Is the (nuclear) ‘family’ losing its functions?

I think it was the SCLY1 Family & Households exam of summer 2010 that had as an essay question, the notion that the ‘family’ was losing its functions.  This was a question that threw many of the candidates’ papers that I marked in my role as an examiner.  The response required the student to take the nuclear family with its key functions as outlined by Durkheim (sexual, reproductive, socialisation, economic) & Parsons (primary socialisation, stabilisation of adult personalities plus warm bath theory) and, discuss that on the one hand the family was losing its functions (due to the decline in the nuclear family) versus no it wasn’t – that it (family type) could still fulfill these functions but in an alternative way or at least, supported way. stick-family

One of the key elements that came through only a few of the papers I marked, was the notion that the welfare state and other social institutions played a pivotal role as a ‘substitute family‘; many functions the family used to perform (see my video on Parsons’ Fit Thesis’) have now been taken over by our welfare state (anyone else hear Charles Murray groan?).  Remember pre-industrialisation? – the family performed many educational & caring roles!

For example, single parents can perform the economic role through benefit payments and primary socialisation of children can be performed by pre-school / nursery.

So on the one hand, from a functionalist and New Right point of view, yes the ‘family’ is losing its functions because of their primary concern / focus with the nuclear family.  However the evaluation is that the ‘family’ isn’t necessarily losing its functions because in whatever format the ‘family’ is found, with external support the key functions Durkheim and Parsons stress, are still performable.

Anyway, a article in The Daily Telegraph 19/5/12 Family Ties stronger than welfare state (p13) has put all our minds at rest.  Research has concluded that our welfare system cannot replace the family.  It claims that there are suggestions that a welfare state as strong as ours in Britain could reduce the role of parents; researchers found this isn’t the case!

What they found was that “parents are important in households, regardless of the strength of the welfare state“. The more actively they engaged their child within a stimulating environment (see material & cultural deprivation) the less likely the child was to be a screw up.

Here’s the bit to really get your New Right juices flowing…

“…in Britain, families with a single mother…were at higher risk of having a child with behavioural problems”

Cue feminists putting their fingers in their ears & singing “La la la la….”.


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