Sex roles in Parsons Family

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Talcott Parsons wrote the agenda for almost all the earlier post-war sociologies of the family. It is hard to find a text book on the family which does not, at some stage, give a list of the functions of the family. Consequently, an outline of Parsons' ideas concerning the family is a useful starting point for understanding the sociology of the family.

You are not expected to agree with Parsons, but if you disagree make sure you can explain why you disagree.

Parsons argued that:

  • Societies evolve as the result of functional adaptations to the problems presented by inter-relationships between (and within) systems that make up the social totality. (Functional adaptations sounds very similar to Max's idea of the dialectic - that there is something in a society that 'causes' change).
  • History is an evolutionary process of adaptation to problems. (Again, Marx's approach is evolutionary in character).
  • Social systems have the characteristics they do because they are functional for their existence.
  • Their existence is a testament to their necessity.

There is, however, a problem with the Parsons family. It is: North American, white and middle class (Morgan 1975). It is an isolated nuclear family in which the key reference is the marital relationship of husband and wife. Some families may fit this description, though many will not.

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The most important function performed by Parsons family is the stabilisation of the adult personality and the socialisation of children. This takes place through a four fold role model that constitutes the structure of the family.

Parsons argues that there are certain universal social prerequisites of 'normal' personality development, particularly those related to the existence of sexuality in infants and the sexual attributes of parents. Since these are universal and inescapable, the groups in which personality formation takes place, which is usually the family, will have to be organised on primarily ascriptive lines - that is, in terms of 'natural' attributes that an individual cannot control.

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The two axes derive from 'Bales' work with small groups in experimental settings who when faced with tasks responded by differentiating roles along instrumental/expressive lines. The axes are argued to represent fundamental human group responses to problems.

Clearly, socialization is seen to be intimately connected to sex role differentiation.Thus, the basis for sex role differentiation is biology.

Parsons ideas on sex roles within the family derive from three different research traditions:

Psychoanalytic theory - evidence provided by Freud and his followers.

Experimental work - Bales (as above).

Cross-cultural survey data - Zelditch (based on Murdock's Area File material).


Parsons recognised how important psychoanalysis is for sociology, particularly with reference to socialization, role conformity and gender. However, he does not seem to question the assumption of orthodox psychoanalysis that there is a universal process of personality formation that overrides the diversity of cultures.

The implication of Parsons approach is that since an individuals biological sex is fixed, certain aspects of mothering and the social integration of male and female personality will be universal and inevitable (natural).

Experimental research

In his study of leadership roles, Bales claimed to have shown that groups develop two kinds of leadership (Parsons and Bales 1951).

One leader is concerned with the accomplishment of group tasks, notably those concerned with adaptation to external, physical and social conditions (obtaining food, shelter, clothing). These, he termed instrumental.

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A second, usually less dominant leader, is concerned with expressive problems. These problems are internal in nature and concern the maintenance of warmth in group relations (emotional concerns).

Parsons' use of these findings depends on the assumption that what happens in experimental groups is directly transferable to the dynamics of real groups; including the family. The link to Freudian theory is that the ties of infantile attraction to the mother clearly belong within the expressive role.

The implication is that it is the female adult in a nuclear family who will become accommodated to expressive behaviours. The male takes the dominant role of instrumental leader. (Is it likely that either men or women are just expressive or just instrumental?)


In his cross-cultural study, Zelditch claimed that in 46 out of a final sample of 56 societies differentiation of expressive and instrumental family roles occurs between the sexes in the 'expected' direction.

While not specifically stating that the model of the family and of sex roles he constructs accords to the family in general, there seems to be little doubt that Parsons has taken an idealised version of the middle class US family and treated it as if it contained all that is essential to family life throughout the world.

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Parsons assumes that living in families does not just socialize children, but also adults. Yet the majority of adults do not live in this fashion at any given time.

What happens to these adults?

It is not clear if Parsons thinks the instrumental/expressive division is based on equality - he implies that they are different but equal, but he also recognises that family responsibilities place severe limitations on women's career choices.

To sum up, for Parsons, the modern family is seen as perfectly suited to the task of socialisation in a modern industrial society where individualistic achievement orientations are required. The small size of the family and the links to the wider world through the father's occupation, ensure the propulsion of the child out of the family of procreation and into its own conjugal family.

There are many writers working within the functionalist tradition, each with their own list of important functions. You could look at the work of Murdock, Coser, Bell and Vogel and Goode.

1. Where is the sociology?

These types of account lean heavily on biological explanations. The differentiation of sex roles is based on biological data - the ownership of particular genitals.

Yet there is no logical reason why particular sex role characteristics should be tied to particular genital arrangements, or indeed why we should differentiate upon the basis of genitals at all!

Some societies contain three sexes, some the possibility of moving in and out of a sex role, some hardly distinguish between the sexes at all and some bring up their children to be the sex of the parents choosing irrespective of the child's genital arrangement (Kessler and McKenna 1978). However, that said, we also need to be awareof the claims made by sociobiology.

2. The narrowness of the terms of reference of the nuclear family to which Parsons refers. It seems to exclude, even in the USA, working class families, large families, single parent families, childless families and families with single sex siblings (Kessler and McKenna 1978). Parsons agreed that the above, together with upper class families and rural families, are exceptions. This leaves us with very little left!

3. The four fold structure of the family:

a) Derived from experimental studies using single sex, same age, temporary groups the family is none of these things, are the results transferable?

b) Is the sex role heuristically or empirically valid?

Is it not possible the men/women move in and out of both roles, that they are neither fixed or sex specific?

c) The placing of man and woman on the same axis of leadership cannot tell us anything about power relations between couples.

4. There is little interaction in Parsons account. The child just gets socialised, there is no hint of conflict or struggle.

5. Slater (1974) argued that childhood disturbance is far more likely to occur when the allocation of family tasks among adults is strictly segregated into expressive/instrumental roles.

6. Brown and Harris (1978)

7. There is also reason to question the automatic association of women with motherhood. The maternal deprivation thesis of Bowlby (1965) suggested that it is essential for the mental health of an infant and young child to experience a warm, intimate and continuous relationship with the mother (or permanent mother substitute).

Subsequent work supports the idea that it is lack of one or more close bonds, rather than maternal deprivation as such, which is a crucial factor in disturbance.

One authoritative review concludes:

"In most families, the mother has most to do with the young child and as a consequence, she is usually the person with whom the closest bond is formed. But it should be appreciated that the chief bond need not be with a biological parent, it need not be with the chief caretaker and it need not be with a female." (Rutter 1972).

So, it would seem that human beings are able to adapt to a wide range of family situations. The implication for Parsons theory is that it cannot be correct. We need to ask, if it is not 'natural' then why do we have the family forms that we do?

8. Cross-cultural evidence: The problem with such evidence is that it can inform as to variety or uniformity but does not explain why such patterns exist. It is descriptive rather than explanatory. Therefore, differing researchers can look at the same evidence and reach different conclusions to functionalist accounts. This is what some varieties of feminism have done.

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