Studies of the family and family life in communities and societies all over the world show that some form of family unit exists in absolutely all societies. The need for this is quite obvious in view of the fact that it takes several years after a birth for a human being to grow to a stage where he or she has acquired the necessary skills for survival. Thus the need for a secure environment such as the family unit to ensure the survival of human life.
Over the last 50 years in particular, family life and the way it is organised in different societies has been a very popular area of study for sociologists. This has resulted in a great body of information being assembled which needs to be continually updated. This term paper will discuss the place of the family in society and different forms it may take.
The family may be defined as a unit within a society where people who are related to one another, either through birth or marriage, live together. The word “family” itself can have many meanings and uses. For instance it may be used to describe any group of persons, animals, plants, or items that are related to each other in some way. This is a very simple definition, but the fact is that “family”, either in its popular or academic use, is possibly one of the most ambiguous words in the English dictionary.
The functions of the family as seen from the theoretical perspective of functionalism includes such things as: the legitimising of sexual behaviour, the care and rearing of children, the roles of husband and wife, and the provision of a safe, secure environment for the emotional needs of the family members. The belief that the family provides all or any of the above for its members, especially for children, can be as true as it is false. With this in mind it is easy to see why the functionalist approach has lost its popularity with sociologists in recent times. Family life for some people is anything but safe and secure, and the reality for a lot of men, women and children, is that the family can be a source of misery and pain. This view is supported by the continuous news reports and court cases relating to violence of a sexual, physical or emotional nature directed towards a family member by other family members. An additional failing of the functionalist approach is its failing to take on board the effects of whatever economical situation people find themselves in. As economic systems can vary greatly from society to society, they have an enormous effect on family life.
Writing about the Kgatla tribe, who live in Botswana in southern Africa, Isaac Shapera tells us that the family in this case is seen as a man, his wives, their children, and other relatives. The family units in this tribe were self-sufficient. They produced their own food, built their own houses, and assisted one another in times of personal difficulties. They also socialised together. In addition, they bartered with other families if there was something needed that they could not produce themselves. This type of economy is known as a subsistence economy, and it provides just the bare necessity for survival.
In comparison to the families living in and depending on an industrial society, those depending on a subsistence economy live in poverty. They are very vulnerable to starvation and disease and in times of freak weather conditions and natural disasters rely on each other more, as they do not have the backup of state intervention in times of great need.
Before the Socialist Revolution of October 1917 in Russia, family life was controlled by various religious groups under the tsars. When the Bolsheviks took power, they immediately took steps to reduce the power of those groups, who they saw as upholding the concerns of the bourgeoisie. Using the Marxist ideal, they attempted to liberalise marriage relationships and divorce. The new rulers saw the old ways and ideas as an obstacle to building a socialist state.
1918 saw the introduction of civil marriage in place of the religious ceremony. It was now no longer for a wife to take her husband’s name. A wife was no longer bound to live with her husband, and the prejudicial treatment of illegitimate children was abolished. By the 1920s and 1930s, family life in Russia was breaking down and was being threatened from all sides. Juvenile delinquency and promiscuity were on the rise. The Soviet press and western observers blamed the newfound sexual freedom for the breakdown of the family.
In China, the subjugation and oppression of women and young girls was carried to extreme lengths both within and outside the family. The people of this society lived by the philosophy of Confucius, which was particularly cruel to women. There were three “obediences” demanded of women: 1) when young, women were bound to obey their fathers and older brothers, 2) when married, they had to obey their husbands and 3) if widowed, they were bound to obey their sons. Women also had to possess four virtues: 1) they should know their place, 2) hold their tongue, 3) look attractive and 4) love housework. Marriages were like business arrangements, and the marriage of children was not uncommon. The selling of young girls into prostitution was also used as an alternative to marriage. Chinese women were used to produce children, and had their feet bound when they were very young to keep their movements to a minimum. Divorce was impossible for women, though a man could divorce his wife at any time.
In 1949 the People’s Republic of China was founded under the leadership of Mao Tse Tung. This brought about an immediate change. The buying and selling of young girls was prohibited, and new laws of marriage were enacted. Discrimination against illegitimate children, which was also part of this society, was forbidden, and divorce was allowed if both husband and wife wanted it, though it was not encouraged.
China today encourages its young people not to marry at a very young age, believing that education should go on until the early twenties. The early part of a person’s life should not be burdened by the responsibilities of marriage. Marriage ceremonies are very brief affairs, and only require a visit to the local government office.
A great deal of co-operation takes place between families in China, and it is not uncommon for families to be sharing such things as kitchen and bathroom facilities. In addition, the elderly members of families provide childcare and look after the domestic side of family life, allowing younger family members to work outside the home. Another point of interest is that in China the state has introduced measure whereby the burden on working women is reduced by the provision of childcare, washing and sewing facilities, and public dining facilities. Family planning, contraception, sterilisation, and abortion are freely available in China.
Because of the many and diverse societies in the world, this makes for many different types of family unit. The nuclear or conjugal family came into being as a result of the development of capitalism in western societies. It is made up of a wife, husband, and children, and though it is accepted as a modern development, parish and town records in Britain show that families of this nature have existed as far back as the 16th century. There are certain rules and values which govern the nuclear family, regardless of what society it belongs to. For example, one of these rules is that sexual relations between family members is forbidden, except between husband and wife. Some societies also prohibit divorce, as was the case in Ireland until recently. However, this prohibition, which was written into the Irish constitution in 1937, was amended in 1995.
The needs of a capitalist economy are served well by the versatile nuclear family. This versatility is assisted by the concept of “division of labour” within the family. This concept has several uses, but for the purposes of this paper, the focus will be on difference between “wage labour” and “domestic labour”. Domestic labour is taken on by one of the partners in the family, usually the woman, while wage labour is done by the other partner. The independence of the family unit and the division of labour within it is fundamental to the capitalist system. This independence from other families makes them more reliant on the capitalist system for which they provide the labour, plus they are also the market on which the system survives.
Ireland is home of many variations of family life. One of these is the “stem” family. This was made up of the parents, one of their married sons (usually the eldest), his wife and children, and his brothers or sisters. It was similar to a family type which exists within the Hindu religion and consists of married sons and their wives and children sharing the one household. In this patriarchal family the oldest male managed its affairs.
Another form of family was reported by Fox, this time on Tory Island. On this island, out of 50 recorded marriages, ten couples conformed to a system whereby the husbands and wives lived with their own parents and had a visiting relationship with their spouse.
Yet another family type which is rapidly increasing in number is the single parent family. These were initially the result of a rising divorce rate, but more recently it has gained popularity with a growing population of young mothers who have no desire to marry. It is no longer necessary for a young pregnant woman to rush into a marriage because of the stigma attached to being pregnant out of wedlock.
Family ties are not limited to the nuclear or conjugal relationship. The stem family or the Hindu joint family mentioned above is basically an expansion of the nuclear family. The term “extended family” is used by sociologists to describe that type of family which exists when a number of nuclear families live in close proximity to one another and are socialising on an ongoing basis.
The family as the primary unit of society has been discussed in this paper. It is quite clear that for the survival of humanity some form of family is vital. This reason alone is a sufficient indication of its primacy in society.
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