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The Three Key Concepts of Sociology Applied to Analyzing Single-Parent Families
What is the term family? What does it mean? Who decides what makes up a family? The definition of family means “a set of relations especially parents and children”
(American Century Dictionary 205). This might include anyone related to by blood or by adoption such as: step parents, grandparents acting as parents, and even brothers and sisters sometimes sharing the same household.

The term family has been believed to coincide with the word “marriage”. If you were to have a family, you were also thought to have a husband or wife. This was thought to be the norm for many centuries. This was named the “institutional family.” But we have reinvented the word family. A family can consist of single parent family, step family, or a first marriage family. The role of the family is also a key concept in defining the family (Doherty 11).

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“In all societies the first major agent of socialization for most individuals is the family”
(Thompson and Hickey 105). It is the nucleus of American life. The role of the American family is much the same as in any other country. Each family member has to fulfill his or her own part. Being a father, a mother, or a daughter. The mass media will have an influence on the family’s role. For instance, the media has portrayed men to be thought of as the “bread-winner”. To more or less support the family. This family type was atypical of the American family. This was called the “Traditional Nuclear Family.” This kind of ideology has existed for centuries (Thompson and Hickey 386).

But of all family types, single parent families have made the most gains during the past few decades. According to a sociological book called Society in Focus, the definition of a single parent family is “families in which one parent resides with and cares for one or more children” (387). “Researches estimate that a century ago one in three children spent part of their childhood in a single parent home” (384). This estimate is taken during the colonial period of America. More families in the twenty-first century will be single parent. This is because of the factor of people getting married later in life, the high rate of divorce, and the opportunity to gain a career.

By view of the social structure, single parenting has changed the views of the way parents treat and raise their children. By definition, social structure is “the ordered relationships and patterned expectations that guide social interaction” (Thompson and Hickey 142). Even though there has been a decline in marriage, functionalism believes that the family is the foundation of social order. According to the sociologists Talcot Parsons, “any other type of family other than the nuclear family is dysfunctional in society because they are not suited for society’s economic needs and therefore may be a potential threat to society” (2).

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The structural functionalist perspective views society as having a structure of several components. Family, religion, schools, state, and the economy. Each of these institutions are interrelated and interdependent (Thompson and Hickey 24). For instance marriage. The foundation of functionalism is the family. The family fulfills vital functions for instance culture, support, and status. The institute of marriage is important because functionalism ignores conflict and diversity. So functionalism, encourages marriage. Functionalism does not take into account the reasons why there are single parent families (Mills 2).

In the Conflict Perspective, marriage and family do not coincide with one another. Rather conflict theorists agree that the environment and other forces shape the marriage and family. These powers “are rooted in structures of social inequality” (Eitzen and Baca-Zinn 1987:13). The Marxist view is those who have the means to produce wealth and those who don’t. Capitalism is the capitalist class vs. the working class. With the divorce rate so high, single parents don’t really affect capitalism. In fact, they might help benefit that economy. “Single mothers can produce cheap labor, social services not amenable to profit making, and new laborers for temporary dead-end jobs” (Thompson and Hickey 378).

From the symbolic interactionist perspective, there are no fixed meanings. Marriage and family do not coincide together like, functionalism. Symbolic interactionism does not force the word marriage with the word family. “Most single parent families are headed either by ex-spouses who have custody of the children and depend on inadequate child-care payments or by unmarried women” (Thompson and Hickey 387). Women feel more independent than they did 100 years ago.

Who chooses these decisions to be a single mother or to be a single father? What laws govern these choices? The choices that were made by these kinds of families fall under a category called social actions. A social action or social act is defined as “behaviors influenced by or shaped by the presence of others” (Thompson and Hickey 143). This means that someone somewhere had to decide that they wanted a divorce or they decided to become a single parent. People began to follow these trends for several reasons. These trends include the possibility of violence in the family, the spouse had died, or the particular idea of being a single parent. Divorce rates have increased incredibly during the past half-century and now are currently among the highest in the world. “Since World War II, more than 70 percent of single parent families have been created by divorce and separation and the rest by unmarried mothers or fathers who have chosen to raise children by themselves” (Thompson and Hickey 387). “Marriage has been seen as an unbreakable contract and the economic perils of a solo existence made abandoning one’s partner difficult, particularly for women” (Kramer 160).

Functionalism believes that trends do not exist. Structural functionalist ignore family violence. Functionalism is made up of institutions, and then again do not believe in the separation of a family. When a victim is beaten, functionalist theorists focused on these family members and recognized their “ability to adjust and reorganize, rather than the need for social change at the macro and extra familial level” (Adams 13).

Conflict theorists disagree. If there is battery in a marriage, then the physically abused spouse should leave. In the conflict perspective, the patriarchal family exists. This means the men have the control over the women. Within the conflict viewpoint, feminism has a strong argument in the social action category, under single parenting. Feminism remarks on how women are in distress and have defined violence as a reflection of the patriarch’s power. This might be the cause of so many divorces and in turn, leading to single parenting.

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Symbolic Interactionism provides a different meaning. Trends correspond along with divorce, single parenting, and individuality. If a family depends on a divorce, symbolic interactionism will allow this to take place, under the laws of the state and the government. Individuals should be free to enter marriages, as they are free to choose their spouses, that in turn they should be free to eliminate those spouses in a time of urgency. “Today marriages have often become individual endeavors in which partners seek to satisfy their own needs – and can often easily dissolve the marriage when needs are unmet” (Johnson 12).

“The family is the toughest institution that we have. It is the institution to which we owe our humanity” (Mills 3). The family can emphasize so many different things. Culture, parental guidance, education, and family history. The family is so curtail and no other institution can provide like the family can. Functional integration is this basis.

The terminology of functional integration is “the integration resulting from the manner in which the different specialized parts of a whole society interact, interrelate, and make reciprocal contributions to each other and to society as a whole” (“Integrative Concept” 1). Functional integration is what makes up the family. It is what keeps the family together in a time of crisis. Functional integration is curtail on providing the role of child bearing, child raising, and adulthood.

Structural Functionalism is the basis here. The norm here is the nuclear family and that family alone. Dorothy Smith comments on how the nuclear family is seen as an ideological code that is “deeply embedded within the discourse of sociology and operates so subtly, that it prevails despite the conscious intentions of the authors” (2). Structural functionalists do not see the single family as a family. Rather they ignore it and believe that kind of institution to be dysfunctional. By Coser, “the family is the most elementary social unit and the prototype of all other human associations, for these evolve from family and kinship groups” (1).

By way of the conflict perspective, conflict theorists view the family as an institution to which we will get all of our knowledge by determination of class. Conflict will acknowledge that all families have an important role in the development in a child’s life, depending on the social class of that family. So the functional integration of the single parent family can exist in the conflict theory, but the determination of that child’s outcome has its reliance on the social class from whence it came from (Mills 1).

Through the rationale of symbolic interactionism, relies on individuality. The institution of a family in this perspective is important because it can provide the background for culture, humanism, power, and character. Yet, symbolic interactionism does not believe that the institution of the family is the complete basis of all knowledge, but rather “the significance of the relationship to the human conduct is nevertheless a by-product of interaction with others” (Blumer 3). So parenting, much less single parenting, is an output of social interaction with the children.

Power in the family is very important. It stands for who is in charge and who isn’t, who has the authority and who doesn’t. The sociological meaning of power is “the ability to realize one’s will, even against resistance and the opposition of others” (Thompson and Hickey 22). Power in the family is what may make or break the family. Too much power might cause a spouse to move away.

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Functionalists believe that power is the background of the whole theory. Power demonstrates authority but no one group (government, religious, or business) can dominate the entire system (Thompson and Hickey 482). In the family, a dominate powerful person, (mainly the male), can make the family into a learning, and cultural institution. Functionalism leaves no room to challenge this paternal power, because that would give rise to conflict. Conflict can then rise to spousal abuse or violence. Single parents can give more power to the children because they provide the power.

The Conflict theory presents a different image. Conflict focuses on “differences in power and authority and the exploitation of some groups at times” (Thompson and Hickey 28). Conflict theorists focuses on inequality and diversity. In parenting, power reflects values and conflict, which is based on social class. Single parenting might be difficult to gain power because of the low prestige a parent might have. But this can section off where each social class stands and can give rise to other classes.

On the other hand, Symbolic Interactionism provides more like a carefree environment. This perspective focuses on “negotiated meanings”. Power can be negotiated throughout the family. Power is almost ignored throughout symbolic interactionism. Instead, symbolic interactionism can focus on the individual and our interactions with one another. Power in a single parent family can exist as long who is in charge can stay in charge, and can provide for the family. A single parent family can have its own unique influence. “We agree with Erikson (1968) that early development of trust, and satisfaction of the child’s dependency needs by the mother or other primary caretaker, is an important underpinning of later love relationships” (Rosenthal and Keshet 14).

Culture in the family is important because it provides rules, proper behavior, and incentive. The sociological term for culture is “the learned set of beliefs, values, norms, and material goods shared by group members (Thompson and Hickey 68). Family culture gives us a representation of whom we are and what kind of goals we are here to achieve. In America, culture has changed, but the norms, values, and mores have remained the same. In a single parent family, culture may be beneficial because it can provide more time to spend with the children, rather than a spouse, and also might encourage more opportunities for growth and sharing (Duncan 1).

Functionalism believes in traditions. Functionalists tend to emphasize the origin of customs, and in America, a single parent family is not an origin of a custom. Although divorce rates are high in America, functionalism believes that single parent families do not practice cultural integration. Functionalism relies on ideal culture, which is “what people should do, according to group norms and values” (Thompson and Hickey 88).

Conflict theorists believe that conflict within culture is part of the family. The challenge of culture and diversity can promote multi-cultural benefits and kinship structures. As families grow, so can the social status of the family, if the wealth increases as well. In modern societies when the family reaches a state of crisis, divorce seems to be the most thought out alternative. Wilson, a Marxist sociologist, says, “the there has always been abuse but the difference between the present and the past is that there is more help for women today.” Single parenting supports this feature.

In symbolic interactionism, “the interactionist approach focuses on how individuals and groups use symbols to define and interpret reality” (Thompson and Hickey 90). This characteristic is still remarkably important in America, as it was 50 years ago. Blumer calls these cultural grounds “root images”. Blumer concluded that, in interactionism, symbols and meanings are a part of our everyday lives. In single parenting, every person plays a large role in the family, and by this, the entire family can be more closely bonded by culture and its effects.

The future of the American family looks bright. But the traditional nuclear American family, is dying out. Parents are constantly bound with work, children, and elders. I expect single parents to be more likely than married parents, to have made work decisions, since they must balance work and family demands without the flexibility of having another caregiver present to take over parenting duties when work responsibilities loom large (Wenk 49). Women want more demand for their work and if their abusive relations with their husband do continue, they will leave the spouse.

I enjoyed the view under the conflict perspective in which it discussed how single parents might benefit the economy as well as the feminists view point of how violence in the family is dealt with. I also liked the ideas under symbolic interactionism and functionalism, of how they theorize on functional integration. I believe that institution of family plays a large role on how children will behave when they are older. And the idea that “it is the institution that we owe to our humanity” (Mills 3). Without the family, we would have no recognition of our culture, norms, behavioral attitudes, and basically life in general.

But in Functionalism, I did not like the idea of how the patriarchal family should exist and how if there is violence in the family, we should ignore it? That it is only a micro problem of society? Then what would be considered a macro problem of society in functionalism?
In my learned opinion, I have learned more than I never would have expected in this paper. I have learned about each sociological view more than what just reading the book could give me. In the information that I have collected, I would agree with the sociological view of symbolic interactionism, because I believe it to be the most thought out of all of them. It makes its points clear and does not contradict itself.

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Works Cited
1. Thompson William and Hickey Joseph. Society in Focus Introduction to Sociology. 3rd Edition
2. New York: Addison Wesley Longman, 1999.

3. Rosenthal Kristin and Keshet Harry. Fathers without Parents. New Jersey: Rowman and Littlefield, 1981.

4. Andersen, Margaret. Thinking about Women: Sociological Perspectives on Sex and Gender. 4th Edition Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1997.

5. Huber Joan. ” Micro-Macro Links in Gender Stratification.” American Sociological Review 55. Feb. 1990:1-10.

6. Mills, Michael. “Is the Institution of the Family in a State of Crisis.” Is the Institution of the Family in a State of Crisis. October 20, 1997. (6 April 2000): 1-4.

7. Duncan, Steve. “The Unique Strengths of Single Parent Families.” The Unique Strengths of Single-Parent Families. (6 April 2000). 1-6.

9. Eitzen, Stanley D., and Maxine Baca-Zinn. Diversity in American Families. New York: HarperCollins, 1987.

10. Doherty, Williams J. Ph.D. “The Intentional Family How to Build Family Ties in Our Modern World.” Addison-Wesley. 1997: 00/01. 3-16. Rpt. in Marriage and Family. Ed. Kathleen R Gilbert. Gulford, Connecticut. Dushkin/McGraw-Hill, 2000 . 11-16.

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11. Kramer, Peter. M.D. “Should We Leave?.” Psychology Today. Sussex Publishers. September/October 1997: 38-48, 72, 74. Rpt. in Marriage and Family. Ed. Kathleen R Gilbert. Guilford, Connecticut. Dushkin/McGraw-Hill, 2000: 160.

12. Adams, B. “The family.” A Sociological Interpretation. (4sted). New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1986.

13. Johnson, Dan. ” Restoring the Family.” The Futurist. Vol. 33. Issue 9. (1999): 12.

14. “Integrative Concept.” Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential. New York: International Associations, 1999: 1.

15. Smith, Dorothy. “The Standard North American Family.” Journal of Family Issues. 1993: Issue 14, 2-3.

16. Coser. “Social Statics and Dynamics.” Comte The work- Social Statics and Dynamics. 1997. (6 April 2000). 1-4.

Gender and Society. 1992: Issue 6, 49-65.

18. Parsons, T. “Societies Evolutionary and Competitive Perspectives.” Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prententice Hall, 1966.


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