Saturday, April 7, 2012

How important is having some sort of definition of the family to our understanding of the family’s role in society?

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The role of family has had a significant influence on individuals since the beginning of mankind, and still to this very day. The quality of our social relationships in groups such as family members or friends is the standard against which many of us judge the quality and happiness of our lives. Group connections provide individuals a sense of well being and hence form loyalty and responsibility towards others. The family is the most important one of all the groups that we belong. This essay aims to find the importance of having some sort of definition of the family to our understanding of the family’s role in society and how definitions of the family can be used to support particular beliefs about what kind of society we should have, and whether we still need families.


Family provides relationships that give an individual a sense of identity and personal history. They also carry out tasks that keep society orderly and stable. The two main functions family perform are primary socialisation and personality stabilisation. Primary socialisation is the process whereby the children learns and internalises the cultural norms of the society into which they are born. The family is especially important throughout their childhood years because this is where their human personality is developed. Personality stabilisation refers to the role that the family plays in assisting adult family members emotionally.


Families can be found in every human society and they all provide societal needs � primary socialisation and personality stabilisation. Across cultures however, the way families go about meeting these needs � their structure, customs, patterns of authority, and so on � differ widely, and hence the ideas about what a family is and how people should behave within it are culturally determined. One “cannot speak of ‘a family’ as if there was only one model of family life that is more or less universal.” This is why it is important for sociologists, politicians and the community to understand and use concepts and definitions to help categorise things and consequently make welfare policies targeted to these categories.


Families in societies have seen many shifts in family patterns. Over the past several decades there have been changes that would have been unimaginable in earlier generations. The role of the family has certainly diversified. Each family have their own values, beliefs, norms and attitudes that underpin assumptions about what a family should be like, as evidenced by numerous statistical data on different cultures, such as racial background, lone parent, social class, religion etc. In Britain after World War II, the vision for the British welfare state was predicated on a patriarchal conception of families - the father being the bread winner and the mother being the house wife. Family definitions such as the “patriarchal conception of families” were important during that time because it helped sociologists, politicians, and policy makers to understand and take necessary action to create welfare programmes designed around this traditional family model. The result was a welfare state that was seen as promoting national solidarity which integrated the nation by providing a common set of services to the entire population. Welfare was a way of strengthening the connection between the state and population. The welfare state managed risks that may occur in life and was like a type of insurance that could be employed against the potential troubles of an unpredictable future. Unemployment, illness and other misfortunes in the country’s social and economic life could be managed through the welfare state. “Functionalists theorists held that welfare systems helped to integrate society in an orderly way under the conditions of advanced industrialisation.” The British welfare system back then not only supported this traditional family model but also provided services for families where the male breadwinner was absent.


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In the 180s however, the welfare state was reformed. This was due to the notion of welfare dependency, where people became dependent on the welfare state and were “not just materially dependent, but psychologically dependent on the arrival of the welfare payment.” and “instead of taking an active attitude towards their lives, they tend to adopt a resigned and passive one, looking to the welfare system to support them.” The then British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher promoted individual initiatives and self sufficiency as core values. This again stresses the importance of having some sort of definition of the family.


The simple fact that families provide primary socialisation and personality stabilisation shows the need for families. Primary socialisation includes necessary human skills like socially acceptable behaviour, and personality stabilisation where an adult may turn to his family in times of difficulty for emotional support. These days families living in post-industrial societies have become less integrated and connected to each other, due to careers being more mobile and people more readily willing to relocate, and thus more likely to break ties with friends than say, a century ago.


Times have certainly change, the nature of personal relationships, marriage and family patterns have become tumultuous against the backdrop of a rapidly changing world. Families are diverse in structure and have always faced difficulties plays a crucial role in protecting its members from economic hardship, political upheaval and social change. As the world is overwhelming, impersonal, abstract and rapidly changing, love has become increasingly important as Beck and Beck-Gernsheim states, “love is the only place where people can truly find themselves and connect with each other.” , which is provided by the family.


Giddens, A., Sociology (4th edition), Polity Press, 001


Newman, D., Sociology Exploring the architecture of everyday life, Sage Publications, Inc., 00


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