Murdock conducted a survey of 250 societies and determined that there are four universal residual functions of the family: sexual, reproductive, educational, and economic (Lee, 1985)
Sociologists study families on both the macro- and micro-level to determine how families function. Sociologists may use a variety of theoretical perspectives to explain events that occur within and outside of the family. In this Introduction to Sociology, we have been focusing on three perspectives: structural functionalism, critical sociology, and symbolic interactionism.
When considering the role of family in society, functionalists uphold the notion that families are an important social institution and that they play a key role in stabilizing society. They also note that family members take on status roles in a ily – and its members – perform certain functions that facilitate the prosperity and development of society.
Anthropologist George Murdock defined the family narrowly as “a social group characterized by common residence, economic cooperation, and reproduction,” which “includes adults of both sexes, at least two of whom maintain a socially approved sexual relationship, and one or more children” (Murdock, 1949). In each society, although the structure of the family varies, the family performs these four functions.
He does not deny the existence or impact of preily offers a socially legitimate sexual outlet for adults (Lee, 1985). Although societies differ greatly to the degree that that they place limitations on sexual behaviour, all societies have norms governing sexual behavior. The function of the family is to establish the stated norms around sexual gratification.
This outlet for legitimate sexual relations gives way to reproduction, which is a necessary part of ensuring the survival of society. Each society needs to replace the older people with new generations of young people. Again, the institution of the family provides a socially legitimate and regulated form in which children are produced and given recognized status in society. Societies which practice celibacy, like the religious community of the Shakers – an offshoot of the Quakers who believed in the second appearance of Jesus Christ – were dysfunctional in this regard as they were unable to maintain sufficient population to remain viable. By the 1920s there were only 12 Shaker communities left in the United States.
Once children are produced, the family plays a vital role in training them for adult life. As the priily teaches young children the ways of thinking and behaving that follow social and cultural norms, values, beliefs, and attitudes. Parents teach their children manners and civility. A well-mannered child (presumably) reflects a well-mannered parent. In most societies, the family unit is responsible for establishing the emotional security and sense of personal self-worth of its members, which begins in childhood. When families fail to do this they are seen as dysfunctional.
Parents also teach children gender roles. Gender roles are an important part of the economic function of a family. The functionalist Talcott Parsons (1943) emphasized that in each family, there is a division of labour that consists of instrumental and expressive roles. Men tend to assume the instrumental roles in the family, which typically involve work outside of the family that provides financial support and establishes family status. Women tend to assume the expressive roles, which typically involve work inside of the family, which provides emotional support and physical care for children (Crano and Aronoff, 1978). According to functionalists, the differentiation of the roles on the basis of sex ensures that families are well-balanced and coordinated. Each family member is seen as performing a specific role and function to maintain the functioning of the family as a whole. Each family member has a socially recognized role that reduces internal competition for status within the family, and ambiguity about the status of the family in the external community.