Theoretical Perspectives on Marriage and Family

Learning Outcomes

  • Differentiate between theoretical perspectives on marriage and family

Theoretical Perspectives on Marriage and Family

Sociologists study families on both the macro and micro level to examine this important and universal social institution. Sociologists may use a variety of theoretical perspectives to explain events that occur within and outside of the family.


When considering the role of family in society, functionalists begin with the importance of families as formative social institutions that play a key role in stabilizing society. They also examine the statuses and roles that family members take on in marriages and/or families. The family—and its members—perform certain systemic functions that facilitate the prosperity and development of society.

Sociologist George Murdock conducted a survey of 250 societies and determined that there are four universal residual functions of the family: sexual, reproductive, educational, and economic (Lee 1985). According to Murdock, the family included adults of both sexes at least two of whom maintain a socially approved sexual relationship and one or more more children (including any adopted children), which is the traditional definition of a nuclear family. Here is an overview of these functions: 

  1. Sexual: families regulate sexual relations between individuals and offer a socially legitimate sexual outlet for adults.
  2. Reproductive: the sexual outlet within a family gives way to reproduction, which is a necessary part of ensuring the survival of society.
  3. Educational: the family plays a vital role in training children for adult life and as the primary agent of socialization and enculturation, the family teaches young children the ways of thinking and behaving that follow social and cultural norms, values, beliefs, and attitudes. The educational component includes gender roles.
  4. Economic: economic roles within the (nuclear) family are related to physical and psychological differences between males and females, with females being better suited to domestic work.

Functionalists examine the division of labor within a family by distinguishing between instrumental and expressive roles. Instrumental roles typically involve work outside of the family that provides financial support and establishes family status. Expressive roles typically involve work inside of the family which provides emotional support and physical care for children (Crano and Aronoff 1978). In many societies, males assume the instrumental role and females assume the expressive role; however, as the structure of the family has changed over time, along with changing values and norms related to gender identity, these roles are not so easily categorized by gender.

According to functionalists, the traditional differentiation of the roles on the basis of sex, as in Murdock’s heterosexual nuclear family, ensures that families are well balanced and coordinated. When family members move outside of these roles, the family is thrown out of balance and must recalibrate in order to function properly. For example, if the father assumes an expressive role such as providing daytime care for the children, the mother must take on an instrumental role such as gaining paid employment outside of the home in order for the family to maintain balance and function.

Critiques of this theory are that it does not adequately address today’s family structure. In single parent homes, same-sex couples, and in grandfamilies, these roles are not neatly divided by gender; however, the family is not dysfunctional and there are many ways to fulfill the four universal functions of the family in these variations.

Conflict Theory

Just as functionalists are examining the ways in which a particular social institution operates and fulfills important tasks–or functions–for societies, conflict theorists are looking at the mechanisms through which these same social institutions reproduce systems of inequality at a macrosociological level. Within families, conflict theorists highlight the role of power in family life and contend that the family is often not a haven, but rather an arena where power struggles occur. This exercise of power often entails the gender role performances described above. Conflict theorists may study conflicts as simple as the enforcement of rules from parent to child, which in turn perpetuate gender inequalities. For example, boys may be negatively sanctioned for crying while girls are positively sanctioned for the same act. Conflict theorists, particularly feminist theorists, examine domestic violence (spousal and child), sexual assault, marital rape, and incest and theorize how these disproportionate, violent acts against women and girls provide a home for sexism and violence that we see in society.

The first study of marital power was undertaken in 1960. Researchers found that the person with the most access to value resources held the most power. As money is one of the most valuable resources, men who worked in paid labor outside of the home held more power than women who worked inside the home (Blood and Wolfe 1960). Conflict theorists find disputes over the division of household labor to be a common source of marital discord. Household labor offers no wages and, therefore, no power. Studies indicate that when men do more housework, women experience more satisfaction in their marriages, reducing the incidence of conflict (Coltrane 2000). In general, conflict theorists tend to study areas of marriage and life that involve inequalities or discrepancies in power and authority, as they are reflective of the larger social structure. Arlie Hochschild’s research on couples led her to publish The Second Shift (1989), which described a second shift, or the labor performed at home in addition to labor in the traditional, external work sectors. Basically, she found that in couples where both men and women work outside the home, women came home and started an additional shift that included cooking, cleaning, caring for children, and a variety of other domestic tasks. In contrast, male partners completed their first shift and typically came home and did not do much additional work. This type of imbalanced division of labor helped sociologists to explain the shifting dynamics in a home where both adults work outside the home and the ways in which gender roles norms are contested.

Symbolic Interactionism

Interactionists view the world in terms of symbols and the meanings assigned to them (LaRossa and Reitzes 1993). The family itself is a symbol. To some, it is a father, mother, and children; to others, it is any union that involves respect and compassion. Interactionists stress that family is not an objective, concrete reality. Like other social phenomena, it is a social construct that is subject to the ebb and flow of social norms and ever-changing meanings.

Consider the meaning of other elements of family: “parent” is a symbol of a biological and emotional connection to a child. However, with more parent-child relationships developing through adoption, remarriage, or a change in guardianship, the word “parent” today is less likely to be associated with a biological connection than with whoever is socially recognized as having the responsibility for a child’s upbringing. Similarly, the terms “mother” and “father” are no longer rigidly associated with the meanings of caregiver and breadwinner. These meanings are more free-flowing, and reflect changing family roles.

Interactionists also recognize how the family status roles of each member are socially constructed, playing an important part in how people perceive and interpret social behavior. Interactionists view the family as a group of role players or “actors” that come together to act out their parts in an effort to construct a family. These roles are open to interpretation. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, a “good father,” for example, was one who worked hard to provide financial security for his children. Today, a “good father” is one who takes time outside of work to promote his children’s emotional well-being, social skills, and intellectual growth—in some ways, a much more daunting task.

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Watch the selected clip from this video to review how each of the schools of thought think about family and marriage.

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expressive roles:
roles that typically involve work inside of the family which provide emotional support and physical care for children
instrumental roles:
roles that typically involve work outside of the family that provide financial support and establish family status
second shift:
labor performed at home in addition to labor in the traditional work sectors