Examine The Marxism View Of The Family Essays

Marxists argue that the nuclear family performs ideological functions for Capitalism – the family acts as a unit of consumption and teaches passive acceptance of hierarchy. It is also the institution through which the wealthy pass down their private property to their children, thus reproducing class inequality. This post is primarily designed to help students revise for the A level sociology 7192 exam, paper 2, families and households option.

Before reading this post, you might like to look at this summary of the key ideas of Marxism

Overview of the Marxist Perspective

Marxism is a ‘structural conflict’ perspective. They see society as structured along class lines with institutions generally working in the interests of the small elite class who have economic power (the ‘Bourgeoisie’) and the much larger working class (the ‘Proletariat’). The Bourgeoise gain their wealth from exploiting the proletariat. There is thus a conflict of interests between the Bourgeoise and the Proletariat.

However, this conflict of interests rarely boils over into revolution because institutions such as the family perform the function of ‘ideological control’, or convincing the masses that the present unequal system is inevitable, natural and good.

Something else Marxists suggest about the family (like the Functional Fit theory) is that the family type generally changes with society – more specifically, the nuclear family emerges not because of the needs of industrialisation, but because of the needs of the capitalist system.

Explaining the emergence of the nuclear family – Engels

According to Engels, the monogamous nuclear family only emerged with Capitalism. Before Capitalism, traditional, tribal societies were classless and they practised a form of ‘primitive communism’ in which there was no private property. In such societies, property was collectively owned, and the family structure reflected this – there were no families as such, but tribal groups existed in a kind of ‘promiscuous horde’ in which there were no restrictions on sexual relationships.

Hunter-gatherer societies – promiscuous hordes?

However, with the emergence of Capitalism in the 18th Century, society and the family changed. Capitalism is based on a system of private ownership – The bourgeois use their own personal wealth to personally invest in businesses in order to make a profit, they don’t invest for the benefit of everyone else.

Eventually the Bourgeois started to look for ways to pass on their wealth to the next generation, rather than having it shared out amongst the masses, and this is where the monogamous nuclear family comes from. It is the best way of guaranteeing that you are passing on your property to your son, because in a monogamous relationship you have a clear idea of who your own children are.

Ultimately what this arrangement does is to reproduce inequality – The children of the rich grow up into wealth, while the children of the poor remain poor. Thus the nuclear family benefits the Bourgeois more than the proletariat.

Criticisms of Engels

Gender inequality clearly preceded Capitalism….. The vast majority of tribes in Africa and Asia are patriarchal, with women being barred from owning property, having no political power, and having to do most of the child care and hard physical labour.

Wealthy Capitalist economies such as the UK and USA have seen the fastest improvements in gender equality over the last 100 years. Capitalism, increasing wealth and gender equality within a nation seem to be correlated.

Contemporary Marxism – The family as an Ideological Apparatus

The modern nuclear family functions to promote values that ensure the reproduction and maintenance of capitalism. The family is described as an ideological apparatus – this means it socialises people to think in a way that justifies inequality and encourages people to accept the capitalist system as fair, natural and unchangeable. One way in which this happens is that there is a hierarchy in most families which teaches children to accept there will always be someone in “authority” who they must obey, which then mirrors the hierarchy of boss-worker in paid employment in later life.

Contemporary Marxism – The Family as a Unit of Consumption

Capitalists/business owners want to keep workers’ wages down so they can make a profit, but to do so they must also be able to sell the workers goods i.e. they must create demand for their products. The family builds demand for goods in a number of ways

1) Families must keep up with the material goods/services acquired by their neighbours and peers e.g. family holidays, cars – this is known “Keeping up with the Joneses”. There are significant amounts of advertising and TV programmes influencing parents in this way.

2) The media and companies target children in their advertising who then persuade their parents through pester power to buy more expensive items. This is particularly bad in the UK where there few legal restrictions on adverts aimed at children; in Sweden advertising aimed at children under 12 is illegal.

Overall Criticisms of Marxism

  • Too deterministic – it assumes people passively accept socialisation and family life, and that the future is pre-determined.
  • Ignores family diversity in capitalist society, and that many women now work full time as well
  • Feminists argue that the Marxist focus on class ignores the inequalities between men and women, which is the real source of female oppression.
  • Marxism ignore the benefits of nuclear family e.g. both parents support the children

A Level Sociology Families and Households Revision Bundle

If you like this sort of thing, then you might like my AS Sociology Families and Households Revision Bundle which contains the following:

  1. 50 pages of revision notes covering all of the sub-topics within families and households
  2. mind maps in pdf and png format – 9 in total, covering perspectives on the family
  3. short answer exam practice questions and exemplar answers – 3 examples of the 10 mark, ‘outline and explain’ question.
  4.  9 essays/ essay plans spanning all the topics within the families and households topic.

If you’re not quite as flush, how about this… just the 50 pages of accessible, user friendly, exam-focused notes for only £0.99* – from iTunes, Barnes and Noble and Kobo.

*Price will vary with dollar exchange rate

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If you like this sort of thing you might also like these revision videos on YouTube

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Capitalism is an economic system characterised by private ownership of means of production. The Marxist perspective argues that in many ways the family serves the needs of capitalism in a number of ways, ultimately benefitting the bourgeoisie and the proletariat remaining oppressed and exploited. Other perspectives however such as feminism would argue that serving the needs of capitalism is not the main aim of the family. They would argue instead that the family benefits males and reinforces a patriarchal society.

Engels argues that the nuclear family emerged as a direct result of capitalism. Primitive communism is the name given to society before capitalism had emerged. There was no private property and no family as such. Instead Engels called groups or tribes “the promiscuous horde” with no restrictions on sexual relationships. The introduction of capitalism meant that the wealthy wanted to secure control of the means of production. This brought around the monogamous nuclear family, as rich men had to ensure the paternity of their children so that they could pass down their property to legitimate heirs. This argument has been criticised by feminists who argue that this further reinforces patriarchy with women simply bearing children to provide men with legitimate heirs.

Functionalists however would dispute this view of the emergence of the nuclear family arguing instead that it came about in response to the demand of post-industrial society. Parsons functional fit theory explains how the family has evolved in keeping with the needs of society at that time. In post-industrial society when families farmed the land, they were typically extended, however after the industrial revolution the nuclear family emerged, creating a mobile workforce who could easily relocate to wherever work was available in the factories. This view has been criticised by Laslett who has argued that church records demonstrate that the extended family was already in decline and the nuclear family more popular even before the revolution, therefore cannot be seen as a direct response.

Marxists argued that the family can be seen as an ideological apparatus, helping to enforce a set of beliefs and values which ultimately benefit capitalism. For example children are bought up with a parental figure that they are taught to obey. This teaches them discipline, which will benefit their bosses when they join the workforce, but also teaches them about hierarchy and that inequality is inevitable making them less likely to question their position as an exploited proletariat when they go out to work, again benefitting capitalism. Again feminists have criticised this argument, due to the fact that children are socialised into the idea that the people in charge or at the top of the hierarchy are usually men again demonstrating that children are being socialised into gender specific roles in a patriarchal society.

Functionalists argue that rather than being an ideological apparatus spreading the ideas and values of capitalism, families benefit society as a whole through the function of primary socialisation. Functionalists argue that the family socialises children into the acceptable norms and values of society and ensures that order is maintained and deviance reduced. Marxists would challenge this view arguing that society is made up of two opposing groups, with a conflict of interests, therefore they would not interpret the family as having a positive role, or society’s agreeing on a set of shared norms and values.

Finally, Marxists argue that the family acts as a unit of consumption. The proletariat are exploited for their labour making consumer goods in factories which are then sold to them at a higher price than they were paid to produce them. Marxists argue that the family generates profits by targeting advertising at children who then use their ‘pester power’ to get goods bought by their parents. We also have a culture of ‘keeping up with the Jones’s where we consume the latest consumer products, again benefiting capitalism by lining the pockets of the bourgeoisie. However the Marxist perspective only views there being two classes, the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. Some commentators would argue that recently we have seen an emergence of an underclass who despite demonstrating a culture of unemployment, can still buy consumer goods without having to be exploited for their labour.

In conclusion the Marxist perspective has a number of compelling arguments as to how the family may serve the needs of capitalism; however it is unclear whether this argument is valid, especially in today’s diverse and rapidly changing society with a growing service sector and emergence of an underclass. Other perspectives such as feminism argue that the family does not serve the needs of capitalism, instead the needs of men, whereas functionalists focus on the positive functions of the family. Undeniably the family does hold benefits for its members by creating a supportive and loving environment for members, therefore to see it as purely benefiting capitalism would be short-sighted.

For a more accessible version of this plan, you might like to buy my AS Sociology Families and Households Revision Bundle where you’ll find a completed template like the one above…

The Bundle contains the following:

  1. 50 pages of revision notes covering all of the sub-topics within families and households
  2. mind maps in pdf and png format – 9 in total, covering perspectives on the family
  3. short answer exam practice questions and exemplar answers – 3 examples of the 10 mark, ‘outline and explain’ question.
  4.  9 essays/ essay plans spanning all the topics within the families and households topic.

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The Marxist Perspective on the Family

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