Introduction to Sociology
Take-home Final Exam
Sociology 001: Introduction to Sociology
Sociology 1 - Final Exam
According to class lectures, 'family' is a societal institution; institutions are large scale social organizations existing across time and space, which are both independent of the individuals that start and occupy it, and exert great influence over those individuals. For the purposes of this paper we will be using functionalist and conflict theories to examine the family. From the functionalist view, 'family' is universal. It regulates sexual behavior, reproduces the labor force, socializes new members of society, and supplies emotional support for its members, thus helping to maintain both the individual and society. These are the necessary functions that family fulfills in a society -- functions which support and contribute to the society within which the family is located. However, from a conflict theorist's viewpoint, family is the locus of female oppression, the sphere of private life where patriarchy is played out and learned by the young; it is a "site of contention." To a conflict theorist the naturalization and politicization of the family is simply another institutionalized form of patriarchy and another attempt to force women into the non-threatening, male-supportive societal roles 'ordained by God.'
The family unit is, of course, affected by the society it is in. For example, industrialization has removed the family as the unit of production. The shift from the extended farming family to the nuclear urbanized family has to do with the labor market: if you can't find jobs where you grew up, of necessity you moved. This shift has been exacerbated in America by our society's capitalist economic system, which is geared towards consumers that are nuclear families. This societal shift in how 'family' is formed also makes both family and community harder and harder to maintain - what use building a community if all the young leave? As an example, from the functionalist viewpoint only two adults must now offer all the emotional support that previously was offered by an entire extended family. With the current lack of societal support for family maintenance it is little wonder that current societal tensions surrounding families often tear them apart.
From a conflict viewpoint the family has been dramatically altered by the trends of modernity. This is unsurprising, as across most cultures changes will occur in how families form and how they live. However, the more perceived threats there are to a social institution, the more conflict is created, and the more a scapegoat (justly or unjustly) is sought for the perceived ills of society. In the case of America (as well as in other countries) the traditional sources of male dominance were challenged by increasing industrialization; the usual variety of agricultural skills were being lost, men were being seen more and more as appendages to machines, and they lost their say in the dispersal of goods created. As a result increasing definition and naturalization of the family occurred. Previously the view was of a private sphere of domesticity where women belonged, and a public sphere of jobs, religion, government, etc. where men held sway. Since this family style was politicized and made to seem to the society's members as 'ordained by god,' other forms of family became threatening. As an example, Stack's suggestions in her article "Domestic Networks" are good ones as far as looking past the two-parent model, but it is sadly telling that these family networks were forced by poverty. Increasing prosperity seems to lead to more familial isolation.
The rising of a social movement that might challenge this 'natural order' of how families should be (such as the women's rights movement) could well seem threatening to men and to society in general, and as such it would be scapegoated and fought both actively and passively. The women's movement is an example of both a social movement to redress gender-based injustices within society, and a societal scapegoat for the perceived failings of the family and by extension society itself. In a nutshell, all the women's movement was trying to do was to remove the public/private dichotomy that had previously existed, to insure a more fair and just distribution of labor within the family.
In some ways the women's movement has succeeded tremendously: as is noted in Giddens current societal trends reveal a general trend of the wishes of women being observed more with respect to the initiation of marriage and decision making within the family, and women have become more economically independent. In fact, more than half of America's women are now members of the labor force. However, as was noted by Hochschild in her article "Second Shift," most American women still do most of the housework as well as hold down a full-time job -- and it's simply too much for them. As Hochschild wrote in her article, women become resentful and uncommunicative with their passively resisting, non-helping spouses. This cannot be good for the affected families.
Thus from a functionalist's viewpoint the current societal trends must appear disastrous. The need for the functions previously fulfilled by the institution of 'family' is still there -- if anything the need is even greater than before. However, as was noted in class, the family is no longer meeting these needs. Instead schools, peers, and the media are picking up the job of socialization. Unlike the family unit, none of these have the best interests of their constituents at heart. These other groups are not meeting emotional needs, nor is sexual behavior being effectively regulated in a societal sense. Possibly worst of all, with increasing prosperity the birthrate drops, and thus the labor force is not being effectively reproduced.
From a conflict theorist's viewpoint, however, the family must appear to be slowly going through some much-needed changes. The family as locus for patriarchy and as the site of contention is being eroded. It is not gone - patriarchy still exists within society in general, of course, and the conflict over division of labor within the family is still being hotly contested. However, current societal trends seem to indicate a slow but growing change in the societal institution of 'family,' from the previously naturalized, patriarchal view discussed above, to one of more flexibility and fairness.
Last Updated: Tue Dec 14 1999