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.
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The Bundle contains the following:
- 50 pages of revision notes covering all of the sub-topics within families and households
- mind maps in pdf and png format – 9 in total, covering perspectives on the family
- short answer exam practice questions and exemplar answers – 3 examples of the 10 mark, ‘outline and explain’ question.
- 9 essays/ essay plans spanning all the topics within the families and households topic.
The Marxist Perspective on the Family
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Marxists see the role of the family quite differently to that of functionalists.
Marxism is a challenging theory to understand therefore before you read anymore content on the Marxist view of the family it’s best if you get a broader understanding of Marxism. complete with a powerpoint explaining Marxism at an accessible level.
At a very basic level Marxists believe the nuclear family is a tool of the ruling class, an institution used to teach its members to submit to ruling class authority.
Early on Marx saw the family as a mechanism through which private property (a key part of capitalism) could be passed on heirs – as parents living in a monogamous relationship would know who impregnated whom!!! This way it was an ideal mechanism for the proof of paternity. You can see how much women were second-class citizens in the Victorian period, as they married in order in achieve economic security in exchange for sex and providing heirs.
Althusser (1971) a French Marxist, argued that in order for capitalism to survive people must be taught how to think
and behave, and the family (as well as schools and the mass media) was the best mechanism for doing this. Marxists argue ideology is the best tool (Marxism is known as an instrumental approach) for getting people to think and behave in a way you want them to.
Therefore through the process of socialisation family immerses its members into a false consciousness (for example unlike functionalists which see the family as a harmonious institution, Marxists see the family as a place of conflict, with unequal relations of power between its members. This becomes analogous to the inequalities in society).
Contemporary Marxists like Zaretsky (1976) add more weight to the argument the family is simply there as an aid to capitalism because:
- the capitalist system is built on the domestic labour of housewives who produce future workers
- at the same time, the family consumes the products of capitalism, which perpetuates the profits for the ruling-class
Criticisms – this traditional Marxist perspective is now seen as very dated as it fails to recognise all the other reasons women get married. Indeed these day’s women are far less likely to get married, especially for economic security, or if they do choose to marry they do so for love and affection.
Test your knowledge here test-knowledge-of-the-family-4