would struggle to maintain the existing structure, conflict theory would aim for a transformation in society despite the possible changes in the existing structure. An example is the gender roles in families. Women had certain roles in families before World War II, but because men were at war, their presence at various working places and salaries drastically increased. However, from the functionalist perspective, that jeopardized the existing structure of a family, and women reassumed their role as nurturers in the family during the 1950s (Gentry, Commuri, & Jun, 2003).
Both functionalism and conflict theory are macro-level theories, but they represent different views and values in making evaluations. For example, various traditions established fixed gender roles in the family, so women were mainly in charge of domestic work while men were in charge of external interactions for gaining money and social status. However, the inequality in distributing domestic work offended women, so they decided to take a confrontation and demand similar rights, while men exhibited passive behavior and withdrew from the issue because they refused to change (Gentry et al., 2003).
On the other hand, that same suppression contributed to the development feminist and postmodern theories, which are based on the conflict theory, and corresponding social movements that aimed to take down the existing power structure and create an equal society, in which men and women would not be judged or treated according to their gender.
However, that does not make one of those theories superior to the other. In fact, followers of both theories are liable for extreme forms of behavior. Constant change in the power structure and roles could cause too many conflicts people would eventually fail to control because of fatigue and unclear concepts of their roles. On the other hand, the functionalist approach would create a rigid society in which individuals would not be able to follow their desires. The interactionist approach completes those two models by explaining the role of communication in the family, but they also cover its weakness in explaining how standards and social processes affect the communication among family members.
All sociological theories have their flaws and strengths, and they all observe the family as a social institution from different perspectives. Even though the perspectives are different, it is possible to notice a certain amount of interaction between them because viewing a situation from a single perspective does not allow researchers to make reliable conclusions. Researchers have the responsibility to understand that models are just tools rather than absolute principles, and using them together is the only way to obtain a better understanding of the family, its members, and its functions in society.
Conger, R. D., Conger, K. J., & Martin, M. J. (2010). Socioeconomic status, family processes, and individual development. Journal of Marriage and Family, 72(3), 685-704. doi: 10.1111/j.1741-3737.2010.00725.x
Etzioni, A. (2005). Response to Simon Prideaux's "From organisational theory to the new communitarianism of Amitai Etzioni." Canadian Journal of Sociology, 30(2), 215-217. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com.proxy-library.ashford.edu/docview/ 220528161?accountid=32521
Gentry, J. W., Commuri, S., & Jun, S. (2003). Review of literature on gender in the family. Academy of Marketing Science Review, 2003(1), n. pag. http://search.proquest.com.proxy-library.ashford.edu/docview/ 200836838?accountid=32521
Kristof, N. D. (2013, Jan 20). Warnings from a flabby mouse. New York Times. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/1271053844?accountid=32521
Trentacosta, C. J., Neppl, T. K., Donnellan, M. B., Scaramella, L. V., Shaw, D. S., & Conger, R. D. (2010). Adolescent personality as a prospective predictor of parenting: An interactionist perspective. Journal of Family Psychology, 24(6), 721-730. doi: 10.1037/a0021732