In this assignment sociological theories will be explored in relation to the ‘family’, how the family is socially constructed and how it could be a social problem.
Social workers work with families in their profession and it is important that they understand the issues around stereotypes of the ‘family’ and how society affects this.”Social work practice is intrinsically and intimately tied to work both with and within families however constituted or conceived.” (Yuill and Gibson 2011.216) The word ‘family’ means something different to each individual. A ‘problem family’ may encounter issues such as; domestic abuse, divorce and child neglect.
A stereotypical image of a family would be of two married heterosexual parents and their two children who live together in their own home. Also known as the nuclear family. The term ‘sociological imagination’ was created by the American Sociologist C. Wright Mills (1959). The sociological imagination was defined by Mills as looking at the relationship between individuals experiences and wider society. According to Mills, the sociological imagination had the power to connect personal problems to public issues. Mills explains that private troubles occur within the “character of the individual and within the range his immediate relationships with others”, whereas public issues are a “public matter: some value cherished by publics is felt to be threatened”. (Mills 1959) Using a sociological imagination, social workers will have the ability to see the patterns in people’s lives and the events that occur.
For example; divorces, unemployment, domestic violence, and child abuse. These family problems are affecting many people in a variety of different cultures of society, and it can all be linked to the societies structure.To adopt a sociological imagination is an important factor in social work practice. It will help social workers understand the bigger picture in a service users life, rather than assuming that the service user is the one at fault for the events that occur in their lives. It will help in assisting social workers to understand the issues that service users have as a result of societies oppression. ‘A sociological perspective encourages social worker to critically unpack taken for granted assumptions about social life, enabling them to develop skills which allow to link issues occurring in the lives of service users to an understanding of the ‘bigger picture’, or broader underpinning context.’ (Cunningham and Cunningham, 2014) The family is a social construction in that it serves to reproduce to socialise children into society and to replace societies members.
The family as a social structure is often stereotyped as a married couple with children, with blood relatives linked to them such as grandparents. This stereotypical view does not take into account the changing society, and what is viewed as the norm. When discussing family in a sociological context it is important to look at the wider perspective. Several institutions including; political parties and the media have been blamed for the ‘cereal packet family’, otherwise known as the nuclear family stereotype.During the last century the concept of the family has altered, due to industrialisation, changing norms and values and the media.
The ideology of the family changed since the end of the war, some examples of changes; divorce laws in the 1960’s, legalisation of homosexuality, Gay rights, increase of pregnancy outside of marriage and contraception (advent of the pill). The family can be seen in many dimensions, what was considered to be deviant, may now be considered a norm.The nuclear family is now outdated and the norms have changed; the increase in recognition of lesbian and gay couples, increase in births outside of marriage, growth in single parent households, couples who live together but choose not to have children, increase in foster families, decline in marriages and increase in divorces.
The proportion of families living in Britain in a nuclear family are now a minority, in 1971 it was 52% of the population and in 2013 it stood at 38%. (Sociology & Social Work, 2014)Functionalists believe that social institutions perform a very important role for society and individuals. They view the family as the nuclear family and assume that the family is a beneficial institution which has a function in society. As functionalists look at society on a macro scale, they believe that people are socialised to agree on how to behave and therefore reproduce norms and values. Murdock (1949) theorised that the family performed four positive functions, these were; reproduction, sexual gratification, economic well-being and education. He studied 250 families and stated that he found that the nuclear family is universal because without reproduction there would be no new members of the family, so no heirs. Also, he believed that without culture existing, then society would not function.
“The family is a social group characterised by common residence, economic cooperation and reproduction. It includes adults of both sexes, at least two of whom maintain a socially approved, sexual relationship, and one of more children, own or adopted, of the sexually cohabiting adults.” (Murdock 1949)Parsons (1955) considered that children learn to accept the norms and values of society and stabilisation of adult families, which aids adults to cope with the stresses of everyday life by giving them emotional support. The emotional support of couples in marriage helps prevent stress and damaging the stability of society.Both Parsons and Murdock’s work became quite popular during the 1940’s, it informed conservative ideology on the family. Their perspective was still popular in the 1980’s, the functionalist view on same sex families was seen to be ‘pretend’ and they viewed single parent families as social problems.
Functionalists ignore that there are different types of family, and they focus on the nuclear family. They saw Mothers in the stay at home, housewives role, and they saw Fathers as the breadwinners, out providing for the family. ‘Murdock and Parsons argue that the family fulfils for the well-being of society first and foremost.
‘(Cunningham and Cunningham, 2014) Functionalists assume that family is positive and see the family as nuclear, however Marxists believe that the family is negative and believe that it is the extended family that reproduce and cause conflict between social classes. Functionalists also assume that family members are equal beneficially to one another, however Marxists argue that the capitalist economy depend on the family to work to produce goods that will benefit the capitalist society. Criticisms of the functionalist view such as feminists, suggest that families actually can be dysfunctional. It is argued that abuse that women and children experience is more realistic than the happy stable home in which society portrays. Some other critics believe that family breakdowns contribute to societal problems. They believe that other countries have statistically higher rates of lone parent households and divorces compared to the UK, however, the UK is characterised for its social issues and other countries are not. There were 109,959 divorces of opposite sex couples in 2016, which was an increase of 5.8% compared to 2015.
(Office for National Statistics, 2017)When linking functionalist perspectives to social work practice, it appears that the functionalist view considers the family with upmost importance to society. Social workers roles surrounding children and families, which involves ideally keeping children with their family. Social workers intervene where there is family breakdown, domestic violence, drug abuse and child neglect (as some examples), these are all events that may impact on a child’s well being. If a family cannot provide the necessary care for their children, then social workers need to find a suitable alternative to give children the stability they need. This could be for example, a foster placement or adoption.
Government policies attempt to fix problem families, and it is social workers that have to carry out the assessments. The ‘Troubled Families’ initiative is a policy that tries to challenge the problems that families are having, and promotes families to reproduce children to conform to today’s societal norms. The troubled families programme was created in England in April 2015, the government aims to support disadvantaged families in an effective way and aim to work with up to 400,000 families by 2020.Marxist’s believe that the nuclear family is an idea created by the elite class and the best way to get people to think and behave the way you want them too is to use ideology. Marxist’s believe that the nuclear family performs ideological functions for capitalism so that the family act in a hierarchical way. They consider that the family is an institution that will pass down their assets to their children, and reproduce class inequality as a result.
Marxist’s suggest that the family type changes with society, and the nuclear family appears only because of the needs of the capitalist system. Althusser (1971) a French Marxist, argued that in order for capitalism to survive, then people must be taught how to behave and the best way is to is use the family as a mechanism for this.Marxist believe that through socialisation, families immerse themselves into false consciousness.
They see the family as a place of conflict, and unequal relations of power with its members. Critics of Marxist theories say that overall Marxists assume individuals accept socialisation and family life, and think that the future is pre-determined. They argue that Marxists ignore family diversity in capitalist society, feminists argue that they focus too much on the social class and ignore the inequalities between men and women. They also think Marxists ignore the benefits of the nuclear family, such as both parents supporting children.Feminists believe that women’s oppression is due to Capitalism.
Barrett and McIntosh (1982) believed there is an anti-social side to the family. They believed that women were confined to their homes in the role of mothers and housewives. They also considered men to be the main perpetrators when there is domestic violence in a household.
They argue that stress is the cause of this, and this is due to the demands of trying to make ends meet financially, and poverty. Barrett and McIntosh argued that the family ideology is influential and that people who live on the outside are almost seen as a lower class. The feminist perspective is a conflict theory, and argues that the family reproduces patriarchy where the men benefit from the family. Feminists view the family as an institution in which there is power relationships. Critics of the feminist theory say that feminists make assumptions that women are victims of patriarchy and that actually some women might want to take on the role of mother and housewife. Also, critics argue that feminists (like functionalists) focus more on the nuclear family and ignore family diversity.
In conclusion, in a ‘problem family’ a mixture of sociological theories would help a social worker to understand why something might be happened and how best to move forward.Standard 13.4 HCPC Standards of Proficiency for Social Workers in England states; ‘Understand in relation to social work practice: social work theory, social work models and interventions, the relevance of psychological, environmental, sociological and physiological perspectives to understanding personal and social development and functioning.’ (HCPC, 2017)The family is a public institution and a private relationship. It is a vital part of everyday life.
It is essential for social workers to understand the key concepts of different types of families and that family cannot be defined. Social workers will be intervening in families lives and will be dealing with those who have or are experiencing violence, abuse and neglect.The family has changed over time, and the nuclear family may now be that of a minority.