Just Sociology

Evaluating Functionalism: Exploring Theories and Criticisms of the Family Institution

Functionalism is a sociological theory that views society as a complex system made up of different parts that work together to ensure social cohesion and order. In this view, the family is considered an important institution that serves as the basic building block of society.

George Peter Murdock’s theory of the universal nuclear family is one that attempts to describe this institution’s essential functions. This article will explore these two theories in-depth, highlighting key principles and criticisms.

Society as a system made up of different parts

In the functionalist view, society can be pictured as a biological organism composed of different interconnected parts. Every part of the system has a specific function that contributes to the entire organism’s well-being.

The system’s basic needs are fulfilled through essential functions carried out by the parts or institutions. These institutions include the family, education, religion, politics, and the economy.

The system’s stability is maintained when all parts perform their essential functions efficiently, resulting in social order and cohesion.

Importance of family as an institution

The family is a crucial institution in society as it fulfills several essential functions. According to functionalists, the family’s primary role is to socialize the young, instilling them with cultural norms, values, and beliefs.

Families also play crucial roles in meeting emotional needs and providing economic stability. Stable families are essential for the social order and the economy’s well-being.

The family is considered the basic building block of society, and its stability is necessary for a healthy society. The family also plays a significant role in maintaining the division of labor, with men traditionally taking on the breadwinner role and women being primarily responsible for domestic tasks.

Four essential functions of the nuclear family

George Peter Murdock’s theory of the universal nuclear family attempts to describe the family’s essential functions, which are believed to be universal across different societies. According to Murdock, the nuclear family is composed of a core family unit, consisting of a husband, wife, and their children.

The essential functions of the nuclear family, according to Murdock, are stabilizing the sex drive, reproduction, the socialization of the young, and economic production. Stabilizing the sex drive refers to the family’s role in regulating sexual behavior, ensuring that it is socially acceptable and appropriate.

Reproduction is another essential function of the family, necessary for the continuation of the human species. The family’s third essential function is the socialization of the young, where parents impart cultural norms, values, beliefs, and social practices to their children.

This function is crucial for the continuity of social structures and cultural heritage across generations. Lastly, economic production is essential as families provide the resources for their members’ physical needs, such as food, shelter, and clothing.

Criticisms of Murdock’s theory

Murdock’s theory of the universal nuclear family is subject to several criticisms, particularly from feminist sociologists. Feminist scholars argue that Murdock’s theory reinforces gender inequality, as it assumes that men are primarily responsible for economic production, while women’s responsibilities are limited to domestic tasks and child-rearing.

Moreover, other institutions, such as daycare centers, schools, and child welfare services, can assume some of the functions attributed to the nuclear family. Furthermore, some cultures do not adhere strictly to the nuclear family arrangement, and their family structures differ from the traditional model.

Murdock’s theory has also been criticized for being ideological, reflecting traditional societal norms and values rather than objective facts. Finally, Murdock’s theory does not consider how relationships between individuals outside of the nuclear family, such as friendships, also fulfill essential social functions.


In conclusion, the functionalist view of society and George Peter Murdock’s theory of the universal nuclear family highlight the essential functions fulfilled by the family. The family is an important institution that contributes to social order, cohesion, and economic stability.

Murdock’s theory of the universal nuclear family provides an overarching framework for understanding the family’s essential functions, though it has been criticized, particularly by feminist scholars. Despite the criticisms, Murdock’s theory remains an essential reference point in discussions about the family’s role in society.Functionalism postulates that society is like an organism, consisting of parts that work together to maintain balance and order.

The family plays a critical role as one of the critical institutions, and its importance can be traced back to different historical periods. Talcott Parsons’ functional fit theory provides insight into the evolution of the family’s structure and emphasis on the irreducible functions of the family, while also attracting criticisms.

Besides, the family continues to play vital roles in modern society, including reproduction, primary socialization, psychological and security needs, elderly care as well as facilitating stable, monogamous relationships.

Historical evolution of the nuclear family

The functional fit theory by Talcott Parsons is critical in understanding the family’s historical evolution, as it postulates that pre-industrial societies relied on extended family structures. However, as society evolved through the industrial revolution, the need for flexibility and mobility led to the emergence of nuclear families.

The nuclear family structure offered the economic and social advantages of a solid, cohesive household that could quickly relocate or find other work. The extended family structure evolved into the nuclear family, where a monogamous couple with their children formed the fundamental family unit.

Two irreducible functions of the family

Talcott Parsons postulated the two irreducible functions of the family, namely the primary socialisation function and the stabilization of adult personalities. The primary socialization function involves teaching cultural norms, values, and beliefs to children, preparing them for adult life.

Additionally, gender role socialization is also a significant aspect, where the nuclear family is used to pass on gender roles, where males are socialized to develop an instrumental role, while females are socialized to adopt expressive roles. The nuclear family structure reinforces the specialization of familial roles in modern society.

On the other hand, the stabilization of adult personalities function follows the ‘warm bath theory.’ It involves the role of the family in providing an environment that offers emotional and psychological support for family members, resulting in individual fulfillment and personal growth. It is through these functions that the stability and continuity of society’s norms, values, and beliefs are upheld.

Criticisms of Parsons’ theory

Despite the significant insights that Talcott Parsons’ functional fit theory provides, it has received criticisms from several quarters. One key criticism is that it implies a linear and orderly historical evolution that may not be accurate.

Some scholars have found that the shift towards nuclear families began earlier than some of the sociological texts suggest. Moreover, it is debatable that extended kin networks in some cultures may be considerably strong, thus negating the notion that society’s modernisation has replaced their existence with smaller, nuclear families.

Furthermore, other critics suggest that the functional fit theory’s neat and tidy way of categorizing the functions of the family underplays the complexity and the variability of family structures across cultures and races.

Reproduction of the next generation

The family unit remains the fundamental unit of society for the reproduction of the next generation. Due to the family’s procreative ability, it is well-positioned to guarantee the survival of the society’s next generation.

Despite the availability of alternative methods of reproduction, heteronormative relationships in nuclear families are still the predominant way of procreation.

Primary socialisation

Primary socialisation refers to the process of training children in a person’s values, beliefs, and norms-that-is_the first stage of socialization. The family plays the critical role in imparting these norms and values to its members.

The family also provides the context of language and communication, shaping children’s intellectual and emotional development. As such, the family plays a critical role in shaping its members to become responsible, successful individuals.

Psychological and security needs

The family is often associated with warmth, affection, and a sense of safety due to the close nature of familial relationships. The ‘warm bath’ theory, advanced by Talcott Parsons, postulates that families are essentially like a warm and comfortable bath that offers psychological and emotional security.

Family members feel more secure when their individual psychological needs are met, be it in the form of love, support, and assurance. This is essential, especially for children who depend on their families to build their sense of self-worth and trust in the world.

Elderly care

The family also plays a vital role in caring for the elderly. In many cultures and societies, it is usually the responsibility of the children to take care of their aging parents.

Elderly care is essential as it ensures that senior citizens are kept healthy and comfortable as they grow old. The family thus remains an important institution since no government can provide such care that is private, individualized, and effective.

Monogamous relationships

Stable, monogamous relationships are important in modern society, given the several challenges that individuals face when faced with intimacy and commitment issues. The family offers the best opportunity to create stable and long-lasting relationships.

It promotes harmony, emotional stability, and a sense of fulfillment is crucial, especially when raising a family.


Talcott Parsons’ functional fit theory provides significant insights into the family’s evolution and fundamental roles. The nuclear family has proved to be flexible, suited to modern society’s needs, and playing essential functions through primary socialisation and stabilisation of adult personalities.

Despite the criticisms leveled against Parsons’ theory, it still informs contemporary sociological thought, while the family remains a significant institution in modern society. Crucially, it functions in critical areas such as reproduction of the next generation, primary socialisation, psychological and security needs, elderly care, and the facilitation of stable, monogamous relationships.Functionalism remains a significant sociological theory that views society as a complex system made up of interconnected institutions.

The family is considered one of these institutions and plays a crucial role in ensuring social order, providing emotional support, and maintaining economic stability. Despite its significant contributions, functionalism has been subject to criticisms and evaluations.

This article provides insights into these evaluations and criticisms, highlighting aspects such as downplaying conflict, irrelevance, ignoring the exploitation of women, and functionalism’s perceived determinism.

Downplaying conflict

One of the criticisms leveled against functionalism is that it downplays conflicts that occur within the family unit. Functionalism recognizes the family’s positive impacts on society and ensures social order, economic stability, and emotional support.

However, the theory does not pay enough attention to negative aspects of family dynamics, such as child abuse, violence against women by their partners, and family conflicts. Such conflicts can result in severe trauma and psychological damage for victims, and overlooking them can be detrimental to the family’s well-being.

Being out of date

Functionalism’s emphasis on instrumental and expressive roles is also a significant criticism leveled against its perceived outmodedness. Critics argue that this is an old-fashioned approach that insists on rigid gender roles and a division of labor at home and in the workplace.

This approach marginalizes women, undercutting their contributions outside the home while influencing the oppressive societal norms that limit their freedom, mobility, and economic opportunities. Additionally, modern culture has shifted to a more fluid and individualistic society, with elderly people enjoying much better health care, making the family’s role less central.

Ignoring exploitation of women

Another significant criticism of functionalism is that it ignores the exploitation of women within the family. Functionalism’s focus on the nuclear family obscures the fact that women were and are still burdened with primary child-caring roles, while men focus on economic production.

This burden deprives women of opportunities to participate in the labor market fully. Additionally, functionalism’s focus on the nuclear family reinforces the idea that traditional family structures are ideal, thereby contributing to the ongoing oppressiveness of women.

Functionalism is too deterministic

Functionalism’s view of the family as an institution where individuals’ basic needs are met can be described as deterministic. It suggests that personality development is predetermined by the society into which one is born, which can limit potential and perpetuate a robotic acceptance of society’s values.

Functionalism assumes that individuals are passive and accept societal structures and expectations, thereby limiting the capacity for progress and achievement within the society. However, studies have shown that individuals have their unique experiences and that they can think critically, question societal norms, and create changes.


Functionalism has been instrumental in shaping sociological studies on the family institution. It highlights the important functions played by the family in promoting social stability, emotional support, and economic production.

However, functionalism’s rigid gender roles, downplaying of conflict, and ignoring exploitation of women are valid criticisms that need to be addressed. Moreover, functionalism has been accused of glorifying societal structures and perpetuating determinism, denying individual agency in shaping their lives in the society.

Consequently, it is necessary to address all these criticisms and ensure that functionalism reflects modern society’s nuances, including acknowledging conflict, respecting all family members’ contributions, and taking into account personal and societal changes. In conclusion, this article has explored the functionalist view of society, George Peter Murdock’s Theory of the Universal Nuclear Family, Talcott Parsons’ Functional Fit Theory, possible positive functions of the family today, and evaluations and criticisms of functionalism.

These theories provide valuable insights into how societies and families function, highlighting the important roles played by the family, such as socialization, economic production, care for the elderly, and facilitating stable relationships. However, they have also been subject to various critiques, particularly regarding gender roles, conflict, and the determinism inherent in functionalism.

Addressing these critiques is crucial in ensuring that the family operates within the framework of modern society’s changing norms and structures.


Q: What is the functionalist view of society?

A: The functionalist view of society perceives society as a complex system made up of interconnected parts or institutions that work together to maintain social cohesion and order. Q: What is the universal nuclear family?

A: The universal nuclear family is a social grouping theory by George Peter Murdock that consists of a husband, wife, and children, performing the essential functions of stabilizing the sex drive, reproduction, socialization of the young, and economic production. Q: What are the irreducible functions of the family?

A: Talcott Parsons identified two main functions of the family. The first is primary socialization, where the family teaches cultural norms, values, and beliefs to children.

The second is the stabilization of adult personalities, which provides emotional and psychological support to family members. Q: What are the possible positive functions of the family today?

A: Reproduction, primary socialization, psychological and security needs, elderly care, and facilitating stable, monogamous relationships are the positive functions of the family today. Q: What are the criticisms of functionalism?

A: Criticisms of functionalism include downplaying conflict, being out-of-date, ignoring exploitation of women, and functionalism’s perceived determinism.

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