Neo-Functionalism: Dragging “Family Functions” into the 21st Century

The “functions of the family” is an a-level course / exam staple and you can drag it out of the 20th century Murdock / Parsons duopoly by adding a neo-functionalist twist.

Are contemporary Western families characterised by a fluidity of gender roles?

For Swenson (2004), the focus is on adults as providers of a stable family environment for primary socialisation. This involves:

1. Roles conceived as both expressive and instrumental.

2. Providing children with a safe, secure, environment that gives free range to both expressive and instrumental roles and values.

In this respect neo-Functionalism suggests parents contribute to the socialisation process by giving their children a knowledge of both expressive and instrumental role relationships.

The key thing here, for Swenson, is that it doesn’t particularly matter which partner provides which; all that matters is they do – and the significance of this idea is that it means gender roles in contemporary families are not necessarily conceived as fix, unchanging and immutable – even for Functionalists.

Rather, we should see such roles as fluid in a range of ways:

  • Women can provide instrumental values and men expressive values (or vice versa depending on specific family conditions and relationships).
  • Same-sex gay / lesbian families can perform these roles because there is nothing intrinsic to being “male” or “female” that makes either sex incapable of expressing such values or performing such roles.
  • The most famous single-parent ever?
  • Lone-parent families are not automatically excluded; a single parent, for example, may successfully combine both roles. Although we need to recognise this may be significantly more difficult for a long woman or lone man there is nothing inherent in their status that makes it impossible to perform necessary family functions. Alternatively, they may have help from others (such as their extended family or, in the case of rich single parents, various paid employees ) to provide the role content they cannot provide. In some instances, for example, grandparents play an expressive role while the single parent plays an instrumental role.
  • Dysfunctional families are not a quality of particular family structures (single-parent families are not automatically dysfunctional, just as dual-parent families are not automatically functional).

    What matters is the quality of parental roles; as Swenson argues, “families become dysfunctional when poor parenting produces poor socialization outcomes”. “Good parenting”, therefore, successfully integrates both expressive and instrumental roles and values into the socialisation process.

    The Micro-Macro Bridge

    If you want to explore and develop these ideas further, another dimension to Neo-Functionalist thinking about contemporary families involves looking more-closely at how it acts as a bridge connecting the micro world of the individual with the macro world of wider society.

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