A significant number of researches have focused on the family to develop insights to social development. This is not a recent or unique trend: family life is considered as the core of social learning of every individual. One of the key researches that have focused on family was conducted by Talcott Parsons. He gained acclaim in the 1950’s for their theories in small group communication and socialization as illustrated by families. In this essay, theories about the concept and mechanism of families in the 1950’s will evaluated and it will be then determined that they have lost their relevance is true. This will particularly highlighted in consideration of the succeeding research regarding families and social groups. Thus, the paper will be able to show insights on the social research on families and how previous researches are not adequate to develop in the 1950’s have been unable to accommodate current social contexts
Parson’s advocated the unification of social sciences into a unified theoretical framework which would be eventually known as structural functionalism (Parsons, 1955). Parson worked closely in his study of group dynamics with Bales. The latter’s study emphasizes the intimacy of relationships in small groups (Parsons et al, 1953). Furthermore, he emphasized that small groups which include families have distinct characteristics: communication is fast and shifts to balance group cohesion and objectives, shifts are focused on opinion exchange and group values reinforcement following and linear phase model and that there are specific ratios of expressed opinion based on degree of member participation. Bales perspective implies that within a family, communication is more efficient than in larger social groups, that individual belief systems are balance with group interests and that expression of opinions or ideas are based on the level of involvement in the family (Hochschild and Machung, 2003).
Influenced by their partnership and his own systems theory, Parson stated that people act according to an action system which was made up of related behaviors of individuals within the society in the context of the environment (Coontz, 1997). In this perspective, families belong to the societal community or the social integration of the various components of that society. He regarded Western civilization highly and considered American society in turn to be its best example which in turn implied that American social life and subsequently it’s ideal of family to of the same value (Parsons, 1955). Thus the life patterns established and reinforced by American family life serve as foundation of social order and success.
In the work of both Parson and Bales, there is significant emphasis on the idea of a model family which in turn is the foundation of model citizenry and society. They also both emphasize the advantages of belonging to a family, or kinship organizations, and the traditional roles of parents and children. The implication is that being a member of a family and fulfilling one’s role in that family is fundamental to not only the social identity of an individual but also his social potential and capacity (Parsons et al, 1953). Thus, the authors believe that subscription to the concept of an ideal family with all the traditional roles and functions, strengthen that social group.
The family is highlighted as the primary social group in which people become dependent and committed to (Coontz, 1997). The impact of family to individual socialization and development is also the reason for the development of social interventions to correct behavior or reinforce social standards (Hochschild and Machung, 2003). Thus, when there are indications that an individual, specially a child’s family life, is an unfit setting for socialization or fail to meet social standards, society has the prerogative and responsibility to intervene so that values, skills or competencies considered necessary for members of society can be communicated effectively.
Parson’s perspective implies that even if women are able to succeed in non-traditional roles in the family or in their occupation and have families at the same time, there is significant compromise in the level of success they can achieve (Coontz, 1997, pp. 51-52). A typical relationship among husbands and wives is then characterized with a “father who was the sole wage earner and a mother who was a full-time homemaker” (p.56). There is an underlying assumption of homogeneity, patriarchy and traditionalism in “successful” families. In such a perspective, conflicts are resolved collectively and wherein the resolution is adapted in all members of the group (Hochschild & Machung, 2003). This also implies that non-traditional families will have greater difficulties in being socially effective since the functional roles of members are not fulfilled.
There is now a more liberal opinion on what constitutes a family and the roles of its members (Coontz, 1997). With this, there is a less degree of association between role and function within family groups: families still have bread winners, home makers among others, but there is less specificity on who among the family is to fulfill them. This is not to say that the theories lack validity: Hochschild and Machung (2003) recognize that families are the core of socialization, personality development and competency building. However, subsequent criticisms to Parson’s theory on the family point out that it fails to accommodate non-traditional family groups which became more common after the 1950’s nor the shift in the relationship of families and societies to be more collaborative rather than linear in nature (Blank, 1957).
It should be noted that the majority of the settings and condition society of the 1950’s, subsequently family life, has become irrelevant or unfamiliar to current social standards. The 1950’s was a time when the U.S. gained its prominence one of the world’s two remaining superpower, thus the emphasis on American ideals was prevalent if not necessary to reinforce this standing to society. However, social perspectives have significantly changed: the U.S. has become known for its cultural diversity, a “melting pot” of cultures, social liberation and individuals’ right to self-expression. All of which have given way to new interpretations and practice concepts of family (Coontz, 1997, pp. 57-59).
Thus, Parson’s idea of family becomes incongruous to current social contexts. The emphasis on models, in particular the role of husbands and wives in families, is not able to accommodate family set-ups that have developed changes in society such as gender roles, value systems or social systems and programs. The criteria of the concept of family in itself, based on Western social structures and American values, implies significant ethnocentrism, a perspective that is not politically incorrect but also inappropriate considering the degree of globalization and multiculturalism in American societies today (Hochschild & Machung, 2003). A deficiency that Coontz (1997) illustrated by the lack of family-friendly work policies and the penal approach towards those in need of interventions (p. 65).
Moreover, the consequence of gender, race, ethnicity and culture to social groups as well as individuals has become recognized as major forces in the self-concept and socialization and in turn perceptions on family, something that Parson’s theory does not recognize (Hochschild & Machung, 2003, p. 106). The main difficulty in Parson’s theories do not account effectively for demographics, much less psychographics of a family and small social groups. Though their analysis of the roles and function of the 1950’s American family subscribe to the perceptions of what it is supposed to be, there is significant dissonance to the social changes particularly to gender roles, race and economic and social mobility or exclusion.
Coontz, Stephanie (1997). The Way We Really Are: Coming to Terms With America’s Changing Families. New York: Basic Books
Hochschild, Arlie and Machung, Anne (2003). The Second Shift. New York: Penguin
Parsons, alcott (1955). Essays in Sociological Theory, Revised Edition. Glencoe, Illinois: The Free Press, XXIV: pp. 306-307
Parsons, Talcott; Bales, Robert F., and Shils, Edward A. (1953). Working Papers in the Theory of Action, Glencoe, Illinois: The Free Press