Neo-Functionalism: More Millennial Family Functions

Another dimension to Neo-Functionalist thinking about contemporary families that complements Swenson’s (2004) ideas about adults as providers of a stable family environment for primary socialisation is to look more-closely at what happens within family groups and to use these insights to explain how and why families play such pivotal structural roles. Horwitz (2005), for example, has argued Neo-Functionalist perspectives contribute to our understanding of family functions in terms of the family group representing a Micro-Macro Bridge.

In this respect the family is considered an institution that connects the micro world of the individual with the macro world of wider society (the “anonymous social institutions” such as work, government, education and so forth that develop in complex, large-scale, contemporary societies). The linkage between, on the one hand, social structures (the macro world) and on the other social actions (the micro world) is significant because it represents a way for Neo-Functionalism to explain the relationship between the individual and social structure, in terms of, for example, the family’s role in the primary socialisation process.

As Horwitz argues:

Families help us to learn the explicit and tacit social rules necessary for functioning in the wider world, and families are uniquely positioned to do so because it is those closest to us who have the knowledge and incentives necessary to provide that learning”.

He further suggests that it is precisely because the family group plays a crucial part in linking the individual to wider society that accounts for its historical persistence:

The family has survived because it provided social benefits” to both the individual and society.

More specifically, the role of the family in relation to the social structure can be explained in terms of it being an institution where children learn social rules in a generally supportive, loving, environment; rewards and punishments for conformity / deviance can also be “individualized to the greatest degree possible” because of the intimate, face-to-face, relationship between parents and children.

In relation to the idea of rule-following, Horwitz argues :

It is within the secure base of the family that children can learn both explicitly, through instruction, and implicitly, through experimentation, the rules that do and should govern behaviour in the broader social world”.

The family group, in other words, represents both a sounding-board for behaviour, whereby children come to understand what is and is not permissible and a buffer zone whereby children can make – and learn from – their mistakes.

In terms of developing wider social relationships the family is: a school for learning tacit social normswhere children first experiment with social interaction and relationships; by initially learning the rules of social interaction with family members children create a template for other intimate relationships and the more anonymous relationships” found in wider society.

Stable social relationships are, in turn, a basis for both social order and its reproduction over time. The family serves as the means whereby general social rules, such as “instructing children in general concepts of right and wrong and explaining appropriate behaviour in various social situations” are transmitted to each new generation.

Families: A superior site for learning behavioural rules?

Although Neo-Functionalism recognises these lessons and behaviours can be – and frequently are – taught by other social institutions, Horwitz argues “The family is a superior site for learning these rules of behaviour” for three reasons:

1. Intimacy: Where rules of behaviour are transmitted and enforced by people who share a deep, emotional, commitment to each other, such rules are more-likely to be effectively taught and learnt.

2. Incentives: The closeness of a family group provides incentives for both adults and children to behave in ways that make their interaction “smoother” – one of the greatest incentives perhaps being the fact a family lives together in an environment where cooperation is desirable if people are to avoid too much personal stress and strain. A further incentive for “good behaviour” is the idea “other family members may suffer negative external reputation effects due to the misbehaviour of children”.

3. Subconscious learning: In many situations it is difficult, Horwitz argues, for people to articulate and express their reasons for doing something. For example, it may be difficult to explain the rules that underpin why we love or trust someone. However, within a family group such rule-learning can be articulated “subconsciously” by children observing and imitating the behaviour that goes on around them.

A parent”, for example “might be unable to explain the rules that guide her behaviour when interacting with a stranger, but the child can observe and later imitate the behaviour and in so doing, adopt the implicit rules that are at work”.

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