HND Social Science
Short Notes on:
THE NEW RIGHT APPROACH
THEORETICAL AND EMPIRICAL STUDIES
Most sociological debates on the family can be seen as arguments between functionalist accounts of the family and a variety of critics. Interest in the sociology of the family has been rejuvenated by the popularisation of feminist and Marxist criticism.
The main themes of questions at college and university on this topic are:
The most obviously related topic areas (think of integrated project) are age, gender and sociological theory. Useful references to the family can also be made in answers on health and education. Many students criticise functionalists for basing their arguments on white middle-class Americans. If you share this view, remember to point out the diversity of family life in your answers.
Definitions of the family, and particularly the various types of family, are rather problematic and frequently ideological. Consider the dispute over whether single-parent families are ‘real’ families or not.
Take care to distinguish ‘household’ from ‘family’, and be aware of the diversity which exists in both. Questions may ask you to consider reasons for the existence of ‘typical’ families.
The major assumptions made by functionalist writers on the family include the following.
To simplify matters we can list critics under some broad headings.
The Marxist approach to the family, like the functionalist approach, adopts a structuralist perspective. The family is examined by looking at its relationship with the wider social structure.
The two main themes are:
The family as a product of economic forces
The development of the family through the successive stages of history was traced by Engels and later by Marxists. This Marxist history makes a useful contrast with the ‘march of progress’ functionalist views.
The family as part of the superstructure
Like other institutions and ideas which form the superstructure, the family serves the interests of the ruling class by maintaining and reproducing the existing relations of production. This is why Marxists condemn the bourgeois family.
There are a variety of feminist views on the family. Most of these owe something to Marxist theory, particularly to Engels’ pioneering work. The main themes found in the feminist analysis of the family are:
THE NEW RIGHT APPROACH
The conventional nuclear family is perceived as an ideal, and variations are seen as pathological. Single mothers are described as irresponsible and should not be encouraged by generous welfare or housing provision. New British Legislation intends to pursue fathers who abandon families to ensure that they help pay for children. Many of society’s problems are thought to originate or be amplified by the decline of traditional family life.
If this is interpreted as men working while women care for children, then it conflicts with New Right economics, which advocates a free market for labour irrespective of gender or martial status.
There are various other critics of both the functionalist approach to the family and the nuclear family itself. Among the most useful for examination purposes are the ‘historians’ who challenge the inevitability of the nuclear family in industrial society. There is also a collection of writers who have identified the ‘dark side of the family’ and examined violence, abuse, mental illness and other symptoms of family disorganisation
THEORETICAL AND EMPIRICAL STUDIES
Functionalism dominated the sociology of the family for so long, without serious opposition, that the task of selecting only a few studies is rather difficult.
Parsons argued that the nuclear family ‘fits’ the needs of an industrial society and is thus the typical form of family. The family is isolated, socially and geographically mobile, and characterised by different, but complementary, roles for husband, wife and children. It has two basic functions: the socialisation of children and the stabilisation of adult personalities.
Willmott and Young
In a series of studies of family life in and around London these authors identified progressive changes, through the following four stages:
Bott distinguished segregated conjugal roles from joint conjugal roles. The former she associated with close-knit social networks; the latter with loose-knit networks. The view that roles were becoming increasingly joint and equal is more or less supported by Willmott and Young and Rosser and Harris. Bott’s work is a good starting point for a feminist criticism of family life.
Vogel and Bell
These authors are unusual in offering a critical view of the family from a functionalist perspective. They see the scapegoating of an emotionally disturbed child as functional for the stability of the rest of the family.
Other studies which highlight the darker side of family life (usually based on case studies, as was Vogel and Bell’s work) include:
Laing and Cooper
In separate and joint studies Laing and Cooper criticised family life from a psychiatric perspective, suggesting that children are oppressed and family members made ‘insane’ in both abnormal and normal families.
Dobash and Dobash
Dobash and Dobash describe violence within the family and claim that it is not abnormal, but rather the predictable consequence of the position of women in marriage and in the wider social structure. (Strauss sees children in the same vulnerable position).
Starting from an anthropological viewpoint, Leach identified the nuclear family as having detrimental effects on its members and on the wider society.
The relationship between family structure and industrialisation remains a popular question, linking the topic of the family with social change. The functionalist analysis of Parsons and others can be challenged by using this historical perspective.
Laslett denied the existence of a typical extended family in pre-industrial times. Anderson argues that the extended family became more common in the early days of industrialisation. Both these studies (along with Marxist views on family structure and a variety of other functionalist studies of working-class communities) accept that typical families can be explained in structuralist terms.
Engels laid down the foundations of the Marxist approach to the family, identifying and explaining the subjugation of women. For this reason feminist writers in the 1970s took up his ideas, blaming capitalism for martial inequality. The work of Benston, Ansley, Mitchell and Oakley is more or less influenced by the Marxist analysis.
The family is extremely important to feminists, whether it is seen as the cause of, or only the location of, women’s subjugation.
McIntosh sees ‘the family’ as a set of beliefs about the ideal household. However, this ideal does not exist in reality, though society is organised as if it did. The consequences include the failure of families to satisfy the needs of women (and, indeed, children, the old and even men).
Oakley pioneered the study of housework and the housewife-mother role.
Criticism of feminist approaches
Britain is a multicultural society. Many sociologists have written descriptions of the family life of various minorities. Surprisingly, many of these studies seem to confirm popular stereotypes, such as father-dominated extended families. Of course the family life of minorities is likely to be as varied as that of the majority, being influenced by class, religion and generation as well as by individual factors.
Why do ethnic minorities have distinctive patterns of family life?
A past history of slavery is claimed to have encouraged the development of female-led Afro-Caribbean families. Modern difficulties of immigrants finding employment and housing may have encouraged the persistence of extended family ties.
Traditions are more likely to be kept up when the minority maintains a distinct language and religion.
It may be that racism encourages minorities to maintain their distinctive culture, whereas tolerance encourages assimilation. The family has been described by Westwood and Bhachu (1988) as a source of strength and resistance against racism.
South Asian Families
People originating from the Indian sub-continent form one of the largest collections of ethnic minorities in Britain, with other 1.4 million persons. The ‘Asian’ population may have some common characteristics but may also be divided in various ways such as religion, country or region of origin, caste, class and language.
Common features of South Asian Families
JE Goldthorpe (1987) reviewed several studies of Asians from different religious and national origins living in various parts of Britain and identified the following common features:
Some of these studies were done in the 1970s and may be out of date now.
Westwood and Bhachu (1988) described Asian families as having larger households. Muslim, Bangladeshi and Pakistani families are more likely to be larger than white families but are not more likely to be extended. Sikh and East African Asian households are more likely to contain three generations. Overall only 21% of Asian households are extended families but of course family ties can be maintained by living close by or through visits and the telephone.
The framework for discussing Afro-Caribbean life in Britain has been strongly influenced by the study of black family life in the USA. There is a general assumption that black British families are more likely to be female-headed single-parent families than white families and that this is a ‘bad’ thing. In particular such families have been blamed for causing poverty and crime.
Single-parent families are seen by many as disorganised or inadequate families; however they may be seen as different rather than as problem families. Marriage in the Caribbean and among black families here is later than for the population as a whole. The single mother and one child is a common outcome of relationships which may remain stable or change into a martial relationship. Indeed, the proportion of single-parent families is rising faster for white families than black families. In the Caribbean there is often support for single mothers from other females, such as grandmothers (J Barrow 1982). Traditional types of behaviour might be expected to persist only if they are of value to individuals and the group.
The majority of black families have two parents in the household. Conventional families are most common among the middle class and church goers.
‘WESTERN WAYS ARE BAD’
The following extract shows that it is not only the lives of minorities which are subject to stereotypes.
South Asians perceived English family life as cold and insecure, lacking in affection and in respect for the older generation. Families were small, young adults left home to make their own way, old people lived alone or were put into homes without good reason; martial breakdowns and sexual licence were rife. By Asian standards it all seemed outrageously immoral and inhumane.
(JE Goldthorpe, Family Life in Western Societies (CUP 1987)
Stereotypes may be positive: Asians, Chinese, Greeks, Italians and Jews are seen as having warm families with strong ties.
THE FAMILY AND THE STATE
The family is threatened by the state
The State supports the family
Groupwork: In small groups choose a sociological perspective and prepare a key point summary of its views on the family, you should include your groups views on the strengths and weakness of the chosen perspective in addition your group should asses the empirical evidence.
Your group should write up its views and post them in the sociology section of the discussion board of our website ( seek help from Pam, if you need it!) a reminder of its address: www.socialscience.uk.com.