The Analysis of Family Theories


Every research on the family as a social institution provides a need to study social institutions and social structure of society. This idea can be observed in works of Auguste Comte who tried to accentuate on the social institutions in society as these institutions condition the reproduction of social integration. This research shows that the family is a foundation for creation a society as it forms individuals. The family is an institute that provides integration of society and society functioning, since exactly in the family every person develops a sense of sociality in himself or herself.

In order to define the impact that the theories have on the institution of the family, the research will show the evolution of this institution as well as the evolution of society within this institution.

There are numerous theories about the family as a unit and a social institution. There are three theories that are considered as the main ones, and they are examined in this research. Moreover, this research presents the differentiation of these theories based on the principals the theories have and on their connection and impact on society.

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The first theory is Functionalism. Its supporters (Comte O., Durkheim E. and Pareto V.) considered the family as a social unit. The nuclear family has traditional features in its structure, relations and functions.

The second theory is a Conflict theory. Its representatives (Hartmann H.) argued that every family cannot be based on love only. Every family has conflicts; nevertheless, it is possible to overcome them which make family even more solid than it was earlier.

The third, most adapted to our days, is the theory of Interactionism (Bekker H. and Garfinkel H.), according to which family interacts not only at the level of its members but also with a society using symbols.

The family is a background for a future adaptation of a person in society so one cannot ignore its importance. To find the connection between family and society and understand what types of families we have we need to examine such issues:

  1. What characteristics each theory has? How does it cooperate with a society?
  2. What are the similarities and differences between these theories?

To answer the first question we need to use the observation methods and we comparison to answer the second question.

What Characteristics Each Theory has? How does it Interact with a Society?

The first theory to be analyzed is the theory of functionalism. Until the 1960s, the functionalism was a dominant branch of sociology but later it has been increasingly criticized. According to the theory of functionalism, the behavior of a person in society is structured, and relationship within every part of this structure has an influence on another part. Functionalism also analyzes the contribution made by every social institution, so as to maintain social system.

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George Murdock and Talcott Parsons are the main functionalism theorists of the family. George Murdock defined the family as a social group which has the common residence as well as economic cooperation and reproduction. The family, according to Murdock, consists of two adult persons of both sexes, who maintain a socially approved relationship and have one or more children. It means that this form of the family is a nuclear one – a stereotypical heterosexual couple. Murdock argued that the nuclear family was a universal social institution which fulfilled four functions for society. They are: the sexual, reproductive, economic and educational functions (Murdock, 1949).

Talcott Parsons confirmed that societies were based on the extended kinship network till the industrial revolution appeared. This network was not based on educational achievements or skill of its members (family members), but the industrial revolution brought on changes. Firstly, due to industrialization the economy needed a mobile workforce. As a result, the members of the family were separated from each other, and that made them less reliant on family and kin for social support. This made the nuclear family much more dependent on each other and home-centered as they needed to fulfill their functions. Moreover, the development of specialist agencies took over the functions of a family. Originally, a family earned money by producing goods and selling them later. Therefore, when agencies developed and took over this extended kin family had to move away and find other work. Nevertheless, the family remains crucial in relations to the two functions: the socialization of the young and the stabilization of adult personalities (Parsons, 1971).

This point of view was partly denied by Ronald Fletcher who argued that, although the family was no longer a unit of production, it remains a unit of consumption (Fletcher, 1971).

Although the functionalists saw the family as a harmonious relationship, David Cheal argued that these relations can turn into dysfunctional ones, so love can turn to hate within some days. He also said that the family is based on love, as well as on violence and anger (Cheal, 2002).

The family, according to the functionalists, is considered as an institution in which its members get unconditional love, nurturing and care. Unfortunately, it is not always true if we take into account the cases of domestic violence, divorces and child abuse. Elizabeth Stanko in her survey on domestic violence writes that every minute the police receive a report about domestic violence made by a woman. All these arguments make a functionalist view of beneficial family overestimated (Stanko, 2001).

In general terms, this theory reflects the form of the family, which existed at the times or even before the times the theory appeared. I think that this theory developed from the traditions which society had from ancient times. Speaking about nowadays, one can be say that the time brought changes, the changes of society views on family issues lead to development of functionalism.

Nevertheless, it still does not reflect the reality. If, according to the functionalism, the family consists of two persons of different sexes, so today we have experienced an appearance of homosexual couples.

Secondly, in functionalism the family has one or more children while today the couple can live without children during all period of its marriage.

Thirdly, the family considered to be a unit of love and care but, as it was mentioned above, not every family is happy and full of love to each other. Moreover, sometimes couple exists only due to mutual profit or interests or just not to harm the children the couple has. I think such couples can be considered as family only theoretically but not practically.

The functionalists did not pay attention to the reproduction of the family as physical function, but it has its reasons. While the theory of functionalism prevailed in Western sociology in the 1950-1960th, the fertility decline was not a serious social problem. The function of family socialization was a prior one as it serves a reproduction of the social person function.

However, despite these criticisms in every single respect it would not be right to say that functionalists overstated the significance of the nuclear family relative to other family forms and understated the existence of other relations within many nuclear families. The existence of the nuclear family helped sustain capitalist and patriarchal power structures in the society.

The second theory to be considered is a conflict theory. This theory tries to examine the way how member of the family struggle for power, what actions they take and how they disagree. Within this study, family dynamics and the role played by each member of the family are analyzed, and the causes of the conflicts and the sources of power are identified.

The family, according to conflict theory, always suffers from conflicts and disharmony; it is a normal state of affairs. On the one hand, they escalate and alienate the members of the family and lead to estranged relationships. On the other hand, the conflict theory highlights that it is impossible to cooperate and interact with others without eventual conflict. Accordingly, the primary role for the family is to understand and learn how to manage the conflict. Moreover, the family members should determine the sources and causes of the conflict. It will help them to find solutions. It is extremely beneficial to express feelings in the safe environment where each member has his or her own time to talk without interruption. The family will establish better communication, develop empathy and understanding within its members, when it overcomes a conflict, (Ray, 2010).

It should be noticed that the sociologists who support the conflict theory are divided into two parts. Some of them argue that money in family plays a primary role. It means that even if one of the partners love another more it does not mean that he or she will be dominant. Conversely, this member will remain under psychological dependence. On the other hand, if both partners of the couple express their love equally so they will have an equal part of power in the family.

According to the other point of view, the redistribution of wealth and economic productions are carried out in the family but still the interests of each come into conflict with one another and society. These disputes can be based on such questions as who has to earn money, who has to carry about the house or apartment, what part of family income are to be paid the government etc. This theory is useful to understand a hierarchical structure of the family: gender, social class, race and age. All the differences are based on hierarchy which mostly depends on age and gender.

The conflict theory is more adapted to these days. We cannot imagine any relations between two individuals without controversy as each person has his or her own interests, motivations, preferences and wishes. Sometimes they are not similar with interests of other members of the family. Moreover, these conflicts are not always between husband and wife but also between parents and children.

If we want to avoid a continuation of the conflict, we need to find its solution, which can be found out after understanding the reasons of its appearance.

We should also understand that different conflicts are caused by different reasons; that is why every conflict needs its own solution.

This theory showed society that every family has problems, how it is essential to face them and how it is crucial to solve disputes but not just avoid them. We must remember that every solved dispute makes the family more solid.

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The last theory is a theory of interactionism. Interactionism is the considered as a leading trend in family sociology, from the viewpoint of the socialization process. The basic principle of interactionism is that the world has physical and symbolic features and individuals communicate and interact within society by symbols.

Interaction theory describes the family as a unit of personalities interacting with each other. This interaction can be described through different symbols: words, gesture, rules and roles. This theory based on how people form a complex set of symbols which give meaning to the words (LaRossa & Reitzen, 1993).

At the beginning of our life, we do not have any attachments to symbols, but later interactions help us to acquire personal identity, which differentiates us from others. Through social interaction and communication with others, we develop self-concepts which we do not have when we are born. Once developed, self-concept provides a background for human behavior.

Interactions change our inner world. As a result, these changes create other symbols that we use, or they change the meaning of the symbols we had.

According to Hanson and Kaainen, this theory is useful as it is focused on “internal processes of social interaction within families, rather than on the outcomes of these interactions”. They also considered that the family “is seen as existing in a vacuum, with no consideration of the environment or the family’s history, culture, or socioeconomic status” (Denham, 2003). However, the interaction within the family can cause the family routines and patterned behaviors.

The family interaction model constructed by Gedaly-Duff and Heims (1996) is based on the symbolic interactions and developmental theory. Different ages, career, marriage, launching and other issues related to the family form a base of this model, but they do not reject the individual development.

George Herbert Mead created a model due to which every person starts to know himself and his place in the world based upon interactions (Mead, 1934).

As for the other sociological theories, feminist theories assume that the power and privilege are distributed from gender, class or race. Feminism aims to transform the ways we know the world where male rule social, political, economic, and other environment. Male and female qualities, emotions, experience, individuality are integrated into to the life experience of men and women. Trying to increase the role of woman in society, some important issues, as care giving role, were ignored.

According to feminists, a lot of theories, especially functionalist theories are used only to protect a traditional family which can be harmful to women or children.

What are the similarities and differences between these theories?

In general terms, these theories do not have much in common. The time of their appearance in sociology is different, and society views on the family issues changed a lot. Nevertheless, there are still some common aspects. A nuclear family, as the functionalist considers it, can exist only under condition that its members interact and communicate on the same level using the same symbols. These symbols can be formed in every family, as the interactionism theorists say.

As for the conflict theory, the negotiations are considered to be the best way of solving disputes. During the negotiations, we have to use words and gestures, which we formed in our family and which other members of the family recognize (these symbols are formed, according to the interactionism).

In order to find the differences in the theories, we need to define the criteria of division. This division will show us later what form of the family we have today and what theory should be used for its describing.

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As for the first criterion, it is a subjective factor. The theory of functionalism and the conflict theory analyze family as a social institution, and the interactionism considers it as a small social group. However, such differentiation between social institution and social group is not precise. In consequence of this, we can state without any exaggeration that interactionists examine the family at the micro level. In contrast, functionalists and supporters of conflict theory focus on family creation and recreation on the everyday level. Examining family on the micro level helps inetactionists to understand the family relations in details as they are focused on almost every aspect of family life.

The second criterion is the relationship with society. In functionalism, the family interacts with other social institutions as one unit. In interactionism, the members of the family are influenced by a society and it partly forms their outlook. In contrast, the family makes some adjustments to this outlook and later an individual express it in society. That is what we call “a point of view”. The same situation can be observed in the conflict theory, when a person has an outlook formed by a society, but which is different from the outlook of other family members. The differences in it lead to controversies which are shown in the conflict theory.

The third criterion is a background of the actions. If the interactionism accent on the ability of persons to interpret symbols in their actions, the functionalism put forward the idea that social structures determine actions.

As for the feminism, it should be said that it denied the functionist theory. According to some data, women dislike some aspects of housework while many men enjoy it and vice-versa. In Parson’s theory, everything is in another way: National data show that men and women have almost the same quantity of leisure time but women still need to do some housework, care about the children etc.


This research shows that social institutions changes within the society and the family is not an exception. The views on the structure of the family, its inner interaction and the impact of society on the family as sociological institution undergo the significant changes every decade.

Analysis of the theories in the research shows, in general terms, what the family is, which structure it has, what role each member of the family plays. Moreover, it shows what a powerful institution the family is, and it underlines that the family is still considered as an integral part of any society.

The results of this research are aimed to explain the differences in every family. Some theories, as, for example, the conflict theory, help overcome the problems that the members of the family have and help bring them to some consensus.

Unfortunately, it is impossible to find a single theory that will explain every aspect of family life. Traditions, mentality and individualization of every family make families too different; therefore, it is difficult to explain the family with just one theory. Still, as the development shows, in ten or more years, new family theories can appear and they may be much more useful than all the theories together which we currently have.

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