Sociology looks at the social institution of the family through many lenses, but its three dominant theoretical premises are functionalism, conflict theory, and symbolic interactionism. These theories have varying perspectives and approaches for understanding the family as a social institution.
Functionalism is an approach that views society as a system of parts working together to maintain a social equilibrium, or balance. There are several functions of the family from a functionalist perspective. One key function is to socialize children. Through the process of socialization, children learn the norms, rules, and values of their society and are shaped as members of society. Family also helps members of society shape their social identities. Another important function of families is to regulate sexual reproduction. From the functionalist perspective, changes that threaten the stability of families can also threaten to fracture social norms and society at large. Divorce can represent a potential threat to social stability, whereas marriage contributes to social stability. On the other hand, divorce is not always dysfunctional. For example, in the United States the divorce rate increased after the women's rights movement of the 1960s led to significant social changes. One result was that women, having greater access to the workforce and thus greater financial independence, could more easily leave abusive relationships. Divorce can thus also be understood as increasing social order, because it can lead to greater stability for individuals and families.
Conflict theory posits that society is characterized by conflict between social groups. Groups with unequal power and competing interests compete for scarce resources. Conflict theorists look at how families function within a society to perpetuate structural inequalities. Conflict theory considers the ways that conflict and competition among different social groups shape society as a whole. This perspective suggests that the family structure contributes to social inequality because it supports economic and gendered inequality by reinforcing patriarchal values. For example, intergenerational transmission of wealth within families creates and maintains inequality. Being born into wealth confers a privileged social status, while being born into poverty entails lack of privilege. In considering domestic violence, conflict theory might focus on how women and children, who have less social, economic, and political power, are the principal victims of family violence.
Symbolic interactionism is a view of social behavior that emphasizes subjective understanding and the interactions of the individual and society. This approach analyzes the scripts that a society provides or expects from families. Each society, or community, has a certain script for what a traditional family looks like. Newer family forms are considered deviant, not because they are bad, but because they are fewer in number and may not operate in ways in which many are comfortable. For example, a stay-at-home father is someone who does not follow the social script about families, men, and fathers. In some societies, this is true of mothers who work full time or for people in interracial marriages. Symbolic interactionism looks at what a society understands as a traditional family and what it means for people to reject or stray from that social script.
Issues related to family and family life can be analyzed using each of these three sociological approaches. For example, in considering the issue of housework, a functionalist analysis would focus on the necessity of the work. Conflict theory would analyze how the work is disproportionately shouldered by women. An approach using symbolic interactionism would look at how the meaning is given to the work and how these meanings evolve.
Theoretical Perspectives on Families