Family | Sociology for CUET by Vikash Ranjan | Sociology Guru


(Relevant for Sociology optional for UPSC CSE)
Paper-1 ,Unit-9 : Family


  • The early and classical definition emphasized that the family was a group based on marriage, common residence, emotional bonds, and stipulation of domestic services. The family has also been defined as a group based on marital relations, rights and duties of parenthood, common habitation and reciprocal relations between parents and children. Some sociologists feel that the family is a social group characterized by common residence, economic cooperation and reproduction.

Some Popular Definitions:

The family has been seen as a universal social institution an inevitable part of human society. According to Burgess and Lock the family is a group of persons united by ties of marriage, blood or adoption constituting a single household interacting with each other in their respective social role of husband and wife, mother and father, brother and sister creating a common culture. G.P Murdock defines the family as a social group characterized by common residence, economic cooperation and reproduction. It includes adults of both sexes at least two of whom maintain a socially approved sexual relationship and one or more children own or adopted of the sexually co-habiting adults.

Nimkoff says that family is a more or less durable association of husband and wife with or without child or of a man or woman alone with children. According to Maclver family is a group defined by sex relationships sufficiently precise and enduring to provide for the procreation and upbringing of children.Kingsley Davis describes family as a group of persons whose relations to one another are based upon consanguinity and who are therefore kin to one another. Malinowski opined that the family is the institution within which the cultural traditions of a society is handed over to a newer generation. This indispensable function could not be filled unless the relations to parents and children were relations reciprocally of authority and respect. According to Talcott Parsons families are factories which produce human personalities.

  • On the basis of above mentioned definitions of family, it seems that the family is a primary kinship unit which carries out aspects of the sexual, reproductive, economic and educational functions. We generally picture a family as a durable association of husband and wife with or without children, or a durable association of man or woman along with children. Thus, members in the family live together, pool their resources and work together and produce offspring. A family is also viewed as an adult male and female living together with any offspring in a more or less permanent relationship such as marriage which is approved by their society.
  • Concluding we can say that:
    1. It involves a sexual relationship between adults of opposite sexes;
    2. it involves their cohabitation or living together;
    3. it involves at least the expectation of relative permanence of the relationship between them;
    4. Most important of all, the relationship is culturally defined and socially sanctioned. Marriage and the family are not just something people become involved in on their own. Some of the ways in which they must relate to each other are decided for them by their society. It is a well known and recognized fact that marriage is the basis for the family. Marriage is recognized as a special kind of relationship since it is the one in which families are created and perpetuated, and the family is the ultimate basis of human society.

Main characteristics of family:

  1. Universality: There is no human society in which some form of the family does not appear. Malinowski writes the typical family a group consisting of mother, father and their progeny is found in all communities, savage, barbarians and civilized. The irresistible sex need, the urge for reproduction and the common economic needs have contributed to this universality.
  2. Emotional basis: The family is grounded in emotions and sentiments. It is based on our impulses of mating, procreation, maternal devotion, fraternal love and parental care. It is built upon sentiments of love, affection, sympathy, cooperation and friendship.
  3. Limited size: The family is smaller in size. As a primary group its size is necessarily limited. It is a smallest social unit.
  4. Formative influence: The family welds an environment which surrounds trains and educates the child. It shapes the personality and moulds the character of its members. It emotionally conditions the child.
  5. Nuclear position in the social structure: The family is the nucleus of all other social organizations. The whole social structure is built of family units.
  6. Responsibility of the members: The members of the family have certain responsibilities, duties and obligations. MacIver points out that in times of crisis men may work and fight and die for their country but they toil for their families all their lives.
  7. Social regulation: The family is guarded both by social taboos and by legal regulations. The society takes precaution to safeguard this organization from any possible breakdown.

Functionalist Perspective:

The functionalist perspective sees society as a set of social institutions that perform specific functions to ensure continuity and consensus. According to this perspective, the family performs important tasks that contribute to society’s basic needs and helps to perpetuate social order.

The family in any society is an institutional structure which develops through a society’s efforts to get certain tasks done.


G. P. Murdock identified four functions of family. These universal functions he term as – Sexual, Reproductive, Economic and Educational.

  1. The sexual function of the family refers to the regulation of the sexual behaviour of its members. While husband and wife have right of sexual gratification but the threat to social order due to free play of sexual derive is checked.
  2. Reproductive function refers to the process of procreation whereby new members of the society are recruited. This ensures the survival of the society and children born to the married spouses to not suffer from the stigma of illegitimacy.
  3. Economic production or the extended family involves both production as well as consumption. The property is jointly owned by all members of the family and the relationship between kinsmen at the same time is of employee-employer relationship. The head of the family exercised the final authority in various economic matters.
  4. The educational function of the extended family involves both primary socialization as well as secondary socialization though both take place in an informal setting. In primary socialization, the elder members of the family transmit the basic elements of culture of the new members; acquire the craft and skills for participating in economic production from their elders.

It could be seen, in traditional Indian Varna system, where the life was divided into four Astramas and its activities were divided in the form of four Purusharthas namely Dharma Artha ,Kama and Moksh. In Grihstha Ashram Kama and Artha play important roles. Kama connotes gratification of sexual needs and procreation of children, where join as the function of Artha was the management of livelihood for the family. Dharma, as a function was engaged in the socialization of children. In this way, Murdock’s classification can be corroborated or exemplified.


MacIver has talked about two functions of family – essential and non-essential.

Essential Function:
  1. Gratification of sexual needs –
  2. Procreation & rearing of children
  3. Arrangement of a house-to complete bond between family members.
Non essential Functions:
  1. Economic functions – MacIver has assumed joint family as a ‘unit of production’ because all the essential consumption commodities are produced & prepared at home by family members, that is, they do not depend on others for such commodities. Similarly nuclear family is considered as a ‘unit of consumption’.
  2. Religious function
  3. Educational function
  4. Health related function
  5. Recreational function

Talcott parsons:

  1. Talcott parsons working in the functionalist tradition have regarded the nuclear family as fulfilling certain specialized roles in modern societies. With the advent of industrialization, the family became less important as a unit of economic production and more focused on reproduction, child-rearing and socialization.
  2. According to the American sociologist Talcott parsons, the family’s two main functions are primary socialization and personality stabilization. Primary socialization is the process by which children learn the cultural norms of the society into which they are born. Because this happens during the early years of childhood, the family is the most important arena for the development of the human personality. Personality stabilization refers to the role that the family is the most important arena for the development of the human personality. Personality stabilization refers to the role that family plays in assisting adult family members emotionally. Marriage between adult men and women is the arrangement through which adult personalities are supported and kept healthy. In industrial society the role of the family in stabilizing adult personalities is said to be critical. This is because the nuclear family is often distanced from its extended kin and is unable to draw on larger kinship ties as families could do before industrialization.
  3. Parsons regarded the nuclear family as the unit best equipped the handle the demands of industrial society. In the family, one adult can work outside the home while the second adult cares for the home and children. In practical terms, this specialization of roles within the nuclear family involved the husband adopting the instrumental role as breadwinner, and the wife assuming the affective, emotional role in domestic setting.


  1. In our present age, parson’s view of the family comes across as inadequate and outdate. Functionalist theories of the family have come under heavy criticism for justifying the domestic division of labour between men and women as something natural and unproblematic. Yet viewed in their own historical context, the theories are somewhat more understandable. The immediate post-war years saw women returning to their traditional domestic roles and men reassuming positions as sole breadwinners, we can criticize functionalist views of the family on other grounds, however.
  2. In emphasizing the importance of the family in performing certain functions, theorists neglect the role that other social institutions, such as government, media and schools, play in socializing children.
  3. The theories also neglect variations in family forms that do not correspond to the model of the nuclear family. Families that did not conform to the white, suburban, middle – class- ideal were seen as deviant.

Marxist Perspective:

Marxists (Engels & Katleen Gough): One more perspective is that of the Marxists.. according to angels, family change as per the change in the mode of production. when modes of the productions were communally owned, there was no family and promiscuity prevailed

  1. Katleen Gough supports this view. She notes that man’s nearest relatives, the chimpanzees live in promiscuous herders and this may have been the pattern of early man. According to Engels each successive stage of change or production placed a greater restriction on the numbers of females that an individual could possessThe monogamous nuclear family developed with the emergence of private property and to enforce the rule of monogamous marriage.
  2. Vogel and Bell have presented a dysfunctional explanation based on finding of an extensive study of American families containing an emotionally disturbed child. They argued that often the tension and hostility of unresolved conflict between parents are projects on the child. The child is thus used as emotional scapegoat by the parents to relive their tension. Scapegoating the child served as a personality stabilizing process for the parents and keeps the family united. But the cost of such unity is paid by child.
  3. Edmund Leach : He has concentrated on the kin and wider community. Today the domestic household is isolated, the family look inward upon itself; there is an intensification of emotional stress between husband and wife and parents and children. This strain is greater than most can bear. Thrown back almost entirely on its resources, the nuclear family becomes like an over loaded electrical circuit. The demand upon it is too great and fuse blows. In Leach’s words the parents and children huddled together in their loneliness, take too much of out of each other. This strain is greater than most can bear. The parent is fight, the children rebel.”
  4. R.D. Laing:. He referred to family group as a nexus. He argued that highest concern of the nexus is reciprocal concern. Each partner is concerned about what others think feels and do. Within the nexus, there is the constant unremitting demand for mutual concern and attention. As a result there is a considerable potential for harm, family members are in an extremely vulnerable position. Thus, if a father is angry over his son, given the nature of nexus, son is concerned about his father’s opinion and cannot burst it off lightly. In self defence, he may run to his mother who offers protection. In this way, Laing argues, a family can act as a gangster protection, each other mutual protection against each other’s violence. According to Laing, family is the root of all problems in society. Some families live in perpetual anxiety of an external persecuting world. Moreover, the most dangerous feature of the family is the inculcation of obedience in the minds of sibling. Later in Life, they become officials, blindly and unquestionably following orders.
  5. David Cooper: He pronounced the death of the family. He too maintains that the child is destroyed by the family since he is primary taught how to submit to society for the sake of survival. Each child has the potential to be an artist, visionary and revolutionary, but this potential is crushed in the family. The children are taught to play the roles of son and daughter, male and female, such roles are construction.

In brief these three sociologists provide a balancer to the functionalist view of family

Feminist Perspective :

Feminism has had a great impact on sociology by challenging the vision of the family as a harmonious and egalitarian realm. If previously the sociology of the family had focused on family structures, the historical development of the nuclear and extended family and the importance of kinship ties, feminism succeeded in directing attention inside families to examine the experiences of women in the domestic sphere.

  1. Many feminist writers have questioned the vision that the family is a cooperative unit based on common interests and mutual support. They have sought to show that the presence of unequal power relationship within the family means that certain family members tend to benefit more than others.
  2. The view of Engels was further examined in 60s and 70s by several feminist writers. According to them family is seen as a unit which produced one of the basic commodities of the capitalism, that is labour. It is cheap for the capitalist because they do not have to pay for the production to children or their upkeep. The wife paid nothing for producing and rearing children.
  3. In the words of Margret Benson, “as an economic unit, the nuclear family is a variably stabilizing force in the capitalist society. Since the production which is alone in the factory, the wife at home is paid for by husband, father’s earning. Further family produces not only cheap labour but it also maintains it in good order at no cost to the employer. The women in her roles as the house-wife attend to her husbands needs. Thus, keeping him in good running order to perform his roles as wage labourers.
  4. Ian Ashley writes that the emotional support provided by the wife is a safety valve for frustration produced in the husband by working in a capitalist system. In her words; when every worker is provided with no space to search up possible revolutionary urge, the bosses rest more secure.
  5. Finally, it is argued that the social reproduction of the labour does not simply involve producing children and maintaining them in good health. It helps in reproduction of the attitudes essential for as obedient work force under capitalism.

Feminist writings have emphasized a broad spectrum of topics, but three main themes are of particular importance.

  1. One of the central concerns is the domestic division of labour, which is allocated between members of a household. There is reason to believe that a domestic division of labour existed prior to industrialization, but it seems clear that capitalist production brought about a much sharper distinction between the domestic and work realms. This process resulted in the crystallization of ‘male spheres’ and ‘female spheres’ and power relationships which are felt to this day. Until recently, the male breadwinner model has been widespread in most industrialized societies.
    • Feminist sociologists have undertaken studies on the way domestic tasks, such as childcare and housework, are shared between men and women. They have investigated the validity of claims such as that of the symmetrical family (Young and Wilmott) the belief that, over time, families are becoming more egalitarian in the distribution of roles and responsibilities. Finding have shown that women continue to bear the main responsibility for domestic tasks and enjoy less leisure time than men, despite the fact that more women are working in paid employment outside the home than ever before.
  2. Second, feminists have drawn attention to the unequal power relationships that exist within many families. One topic which has received increased attention as a result of this is the phenomenon of domestic violence. Wife battering, marital rape, incest and the sexual abuse of children have all received more public attention as a result of feminists’ claims that the violent and abusive sides of family life have long been ignored in both academic contexts and legal and policy circles.
  3. The study of caring activities is a third area where feminists have made important contributions. This is a broad realm which encompasses a variety of processes, from attending to a family member who is ill to looking after an elderly relative over a long period of time. Sometime caring means simply being attuned to someone else’s psychological wellbeing. Several feminist writers have been interested to know whether emotion work within relationships. Not only do women tend to shoulder concrete tasks such as cleaning and childcare, but they also invest large amounts personal relationships.

Post Modernist:

  1. A post modernistic view of the family is at the opposite ends of the scale to functionalism. Post modernists believe that in most societies there are diverse and multi-cultural types of families where members within these units are free to make their own life choices as to how, what and where they live, work and socialise within society. Post modernists also believe that everyone is entitled to the same opportunities in education, healthcare and family support as in their view, there are no class divisions (working and ruling classes), in most societies.
  2. Zietlin et al summarises this view of the world, The post modern world is shaped by pluralism, democracy, religious freedom, consumerism, mobility and increasing access to news and entertainment, (Zietlin class handout 2009. 92)
  3. Criticisms : Because of their views of equal opportunities and freedom of speech and choices they ignore the fact that some people can and do make wrong choices with regards to ignoring the norms and values which are passed down the generations which inevitably upsets the social control aspects in some societies.
  4. Postmodernist disagree with Marxists and Functionalists • They argue that, from the late 20th century, society began to move into a ‘postmodern’ phase – a fundamentally new type of society • The new postmodern society has 2 key features: Fragmentation of cultures and lifestyles • Individuals now have more choice and are freer to construct their identities and lifestyles as they wish • As a result society is now more a collection of different subcultures (e.g. different youth cultures, ethnic groups, consumption patterns), rather than the single shared culture described by functionalists.
  5. Rapid change • Rapid change has made life predictable and orderly • New technology and the media break down existing barriers of time and space, and transform work and leisure patterns • As a result ◊ the family has become less stable, but there is now more choice about intimate relationships and domestic arrangement • For example, individuals can choose to cohabit, get divorced, have children (own or adapted) outside marriage , come out as gay, live alone etc • The result of this greater choice is greater family diversity • This means it is no longer possible to generalise about family life in a way that modernist sociologists have done.

Contemporary perspective:

In the past decade an important body of sociological literature on the family has emerged which draws on feminist perspectives but is not strictly informed by them. Of primary concern are the larger transformations which are taking place in family forms-

  1. The formation and dissolution of families and households, and the evolving expectation within individual’s personal relationships.
  2. The rise in divorce and lone parenting,
  3. The emergence of reconstituted families and gay families, and
  4. The popularity of cohabitation.

are all subjects of concern. Yet these transformations cannot be understood apart from the larger changes occurring in our late modern age.

Anthony Giddiness: The Transformation of Intimacy

  1. Marriage in pre modern society was not generally based on sexual attraction or romantic love; instead, it was more often linked to the economic context in which to create a family or to enable to inheritance of property. For the peasantry, a life characterized by unremitting hard labour was unlikely to be conducive to sexual passion although opportunities for men to engage in extramarital liaisons were numerous.
  2. Romantic love, as distinct from the more or less universal compulsions of passionate love, developed in after eighteenth century. Despite its promise of an equal relationship based on mutual attraction, romantic love has in practice tended to lead to the dominance of men over women.
  3. For many men, the tensions between the respectability of romantic love and the compulsions of passionate love were dealt with by separating the “comfort of the wife and home” from “the sexuality of the mistress or girl friend or prostitute”. The double standard here was that a woman should remain a virgin until the right man arrives, whereas no such norm applied to the men.
  4. Giddens argue that the most recent phase of modernity has seen another transformation in the nature of intimate relationships. There has been the development of plastic sexuality. For people in modern societies there is a much greater choice over when, how often and with whom they have sex than ever before. With plastic sexuality, sex can be separated from reproduction. This is partly due to improved methods of contraception which have largely freed women from the fear of repetitive (and life-threatening) pregnancies and childbirths.
  5. However, it is not only technological development that led to the emergence of plastic sexuality, but crucially the development of a sense of the self that could be actively chosen. This process can be described as the growth of social reflexivity.
  6. With the emergence of plastic sexuality, there is a change in the nature of love. Giddens argued that the ideals of romantic love are fragmenting and being replaced by “confluent love”. Confluent love is active and contingent.
  7. Romantic love meant that once people had married, they were usually stuck with one another, no matter how the relationship developed. Now people have more choice: whereas divorce was previously difficult or impossible to obtain, married people are now no longer bound to stay together if the relationship doesn’t work.
  8. Rather than basing relationships on romantic passion, people are increasingly pursuing the ideal of the pure relationship, in which couples remain because they choose to do so. As the idea of confluent love becomes consolidated as a real possibility, the more the idea of finding the Mr. Or Mrs. Right recedes and the more the idea of finding the right relationship becomes crucial. The pure relationship is held together by the acceptance on the part of each partner that, until further notice each gains sufficient benefits from the relationship to make its continuance worth while.
  9. Each partner in the relationship constantly monitors their concerns to see if they are deriving sufficient satisfaction from the relationship for it to go on.

Ulrich Beck and Elizabeth Beck Gernsheim: The Normal Chaos of Love in the Family

  1. In the ‘normal chaos of love’ (1995), beck and beck- Gernsheim examine the tumultuous nature of personal relationships, marriages and family patterns against the backdrop of a rapidly changing world. The traditions, rules and guidelines which used to govern personal relationship no longer apply, they argue, and individuals are now confronted with an endless series of choices as part of constructing, adjusting, improving or dissolving the unions they form with others.
  2. The fact that marriages are now entered into voluntarily, rather than for economic purposes or at the urging of family, brings both freedoms and new strains.
  3. Beck and beck – Gernsheim see our age as one filled with colliding interest between family, work, love and the freedom to pursue individual goals. This collision is felt acutely within personal relationships, particularly when there are two labour market biographies to juggle instead of one. By this the authors mean that a growing number of women in addition to men are pursing careers over the course of their lifetimes. Previously women were more likely to work part time outside the home, or to take significant time away from their careers to raise children. These patterns are less fixes than they once were; both men and women now place emphasis on their professional and personal needs. Beck and beck- Gernsheim conclude that relationships in our modern age are about much more than relationships, so to speak, not only are love, sex, children, marriage and domestic duties topics for negotiation, but relationships are now also about work, politics, economics, professions and inequality. Diverse selections of problems -from the mundane to the profound- now confront modern couples.
  4. Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that antagonism, between men and women are on the rise. Beck and beck Gernsheim claim that ‘the battle between the sexes is the central drama of our times, as evidenced in the growth of the marriage counselling industry, family courts, marital self- help groups and divorce rates. But even though marriage and family life seem to be more flimsy than ever before, they still remain very important to people. Divorce is increasingly common, but rates of remarriage are high. The birth rate may be declining, but there is a huge demand for fertility treatment. Fewer people may choose to get married, but the desire to live with someone as part of a couple is certainly holding steady. What can explain these competing tendencies?
  5. Authors claim that today’s battle of the sexes is the clearest possible indication of ‘people’s hunger for love’. People marry for the sake of love and divorce for the sake of love; they engage in an endless cycle of hoping, regretting and trying again. While on the one hand the tensions between men and women are high, there remains a deep hope and faith in the possibility of finding true love and fulfilment.
  6. You might think that ‘love’ is too simplistic an answer for the complexities of our current age. But beck and beck – Gernsheim argue that it is precisely because our world is so overwhelming, impersonal, abstract and rapidly changing that love has become increasingly important. According to the authors, love is the only place where people can truly find themselves and connect with others.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top