Families and Households (Domestic division of labour)

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Parsons: Instrumental and expressive roles

Traditional nuclear family - Roles of husbands and wives are segregated (separate and distinct from one another). Talcott Parsons' (1955) functionalists model of the family - there is a clear division of labor between spouses: 

  • Husband - instrumental role -  achieving success and providing for the family
  • Wife - expressive role - primary socialisation of children, meets families emotional needs, homemaker and full time house wife

Parsons argues that this division of labour is based on biological differences (women naturally suited to the nurturing role and men to that of the provider).


  • Young and Willmott (1962) - argue that men are now taking a greater share of domestic tasks and more wives are becoming wage earners.
  • Feminists sociologists reject Parsons' view that the division of labour is natural. They argue that it only benefits men. 
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Joint and segregated conjugal roles

Elizabeth Bott (1957) - 2 types of conjugal roles within marriage:

  • Segregated conjugal roles - couples have separate roles: the male is the breadwinner and the female is the homemaker/carer. Their leisure activities are separated
  • Joint conjugal roles - where the couple share tasks such as housework and childcare and spend their leisure time together.
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The symmetrical family

Young and Willmott (1973) - see family life as gradually improving for all its members and becoming more equal. 

The roles of husband and wife are not identical but are more similar, for example: women now go to work (mostly part time), men now help with the housework and childcare and couples spend their leisure time together. They are more home centered or 'privatised'. 

Young and Willmott noticed there symmetrical families are more common among younger couples. They see the rise of the symmetrical nuclear family as a result of major social changes, for example: changes in the women's position, geographical mobility, new technology and higher standards of living. Many of these factors are interlinked.  

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A feminist view of housework

Feminist sociologists reject this 'march of progress' view. They believe that little has changed and women still do most of the housework. They believe that society is patriarchal (male dominated). 

Ann Oakley (1974) - criticises Young and Willmott's view about how the family is now symmetrical. She believes that their argument is over exaggerated. In her own research only 15% of husbands had a high level of participation in housework, and only 25% had a high level of participation in childcare. Most couples defined the father's role as one of 'taking an interest'. 

Mary Boulton (1983) - found that less than 20% of husbands had a major role in childcare, she believes that a father might help with specific tasks, but most of the time it was the mother who was responsible for the child's security and well-being.

Alan Warde and Kevin Hetherington (1993) - their research shows that sex typing of domestic tasks remain strong. In general they found out that men would only carry out routine tasks when their partners were not around to do them. 

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