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The following lesson will cover how sociologists approach the concept of family using different sociological theories. A short quiz will follow to check your understanding.

Theoretical Analyses of Families

There are many things that we take for granted when we hear the word family, but ask yourself the following questions:Why do we as human beings even form families?Why are some families stronger than others?What even is a family?The role of sociologists is to study these and related questions to determine how families function. Furthermore, sociologists use a variety of perspectives or frameworks to explain events that occur within and outside the family. The major frameworks that sociologists use to help the questions we just posed include functionalism, conflict theory, symbolic interactionism, social-exchange theory, and feminist theory.

Each theory looks at different perspectives of a family or explains why things happen using different reasoning.

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The basic principle of functionalism is that everything in society has a purpose or function. So when a sociologist uses functionalism to look at the structure of a family, it is to determine what role families play in society or simply to try and answer why we even have a family structure in our society. Functionalists are quick to state that family is, in fact, an important social institution and plays a key role in stabilizing society. For instance, one of the roles that families serve is regulating sexual relations between people. This means that family offers a socially legitimate and accepted sexual outlet for adults. This outlet also allows for reproduction, which is a necessary part of ensuring the survival of society.

Families also serve an extremely important role in teaching children about the world and training them for adult life. For example, young children are often taught manners and told to be polite and say ‘thank you’ for things. This is because family is the primary spot where children learn cultural norms and social values, attitudes, and beliefs regarding how to behave in society.

Conflict Theory

Another way of explaining the concept of family is through the conflict theory perspective.

Just as the name implies, conflict theory states that society is always experiencing a state of tension or conflict. This view sees society as a collection of haves and have-nots, and the difference between the two results from how power and control is distributed among the groups. When using conflict theory to explain the concept of family, issues of power include how the government interacts with families and whether or not they have the power to intervene in how a family decides to function.For instance, in China, the government has a one-child per family policy, and this power that the government exerts over families is often a source of contention amongst families.

And within a family, there are also studies of how power manifests itself between two spouses or between parent and child. This can lead to more serious issues, like domestic violence. The role of money in a family may also create conflict between spouses. For example, the spouse that earns the most money often is viewed as the head authority of the family, which is often times the head male of the family.


If you saw a picture of two people with a heart in between them, you might assume that those people might share some sort of love for each other. This is because we associate the symbol of a heart to mean love.

The theory of how people apply meaning to symbols is called symbolic interactionism. Although sociologists who use this theory may not deal with visual symbols like hearts, they do look at how more abstract concepts gain meaning, like the idea of a family. For instance, symbolic-interactionism may look at what it means to be a family. Family for interactionists is not an objective, concrete reality, but rather is defined by society.This is why we’ve moved to thinking of family as a mother and father with children to family structures that include single parents, same-sex parents, or blended families.

Interactionists may also investigate such things as how we associate certain behaviors with the roles of mother and father. In the past, mothers have traditionally been seen as the caregivers of the family, and fathers have been seen as the economic breadwinners and central authority of a family. Since these roles are socially constructed, however, they can change as society’s view of what a good parent is changes.

Social Exchange Theory

It’s a common thought that all strong relationships involve some degree of give and take. Social exchange theory uses this premise to explain why things may happen in society. More specifically, social exchange theory assumes that people make decisions based on the costs and benefits they perceive from those decisions.

Additionally, it assumes that people want to minimize their costs and maximize the benefits of their choices.So if one were to use this theory in family dynamics, we would assume that exchange theory predicts that people will increase their commitment to a person if they see that they are getting more benefits than experiencing cost. Cost here does not mean money, although in some cases it can, but rather is a general term to explain all the things a person does to keep a relationship strong and whether or not those costs are returned by a partner. It can also be easy to see how social exchange theory can be used to explain the processes and choices that lead to a decision to divorce. Logically, it is because one or both people feel that they are not getting back what they are putting into a relationship.

Feminist Theory

The last theoretical perspective we will cover that may be applied to the study of families is the feminist perspective.

The term feminism is a broad term, but its most commonly used to describe the idea that power is unevenly distributed in society and that women and minorities are often oppressed or silenced because social structures support and maintain those inequalities. Feminists actively work towards equality for women and oppressed minority groups.When analyzing families, feminists view family as a historical institution that has maintained and perpetuated sexual inequalities. In fact, for a long time women had few legal rights compared to their husbands in a marriage.

For example, women were not allowed to testify in court against their husbands, and women were often treated as little more than reproductive property belonging to their husbands. There are also examples of how feminists believe that the idea of family forces a woman to be a mother and take on certain roles, such as primary caregiver, even if that’s not what they want.

Lesson Summary

The concept of a family entails many different things, so it’s necessary to use different theories to explain them. It’s also true that different perspectives can be used to provide different explanations to the same issues in families.

Some of the more common theories used in sociology when explaining the concept of family include:

  • Functionalism, which looks at what role the family plays in society
  • Conflict theory, which looks at how power creates tension between the government and families or between members of a family
  • Symbolic interactionism, which looks at how society assigns meaning to the concept of family and to the roles that exist in those families
  • Social exchange theory, which assumes that people make decisions in relationships based on the costs and benefits they perceive from those decisions, and how balanced their effort is in maintaining a relationship
  • And feminist theory, which looks at how the concept of family has traditionally brought about inequality for women and how this can be changed

Learning Outcomes

Once you’ve completed this lesson, you’ll be able to:

  • Identify some questions that help sociologists determine the functions of families
  • Explain how five common sociological theories analyze and interpret family issues differently

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