Traditionally, family is equated with the nuclear family of a married mother and father and their children. Marriage can best be defined as a legal or socially mandated arrangement between two people usually featuring sexual intercourse and consisting of both privileges and obligations (Kendall, 1998, p. 247). This couple, and its dependents, are 'a relatively permanent group of people related by ancestry, marriage or adoption, who live together, form an economic unit, and take care of their young' (Eitzen and Baca-Zinn, 2003, p. 436). This unit is primarily responsible for the 'achievement of adult satisfaction and social integration' (Ross and Sawhill, 1975, p. 3), which is why Sociologist are so interested in its functions and repercussions.
Between the 1940's and 1970's, the prevalent theory in the field was the markedly anti-Marxist structural functionalism, which is most frequently identified with the work of Talcott Parsons. For the Functionalists, individual self-interest, although pursued with some frequency, is not the only motivator of people, as these would make organised societies impossible. Men and women behave in accordance to shared ethical standards and mutual expectations, and these behaviours are 'internalised in the motivational systems of individuals' (Johnson, 1993, p. 116). In this system, 'people act on the basis of their values; their actions are oriented and constrained by the values and norms of people around them; and these norms and values are the basis of social order' (Knapp, 1994, p. 191-192).
So where does family fit in According to Parsons:
A social system consists in a plurality of individual actors interacting with each other in a situation which has at least a physical or environmental aspect, actors who are motivated in terms of a tendency to the "optimisation of gratification" and whose relation to their situations, including each other, is defined and mediated in terms of a system of culturally structured and shared symbols (Parsons, 1951, p. 5-6).
In other words, society consists of a large number of different people interacting in different physical locations. These people are able to communicate through culturally determined methods, and this mutually understood communication is possible even if the individuals are interacting for the first time. This socialisation is not natural-it is a skill, and the learning process begins at a very early age within the family unit. This is only one of the functions of family within the social order. In fact, the importance of family to the functionalist model lies in the universal functions it provides (Robertson, 1989). In addition to socialisation, these functions are: regulation on sexual behaviour; member replacement (providing society with new members via childbirth); safety and care; social placement and emotional support. These initial functions provided the foundation for the more complex relationships required for interaction with society on a larger scale.
Although the functionalist perception of family as a heterosexual married couple with children seems rather stagnant and old-fashioned now, that does not mean it was a static concept. Even though the family did not cause great social transformation, it did modify when such shifts occurred. As families had existed for countless years and