The Social Institution of Family

Functionalism, conflict and interactionism theories all have an effect on the social institution of the family. Although the theories are fundamentally different, they all have a place in the institution of the family. Therefore, the family as an institution can be said to be a sociological group (Thio, 1986). The family is a basic unit in the society. It performs various functions making it one of the most influential institutions of the society. The various functions the family performs include reproduction and socializing of new members, provision of physical and emotional care for the aged and young (Thio, 1986). Therefore, it can be said to contribute in the easing of a huge number of social problems.

A family can be defined as a group which has a common residence, co-operates economically and undertakes reproduction (Kerbo, 1991). A family includes adults, a male and female or both, who maintain a sexual relationship in accordance with society norms. Also, a family can have one or more children who can be their own or adopted. However, the term “household” refers to the family’s living arrangement with each other. From this definition, it is apparent that a family has a procedure for both socialization and sexual activities. It consists of a male and female who not only indulge in sexual activities for pleasure but also consists of children and a group of decedents. It is a universal social institution, where people have a common connection with the adult members taking responsibility for the care of the children either adopted or born.

Sociologists often introduce two main family types in their analysis. The first type is the nuclear family which composes of two adults and their children. It can be described as one’s immediate family. It represents a substantial portion of a person’s family interaction, and this is usually beneficial in the analysis. An extended family is the second type of family. It is thought comprise a family with connections and cross-connections that can span up to three generations. The connections can be close or distant, and examples include grandparents, wives of brothers and husbands of sisters, aunts, uncles, nephews and nieces (Thio, 1986).

Functionalism is a theory that aspires to look at the parts of a society and the relationship of those parts through the method of organic analogy (Rigney, 2001). An organism reproduces functions and lives through a proper system of organization of several parts and organs. Therefore, in the same way, a society maintains its essential processes through its different parts integrated together. This makes institutions such as religion, kinship and the economy organs while individuals are the cell of this social organism (Kerbo, 1991). Functionalism will analyze the social significance of phenomena and the function they play in serving a society.

The theory of functionalism assumes that for a society to survive then there must be a division of social status. For instance, the persons that are more aggressive, highly motivated and have greater perceived intelligence will motivate people to perform harder, pursue academic excellence and work harder. This effort will all be based on a desire to move up in terms of social class. People who are less motivated and less intelligent will provide manual labor for the intelligent ones. They will also be involved in the less desirable jobs which more motivated persons will have no time to undertake. This means that, for progress in a society, there must always be inequality.

Conflict theory focuses on the role of coercion and power in ensuring social order. Its main proponent is Karl Marx who saw the society as fragmented into groups that compete for social and economic resources. According to this theory, social order is maintained by having power dominated by those with the greatest political, economic and social resources. These are the people who have the controls in the society. Power should always rest on their hands, and the people of a lower class should always be their followers. The conflict theory is especially useful in understanding such social problems as war, wealth distribution and poverty. It also explains revolutions, political strife, discrimination, child abuse and slavery. It assumes that society exists in a state of constant and lasting conflict and competition for the ever limited resources.

Conflict theorists also believe that people who are in the class of wealth, power and prestige will always be fighting to protect those assets. They evoke feelings of distrust, discontent and hostility towards that not in power.  Neither people who cannot obtain the same education nor have the same property will break into the upper class. The rich will always try to maintain their power and wealth. This will mean that the system will not allow a person who may be smart or motivated as the wealthy to achieve similar class. According to Karl Marx, power entails the ability to get what a person wants even in the presence of opposition (Maines, 1993). Authority is the institutionalized legitimate power. The Bourgeoisie is the wealthy elite (royalty, political, and corporate leaders), who have the most power. They are the "Goliaths" in a society and often bully their wishes into outcomes. However, the Proletariat includes the poor, working class and lower class members of a society (Rigney, 2001).

Therefore, the conflict theory repeatedly has a wide application among different levels of sociological study as shown by various scientifically derived data. Therefore, although not all sociological phenomena are conflict based, most conflict theorists would argue that the theories apply in most instances. For instance, the feminist theory is a theoretical perspective based on the assumptions of conflict theory.

Interactionism is composed of two theoretical forms: Social Exchange and Symbolic Interaction (Anderson &Howard, 2007). The symbolic interaction perspective, also called symbolic interactionism, is a crucial framework of sociology (Anderson &Howard, 2007). It relies on the assumption that people develop symbolic meanings and rely upon them in the social interaction process. It is the most widely accepted theoretical form of interactionism. It claims that society is always composed of interactions among people who share symbols and their meanings. It finds extensive use in understanding people, obtaining learning and teaching skills, where there is more than one culture involved and in improving communications in general among individuals. 

It encompasses some arguably outrageous beliefs such as alien abduction, how to get the perfect partner, mate selection and arbitration and helps in deriving personal and national meanings to various circumstances. Therefore, it helps in deriving various values and improving communication. The main focus of symbolic interaction is the small groups or divisions in a society. These groups can be considered as subcultures of the dominant culture. The study of symbols used by this subculture separates this small group from the overall group. The symbols also include speech patterns, movements and gestures (Maines, 1993).

The theories discussed above affect the family institution in various ways. The functionalism theory assumes that for a society to survive then there must be a division of social status (Maines, 1993). Therefore, functionalists claim that all members of the family are interdependent and contribute to the functioning of the family as a whole. As the family members are playing their roles with the best attitudes, the family will have peace, balance and unity. When one or more of the members does not play his/her required role the whole family will suffer a lot of social problems such as stress, imbalance and disunity and it will not be properly functional.

According to the functionalists, the family will work best when each member has some power to have his/her say on any decision made. This makes the family members feel appreciated as their input is considered before any decision is made. Therefore, consensus is extremely valuable, and authoritarianism should be avoided. The theory of conflict assumes that family members undergo conflicts and disharmony (Anderson &Howard, 2007). The theory studies family dynamics and roles played by various family members. It is necessary to identify the source of power and cause of conflict. It also includes how the family deals with change and diversity.

The interactionism theory in a family setting will establish that a family is a unit made up of various interacting personalities. Persons and communications will play a pivotal role as it will facilitate interaction between different members of the family. Mode of communication affects interaction as family members attach meaning to words in a communication. Parents interact with their children and transfer their personalities to them.

The three theories have various similarities and differences in a family unit. Both functionalism theory and conflict theory have conflicts between class members (Anderson &Howard, 2007). The interactions theory will be similar to the conflict theory as both show changes in the society and the interaction of different members of the society. They also both emphasize the need for family members to adapt to various situations to make it easy for them to accept change. This will facilitate change in the family. The conflict and functionalism theories find the origin of social behaviors from the social structure. In functionalism theory, the individuals have been assigned fixed social roles and inequality in the society is important in its functioning (Anderson &Howard, 2007).

The interactionism theory differs from the conflict theory and functionalism theory as it focuses on social interaction in the society; the functionalism theory focuses on how different components result to order and sanity (Anderson &Howard, 2007). It differs from conflict theory as it does not focus on conflicts and social class. Functionalism theory differs from conflict and interactionism theory, because it does not emphasize on power and conflict. Functionalism theory emphasizes shared values and public consensus so as to enhance social stability and prosperity while conflict theory on inequality in the society and social control (Rigney, 2001).

All the three theories have their own approach to change in the family. The conflict theory assumes that change in the family occurs due to conflict between different family members having different interests (Becker, 1973). It has helped family members deal with conflict, changes and differences by developing solutions. One solution is developing better communication as poor communication leads to poor understanding and conflicts.  The family should also develop empathy and understanding towards each other regardless of difference in position or influence. This will enable them to strengthen their relationships.

Families should overcome challenges related to change by accepting change. They should be flexible enough to allow changes in the family whenever it is necessary.  This automatically reduces the rate of conflict among the family members. Therefore, the conflict theory encourages acceptance of change. The interactions theory resembles the conflict theory as it shows the change in the society and interaction of different members of the society (Becker, 1973). The family members adapt to different situations and this makes embracing change easier. For instance, the family members change their behaviors when necessary to avoid influencing their social interaction negatively. Hence the theory also embraces change.

The functionalism theory seeks consensus and order in the family and society. It believes that disorganization in the society results to change as different parts that form the society have to adjust so as to attain stability. It assumes that change in the society can have a negative or positive impact. A negative change affects the stability in the society as it leads to loss of values and failure to meet people needs. However, a positive change leads to stability in the society. Hence, the functionalist theory determines how different parts of the society contribute to the functioning of the society and stability and how the parts contribute to dysfunction of the society and social stability (Becker, 1973).

The theories affect the views of the society towards the family in different ways. The conflict theory leads to a situation where the family is viewed in terms of competition but not as a complex system. It asserts that a family consists of different people who are competing for limited resources such as money and entertainment. The interactionism theory assumes that human interactions will be understood through exchange of important and meaningful communication. Therefore, human interactions are determined by the meaning they attach to various things resulting from social interactions between different people. The functionalism theory has changed the perception of the family and its role as one of the social institutions (Becker, 1973).

Therefore, it is clear that all the three theories are effective in examining behaviors in the society while impacting the family institution substantially. Conflict theory explains conflicts in families and how to best handle these conflicts so as not to lead to disunity. The functionalism theory attempts to generate an understanding of how various parts of the family function together to bring change and stability. Theories such as the interactionism theory have also explained the various family interactions between family members and with the modern day society.

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