What is the family? Is it universal?
Until recently, most sociological studies of the family have been dominated by functionalist definitions of what the family is and what ‘needs’ it fulfils in society. Functionalists’ theories of the family are treated elsewhere at length (Morgan, 1975; Gittins, 1982), but it is worth examining some of their main assumptions briefly. Generally, functionalists have argued that the family is a universal institution which performs certain specific functions essential to society’s survival. Murdock, for instance, defined the family as a ‘social group characterised by common residence, economic co-operation, and reproduction. It includes adults of both sexes, at least two of whom maintain a socially approved sexual relationship, and one or more children, own or adopted, of the sexually cohabiting adults’.1 The four basic functions of the family, therefore, are seen as: common residence; economic co-operation; reproduction; sexuality. Let us examine each of these in more detail.
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