Sociology as a field of inquiry has wide ranging applications in the understanding of human societies. While sociology does not lend itself to rigorous scientific analysis in terms of conception and verification of theories, there are indeed some proven methods of testing the veracity of theories pertaining to sociology. Sociology is usually approached from certain broad theoretical frameworks such as the Marxist approach, nationalist approach, etc. In each of these approaches, one aspect of a community is given importance to. For example, in the Marxist approach to studying sociology, the social class of an individual and his/her community is given prominence. Similarly sociology can be studied from a majority/minority perspective wherein the issues and problems faced by minority communities are given special attention. Ultimately, all these approaches have one thing in common, namely, the identification of pressing social problems and devising of ways to alleviate them. While these conceptual analyses are usually applied to large groups of people such as the inhabitants of cities, counties and states, the family could be considered the fundamental unit of society. Hence a good understanding of these interpersonal human interactions at the level of the family is essential for grasping the broader picture. The rest of this essay will delve further into various prominent theoretical perspectives with regard to the family.
Before we set out on the various leading theories with respect to family, a look at the purpose of sociological theories is warranted:
“Simply put, a theory is an explanation of a fact pattern. Social scientists generally do not develop theories to explain individual cases or incidents. Rather, theories are developed to explain how and why certain things happen, particularly when those things happen repeatedly. For example, scientists and therapists realized that a lot of couples who get divorced exhibit certain patterns of destructive conflict. Scientific theories serve a number of useful functions. Perhaps the most basic function of a theory is to explain how and why a phenomenon occurs or operates. A related function of theories is to predict when a phenomenon might or might not happen.” (Segrin, 2005)
Hence, from the above definition of a sociological theory one can see its importance in resolving family issues and alleviating interpersonal conflict between family members. An important theory relating to the institution of family is called the Family Systems theory which was derived from the broader General Systems Theory (GST), “which is a theoretical perspective developed for explaining how elements of a system work together to produce outputs from the various inputs they are given; wherein a system is nothing more than a set of elements standing in interrelation among themselves and with the environment” (Day, 2003). Two sociologists who pioneered this theoretical perspective were biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffy and mathematician and engineer Norbert Wiener. They strongly believed that the principles of GST have the potential to find application across traditional various disciplines. In other words, they asserted that concepts and processes that describe the functioning of an automobile engine (mechanical engineering) could be equally applicable to a description of the functioning of a family; thereby founding the field of family science. Another key principle of GST is that a system must be understood in its entirety. This notion, known as holism, is fundamental to all systems approaches. For example, “a system cannot be understood by merely studying each of its components in isolation from each other. There is little to be learned about the functions and outputs of an automobile engine by carefully examining the alternator and oil filter. That would not be much more useful than trying to learn about a family by carefully studying their cat and their daughter. The concept of holism implies that “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” (Segrin, 2005).
An interesting theoretical perspective was proposed by Erving Goffman, who studied the family from the backdrop of growing urbanization. With urbanization, instances of violent crime and social disorder became more common. Goffman studied the role of family in the larger urban society. While a large majority of the population are law abiding and conform to the social norms of the times, there is always an underbelly of disorderly conduct on part of a disturbed minority. As the process of urbanization takes off and more people start residing in major cities, the fissures start to appear within the apparent harmonious co-existence. There are several reasons why disorderly conduct on part of individuals and groups takes place. Some social scientists consider the family environment in which a child grows up to be a key factor in predicting teenage delinquency and street crime. Erving Goffman was one such scholar who immersed himself in the social and family environment which he was studying. He carefully observed and recorded the ways in which people’s behaviour and interpersonal interactions are carried out in everyday life. He notes that “people perform their social roles and, as they do so, they produce social order through their actions and the regular practices they engage in. Often these ways of acting and interacting are unnoticed and only become apparent when they are breached or broken. Not all social life is cooperative, some is competitive and sometimes there is conflict, but generally people are able to negotiate breaches and restore order” (Day, 2003)