M. Haralambos, in his book, Sociology: Themes and Perspectives, makes a review of the definition of family from the functionalist perspective involving three main questions. Firstly, what are the functions of the family? Answers to this question deal with the contributions made by the family to the maintenance of the social system.
It is assumed that ‘society has certain functional prerequisites or basic needs that must be met if it is to survive and operate efficiently. A second and related question asks, what are the functional relationships between the family and other parts of the social system? It is assumed that there must be a certain degree of integration and harmony between the parts of the social system if society has to function efficiently.
The third question is connected with the functions performed by an institution or a part of society for the individual. In the case of the family this question considers the functions of the family for its individual members.
Actually, the functional perspective does not consider family in isolation from other institutions of the society. Its structure and functions are related to other parts of the social system. Such an approach to family quite suitably applies to the study of primitive society.
Yet another functional approach to family is suggested by Ezra F. Wogel and Norman W. Bell. Their argument is that functionalists have a limited approach to family. They focus solely on the positive aspects of this institution. These scholars take a departure from this approach.
On the strength of data collected from American families they generalized that the family has truly some functions for the society but it disturbs the children. The child is made a scapegoat. He/she is emotionally disturbed by the tense relations of his parents. Wogel and Bell write:
The child is thus used as an emotional scapegoat by parents to relieve their tension. For example, in one case, a son was criticized by his mother for all the characteristics she disliked in her husband. Clearly, the process of scapegoating is dysfunctional for the child. He becomes “emotionally disturbed”.
Clearly, Wogel and Bell bring out the dysfunctional aspects of the family within a functionalist framework. Edmund Leach is yet another functionalist who brings out an anthropological-functional study of small-scale pre-industrial societies.
Leach does not study family in isolation. It is an extensive network of social relationship among a large number of kins. It is the family which links the individual with the kinsmen. Leach observes:
In the past, kinsfolk’s and neighbours gave the individual continuous moral support throughout his life. Today, the domestic household is isolated, the family looks inward upon itself; there is an intensification of emotional stress between husband and wife and parents and children. The strain is greater than most of us can bear.
Leach, in one respect, is a functionalist-anthropologist. He links family with kin and wider society. On the other hand, he talks about the isolation of family from the surrounding society. His hypothesis is that the more there is industrialization of a community, the greater is the isolation of family.
In metropolitan cities like Mumbai and New Delhi, despite the overwhelming population, the family has broken its relations with the kins, neighborhood and wider society. In industrial society, therefore, the family is reduced to the status of an oasis.