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Theoretical Approaches to Family

Theoretical Approaches to Family

Author: Zach Lamb

This lesson will analyze, compare and contrast the structural-functional approach to family, symbolic-interactionist approach to family, the social-conflict approach to family, and the social-exchange approach to family.

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Source: Intro Music by Mark Hannan; Public Domain

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[MUSIC PLAYING] Hello. Welcome to sociological studies. Thank you for joining me.

We've got a lot to cover in this lesson. We're going to look at the broad theoretical approaches in sociology-- structural functionalism, social conflict approach, symbolic interactionism, and social exchange approach. And we're going to look at each of these four theoretical approaches and how they theorize the family, what they have to say about the family in society. So this'll be a four-part tutorial looking at each of these theoretical perspectives take on a family in tern.

So let's move right now right away to the structural functional theorization of the family. Structural functional theory asks us to think about what important functions the family provides for society as a whole. This perspective looks at the family as an institution that has social functions, just like the government is an institution that has social functions.

Remember, then, that structural functional theory is all about stability, harmony, and what is going to make the complex machinery of society work together to function stably. So this perspective will theorize the family as an institution within that system in that complex machine and will look at what roles does the family do, what functions does the family have in the broader social system to make the whole thing tick? So now let's look at those functions independently.

I have on the board behind me here four functions of the family, four social functions that the family provides for society as a whole. The first is that the family is the important seat of socialization. The family is the first and foremost site of socialization.

So if all goes right, parents help their children grow into functioning adult members of society. And they learn how to be members of society in the family. So socialization is a very important aspect function of family.

Along with that, we have the assignment of various roles and statuses. For instance, the family is a place where children learn they are good at x or they like to do y. And they also learn how to be a brother or to be a sister, to be a son, daughter, and even, later, how to be a parent themselves. The family is hugely influential, then, and important for assigning social roles.

Third, families are good for society because they ensure economic consumption. When families group together as household and form economic units, think about how much more a family is going to consume, is going to purchase, going to contribute to the economy than just a solo dweller. On average, the average family unit is going to consume much more than the average solo dweller. So in this regard, families are very good for the economy.

And fourth, emotion. Families provide emotional support and care, and stability. They're a bastion of stability in a chaotic world, ideally. Families, in addition to friends, give us people to share our lives with and to confide in. And many social scientists have found that people in families are happier, healthier, and wealthier than those who are not in families.

So these are obviously very great things for society-- you want happy, healthy, wealthy people. So in this regard, families provide a support function for society.

Next, let's turn to look at the social conflict approach and how that body of theory understands the family. Well, rather than seeing the positive functions of the family in society, like the structural functional approach does, it looks at all the things that family does to help maintain society. The social conflict approach is going to turn now to the negative aspects of the family, such as the family perpetuates social inequality in society.

Critically, the family, this prospective maintains, is an instrument for the consolidation of wealth and property. The family enables wealth to be handed down to children, and children to children, and on and on. So you're born into wealth or you're born into poverty, or you're born somewhere in between. And you're likely to stay that way, then, because wealth can be passed down or non-wealth can be passed down. As such, then, families reproduce the class structure of society through generations.

So here we're looking at a function of the family, just like the structural functional approach is looking at a function of the family, but we're concentrating on how the family, in fact, serves to consolidate wealth and pass that wealth on through generations, and, thereby, keep the class structure the same on and on, and on, through generations. So you're looking at a negative aspect of that function, a function of the family. But also, within a family, a social conflict theorist might look at how "patriarchy" or male dominance controls the family. And control of women by men transforms women into the economic and sexual property of men, at least historically. This is giving way to more gender equality and it's changing, but historically, women have been looked at as a property of husbands and men.

And what's important to note here is that both, the structural functional approach and the social conflict approach, are looking at society and the family's place within society from a broad, macro-level view of society, not a micro, narrow-focused view of society. They're looking at it from a broad perspective and theorizing how the family is an institution that works and functions in society as a whole.

Now, let's turn to the symbolic interaction theorization of the family. And this is done from a more micro-level approach, looking at just specific interactions and how these specific interactions through time give rise to meeting, to understandings of the family. So I have here a diagram of interactions. You have you somewhere in there and you have your sister, and your brother, your mom, and your dad. And you're consciously interacting through time to define this notion of "the Smiths."

We are the Smiths. What does it mean to be a part of this family? What does this family mean today? So looking at the family this way, families are groups of people who interact with each other over time. And it's concerned with meaning.

Remember, social interactionists are all about meaning derived through social interaction. So they're interested in the family as a side of meaning making, this process of negotiation. How families interact with each other over time to produce this reality of the Smiths, this understanding of the Smiths.

Are the Smiths close knit? Are they a loving family? Are they emotionally distant? Are they dysfunctional Are they abusive?

See, this understanding of the family is nothing but derived from these various interactions of the members within the family. So you see here, this is a really different way to theorize the family that we've been looking at with the structural functionalism approach and the social conflict theory. You'll notice that gone is the focus on the family as an institution, as a broad structure in society. And they're not concerned about the consequences of the family for social stability or for inequality.

They say, no, let's pull it down and look at meaning. How can we study the function of the family if we're not first clear on what the family means in a particular society, in a particular time. How does the family give rise to social roles? Status is an identity, et cetera, so symbolic interaction, then, is really looking at interaction giving rise to meaning, to understanding.

The final and also micro-level approach that we're going to look at to studying family, theorizing family, that is, is social exchange. And this theory really uses a market metaphor of cost and benefit analysis to theorize why people do things, why they developer relationships with another. In cost-benefit analysis, then, people want to maximize their benefits-- their utility, and satisfaction-- and minimize their costs that go along with the benefits.

So all sorts of action, then, has associated costs and benefits. And social relationships are really no different. We look at partners in terms of their costs and their benefits. So essentially, we "shop around" for a partner or a mate, whether we do this consciously or unconsciously.

You think about, OK, what do we get from this relationship? What do we get from this person? What are the benefits of this person? What are the costs of this person?

What do we give? What do we get? We're always thinking this way. And this prospective holds that we bring the same market mentality into our lives and relationships, into our romantic relationships, even.

I really like it because I know people think it's crazy. Like, what do you mean I love this person because I love this person, I don't really break them down in terms of costs and benefits. But this prospective argues that, yeah, in fact, you do. You look at the choice of a marriage in terms of this cost-benefit analysis. And then, once you decide that your benefits outweigh the costs and you go forward with the marriage, once the family unit is established, then, social exchange theorists hold that give and take happens within the family.

Exchange is always going on. If I do this, you do that. A balance of costs and benefits, then, costs equals benefits, that is driven for in a relationship. When you feel like you have a relationship that the costs outweigh the benefits, you might want to end that relationship. So social exchange is really looking at the micro focus of cost-benefit exchange happening between two people in a relationship or in a family broadly.

Well, I hope you enjoyed this theoretical lesson on families. We looked at four different ways to theorize family, two from a macro level and two from a micro level. Have a great rest of your day.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.