Structural-Functional Theory

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Structural-Functional Theory

Jennie McIntyre (1966) was the first scholar to discern the curious paradox of structural functionalism (SF) within the realm of research and theory about families. Although only a relatively few researchers in the 1960s labeled themselves as SF-types, the great bulk of published work in the study of families was, she noted, shaped by SF assumptions, perspectives, and views of the social world. She did not, however, attempt to account for that contradiction and, in any case, by the 1970s, functionalist theory was overtly abandoned throughout the social sciences. Subsequently, in today's articles and books about families, the explicit use of functionalist jargon has largely vanished. Nevertheless, the fact that by the early twenty-first century SF was formally eradicated in no way diminished its potency. Its continuing influence on the ways research and teaching are carried out, and its impact on public policies for families, are as robust as ever before. Indeed, there is no other single theoretical perspective that seriously rivals it. Despite the range of theories that ostensibly replaced it (Doherty 1999; Vargus 1999), SF remains tenaciously in place. Although virtually no one today would call her or himself a functionalist, SF stands unchallenged in terms of sway it holds over the realm of research and theory about families.

To be sure, like other ancient life forms that have managed to survive, SF has mutated over time. And like those other primordial life forms, its survival is owed in part to its adaptive capabilities. The forms SF took in the 1950s and 1960s came almost exclusively from the imagination of Talcott Parsons (1955); these forms were elaborated by his students (Bell and Vogel 1960; Pitts 1964). Parsons reasoned that the post–World War II isolated nuclear family style was the final culmination of a long journey—the end point of an evolutionary process that had been occurring for several hundred years. He called the process structural differentiation, and it coincided with the process of industrialization in the West. Just as the West had evolved from the agricultural to the industrial age, Parsons reasoned that the post–World War II family style had evolved from extended into what he called isolated nuclear.

The extended style referred to an array of husband-wife households linked both by blood and a network of mutual support. Often, though not always, the households were situated in relative proximity and were frequently (although not always) engaged in shared agricultural pursuits. By contrast, the post–World War II isolated nuclear family style was urban-based and, said Parsons, referred to a heterosexual, and parenting, couple only ever married to each other. The husband's principal roles were good provider and instrumental task-leader, and the woman's were good wife/mother and expressive leader (nurturing agent) for her husband and children. In his role as task-leader, the husband held ultimate household authority.

But if households were predominantly husband-wife in both the extended and in the nuclear styles, what momentous evolutionary change had occurred corresponding to the shift from the agricultural to the industrial age? Unfortunately, Parsons used the misleading term isolated to capture what in fact was a highly significant difference. He emphasized that, unlike husband-wife households in the agricultural era, the post–World War II husband-wife household was independent from the day-to-day control and ultimate authority of its blood kin. Its autonomy was indicated by a high degree of privacy. And because its boundaries were deemed sacrosanct, happenings within the household were concealed from the prying eyes of kin, friends, and neighbors.

The household gained its independence from kin control, he said, owing to the nature of industrial society. Because the husband could obtain financial wherewithal from sources other than his kin, he and his wife and children were no longer dependent on them. Because it was typically in the household's own best interest to declare their independence from their kin, they did so. Furthermore, the booming postwar economy, including its suburban explosion, made this autonomous household style more of a reality for more citizens than ever before. Parsons emphasized it was not the wife's place to pursue occupational achievement in the marketplace. Her mission was to provide a haven for her husband, to nurture her children, and, when possible, to be active in her community (Seeley et al. 1955). Parsons' views regarding rigidly divergent gender roles were molded by his acquiescence to Freud's deterministic notions of biology and psychology, including Freud's most famous—"Anatomy determines destiny."

Importantly, Parsons believed the post–World War II isolated family style represented the summit of social evolution in the same manner that "American society has reached the maximum level of industrialization" (Pitts 1964, p. 88). He took it for granted that family evolution had come to a halt, and he regarded its outcome as the normal or standard family—the definitive gauge against which all other forms of families were measured and, invariably, found wanting (Parsons 1965). He could not imagine that the postwar isolated family style might not be the end of the line. He did not envision the social evolution of families as a never-ending process. For functionalists of that era, the proposition that there could be a transition from industrial to postindustrial societies, and the thesis that there might be an accompanying transition from industrial to postindustrial families, seemed equally preposterous. The corollary to this position was that development would have uniform effects for all families regardless of culture.

Structural functionalism got backed into the absurd position of calling a halt to social change in part because of the flawed way in which it conceived of social evolution. Owing to its roots in nineteenth-century organicism (Turner 2001), SF believed that social changes come about mainly via economic, political, demographic, and technological forces over which individuals have virtually no volition or control. Those several forces were seen as the analogue of chance genetic mutation and natural selection found in biological evolution. Accordingly, the post–World War II isolated family style evolved quite apart from the choices of citizens. Their only viable option was to conform to that style.

Indeed, Parsons had a profound suspicion of individuals making any choices other than to conform to cultural guidelines. He believed that without clear norms to guide them, men and women would behave in a utilitarian or self-interested manner, that is, one that would be dysfunctional for both children and society. Parsons argued that Western societies possessed an exemplary culture consisting of a set of "dominant values" and norms to which people should conform. Men and women, for example, who conform to the norms prescribed above for their instrumental and expressive roles, respectively, produce healthy children. In essence, conformity is the root of social order, as indicated by healthy families and a healthy society. Conversely, failure to conform, or deviance, results in social pathology.

There seems little doubt that the sharpest contrast between SF and the theoretical perspectives that in the 1970s formally replaced it is their take on people's choices, that is, the issue of human agency. As one of Parsons' critics put it,

In Parsons' writing there is no true embrace of the idea that structure is being continuously opened up and reconstructed by the problem-solving behavior of individuals responding to concrete situations. (Selznick 1961, p. 934)

The quagmire that SF got into owing to Parsons's wariness of human agency was made even worse because of its other set of historic roots in philosophical realism (Turner 2001). Parsons and his students reified the post–World War II isolated nuclear family style. They assigned a corporeal or material reality to a set of social patterns—a mere sociological abstraction. Furthermore, Parsons was convinced there was an ideal fit between this reified family entity and the industrial society of his day. Hence, because he could not see beyond the industrial epoch, he was blinded to anything beyond his reified family style.

However, when women and men in the 1960s and 1970s began in earnest to make choices about sexuality, abortion, labor force participation, children, marriage, divorce, cohabitation, homosexuality, and so on, that ran counter to the prescribed norms above, SF found itself in a entirely untenable position. Because SF had no theoretical insights explaining how persons could create or invent new norms via creative problem solving, SF was left with nothing to do but to mark the behaviors of growing numbers of people as "deviant." But that sterile label went nowhere, and throughout the social sciences, SF was spurned in large part for the reason Selznick implied—it had no compelling mechanism to account for the complex interplay of social change and social order.

After SF got its decent burial, researchers in the 1970s turned their attention to the new and innovative ways women and men were creating relationships and families (Sussman 1972; Sussman and Cogswell 1972; Macklin and Rubin 1983; Scanzoni 1972, 2001b). And for awhile, it looked as though SF might remain extinct. The old SF question, "How do we get people to conform to prescribed values and norms?" was gradually being overtaken and replaced by a new theoretical question: "How do people and groups go about inventing different ways of doing relationships, families, and parenting?" The long-term process of social change that Parsons erroneously believed had terminated in the 1950s was in fact ongoing, and researchers were eager to study it.

But, strangely enough, a funny thing happened in pursuit of their new question. The counterrevolution that Margaret Mead (1967) predicted came to pass. In the United States, religious, social, and political conservatives joined forces in the 1970s and 1980s for the purpose, first of all, of successfully derailing the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). The basis for their success was functionalist to the core—the ERA, they charged, would result in innumerable social pathologies. Quite apart from the ERA, the New Right highlighted sharply increasing divorce rates and alleged widespread sexual promiscuity as evidence that the changes begun in the "corrosive 60s," combined with what they saw as the "narcissism" of the 1970s, were taking a heavy toll on the "standard family" (Scanzoni 1989, 1991). However, in Scandinavia and other parts of northern Europe, no counter-revolution has occurred. Owing perhaps to the absence of the U.S.-type coalition of conservative forces, SF remained moribund. European researchers continued to examine the ways in which persons were creating innovative ways of doing families (Gravenhorst 1988; Horelli and Vespa 1994; Scanzoni 2000).

At the same time (1980s and 1990s), U.S. researchers began to shy away from investigating the conditions of innovation and turned instead to examining the correlates of deviation from established norms. They were warned in ominous terms that heterosexual cohabitation, for example, was associated with marital instability. Even gloomier was the assertion that children from one-parent families, and children with employed mothers, might be liable to innumerable defects of one sort or another. Those alleged conclusions, alongside other kinds of allegations, fed on each other so that now that style of work—the dysfunctions of deviance—has almost entirely trumped research questions about innovation.

Parsons' ghost lives in our midst. Many researchers today are, inadvertently to be sure and without calling it SF, utilizing a functionalist agenda. For all too brief a period, the most exciting research question in the field was "How are people or groups—within a milieu that either enables or constrains them—able or not to bring about changes in families" (Giddens 1984)? Now, however, efforts to explore the ways in which families might continue to evolve away from the uniformity of the post–World War II isolated nuclear style toward arrangements characterized by diversity (variety of arrangements within the household alongside external household connectedness) are in the distinct minority (Scanzoni 2000, 2001a, in press). Although contemporary researchers throughout the world seldom use Parsons' terminology, they are nonetheless quite busy documenting the dysfunctions of deviance from appropriate norms.

Some researchers, like David Popenoe (1996), are more radical in their agenda. He seems intent on overtly restoring SF to the pinnacle of theories about families. Unlike most other writers, his 1996 essay makes generous use of functionalist jargon and is almost totally governed by SF logic. To be sure, he manages a few slight concessions to the changes of recent decades. For example, although he proposes a neo-standard family, it is in almost every important aspect merely a rehashing of Parsons' standard family (Scanzoni 2001b). Popenoe simply disregards the prevailing theories in social science today, most of which consider human agency to be a vital element in explaining social reality (Scanzoni and Marsiglio 1993). Instead, he tends to reify his neo-standard family and, like Parsons, to argue that deviation from culturally appropriate values and norms spawns social pathology.

Although Popenoe is unlikely to succeed in his quest at overt SF restoration, he and many others are responsible for reinvigorating SF's latest influence. But the question remains—why have SF-type research issues gotten so popular? In the 1950s, SF critics charged that it was imbued with a conservative social, economic, and political ideology (Merton 1957). The critics said there was a natural affinity between conservative public policy aimed maintaining the status quo, and a social theory that could not explain social change. The affinity between SF and conservative ideology was made even more apparent, said the critics, when SF labeled change as deviance and viewed it as a catalyst for social pathology.

Today, religious, social, and political conservatives have joined forces not simply to maintain the status quo when it comes to families. Instead, they want to turn back the clock to an earlier time when there were no viable alternatives to the standard family (Council on Families in America 1995). Popenoe, although he does not explicitly endorse the idea of going back, comes awfully close by saying that his reader would probably agree with the statement that, "In many ways, 'things are not as good as they were when I was growing up'" (Popenoe 1996, p. 254).

Idealizing the past is a core conservative theme, and the question is—although it cannot be answered here—does conservative ideology describe a certain proportion of those who teach, study, and write about families? And does that same ideology characterize a ratio of those who make policy recommendations for families? Presuming there is an affinity between conservative ideology and SF offers one possible explanation for the remarkable tenacity of SF in the field of studies about families. Moreover, such an affinity illustrates once again that the scholar's own beliefs and values play a major role in influencing the scientific research questions she or he asks.

Order and innovation exist, obviously, on a continuum. Conservatives are found to its center and right, believing that individual and social wellbeing are enhanced by a blend of order and innovation that favors that former. Scholars who believe in that formula would feel quite at home with SF even though they never use its jargon. On the other hand, scholars (to the center and left of the continuum) who believe that individual and social well-being are advanced by a formula favoring innovation over order do not feel the least bit comfortable with SF. They are instead much more at home with theories about families in which human agency plays a pivotal role. Research questions about the conditions of order/disorder are in the ascendance. The degree to which—if at all—that situation might change in future to one in which questions about innovation become at least as prominent would likely depend in part on the ideology of researchers now in the field, and of those recruited to it.

See also:Family Theory


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Structural-Functional Theory

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