Couples from the Families & Households topic of AQA A level Sociology


The domestic division of labour

Parsons: instrumental & expressive roles

  • The husband has an instrumental role to provide for the family financially by being the breadwinner
  • The wife has an expressive role aimed at primary socialisation of the children as a full time housewife rather than a wage earner

Parsons argues that this is based on biological differences with women being naturally suited to the nurturing role and that these roles benefit both men and women as well as their children and wider society

However, Young & Willmott argue that men now take a greater share of domestic tasks and more women are working. In addition, Feminists argue that the division of labour is not natural and only benefits men as it restricts women

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The domestic division of labour

Joint & segregated conjugal roles

Bott distinguishes between two types of conjural roles within marriage:

  • Segregated conjugal roles - where the couple have seperate roles with a male breadwinner and female homemaker as in Parsons' roles
  • Joint conjugal roles - where the couple shares tasks such as housework and childcare and spend leisure time together

The symmetrical family

Young & Willmott take a march of progress view and see family life as improving for all its members with a long term trend away from segregated conjugal roles and towards joint conjugal roles. The symmetrical family is one in which the roles of husbands and wives, although not identical and now much more similar

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The domestic division of labour

Husbands and wives are much more similar because:

  • Women now go out to work, although this might only be part time
  • Men now help with housework and childcare
  • Couples now spend their leisure time together

Young & Willmott studied families in London and found that the symmetrical family was more common among younger couples. The rise of it is due to major social changes which have occured in the past century:

  • Changes in women's position including married women going to work
  • Geographical mobility where more couples move away from their hometowns
  • New technology and labour saving devices
  • Higher standards of living
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The domestic division of labour

A feminist view of housework

Feminists reject the idea of a symmetrical family and say little has changed as the family and society is still patriarchal. Oakley argues that Young & Willmott's claims are exaggerated and although the men they interviewed say they helped their wives at least once a week, this could just be making breakfast on one occasion. Oakley argues this is hardly evidence for symmetry

Oakley found only 15% of men had a high participation in housework and 25% a high participation in childcare. They often only took part in more pleasurable aspects such as taking the children to the park. Sextyping of domestic tasks remained strong too with wives being 30 times more likely to have been the last person to have done the washing. However, younger men held less stereotyped views and were more likely to not assume that women should do all the housework

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Are couples becoming more equal?

The march of progress view

Gershuny argues that women working full time is leading to a more equal division of labour in the home. Sullivan found a trend towards women doing a smaller share of domestic work when they were full time, down from 82% in 1975 to 60% in 1997

The feminist view

They argue women going out to work has not led to greatet equality in the division of domestic work. Women are more likely to carry a duel burden of paid work and housework with evidence from the British Social Attitudes survey showing that in 2012 men did an average of 8 hours of housework a week whereas women did 13 hours. There are also still traditional gender divides with little reduction in women being more likely to shop for groceries, do the laundry etc

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Are couples becoming more equal?

Taking responsibility for children

Surveys often only focus on quantifiable aspects and ignores who takes responsibility for ensuring that tasks are done. Although fathers may help by performing specific childcare tasks, it is usually the mother who is responsible for the child's wellbeing with Ferri & Smith finding that fathers took responsibility for childcare in fewer than 4% of families

Taking responsibility for other family members is what Hochschild calls emotion work. Feminists say this is how women are responsible for handling squabbles and ensuring everyone is happy etc. Women often have to perform a triple shift of housework, paid work and emotion work

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Are couples becoming more equal?

Taking responsibility for quality time

Another responsibility which often falls to mothers is that of managing the family's quality time together. This has become more difficult in today's late modern society with recent social changes such as the emergence of the 24/7 society. Working mothers find themselves juggling the demands of work with their own leisure time and organising the family's social activities with this not showing up in quantitative research methods

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Are couples becoming more equal?

Explaining the gender division of labour

The cultural/ideological explanation of inequality - In this view, the division of labour is determined by patriarchal norms and values that shape gender roles in our culture. Women perform more domestic labour simply because that is what society expects them to do

From this perspective equality will only be achieved when norms about gender roles change through values and socialisation. There is some evidence for this explanation with Gershuny finding that couples whose parents had a more equal relationship are more likely to share housework equally themselves. The British Social Attitudes survey also found that less than 10% of under 35s agreed with a traditional labour divide as against 30% of the over 65s indicating a long term change in the norms of people through changing socialisation. Dunne also found that lesbian couples were more symmetrical as there were no gender scripts

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Are couples becoming more equal?

The material/economic explanation of inequality - In this view, the fact that women generally earn less than men means it is economically rational for women to do more of the housework and childcare while men spend more of their time earning money

From this perspective, if women join the labour force and earn as much as their partners we should expect to see men and women doing more equal amounts of domestic work. There is some evidence for this explanation with Kan finding that for every £10,000 a year more a woman earns, she does 2 hours less housework per week. Middle class women were more able to buy labour saving devices which saved them time too. However, women continue to earn less than men in 7/8 of households because women are more likely to work part time to look after children

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Resources & decision making in households

There is also inequality in how the family's resources are shared out between men and women. Barrett & McIntosh note that men gain far more from women's domestic work than they give back in financial support and men usually make the decisions about spending on important items

Family members do not share resources such as money equally with Kempson finding that among low income families women denied their own needs by skipping meals and not going out in order to make ends meet

There are two main types of control over family income - the allowance system where men give their wives an allowance out of which they have to budget to meet the family's needs and pooling where both partners have access to income and have a joint responsibility on spending such as a joint bank account which is the most common system now

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Resources & decision making in households

Decision making

It is assumed that pooling leads to greater equality but if the pooled income is controlled by the husband they have greater power in major financial decisions. Edgell's study of professional couples found that:

  • Very important decisions such as those involving finance, a new house etc were usually taken by the husband alone 
  • Important decisions such as those about children's education were usually taken jointly
  • Less important decisions such as food purchases were usually made by the wife

However, by 1995 70% of couples said they had an equal say in decisions showing a limited move towards greater equality in financial decision making

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Resources & decision making in households

Each partner keeping their own money seperately doesn't always mean inequality. Vogler found that cohabiting couples were less likely to pool their money from a desire to maintain their independence yet were more likely than married couples to share domestic taks equally

A personal life perspective on money

This focuses on the meanings couples give to who controls the money. The meanings that money may have in relationships can't be assumed as we might say the husband controlling all the money is a sign of inequality but for some couples it might not have this meaning. Smart found that gay couples were perfectly happy to  have their partner control the money. Weeks found the typical pattern was pooling some money for household spending together with separate accounts for personal spending reflecting a value of co-independence

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Domestic violence

Domestic violence is any incident of controlling behaviour, violence or abuse between those aged 16 or over who are or have been intimate partners or relations regardless of gender or sexuality. It can include psychological, physical, sexual, financial or emotional violence

A common view is that it is the behaviour of a few sick individuals but domestic violence is too widespread for this to be the case as Women's Aid say it accounts for a 1/4 of all violent recorded crime. Futhermore, domestic violence does not occur randomly but follows particular social patterns with it mainly being violence by men against women with 1/3 of all female homicide victims being killed by a partner

However, there has been a close gender gap with 7.3% of women compared with 5% of men reported domestic violence in one year

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Domestic violence

Knowing how many victims there are tells us nothing about the frequency or severity of the abuse they suffer, and there is a significant gender gap with Walby & Allen finding that women were more likely to be victims of multiple incidents of abuse and were more likely than men to be fearful of their partners

Official statistics understate the true extent of the problem because:

  • Victims may be unwilling to report it to the police as on average a woman suffers 35 assaults before making a report
  • Police and prosecutors may be reluctant to investigate these cases as these social agencies are not prepared to become involved in the family life because they say the family is a private sphere showing why the prosecution rate stood at 6.5%. They assume that the family is a good thing and that individuals are free agents so a woman can simply leave if she is being abused. However, this is not the case for some women as they are financially dependant on their husbands so can't leave
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Domestic violence

The radical feminist explanation

Radical feminists say domestic violence is evidence of patriarchy because all societies have been founded on it with men exploiting women. They see the family and marriage as the key institutions in patriarchal society as men dominate women through domestic violence or the threat of it and this is inevitable as it serves to protect the power that men have over women. This explains why most domestic violence is committed by men and they see the reluctance of the police to deal with these cases as being the result of their male domination

  • However, Eliot says that not all men are aggressive and most oppose domestic violence and radical feminists ignore female violence against men and children
  • They fail to explain which women are most likely to be victims which is usually young women, low income women etc
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Domestic violence

The materialist explanation

This focuses on economic and material factors such as inequalities in income to explain why some groups are more at risk than others. Wilkinson & Pickett see domestic violence as the result of stress on family members caused by social inequality. Those who face this inequality such as those on low incomes are more likely to face stress reducing their chances of maintaining a stable relationsip such as tempers being frayed through worries about jobs and money. These findings show that not all people are equally in danger of suffering domestic violence as those with less power and wealth are often at greater risk

  • However, they do not explain why it is women rather than men who are at greater risk
  • Marxist feminists argue that domestic violence is the result of capitalism so wives are 'takers of sh*t' of the men's frustration of their workplaces
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