Sociology of Family: Applying Theories of Family

I will apply three theories of family to my family experiences for analysis. The three I’ve chosen are symbolic interaction, social exchange and structural functionalism. My immediate (nuclear) family is made up of six people. First there is my mother, Arlene. Next my stepfather, Melvin, who my mom married when I was seven (four years after my father passed away in an accident). Then there are four children—I am the oldest, followed by Heather and Matthew. Erin is the youngest and is also our half-sister. My immediate family members all live in North Carolina; therefore for the purposes of this essay I will also consider my boyfriend Brian as part of my family and our relationship and interactions as a part of this analysis.

Symbolic interaction theory examines how people interact and communicate with the use of symbols and gestures. This is similar to the general definition of communication, which includes not only verbal communication but that of symbols and gestures. In this theory family members interact and each have their own role. These interactions and relationship patterns define who we are as a family, and as unique individual selves.

Social exchange theory takes a look at relationships from the vantage point of cost-benefit analysis. It looks at each interaction as a premise for exchange to maximize rewards while minimizing costs. As in business, social exchange can be either competitive or cooperative. Both methods enable partners to attain rewards however exchanges must be seen as fair and equitable for the relationship to persevere.

Structural functionalism theory literally looks at the structure and function of family, both in and of itself as well as a part of a larger society. This theory reminds us of Darwin’s survival of the fittest as it examines the means by which family organizes itself for survival as a subsystem of society. As popularized in Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, this theory promotes that men are task-oriented beings who display instrumental qualities and women are emotion-oriented beings with expressive qualities.

First we’ll look at symbolic interaction theory. One of the assumptions of this theory is that while we ascribe to social roles dictated we strive to maintain our own unique identity and sense of self. For instance, my boyfriend Brian and I are both on the same team at work; he has been there for four years, while I just recently joined the team. He is well known and quite successful in his position, while I am new and still meeting extended team members and upper management. When we attend office social functions there is a conflict of interest – I would like to be his girlfriend (and he my boyfriend) as any normal couple, but I also struggle to make sure that those I haven’t met know me as my own person and not just as Brian’s girlfriend. This illustrates an example of while I become and act as Brian’s girlfriend to those I am just meeting, I struggle to maintain my sense of self in the process which requires a split between my roles as girlfriend and co-worker.

When looking at my immediate family members, I think of my brother Matthew and how some interactions with him so very clearly illustrate that communication and relationships do not require words to get their point across. When I go to give Matthew a hug, he quite often stands stiff with hands rigidly stuffed in the pockets of his jeans. It’s like hugging a wall. That’s his reaction to my action of hugging him. Likely the fact that I continue to hug him although he fails to hug back is interpreted by him as continued love. A hug is a fairly universal symbol of affection, hugging him is a gesture of love. Though words need not be exchanged this is an interaction.

Next we’ll look at social exchange theory. The one in which our relationships are based on a continual cost-benefit analysis. Again, I’ll start by looking at my relationship with my boyfriend as my ‘local family’ who I interact most often with. Before I met Brian’s parents they had strong reservations as to my worthiness of being with their son, and my personal value. However, when I first met my boyfriend’s parents they immediately began to warm to me, and by the end of the evening I happened upon his dad relating to his mom his opinion of me… “I think she’s fantastic, but what is she doing with Brian?” I think this perfectly illustrates how our relationship has elements of this social exchange theory in that Brian the image of what most people would typically imagine as my boyfriend. While I’m trim and active, he’s a bit more chill and chubby. However, I do not base my relationship with him on his looks alone. I value his charm, his humor, his intelligence, his stability and his success. While I’d prefer that he might lose a little of that belly, I appreciate that he treats me like a princess. However, when there is an imbalance – when he feels as though I’m not treating him well (which usually only requires about 1/3rd of what attention he doles out on me) then we have strife in our relationship. As noted in the text, some things are hard to value. In my relationship this is most easily illustrated by the fact that while I’m entirely in love with Brian I hold part of that love in reserve out of fear. You see, we come from different religious backgrounds and I’m not certain that I can forsake my religion to marry him. For all his good qualities that add up, how do you value the one that seems to matter most? As a critique of the theory we see that this is something only I can set a value for, and no one else can help me obtain that answer. A friend likens it to buying a pair of jeans. If you’re staring in the mirror evaluating a pair of jeans and you can’t decide – they’re not right, don’t buy them. If you are dating a guy and can’t be sure if he’s the one… he’s not, she says. Thing is I’m still happily with my guy and social exchange theory doesn’t account for that (or at least it would say that outcome is that we won’t be together long-term). One way to think about my point is that in the cost-benefit analysis of my relationship, there is an unknown value. That is the personal value I place on religion. If we think about this as a function of time (f(t) = Reward(t) – Cost(t) = Outcome(t)), since I am unable to determine the value of religion at a specific time (t=now), the value of our relationship is still positive, hence I’m still in it. I struggle personally to put a value on religion even at some t=future, but until I can do that it is hard to properly evaluate the outcome of the relationship.

Finally in looking at structural functionalism theory I think of my mom. A young pregnant mother of two, and then suddenly a widow. My mom moved from the only home she knew in Indiana to North Carolina where she deemed it a better place to raise her family of three. Structural functionalism theory looks at how the family organizes itself for survival and states that the family molds its members into the kinds of personalities it needs in order to carry out its functions. I am here reminded of how my mother then acted as both mother and father to us, and I stepped up, though as young as I was, to assist. Now as an adult, I often demonstrate instrumental traits as opposed to the traditional expressive traits that would be expected of me. I would attribute that to the fact that at a very young age I felt as though I needed to care for my mother and her happiness, and to assist her in caring for our orphaned family. Likewise, my mother seemed to abandon the more traditional warm, nurturing and sensitive emotional qualities in favor of personal self-confidence and rationality in order to lead our family through the trauma to survival. Later after her remarrying I would note how she was never the mother to come rescue us kids if we were screaming for help to be rescued from dad tickling us. I never knew why I felt so, but I had always thought that was something that normal mom’s would do… Mine was just a little more functional though. She wasn’t around to rescue us from giggles, but she taught us all the dastardly ways of the world that we needed to be aware of. She didn’t shield us girls as other mothers did, but instead made sure that we were aware and thick skinned… as I imagine most fathers would prepare their sons for the world.

Years later I find myself disowned because I have violated the rules of my religion. Again this illustrates structural functionalism… My family no longer serves to meet my needs as a (now disowned) member of the family. I live my life in conflict with my family and religious subsystems. My family does not approve of my life, and I am likewise not approved of by my religion. I am therefore also not a functioning part of the society in which I grew up and was accustomed to. As structural functionalism outlines I then found myself in desperate need to establish a new set of subsystems of which to become a member and to support my needs. This was a profound desire motivated by the requirements I believe are necessary to live.

I think that these points both illustrate support and conflict with the structural functionalism theory. I see how experiences in my life struggle to retain resemblance to those set out in the framework… we seem to strive to fit into this structure at all costs. However, this theory would label both of these experiences as dysfunctional. Living as a family absent a father, and being ousted from the society of which you had grown up in, and from the family unit.

As a person somewhat lost without a family (at least as defined in the traditional sense) I am most interested in this class and learning what hope there is for me in finding my ‘home’ once again. What alternatives there are for me as one in love but unsure of marriage. While it is said that the family is in transition, I find myself transitioning my definition of family.


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