Broadly speaking, the functionalist perspective has focused on the functions of the family in society and for its members. In other words, it looks at how the family, as an institution, helps in maintaining order and stability in society, and the significance of the family for its individual members. There are two main functionalist views on the family – Murdock’s view and Parsons’ view. Murdock’s view on the family is that the family performs four basic functions for its individual members and society at large. These are the ‘sexual’, ‘reproductive’, ‘economic’ and ‘educational’ functions.
The ‘sexual’ function refers to the regulation of sexual activity. Evidence for this being a functionalist view on the family is that the idea of the four basic functions was created by George Murdock. Husbands and wives have sexual access to each other, and in all societies, there are norms concerning sexual activity outside marriage. Therefore, Murdock has argued that the family caters to the sexual needs of its adult members and also limits sexual access of other members of the society thereby maintaining stability. The ‘reproductive’ function relates to bearing and raising children. Again, this was part of the idea created by Murdock.
The family provides the society with new members and assumes responsibility for raising them. The family is also an ‘economic’ unit, with a division of labour along gender lines. Evidence for this is Murdock’s consideration of this division of labour and his seeing it as rewarding for the spouses and as strengthening the bond between them, as they are perceived as doing distinct but complementary work. The ‘educational’ function can also be termed ‘socialisation’. Although initially an idea thought up by Murdock, Parsons also agreed with this view believing that this was one of the main functions of the family.
The family has the responsibility of transmitting a society’s way of life, norms and values to the younger members. This function is an important one as, without culture, the society could not survive, and too much deviation from the norm would disrupt the stability of the society. Another view on the family is the view of Talcott Parsons. He has also written about the functions of the family. He has identified two functions that he perceives as being ‘basic and irreducible’. These functions are: the primary socialisation of children and the stabilisation of adult personalities of the population of the society.
Primary socialisation occurs in early childhood and the family plays an important role at this stage. Evidence for this would be Parsons’ view and writings on the family. Later on, other institutions like the school or the peer group, will exercise much influence on the individual – this is called secondary socialisation. During primary socialisation, two important tasks are achieved by the family.
Firstly, the family must transmit the culture of the society to the children. The child must not only be able to learn about the norms and values of the society he or she lives in, but should also be able to ‘internalise’ these norms and values, making them a part of himself or herself. Another functionalist view on the family is that it has the function of ‘stabilising the personality’ of its adult members. Evidence of this is Parsons’ view on the family. This means that family life provides adults with the emotional security that they need. The role of parents that they are asked to assume also provides them with opportunities for expressing their childish whims through their children.