Structural-Functionalists suggest that family performs several vital functions. In fact in this perspective family has been considered as “The backbone of society”. At the same time the social conflict paradigm considers the family central to the operations of society, but rather than focusing on societal benefits, conflict theorists investigate how the family perpetuates social inequality. The important functions are:
- Regulation of sexual activity. Every culture regulates sexual activity in the interest of maintaining kinship organization and property rights. One universal regulation is the incest taboo, a cultural norm forbidding sexual relations or marriage between certain kin. Precisely which kin fall within the incest taboo varies from one culture to another. Mostly marriage with close relatives like parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, siblings, is prohibited.
The incest taboo may have medical explanations as reproduction between close relatives of any species can mentally and physically impair off springs. Yet it has social reasons. First the incest taboo minimizes sexual competition within families by restricting legitimate sexuality to spouses. Second incest taboo forces people to marry themselves outside their immediate families, which serve the purpose of integrating the larger society. Third, since kinship defines people's rights and obligations towards each other, reproduction among close relatives would hopelessly confuse kinship ties and threaten social order.
- Perhaps the only function that seems to have been left to a great extent untouched is reproduction. Without reproduction the continuation of society is at stake and the legitimate births take place only within the wedlock. Yet even this vital and inviolable function has not gone unchallenged. A prime example is the number of single women in the Western society who have children (about one third of all births in US).
- Socialization of children. The family is the first and most influential setting for socialization. Ideally the parents teach children to be well-integrated and participating members of society. In fact, family socialization continues throughout life cycle. Adults change within marriage, and, as any parent knows, mothers and fathers learn as much from raising their children as their children learn from them.
The conflict sociologists try to find fault with the outcome of this socialization through which there is likely to be the transmission of cultural values. There is the continuity of patriarchy, which subordinates women to men. Families therefore transform women into the sexual and economic property of men. Most wives' earnings belong to their husbands.
- Social placement. Parents confer their own social identity - in terms of race, ethnicity, religion, and social class - on children at birth. This fact explains the longstanding preference for birth to married parents. This is more like ascription of social status to the children,
Nevertheless, racial and ethnic categories shall persist over generations only to the degree that people marry others like themselves. Thus endogamous marriage shores up the racial and ethnic hierarchy of a society. Conflict sociologists traced the origin of the family to the need to identify heirs so that men (especially in the higher classes) could transmit property to their sons. Families thus support the concentration of wealth and reproduce the class structure in each succeeding generation. Therefore family plays an important function in maintaining social inequality; hence it is a part and parcel of capitalism.
Care of the sick and elderly. Family has been a big insurance against the old age as well as during sickness. As the society moves towards the industrialization this function is likely to be taken over by institutionalized medicine and medical specialists. Care of the aged is likely to change from a family concern to a government obligation. In Kenyan society, by and large, it remains to be an important function of the family.
Protective function. Family provides some degree of physical, economic, and psychological security to its members. Attack on a person is considered to be an attack on the family. Similarly guilt and shame are equally shared by the family. People view the family as a “haven in the heartless world”, looking to kin for physical protection, emotional support, and financial assistance. People living in families tend to be healthier than living alone.
Economic production. Prior to industrialization, the family constituted an economic team. Family members cooperated in producing what they needed to survive. When industrialization moved production from home to factory, it disrupted this family team and weakened the bonds that tied family members together. In Kenyan family still performs an important function at least in helping its members in establishing their careers and obtaining jobs.