Synopsis: This article provides an overview of the some of the theories of family and social change. It explores the roles of family through different sociological perspectives (Functionalism, Marxism, and Feminism) and explores the changing patterns of family relations and other social institutions such as marriage and divorce.
In sociology, a family is defined as a social arrangement between “two or more people who consider themselves related by blood, marriage, or adoption” (Henslin, 2017, p. 461). Being one of the core units of society, there has been a lot of exploration and discussion on the topic of family (and marriage), especially in the discipline of Sociology. Family can be examined through various sociological perspectives, each of which provides a new idea on what the roles of family are. Further, as an institution within a constantly changing society, the social unit of family has undergone significant changes. Through family, we can also explore changing patterns of marriage and divorce, as these are essential elements in the study of family in sociology.
Sociological Perspectives on the Role of the Family
From the functionalist perspective, there are certain functions in a society that a family performs – the family is seen as a unit of society required for its effective functioning and well-being. According to functionalists, the universality of a family unit all over human society is due to its fulfillment of certain basic needs – both for an individual’s survival and the for the society as a whole.
The first function of a family is to provide a secure, steady space for satisfaction of the sexual urges of individuals and to provide a legitimate space or foundation to reproduction. In other words, connecting it to family makes the act of procreation a systematized, socially sanctioned practice of ensuring the continuity of the human race. The second most important function of a family is to provide the arena for socialization of children. Socialization forms the very basis of establishment and maintenance of a particular social order, and without socialization of the children, it would not be possible. Passing on society from one generation to another is one of the key ways in which the continuation of human society can be ensured, which is one of the key roles of a family. It is through living with others in a family unit that a child learns and internalizes the appropriate social and cultural roles, values, beliefs, norms, and practices. It is the family that essentially provides individuals with their social identity and social location.
Further, the family also helps individuals meet some of their intrinsic needs, such as food and shelter. Through reproduction, families also provide the economy with human capital and labour power or workforce, therefore playing a key role in the processes of economic production. The economic function of families can also be seen in maintenance of individuals who are not self-sufficient to provide for themselves financially – for example, children, the elderly, and persons with disabilities who might not be able to work. Families also serve as a safety net for individuals. They are often the key sources of support and comfort, both emotionally and socially. Family performs the function of providing safety, stability, love, empathy and fulfilling all other intangible needs of individuals.
The Marxist understanding of family stems from the general Marxist view that all institutions in society help establish, perpetuate, and maintain class inequality and promote Capitalism. Families, therefore, in Marxist terms, help maintain the class interests of the elite bourgeoisie who form a very small part of society as opposed to the proletariat or working class people but who hold more social, economic, and political power than the numerical majority, thereby commanding society at large. Maintenance of bourgeoisie dominance over proletariats and sustaining the Capitalist system is thought to be the key purpose of families.
In his famous work, The Communist Manifesto, Marx posited that the “bourgeoisie has torn away from the family its sentimental veil, and has reduced the family relation into a mere money relation” (Marx & Engels, 1848, p. 16). In other words, for Marx and in Marxist understanding, capitalism has reduced the unit of family in society to nothing but a financial transaction, therefore making the family an exploitative mechanism in itself.
For proponents of the Marxist perspective, the nuclearization of families from earlier community-based large families and kinship groups was a result of emergence of capitalism and private ownership of property. By acting as tools of ideological control, nuclear families help maintain and propagate capitalism by normalizing or legitimizing, justifying, and inculcating class inequality and establishing the capitalist system as valid, reasonable, and invariable. Hierarchy is taught since childhood through the patriarchal, age-based family structure where parents have power or authority over children, and even within parents, the father is considered to be ‘superior’ than the mother (in a heterosexual marriage). Further, to maintain the ‘purity’ of family and lineage, caste inequalities are maintained by restricting marriage to endogamy, therefore further creating grounds for discrimination and exploitation.
Feminist Responses to the Functionalist View of Family
The functionalist perspective receives extensive criticism whenever it is examined from the lens of any critical theory, and feminism is no different. Functionalists assume that the social institution of family proves to be conducive or advantageous to all the member-individuals equally, thereby painting the family in a positive light. The feminist viewpoint is critical of this functionalist notion as the family exists within and as an extension of the intrinsically patriarchal human society and also serves to propagate patriarchal ideals and maintain stereotypical gender roles and unequal gender relations.
Power in a family is unequally distributed between the males and the females. For instance, in a family formed through heterosexual marital relations, it is the father who is considered the ‘head’ of the family and who embodies the most power and authority, while the position of the mother is relegated to a secondary position below the father. The family perpetuates stereotypical gender ideals of women by appointing the household as the primary responsibility of the women. Women are seen akin to machines responsible for reproduction, caregiving – both for the children, the elderly, and all other family members, and performing other household chores which essentially keeps the family running smoothly, all without any remuneration because these work are not considered economically productive. For men, such household tasks come at a secondary position after they have effectively managed their careers and jobs, which are considered a secondary priority for the women. Further, feminists argue that through the socialization function of families that functionalists point out as essential, unequal gender roles are inculcated in children – girls are taught to be more docile, caring, nurturing, and ‘feminine’ whereas boys are taught assertion, dominance, even violence, and to be ‘masculine’. For feminists, therefore, the family essentially serves as a restrictive institution for women which establishes and maintains their subordinate position in society.
Feminist Responses to the Marxist View of Family
Marxist perspective on family views the family as an economic institution that serves the interests of capitalism by reproducing the labor force and maintaining the class system. This perspective argues that the family acts as a unit of consumption and a source of labor, and that it helps to preserve and reinforce class relationships. However, feminist criticism of this perspective argues that it overlooks the role of patriarchal power and the oppression of women within the family structure. While Marxists see the family as serving economic interests, feminists argue that the family also serves as a site of patriarchal domination, where women are oppressed and exploited through their domestic and reproductive labor.
One key feminist critique of Marxist perspective on family is that it tends to neglect the gendered nature of class exploitation. Marxists tend to view class exploitation as a unitary phenomenon that affects all members of the working class equally, regardless of gender, race, or other identity factors. However, feminists argue that this approach neglects the ways in which women’s experiences of class exploitation can be different from those of men. For example, women may experience lower wages, limited job opportunities, and greater responsibility for care work within the family. These factors can contribute to women’s experiences of class exploitation that are distinct from those of men.
Another important feminist critique of Marxist perspective on family is that it does not adequately address the intersections of race, gender, and class in the exploitation of women within the family. This perspective tends to view the family as a single, homogeneous unit, when in reality, families are diverse and can be shaped by multiple identities and experiences. For example, women of color may experience additional forms of oppression based on their race, in addition to the patriarchal oppression they experience within the family. To address these shortcomings, feminists call for a more intersectional analysis that recognizes the multiple ways in which women are oppressed within the family and society as a whole. This approach acknowledges that patriarchal, racial, and class-based systems of oppression are interconnected and mutually reinforcing, and that they cannot be fully understood in isolation from one another. By taking an intersectional approach, feminists aim to better understand the complex experiences of women within the family and to work towards ending all forms of oppression and exploitation.
Diversity, Social Change, and Family
Different family and household forms
There is no singular definition of what constitutes a family. Different cultures and societies identify different arrangements as a family. In today’s world, a single individual and a pet dog can also be identified as a family. Further, there also exists the concept of ‘found family’ – a familial bond formed not through blood relation, kinship bonds or biological connections but through choice with the purpose of providing social support.
However, there can be certain specific forms of family on the basis of various factors. Sociologists first identify family of orientation – “the family in which an individual grows up” (Henslin, 2017, p. 461) and family of procreation – the family formed through the birth of children. Further, families can be classified on the basis of size as nuclear families – small families consisting of a parents and their children, and extended or joint families in which along with the elements of the nuclear family other relatives, such as grandparents, uncles and aunts, cousins, etc., live together. Single-parent families and families of partners without children are also forms of families. Therefore, is a huge diversity in what is defined as a family, and the foundation of families might not always be biological or marital.
Causes and consequences of changing patterns of marriage, cohabitation, divorce, and separation
It is difficult to arrive at a universally applicable definition of marriage if we take into account the socio-cultural variations of what can be appropriately called a marriage. Considering such diversities, a marriage can be tentatively defined as “a group’s approved mating arrangements, usually marked by a ritual of some sort (the wedding) to indicate the couple’s new public status” (Henslin, 2017, p. 462). However, since a legal aspect has been introduced as imperative for defining marriage in a particular way, marriage can also be described as “a legally recognized social contract between two people, traditionally based on a sexual relationship and implying a permanence of the union” (Little & McGivern, 2014). As with any cultural aspect, the institution of marriage is also dynamic and has seen changing patterns and meanings. For instance, same sex marriage (or even a relationship) was an unimaginable concept for several cultures and societies of the world even a few decades ago, but it is now legalized in more than 30 countries of the world. Further, marriage rates, regardless of which sexuality they are based on, have seen a decline in the recent decades. While several studies on Western countries (especially America) exist, a recent survey by the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation, Government of India has found that there has been an increase in the number of unmarried young people (PTI, 2022). There has also been a general decline in the willingness among youth to get marries, and this is not a trend limited to India. A number of reasons can be identified as the cause of such a declining trend in marriages.
If marriages have declined, there must be another institution that has taken over that traditional institution, which cohabitation seems to have achieved. Initially defined as “heterosexual couple whose members are not married to each other and who live in the same household in a close relationship” (Chevan, 1996), definitions of cohabitation have become more inclusive with regards to different kinds of sexuality. In the face of changing attitudes towards marriage and what it entails, cohabitation provides a more flexible, versatile option with more liberties and greater possibilities than marriage allows. It provides a space for fostering of relationships not accepted by society or legalized as legitimate. For instance, cohabitation can be a viable option for people belonging to the LGBTQ+ community in countries where, say, same sex marriages have not been legalized. Further, relationships which are still considered socially unacceptable, such as polyamory, can also be made possible through the arrangement of cohabitation, therefore making it a more popular choice among people. Cohabitation can be one of the main reasons for the declining rate of marriages.
A declining marriage rate can also be explained by changes in attitudes towards divorce. Previously relegated to a position of sacrilege by religious institutions due to being a mechanism that brought the ‘holy’ or ‘sacred’ bond created through marriage to an end, divorce has become more popular in the past few decades. There are several reasons for this changing pattern of legal separation among married couples, the primary being easier access to divorce procedures and a change in the way society views divorce. Changes in expectations of people regarding desirable qualities in their partners and life, elimination of the sanctity previously accorded to a marriage, more acceptance towards same-sex relationships (and other sexualities) along with an increased opportunity among people to explore themselves more, greater focus towards mental health, etc., are a few reasons why divorce is becoming increasingly popular among people. One important reason can also be the rise of the feminist movement and empowerment of women – with greater financial independence and decrease in the social stigma single women face, it has been easier for women to choose a better life for themselves than stay in a marriage which is suitable for them.
The diverse nature of human society and various cultures make it difficult to arrive at a universal definition or description of family. Different sociological perspectives allow us to use a variety of lenses to examine the roles of family in society, either through a positive, functionalist lens or from a more critical perspective. Other aspects of society, such as marriage, divorce, and cohabitation, can be examined in connection with the concept of family to understand how they have changed in the past few decades.
Chevan, A. (1996). As cheaply as one: Cohabitation in the older population. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 58(3), 656. https://doi.org/10.2307/353726
Henslin, J. M. (2017). Marriage and family. In Sociology: A Down-to-Earth Approach (pp. 460–492). Pearson Education.
Little, W., & McGivern, R. (2014). Chapter 14: Marriage and family. In Introduction to Sociology – 1st Canadian Edition. Pressbooks. https://opentextbc.ca/introductiontosociology/chapter/chapter14-marriage-and-family/
Marx, K., & Engels, F. (1848). Manifesto of the Communist party. In Written: Late Source: Marx/Engels Selected Works: Vol. One (Issue 1). Marxists Internet Archive. https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/download/pdf/Manifesto.pdf
PTI. (2022, July 15). Proportion of unmarried youth rising, finds govt survey. The Economic Times. https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/india/proportion-of-unmarried-youth-rising-finds-govt-survey/articleshow/92878668.cms?from=mdr