Parsons Family - history and 'fit'

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Parsons Family - history and 'fit'

Functionalist theory asserts that there will be a specific pattern of family organisation corresponding to different types of society. Hence there is a particular family form that best suits the conditions of industrial society.

Parsons rejects the thesis of the declining function of the family in industrial society and asserts:

  1. That the family is subject to the basic principle of structural differentiation brought about by industrialisation.
  2. Changes in the form of the family are adaptations to new conditions.

'The family is now a more specialised agency than before.' (Parsons and Bales, 1956).

Structural differentiation leads to:

1. The isolation of the nuclear family from an organised extended kinship network. The nuclear family becomes self-contained and no longer dependent on material or emotional support from the parents of either spouse or from other kin.

(Does this sound right? Think of weddings, funerals, Birthdays, Christmas, inheritance).


2. The family becomes organised around a willing consensus based on the provision of expressive support for the husband and children, and the husbands instrumental participation in the outside world.

(Maybe, once upon a time in middle class households and strong ideology, but now?)

3. Isolation is a product of the dominant values of an industrial culture; material efficiency, prosperity, occupational careers and personal achievement.

(The dominance of capitalist ideology and increasing tendency to consider people as individuals rather than as members of social groups).

The result is a universalistically orientated society. (All judged by the same criteria). In addition, the nuclear family form is seen as assisting the social and geographical mobility seen as necessary for occupational success, so the family becomes self-reliant and self-contained.

Parsons argues that isolated nuclear families best 'fit' industrial societies because:

1. They encourage occupationally induced geographic mobility. This is assumed to be a characteristic of industrial society. But is it true that:

a) Industrial economies can only function if there is considerable movement between jobs. (Consider; is this a requirement of industrialisation or of capitalism?)

b) It involves geographic mobility?

c) That fathers and sons are working at the same time?

d) That the wife does not work so demands do not conflict with the male.

Much of the above would only apply to particular stages in family life. Mobility tends to be related to skill levels, women do work, parents do still help adult children, adults to care for elderly parents. There is a great division of labour so members of the same family are unlikely to have similar jobs.

2. Conflict of values-the idea that work values do not disrupt the family. Conflict is overcome by restricting the economic role to one person.

  1. The attempt to show the necessity of existing arrangements is not empirically grounded (it is armchair theorising). This is simply a belief about what is 'good' dressed up as sociology. It is also clearly biased towards the supposedly 'typical' USA m/c family.
  2. Do we have to accept the inevitable association between industrial production and the values of economic individualism? Historically it has been true, but its necessity does not logically follow from this.
  3. The sexual division of labour described by Parsons has been criticised.
  4. The assumptions made about industrial society.

Are such societies based on universalistic/achievement orientated cultures? (In effect, are such societies meritocratic?)

Do they require high rates of social mobility?

The weakness in Parsons theory is in its representation of industrial society. (And possibly even weaker when we consider post-industrial societies). There is no serious historical dimension to Parsons work. He merely compares the features of the nuclear family with the requirements of industrial production and argues that they fit and that the extended family does not.

As a result, he is unable to discuss the differing ways the family was affected by different stages of industrialisation and differing stages in the nuclear family life-cycle.

  1. Historical: Historical research reveals that the association of extended families with pre-industrial societies and nuclear families with industrial societies is simply mistaken. It is not an accurate picture of either the past or the present.
  2. Contemporary: Willmott and Young (1957), Rosser and Harris (1965), Bell (1968) all provide examples of extended family networks in 20th century Britain. Sussman (1965), in a review of the then available literature, argues that the thesis of family units being isolated must be rejected. In particular, he showed that aid and assistance, particularly financial, still flows from parents to children.
  3. Sussman argues that extended family networks occur widely in industrial societies.

    Although there is a general agreement that there is some form of relationship between the form a family takes and the society in which it exists, there is a great deal of disagreement over the precise form of this relationship.

    In Britain today, there are several different types of family. Even if it was the case that the nuclear family 'fits' the needs of industrial society, are such families a result of such needs, or a pre-requisite for the creation of industrial societies?

    Is the nuclear family a result (effect) of industrialisation, or an enabler of industrialisation (cause)?

    It can't be both!

    Overall, it is not at all clear whether or not industrialisation has lead to the dominance of the isolated nuclear family as the perceived 'ideal' family form.

    1. The family has functions to carry out for society and individuals, these are divided into 'essential' and 'non-essential'.
    2. For society, the main function is pattern maintenance. For individuals, it is the stabilisation of the adult personality and the socialisation of children.
    3. The family is viewed in evolutionary terms, evolution occurs via differentiation.
    4. That the family form 'fits' industrial society.
    5. That the family is a 'natural' institution founded on biological attributes.
    6. That the family has an instrumental and an affective leader.
    7. That the nuclear family with two parents and dependent children living together in a home in relative isolation is 'the' family form in western societies.


    1. Any institution will have dysfunctional aspects.
    2. The categories essential and non-essential do not apply to all families.
    3. The historical account is flawed.
    4. The contemporary family has diverse forms.
    5. Gender roles are not simply biological.
    6. The socialisation of children involves negotiation.
    7. The picture is static.
    8. The isolation of families is exaggerated.
    9. The family remains the prime institution involved in the transmission of privilege.

    Finally: The family described by contemporary functionalists is very much a description of the sort of families they might have been brought up within and formed themselves. This is the idealised family of the Victorian middle class, it is a conglomeration of white, middle class, male, western values and experiences. It is just a reminiscence and justification rather than a sociological investigation.