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Chapter 12: Marriage and Families

12.2 Sociological Perspectives on the Family

Sociological views on today’s families generally fall into the functional, conflict, and symbolic interaction approaches introduced earlier in this book. Let’s review these views, which are summarized in Table 12.1 “Theory Snapshot”.

Table 12.1 Theory Snapshot


Major Assumptions

Functional Perspective

Families perform several essential functions for society. They socialize children, provide emotional and practical support for its members, help regulate sexual activity and sexual reproduction, and provide its members with a social identity. In addition, sudden or far-reaching changes in families’ structure or processes threaten its stability.

Conflict Perspective

Families contribute to social inequality by reinforcing economic inequality and by reinforcing patriarchy. Families can also be a source of conflict, including physical violence and emotional cruelty, for its own members.

Symbolic Interaction Perspective

The interaction of family members and intimate couples involves shared understandings of their situations. Spouses have different styles of communication, and social class affects the expectations that spouses have of their marriages and of each other. Romantic love is the common basis for American marriages and dating relationships, but it is much less common in numerous contemporary nations.


Functional Perspective on Families

Recall that the functional perspective emphasizes that social institutions perform several important functions to help preserve social stability and otherwise keep a society working. A functional understanding of family thus stresses the ways in which family as a social institution helps make society possible. As such, families perform several important functions.

First, family is the primary unit for socializing children. As previous chapters indicated, no society is possible without adequate socialization of its young. In most societies, family is the major unit in which socialization happens. Parents, siblings, and other relatives all help socialize children from the time they are born.

Second, family is ideally a major source of practical and emotional support for its members. It provides them food, clothing, shelter, and other essentials, and it also provides them love, comfort, help in times of emotional distress, and other types of intangible support that we all need.

Third, family helps regulate sexual activity and sexual reproduction. All societies have norms governing with whom and how often a person should have sex. Family is the major unit for teaching these norms and the major unit through which sexual reproduction occurs. One reason for this is to ensure that infants have adequate emotional and practical care when they are born. The that most societies have, which prohibits sex between certain relatives, helps minimize conflict within families and to establish social ties among different families and thus among society as a whole.

Fourth, family provides its members with a social identity. Children are born into their parents’ social class, race and ethnicity, religion, and so forth. As we have seen in earlier chapters, social identity is important for our life chances. Some children have advantages throughout life because of the social identity they acquire from their parents, while others face many obstacles because the social class or race/ethnicity into which they are born is at or near the bottom of the social hierarchy.

image of father with newborn laying on his chest covered in a blanket

Even during those first few exhausting months with their newborn, parents are socializing their child, passing on their advantages and helping them to form an identity.  PublicDomainPicturesPixabay

Beyond discussing the family’s functions, the functional perspective on family maintains that sudden or far-reaching changes in conventional family structure and processes threaten the family’s stability and thus that of society. For example, many functional-oriented conservative observers maintain that the male breadwinner–female homemaker nuclear family is the best arrangement for children, as it provides for a family’s economic and child-rearing needs. They worry about the impact on children of working mothers and one-parent families. We return to their concerns shortly.

Conflict Perspective on Families

Conflict theorists agree that families serve the important functions just listed, but they also point to problems within families that the functional perspective minimizes or overlooks altogether.

First, family as a social institution contributes to social inequality in several ways. The social identity it gives to its children does affect their life chances, but it also reinforces a society’s system of stratification. Because families pass along their wealth to their children, and because families differ greatly in the amount of wealth they have, the family helps reinforce existing inequality. As it developed through the centuries, and especially during industrialization, family also became more and more of a patriarchal unit, helping to ensure men’s high social status.

Second, families can also be a source of conflict for their own members. Although the functional perspective assumes family provides its members emotional comfort and support, many families do just the opposite and are far from the harmonious, happy groups depicted in the 1950s television shows. Instead, they argue, shout, and use emotional cruelty and physical violence. We return to family violence later in this chapter.

Symbolic Interaction Perspective on Families

Symbolic interactionist perspectives on families examine how family members and intimate couples interact on a daily basis and arrive at shared understandings of their situations. Studies grounded in symbolic interactionism give us a keen understanding of how and why families operate the way they do.

Some studies, for example, focus on how spouses communicate and the degree to which they communicate successfully (Tannen, 2001). A classic study by Mirra Komarovsky (1964) found that wives in blue-collar marriages liked to talk with their husbands about problems they were having, while husbands tended to be quiet when problems occurred. Such gender differences seem less common in middle-class families, where men are better educated and more emotionally expressive than their working-class counterparts. Another classic study by Lillian Rubin (1976) found that wives in middle-class families say that ideal husbands are ones who communicate well and share their feelings, while wives in working-class families are more apt to say that ideal husbands are ones who do not drink too much and who work hard.

Other studies explore the role played by romantic love in courtship and marriage. Romantic love, the feeling of deep emotional and sexual passion for someone, is the basis for many American marriages and dating relationships, but it is actually uncommon in many parts of the contemporary world today and in many of the societies anthropologists and historians have studied. In these societies, marriages are arranged by parents and other kin for economic reasons or to build alliances, and young people are simply expected to marry whoever is chosen for them. This is the situation today in many low- and middle-income nations and was the norm for much of the postindustrial world until the late 18th and early 19th centuries (Lystra, 1989).


Think Like a Sociologist

image of three children sitting on a curb

Low-income families struggle to protect and support their children, as well as provide advantages. Max Pixel – CC0 1.0 Universal (CC0 1.0) – Public Domain

A growing amount of social science research documents social class differences in how well a family functions: the quality of its relationships and the cognitive, psychological, and social development of its children. This focus reflects the fact that what happens during the first months and years of life may have profound effects on how well a newborn prospers during childhood, adolescence, and beyond. To the extent this is true, the social class differences that have been found have troublesome implications.

According to sociologist Frank E. Furstenberg Jr., “steep differences exist across social classes” in mothers’ prenatal experiences, such as the quality of their diet and health care, as well as in the health care that their infants receive. As a result, he says, “children enter the world endowed unequally.” This inequality worsens after they are born for several reasons.

First, low-income families are much more likely to experience negative events, such as death, poor health, unemployment, divorce, and criminal victimization. When these negative events do occur, says Furstenberg, “social class affects a family’s ability to cushion their blow…Life is simply harder and more brutish at the bottom.” These negative events produce great amounts of stress that in turn causes children to experience various developmental problems.

Second, low-income parents are much less likely to read and speak regularly to their infants and young children, who thus are slower to develop cognitive and reading skills; this problem in turn impairs their school performance when they enter elementary school.

Third, low-income parents are also less able to expose their children to cultural experiences (e.g., museum, visits) outside the home, to develop their talents in the arts and other areas, and to otherwise be involved in the many non-school activities that are important for a child’s development. In contrast, wealthier parents keep their children very busy in these activities in a pattern that sociologist Annette Lareau calls concerted cultivation. These children’s involvement in these activities provides them various life skills that help enhance their performance in school and later in the workplace.

Fourth, low-income children grow up in low-income neighborhoods, which often have inadequate schools and many other problems, including toxins such as lead paint, that impair a child’s development. In contrast, says Furstenberg, children from wealthier families “are very likely to attend better schools and live in better neighborhoods. It is as if the playing field for families is tilted in ways that are barely visible to the naked eye.”

Fifth, low-income families are less able to afford to send a child to college, and they are more likely to lack the social contacts that wealthier parents can use to help their child get a good job after college.

For all these reasons, social class profoundly shapes how children fare from conception through early adulthood and beyond. Because this body of research documents many negative consequences of living in a low-income family, it reinforces the need for wide-ranging efforts to help such families (Bandy, Andrews, & Moore, 2012; Furstenberg, 2010; Lareau, 2010; Social Problems, 2010).

Use each of the three sociological perspectives (Conflict, Functional, and Symbolic Interaction) to explain how the social class of a family might affect the future of children.


Section 12.2 References

Bandy, T., K. M. Andrews and K. M.  Moore. (2012, February 01). Disadvantaged families and child outcomes: The importance of emotional support for mothers. Washington, DC: Child Trends. Retrieved from https://www.childtrends.org/publications/disadvantaged-families-and-child-outcomes-the-importance-of-emotional-support-for-mothers.

Furstenberg, Jr., F. E. (2010). Diverging development: The not-so-invisible hand of social class in the United States. In B. J. Risman (Ed.), Families as they really are (pp. 276–294). New York, NY: W. W. Norton.

Komarovsky, M. (1964). Blue-collar marriage. New York, NY: Random House. 

Lareau, A. (2010). Unequal childhoods: Inequalities in the rhythms of daily life. In B. J. Risman (Ed.), Families as they really are (pp. 295–298). New York: W. W. Norton.

Lystra, K. (1989). Searching the heart: Women, men, and romantic love in nineteenth-century America. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. 

Rubin, L. B. (1976). Worlds of pain: Life in the working-class family. New York, NY: Basic Books. 

Tannen, D. (2001). You just don’t understand: Women and men in conversation. New York, NY: Quill.

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