What are the functions of the family in modern industrial society?

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Many sociologists argue that the family has lost a number of its functions in modern industrial society. Institutions such as business, political parties, schools, and welfare organizations now specialize in functions formerly performed by the family.

Talcott Parsons argues that the family has become ‘on the “macroscopic” levels, almost completely functionless. It does not itself, except here and there, engage in much economic production; it is not a significant unit in the political power system; it is not a major direct agency of integration of the larger society.

Its individual members participate in all these functions, but they do so as “individuals”, not in their roles as family members’. However, this does not mean that the family is declining in importance. It has simply become more specialized. Parsons maintains that its role is still vital.

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By structuring the personalities of the young and stabilizing the personalities of adults, the family provides its members with the psychological training and support necessary to meet the requirements of the social system.

This view is supported by N. Dennis who argues that impersonal bureaucratic agencies have taken over many of the family’s functions. As a result the warmth and close supportive relationships which existed when the family performed a large range of functions have largely disappeared.

Dennis argues that in the impersonal setting of modern industrial society, the family provides the only opportunity ‘to participate in a relationship where people are perceived and valued as whole persons’. Outside the family, individual’s must often interact with strangers in terms of a number of roles.

Adopting roles such as employee, customer, teacher and student, they are unable to express many aspects of themselves or develop deep and supportive relationships. Young and Willmott make a similar point arguing that the emotional support provided by family relationships grows in importance as the family loses many of its functions.

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They claim that the family can provide some sense of wholeness and permanence to set against the more restricted and transitory roles imposed by the specialized institutions which have nourished outside the home.

The upshot is that, as the disadvantages of the new industrial and impersonal society have become more pronounced, so .the family has become more prized for its power to counteract them’. Not all sociologists argue that the family has lost many of its functions in modern industrial society.

Ronald Fletcher, a British sociologist and a staunch supporter of the family, maintains that just the opposite has happened. In The Family and Marriage in Britain Fletcher argues that not only has the family retained its functions but those functions have ‘increased in detail and importance’.

Specialized institutions such as schools and hospitals have added to and improved the family’s functions rather than superseded them. Fletcher maintains that the family’s responsibility for socializing the young is as important as it ever was.

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State education has added to rather than removed this responsibility since ‘Parents are expected to do their best to guide, encourage and support their children in their educational and occupational choices and careers’.

In the same way, the state has not removed the family’s responsibility for the physical welfare of its members. Rather than removing this function from the family, state provision of health services has served to expand and improve it.

Compared to the past, parents are preoccupied with their children’s health. State health and welfare provision has provided additional support for the family and made its members more aware of the importance of health and hygiene in the home.

Even though he admits that the family has largely lost its function as a unit of production, Fletcher argues that it still maintains a vital economic function as a unit of consumption.

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Particularly in the case of the modern home-centred family, money is spent on and in the name of the family rather than individual. Thus the modern family demands fitted carpets, three-piece suites, washing television sets and ‘family’ cars.

Young and Willmott make a similar point with respect to their Stage 3 family. They argue that, ‘In its capacity as a consumer the family has also made a alliance with technology’. Industry needs both a market for its goods and a motivated workforce.

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