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Theoretical Approaches to Family

Theoretical Approaches to Family

Author: Paul Hannan

Differentiate between the four theoretical approaches approaches to family.

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Source: Intro Music by Mark Hannan; Public Domain, Images from, Public Domain

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[MUSIC PLAYING] Welcome to this episode of Sociology, Studies of Society. Today's lesson is on theoretical approaches to family. As always, don't be afraid to pause, stop, rewind, or even fast forward to make sure you get the most out of this tutorial.


So today, we're looking at theoretical approaches to the family. And we're just going to be looking at four different approaches. So the first one is a structural-functional approach to the family. Now again, as a reminder, the structural-function approach sees society as this really complex machine. And there are these different structures. In these structures are different functions. And these functions all work together to make sure that society works, that society runs.

So then, how does the family work? Well, the family is seen as an important structure that has four major functions to society. So the first one is socialization. So family really acts as an agent for socialization.

It helps communicate to children what their roles in society is going to be like. What does society need from them? What do they need to do to be successful in society?

Now, family also is really good at communicating identity and social status to members of a family. As a father, your identity as a blue worker-- as a blue collar worker, as a white collar worker, as a professor, as a doctor, whatever it happens to be, that identity and that social status, you're going to communicate that to your children. And they're going to pick that up and make that part of their own.

The family also is important as a function of society because it allows for security. I like to break it down into economic and emotional security because really, a family does both. Family allows for you to get close to people, to have intimacy. And so you can emotionally feel safe going out and venturing in the world.

It also allows for some economic security. As a child, how would you provide your food for yourself if you didn't have a family to do it? Especially in our modern society, many adults enter the 30s even need the economic security of parents who are supplying resources for them.

Now, the last function of the family is that it can help keep reproductive and sexual functions safe. The best example of this is incest. Because of the way we view the family unit, we don't have sex with people that are closely related to us.

And there are some biological consequences if we were to do that. That would be that we'd have deformed children. Our DNA would be too close. And we'd more likely to have genetic defects. Well, the family really helps us understand this way of viewing relationships and knowing that we need to go outside of our close family to find a partner.

Now, a different approach that we're going to look at next here is the social-conflict approach of the family. So again, this approach sees society as this place that's all about battling for resources. And there's all these different inequalities in society. And there are different structures that are set up to help and hinder different parts that are vying for resources.

This social-conflict approach of the family really sees family as something that perpetuates inequalities. Especially it's really easy-- I think the best example is gender roles. So it sees the family as a way to keep the power in the hands of males and out of the hands of females.

Another way that the family can play into this role of the social-conflict approach is that it can really keep racial division active. So if a family-- if in your marriages, you're being indirectly forced by society to marry people who are racially similar to you, well, that's keeping the races apart. And that is a way to help keep the whites in power, and the minorities out of power.

Now, the third approach we're going to look at is the social-exchange approach to the family. Now, we haven't really talked about this in my class. But the social-exchange theory is just an idea that everything in life happens because of trade.

You can see all interactions through humans being a trade between two people, an equal trade. And this is a micro level orientation. So it's really looking at the narrow details of something, rather than those two first ones that are looking at society in a really broad sense.

And so family is viewed as negotiation. And it's based on equal trade. I have three different bullet points that are ways that this approach really likes to look at relationships and family.

First one there is courtship. So the act of courtship, of dating, you are kind of testing the waters to see who you could trade your resources with. And this day, it maybe not even economical resources, but your resources as someone who is smart or caring or beautiful. And you want to find someone who you can trade with that's going to be an equal trade, maybe someone who is equally beautiful to you, or someone who's more beautiful than you, but you bring other things to this relationship, or the other way around.

That's part of the social-exchange approach. And it can reach many different ways. It can go beyond just courtship. So inside the actual marriage, is there some equal trade going on for wealth and who has the responsibilities of raising a family?

And now, the last approach we're looking at is the symbolic-interaction approach to the family. And again, this approach really focuses on these many different social interactions as what really causes society to work. And it's really concerned about how things get constructed out of those many interactions.

So there are so many different things that this approach could look at. But all of them are really looking at how family life occurs for the individual and how this life is really defined and shaped by-- for individuals. Sorry, how family life is the one doing the shaping of individuals.

Well, actually, it could go the other way, too, how the individuals are shaping family because again, it's looking at those many different interactions. So a couple of different sub-points there, so symbolic-interaction approach, again, has many different things you could look at. Some of the things that they like to look at, though, is they look at maybe the idea that families are a social group. So are the way that you interact in a family, is that similar or different to other ways that social groups interact?

Also, they see families as a place where people really learn roles. And kind of with that, it's what does it mean to be a sister? What does it mean to be a father? Symbolic-interaction approach is really trying to figure out how they construct this meaning of what it means to be those different roles.

So today's takeaway message, the structural-function approach to the family really has four different functions for the family. And that's socialization, identity, security, and sexual functions. The social-conflict approach sees the family as something that is perpetuating inequalities. The social-exchange approach sees family as a way-- as a place where negotiations happen for equal trade. And then symbolic-interaction approach sees family life and how it happens for individuals and how family members really define and make meaning for themselves as individuals.

Well, that's it for this lesson. Good work, and hopefully, you'll be seeing me on your screen again soon. Peace.

Terms to Know
Social Conflict Approach to Family

Conflict theories of families emphasize the family as an instrument for the consolidation and transfer of wealth and argue that patriarchy subjugates women within families.

Social Exchange Approach to Family

Social Exchange theorists base their understanding of families on cost benefit analysis, where people seek to maximize benefits and minimize costs. This same cost benefit calculus is brought to bear on partner selection and family and relationship dynamics.

Structural-Functional Approach to Family

Structural-Functional theories of families emphasize how families operate as institutions and relate to other institutions in society. In particular, they emphasize what the important functions of the family are for the maintenance of society.

Symbolic-Interactionist Approach to Family

Symbolic-interactionists assume that families create meaning for their members, and that family identities emerge from the combination of personality and social roles within families.