Culture

Sociology of Family: Theory Overview

Symbolic interaction looks at how people interact with one another and communicate with symbols and gestures. Families are seen as a unity of interacting personalities, with each member having a social role. Over time, our interactions and relationships define the nature of our family and our identities emerge from the interplay between our unique selves and our social roles.

Social exchange theory examines actions and relationships in terms of costs and benefits.We undertake exchanges—many of them unconscious—to maximize rewards and minimize costs; in interpersonal relationships, resources, rewards, and costs are likely to be things like love, companionship, status, and power rather than tangibles like money. Participants have to see exchanges as fair and equitable in order for the relationship to endure. These exchanges can be cooperative or competitive, and they take on a long-term character in marriage and family relationships.

Structural functionalism is a theory that looks at how society works, how families work, and how families relate to larger society and to their own members. The family is viewed as a subsystem of society (along with other subsystems, such as religion) that provides new members for society through procreation and socialization. This theory also looks at how the family organizes itself for survival and what functions the family performs for its members. According to this theory men develop instrumental traits (task-oriented) and women develop expressive traits (emotion-oriented).

Conflict theory maintains that life involves discord; society is divided rather than cooperative. In addition to love and affection, conflict and power are fundamental to marriage and family relationships. According to this theory, conflict is a natural part of family life and not necessarily bad. Everyone in the family has power through sources such as legitimacy, money, physical coercion, and love, although the degree of power each family member has may vary. Solutions to conflict occur through communication, bargaining, and negotiations.

Family systems theory sees the family as a structure of related subsystems; each carries out certain functions. An important task of subsystems is maintaining boundaries; when these boundaries become blurred the family becomes dysfunctional. According to this theory, interactions must be studied in the context of the family system, and the family system is a purposeful one striving for homeostasis (that is, equilibrium).

Feminist perspective is not a unified theory, but represents thinking across the feminist movement. It includes a variety of viewpoints that focus on the inequity of power between men and women in society, and especially in family life.

Family development theory looks at changes in the family throughout the life cycle. Eight stages (beginning family, childbearing families, families with preschool children, families with schoolchildren, families with adolescents, families as launching centers, families in middle years, and aging families) bring universal developmental challenges to individuals. This theory looks at tasks, changing roles, and changes in family responsibilities and needs.

Men’s studies: Instead of assuming that gender matters only to women, this perspective understands men, also, as gendered beings. This body of literature explores how gender shapes men’s lives in relation to the family, in their roles as fathers, husbands, and sexual partners.

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