Families: Functions Driving Structures
and Specialisation

Areas covered: extended description of the Nayar in showing family structure following on from function, and some other anthropological variations; then an extensive view through modernity (including criticism from history of industrialisation and of over specialisation in favour of the multifunctional, and the diversion backwards of the New Right) on to high modernity and postmodernity in changing functions affecting structure.

The drive towards or away from a nuclear family structure is arguably function led. George Peter Murdock took the view that a all of a wide variety of kinship systems retained the nuclear family within them, which he defined structurally as common residence, economic co-operation, at least two adults of both sexes having a socially approved relationship and one or more biological or adopted children (1949). This essential core structure within the variety was driven by the functional need for sexual regulation and bonding - "control and expression", reproduction of the next generation, economic tasks via a division of labour in the family that creates reward for each spouse co-operating with the other (and more bonding), and socialising children into the norms, values and beliefs of society and thus passing society on.
This rather straightjackets the variety of kinship systems into a eurocentric or western view; and many simply do not have the core structure or carry out these functions. Society and culture can arrange other methods for having children, for raising children into the culture, for having sex, and for organising the economic life.

A most radically different form of structure was created by the central kingdoms in the commoner subcastes of Nayar of Kerala (with slight variations in Cochin, and for higher caste Brahmins where vedic rites took place) in pre-British India. Because the men trained to be fighters in the village school and earnt their living by being mercenary fighters, creating uncertainty of lifespan and limited time in the locality, sex was organised on a visiting basis from the men (a woman had up to twelve Sambandham husbands, of her sub-caste in the neighbourhood but from outside her lineage - incest was taboo - and he could have any number of wives). Tools were left outside her room during sex; anyone else slept at the house's verandah. A more regular husband was expected to give her gifts at three main festivals in the year and not to do so ended the relationship. These gifts were luxuries only, as necessities came from the matrilineal group. He and others of regularity might visit along with others of a more casual acquaintance. All her husbands were called lord or achan. The matrilineal kin excluded men from forming attachments to their women, and if they did suspected them and thier kin group of sorcery. Incidentally, the woman had rights over her own sexuality regarding who could and did visit.

Reproduction followed on from the sex in the villages under the support of relatives and head man or karanavan around the woman, as did the child rearing, and economic support from the fighting went into the kinship network of relatives. A Sambandham husband would identify himself as the father (whether or not he was) by a gift and with delivery expenses paid, or it was thought that she had had relationships with a lower caste member, a Christian, a Muslim and could be expelled from the lineage or caste by the karanavan and even killed by one of the matrilineal kinsman. The child would not be accepted either. This necessity of correct rank father identification was despite and alongside the likelihood that Nayar believed that several acts of intercourse were necessary to feed the embryo and allow it to develop, and that therefore several sex partners were beneficial towards making and developing pregnancy. Here then was the importance of Hindu caste - the father had to be equal and not pollute. By the twentieth century if under suspicion she would run away to a town, even though ceremonies had altered, if no one of the sub-caste could be found to send a gift.

The woman and her lineage lived in a common house. The woman did have a life partner, married under the Talikettukalydnam rite before puberty (7 to 12 years) with a three day ritual cleansing on her own (a mock menstrual seculsion), marriage with a tali gold ornament tied around the bride's neck, and three days of the couple in seclusion afterwards (that had once included sex if she was near puberty but died out in the late nineteenth century, thus was a mock ending of virginity). This ended time together with a ritual bath to end the pollution of cohabitation, and in public the two tore a loin cloth she wore during cohabitation in half as a symbol of their purer separation. From now on the girl was known as anna or mother. After that she might only attend to him at his funeral, of importance to her in recognising the marriage, although his lineage made all the offerings. Both the wedding process and the funeral were measures against pollution to create purity. This husband brought her to maturity in honour rather than shame, and protected her place in the lineage against exclusion and even death. It also symbolised her right to take such rank of men as visiting husbands. One thus allowed them all.

So there was no core nuclear family in this case as he offered no direct economic support of her nor common residence. Children were still legitimised in this matrilocal system. Nothing else had a socially accepting riutual beyond the Talikettukalydnam and Sambandham arrangements, and the matrilineal kept its protection over the women from extra affections.
The Lakker in Burma do not recognise blood ties to the mother; so that children of different fathers but the same mother may choose each other as sexual partners.

In Tahiti women giving birth may simply hand over their children for others to adopt so that they can continue with adolescence.

In the Ashanti of West Africa two thirds of couples do not share common residence because they cannot afford to, and in any case the legal authority over children is with the wife's brother. The father should provide material support.

The New World Black family, inheriting cultural norms from Africa an due to poverty, consists largely of a woman and her children with no man involved.

The kibbutzim of Israel use the larger communal group to be idealistic and functional when making a land productive, in being both producers and consumers.
These show the wide variety of systems, without industrialisation being an issue, and so to identify a core nuclear family as universal is to arguably impose a value system and its form of functioning and ignoring what is a variety of systems and their functions where particular arrangements matter.

The issue of the functional success of these systems derives from argument about how they related to economic activity and longevity of the system. Nayar had slow change accelerated after British rule, and the marriage system functioned in the context of the needs of the mercenary system. Marriage, then, is not about a nuclear family, but a ritual establishing legitimacy to the children, and preventing illegitimacy, granting them full birth rights (as Gough asserted).
If a nuclear family is a Eurocentric and Western view, then perhaps its development ought to be viewed in complex urban and technological societies (with some historical background). The family does change as society changes in its technological level and its differentiation, and the family attempts to adapt to changes in society.
Talcott Parsons (1951) has described that families in modern society have become more specialised as agencies beyond it carry out functions once performed by the family. He called this functional differentiation.
For example, the process of industrialisation itself moved functions of production away from the family into organisations that arranged wage labour for individuals. This is why William J Goode (1963) thought that all families would become nuclear as industrialisation spread. It is a kind of nuclear family determinism.
Parsons also analysed a consequent change in structure. He took it that the family reduced in size in industrialised societies because functions moved elsewhere, due to the need for geographic mobility and because status came through merit not through family identification.
When it became smaller, the family had to organise itself in a specialised manner to work. Parsons assumed the man would work following an instrumental logic of income generation. This meant he relied on the expressive abilities of the wife who also organised the home and children. In this particularly patriarchal view, Parsons' analysis was called the warm bath theory as a kind of ironic commentary on the man's ability to have his stresses washed away thanks to his wife in an over-positive view of a loving household. Where she was supposed to find emotional support is not clear.
Prior to this specialisation families would have been larger in extended kinship systems in agrarian society.
This does not match the evidence in England. Peter Laslett (1965 and 1977) found that the nuclear family was dominant for 90% of families, and indeed the pre-existence of the nuclear family allowed movement into cities when industrialisation came. None of this however disproves co-operation amongst relatives living within reasonable distances.

Also against Parsons is Michael Anderson (1971) studying Preston in the nineteenth century who found that nearly a quarter of working class families were extended around 1850. An explanation is that they provided support for each other at a time of long hours factory work and little welfare provision, each looking after the other in times of need, passing on information, cost of living sharing and welfare support to one another. However, this change may have just been a practical continuation of what took place before: the family calling upon its extended structures at times of need. This happened in Bethnal Green (Young and Willmott, 1957).
Perhaps the trend was longer term and more continuous. William Goode sees the nuclear family through love based marriage offering the prospect of greater freedom, with individuals and families making a kind of cost-benefit analysis regarding the extent of having an extended family at any one time.
The movement away from traditional working class industrialised areas into large estates and suburbs has supported a move to nuclear families. Young and Wilmott discovered this with movement of families from Bethnal Green thirty miles to Greenleigh, Essex. People organise their leisure activities around the home, and the family is smaller.
Young and Willmott's The Symmetrical Family (1973) suggested that preindusrial families in England were producers in agriculture and cottage industries in small families assisted by the relatively young life expectancy. In early industrialisation families under conditions of stress, women in particular formed larger kinship support systems that supported men in urban industrialised work selling their labour for a wage. Thus the process of mutual assitance was developed in places like Bethnal Green.

Then came the move to the middle class and then to the working class of a privatised nuclear family as communites moved from traditional areas close by industry to suburbs. As wages have risen, middle class patterns of living have been followed by the working class in a process called stratified diffusion. In the symmetrical family, husbands became more involved in home life domestic duties. They expected the male to become more career based and the wife to become more domesticated, based on stratified diffusion in looking at managers' lives.
This copying middle class patterns is much criticised as even in working class privatised houses there is a distinctive working class culture. The sharing of domestic duties is not likely to have come about quite so clearly (to diversify again) and there still may be kinship contacts on estates, and indeed over long distances given better communications (sometimes called the modified extended family after Eugene Litwak). A great dynamic towards maintaining an extended family network is the still maintained responsibility towards the elderly who rely on other family members to maintain quality of life as their faculties decline, particularly parents and children (Graham Allan, 1985). This demand is reinforced by longer lives. Some younger people, however, reject the obligation that others feel. This care falls upon women; it is again they who extend kinship contacts.
So Parsons' claims either do not apply or are to be treated with care due to the complexity of family developments according to the historical approach and alternative analysis.
Nevertheless, what allows a nuclear family to exist is a specialisation of functions that follows on from the technological developments that facilitate specialised labour and differentiation of society. Urban society is also, potentially, remote society as we see different people at different times for different purposes (unlike village life) so that anonymity is possible. The nuclear family can be an extension of relative anonymity into the privatised world of urban and suburban life.
As society industrialises and becomes more urban in form, roles become separated out. With differentiation, roles that were once held within families that used to force kinship connections to exist in necessary support can be carried out by other agencies. So a truly nuclear family becomes possible. William J. Goode saw this as a trend for all societes as industrialisation spread.
Parsons argues that in contemporary life there are two basic and irreducible functions. These are primary socialisation, or the raising of children into cultural norms, values and beliefs, so that society came into them, and stabilisation of adult personality (soap), which relates back to the warm bath quip and its gender specialisation.
A critic of Parsons' limitation down to two functions, Ronald Fletcher (1966) points out that families are multifunctional. Families regulate sexual behaviour, provide a responsible basis for procreation and rearing children, socialisaing children, caring for the dependents. Many of these functions are available outside the family, but many families still do them. So they carry out non-essential as well as essential functions. He sees three essential functions of the family in giving a stable environment for sexual needs and activity, producing and carefully raising children, and providing a satisfactory home. Non-essential functions include those of government, economy, education, health, religion and recreation carried out in part in the family. Nevertheless, as the family has fewer essential functions, the demand on performance grows.
Whilst the New Right idealises the family of Parsons and Murdock, functionalists are prepared to say that with social change the diversity of family structures allows functional outcomes. Arguably social norms have shifted (an example is government introducing civil partnership ceremonies for gay couples) and there is more flexibility on recognising the diversity of families.

The Conservative Party, a home for the New Right, makes an effort against that view to incorporate the diversity of family types in an effort to become more relevant politically. This shows a failure of the New Right to impose its agenda and policies that would discriminate against diverse families to favour the nuclear family traditionally understood. The New Right argument is sociobiological, in seeing the mother having primarily a nurturing role and the father an instrumental role. By cutting state services and promoting the nucelar family, the New Right hopes for fewer social problems such as delinquent children.

However, if the functionalists are right, then the services of the state are needed to work well so that families can draw on these provisions so that the system of society can promote a functional outcome better in terms of raised children and contented adults.
The diversity of family life is a feature of late or high modernity, argues Anthony Giddens. People can choose an identity with more freedom (or private space) to shape their own lives. For Giddens, Confluent love is where people are committed for as long as the pleasure and satisfaction lasts, and when this stops the relationship is ended. In criticism, some family types do not come simply from choice, either due to circumstance of pregnancy, poverty or sexual orientation.

Judith Stacey (1996) has a postmodern view of the family, taking high modernity further, which means no one aspires to one model, and the form of family chosen suits particular needs: a localised functionalism perhaps and society in flux.
At this point one can return to the importance of the Nayar. This established marriage as legitimising children. If the variety of families is growing in acceptance and definition as a family, then the issue is legitimacy of family, marriage and any children. The discussion remains what is taboo and what is specifically made acceptable by passing through some form of recognised ritual in order to legitimise both family, relationship and children. When there is no ritual a further issue is raised as to how legitimisation becomes conferred.


Allan, G. (1985), Family Life, Oxford: Blackwell.

Fletcher, R. (1966), The Family and Marriage in Britain, Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Goode, W. J. (1963), World Revolution and Family Patterns, New York: Free Press.

Gough E. K. (1952), 'Changing Kinship Usages in the Setting of Political and Economic Change among the Nayars of Malibar', Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, 82, pp. v87.

Gough, E. K. (1959), 'The Nayars and the Definition of Marriage', Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, [Online], Available World Wide Web, URL: http://orion.oac.uci.edu/~dbell/html/body_gough.html. [Accessed October 23, 2005, 16:06]

Laslett, P. K. (1965), The World We Have Lost, London: Methuen.

Michael Anderson (1971), 'Family, Household and the Industrial Revolution', Anderson, M. (ed.) (1992), Sociology of the Family, Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Murdock, G. P (1949), Social Structure, New York: Macmillan.

Parsons, T. (1951), The Social System, New York: Free Press.

Peter Laslett (1977), Family Life and Illicit Love in Earlier Generations, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Stacey, J., (1996), In the Name of the Family: Rethinking Family values in the Postmodern Age, Boston: Beacon Press.

Young, M., Willmott, P. (1957), Family and Kinship in East London, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Young, M., Willmott, P. (1973), The Symmetrical Family, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.


Adrian Worsfold

Pluralist - Liberal and Thoughtful