The family does not exist in the abstract, it exists in society. Just like society the family exists in history, and as a human institution it not only has a past and a present but a future too. The family is, and always has been, the most intimate, the most important of human groups. It can be said to be universal. The human family is centred around a so-called biological prerequisites and needs – such as mating, begetting, and rearing, the necessity of providing for the manifold needs of all its members.
Therefore, as a natural grouping, the family is rooted in fundamental instincts, emotions and needs, that serve important biological and social functions. The family is socially necessary. It exists in all societies, regulating sexual and parental behaviour. It acts, or is supposed to act, to achieve all relationships and qualities of character that are considered desirable. The natural and social aspects are complimentary to each other. In human terms natural propensities require regulation. The family is a form of association, both for the fulfilment and achievement of regulation and combination. As a group the family entails both fulfilment and the limiting factor for its members. Hence the family acts as a factor of social regulation.
Family structure is extremely variable. The major items of the variations consist in terms of spouse number, authority, strength of bond, choice of spouse, and residence. Of fundamental importance too are factors of parent child relationships. A broad distinction can be made in family classification, which reflect the nature of the socio-economic circumstances of the development of family types. At least they indicate the level to which particular societies have reached in given historical epochs. Firstly there is the so-called nuclear family, possible an unscientific term, which is relatively independent, and the non-nuclear family which is subordinate to and incorporated within a larger group. This latter type is a part of what known as the polygamous or extended family. The nuclear family is a characteristic of modern industrial societies and its predominance is due to the growth of individualism, which is supposedly reflected in law, property and social ideals. These ideals reputedly are concerned with individual happiness and fulfilment. The existence of the modern nuclear family is also due, it has been claimed, to geographical and social mobility. Studies in mate selection do not however bear out these theories of sociological and geneticist peers.
The solidarity of the family depends upon such factors as sexual attraction, companionship between spouses, companionship between siblings, and between parents and children. A wider complex of rights and obligations exist in extended families.
Many sociologists claim that the individual ‘nuclear family’ is a universal phenomenon, consisting of husband and wife with immature children. It is supposedly a unit apart from the remainder of the community. Questions that beg an answer are those that demand: (1) is the family extinct upon offspring maturity?; (2) does the family exist outside of society in a vacuum?. The so-called universality of the ‘nuclear family’ is accounted for on the basis of reputed indispensable functions it performs. It is thought that it is difficult to ensure the performance of these functions in any other group. Four functions carried out by all families are however those that are indispensable to human social life. These are sexual, the reproductive and weaning, the economic, and the educational. A true analysis cannot be correct without an understanding of the ideological. Distinctions are made between social and psychological functions of the family. Other social functions have been postulated which have been termed reproduction, maintenance, placement, and socialisation. Again, the point is raised as to what the purpose of socialisation is for? The idea of psychological function is expressed in the satisfaction of sexual needs, and the need for affection and security.
Other functions of the family is that as a firm constellation it acts as a centre of religious worship. The family in certain circumstances also acts as the primary unit in landholding, in vengeance and in recreation. The family is also involved in considerations of social status. The family possesses economic functions in primitive societies. A major factor is economic cooperation. In this family organisation there exists a division of labour between sexes, a strengthening of ties between parents and the children, and between children. The significant feature of the so-called ‘nuclear family’ however is the loss of its productive functions involving cooperative labour by the family.
Considering the development of the family Engels, when discussing the primitive household regarded it as a matriarchal institution. In such a situation it was claimed that the status of women did not involve the dependence of the wife and children upon the man. Food was shared between a group of families, and the division of labour between the sexes was of a reciprocal nature. Engels therefore developed Morgan’s idea of matrilineal descent. The subjugation of the woman and the wife therefore was a development of the emergence of private property relations. Domesticated animals were used for barter and trade, with the growth of private property in animals the individual family developed into the basic economic unit of society. Hence woman passed from community service to private servitude. Both women and children became dependent upon the individual man. Man, once in the economic position as head of the family then substituted patrilineal for matrilineal descent. Hence monogamy was instituted as a means to retain property within an individual family. The result over a period of time was the break-up of communal kin groups plus the basic single family. Therefore the family became relatively isolated and economically responsible to maintain itself.
The development of the family is molecular not nuclear. The concept exists, which fits with the notion of the dominant male, of the ‘nuclear family’. This is a mechanical and unscientific, and thus an untenable description. As it implies, the nuclear concept views the family as a number of satellites revolving around a nucleus. The nucleus being a body around which something accumulates. For clarity it is best to substitute ‘nuclear’ with ‘molecular’. The ‘molecular’ family being a stable combination of components, with definite inter-relationships and inter-dependencies.
With the development of property there come to exist within class society two types of institution. One for the exploiters and another for the exploited. Under feudalism marriage was a political act for the exploiters, it not being decided by the two principal parties. The major considerations in such arrangements were those of land, money, and power. The family under capitalism continued under the rise of the bourgeoisie, the economic factors and property relations being those of land, money and trade. These were the principal influences on marriage for the capitalist class. Under capitalism, we have to clarify, there exist two types of family. The bourgeois family and the working class family. Prior to the industrial revolution the home was the basic economic unit, consisting of agricultural labourers and cottage industries. With the industrial revolution there came the exploitation of men, women, and children in the factories, with the ensuing break-up of the old family system. This was the result of the impact of large scale capitalist industry.
The bourgeois family in modern times has shown no extensive changes, it still being influenced by economic and property considerations. The working class family had achieved a family life with accentuation of the sex roles and the oppression of women. However, since recent times, the working class family has demonstrated great changes. These can be seen as an improvement in the status of women in the form of political equality, legal near equality, higher education opportunities, a social production role, and fertility control. There exists a more free and equal partnership between husband and wife, as well as a more equal relationship between parents and children. There has been a loss of economic independence and a reduction of positions of inferiority/superiority.
Changes in the family situation have altered the family and the place of women within it. The modern family is smaller. There are less offspring. The grandparents and other relatives tend to be less available for support. The reasons for this being both geographical and more tend to work up until their retirement. There tends to be isolation due to families moving further and more frequently due to population pressures and growth, as well as the housing situation. Coupled with this is the property developers ideology of housing families in ‘little boxes’.
When the family moved out of the communal group in prehistory it became more vulnerable. The smaller families became, the more vulnerable to social and economic pressures they became. The constant factor in modern family break-up is that capitalist, class society, tends to dehumanise and attack the family unit. This is done through attacks on the health services, child care, and homes, as well as through rising prices, rents, and declining living standards. Therefore we can see that in a class society, where private property is based in male supremacy, dehumanisation is at its worst in man/woman relationships. Yet despite this the family remains the bulwark structure of society.
Concerning women and the family it has to be recognised that half the population are women. It is they who feel the burden of the family within the individual household. Oppression of women takes economic, cultural and social forms. Mass media techniques still impress upon us all the so-called passive role of women, trying to create feelings of guilt if this concept is challenged. At the centre of oppression therefore is the family. The present family form has arisen out of the demands of capitalist society. The family is the means of accumulating and safeguarding private property, the woman is delegated to the social job of child rearing and household work. Such economic pressures can only have a destructive effect.
The family as an economic unit is a complex institution and is the result of the interplay of economic, super-structural and ideological factors. The family is the institutional site of particular forms of social consciousness. Family structure is the result of the economic structure, its function being the reproduction of the potential labour force. Hence the role of women in the family has become one of a primary role in reproducing and servicing the future labour force. This leads to home isolation for many women. Even today those women who work still tend to be employed in service industries. Women in the family have thus become economically, psychologically, and socially dependent upon the husband. The wife is synonymous with the proletariat, and the man in his home has become synonymous with the bourgeoisie.
Personal relationships are a fact of life. Whether close or loose knit, marriage and the family are dependent upon the type of society in which they occur. This is obvious if we remember that the primitive communal household equated with the era of primitive production. Selective and permanent marriage was a development of private property. Hence feudal marriage equated with feudal relations, whereas contemporary monogamy is equated with the private ownership of the means of production.
The family as an organisational framework of people is a complex product of society. The family of today developed under the formative pressures of this society. his is exemplified by the fact that the family does not cut across class, nor class across the family. Each family is embedded in its own class. The family as we have seen is the instrument for the production of workers. This is not a biological function but a social one. Hence the family is involved in conception, birth, nourishment, clothing, housing, upbringing, education and training. This applies at each stage from infancy, through childhood and adolescence until the mature worker enters the labour market. Then through the family there is the exploitation over and above that from profits, taxes, rents and interest. This is derived from the family cash paid for the requisites of upbringing – a further subsidy to capitalism.
The social function of the family is becoming increasingly ideological. Its general function is the reproduction of the social relations of production. This reproduction is minimally biological, procreation being only one aspect. Important is the process of socialisation within the family as well as the servicing of the labour force. Individuals are born into social classes and are then socialised into their class position. Consciously or unconsciously the values of the bourgeois family and society are perpetuated within the family. We can see therefore that the family ideologically reproduces itself.
The maintenance of the bourgeois family is realised through ideology. Differences exist between the families of the workers and those of the bourgeoisie. The central feature of all bourgeois families is its general form of the monogamous unit, with sex inequality and living as an economic unit. Important as an ideological feature is the oppression of women. The world of the woman being defined in terms of her home, her man, her children. By privatising the life of a woman the bourgeois family repeats the general contradictions of society. This contradiction is that between the socialised production and private appropriation. Family functions are socialised but the relations within it become increasingly private. The relationship between man and woman within the family being deified as ‘love’.
The oppression of women is reinforced on the sexual and psychological levels. There is created a female stereotype with a passive, dependent image. The role of this stereotype is defined as trivial, undemanding, surrounded by the creation of the mystique of ‘motherhood’. Such an ideology creates feelings of inadequacy, uselessness, and dependence. Sexism is an ideological force that divides and weakens the working class as a whole. The interests of men and women are seen as different. The result is that the family de-socialises, and isolates its members within the home, and thereby reinforces individualistic attitudes.
Alienated relationships are a general feature of capitalist society. The family is presented as a counterbalance to alienated lives. The family stands for security, but security in an insecure society. The family stands for love, but love in an unloving society, acting as a refuge from and an escape from the reality of alienation. Modern ideological fashions using the invalid extrapolations of Konrad Lorenz and Desmond Morris to popularise the myths of sexual fidelity and nonogamy. As well as this there are theories of attachment, imprinting, and alienation at birth. The truth is human beings are not ‘naked apes’, not ‘sex occupied apes’, not ‘pair-banded apes’, not ‘super aggressive apes’, nor any other kind of ape.
Bourgeois monogamy is the accepted norm for the expression and fulfilment of human love. For the majority of women marriage is profoundly economic. Love is only partial where economic dependence leads to social and psychological subservience. The subservience where women are possessed by the man. Love thus becomes the apotheosis of bourgeois individualism. An experience that should be enriching and socially valuable is separated and pitted against the social world. Love thus becomes introspective and claustrophobic. Thus we can see that the cult of the individual against the collective is essential to the maintenance of class society. Bourgeois ideology thus separates men from men, women from men, women from women, and generations from generations. In its contradictions it glorifies and falsifies love. Love becomes a panacea for the ills of a distorted society.
Contemporary bourgeois society elevates sexuality, and yet at the same time represses it as possessive and exclusive. At the other extreme sexuality is objectivised and dehumanised. Sanctified sexual relationships mirror the active role of men and the passive role of women. The call to ‘abolish monogamy’ therefore, as a protest, all too readily becomes the advocacy of what is equally alienated and dehumanised. In contemporary society the family has both human and inhuman qualities. It is a human response to an inhuman world, and as such it of necessity reflects that inhumanity in it.