The Domestic Division of Labour

How roles within married life are carried out and shared amongst couples.

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Parsons instrumental and expressive roles

Parsons: Instrumental and expressive roles (1955)

Clear division between spouses: The husband has an instrumental role, geared towards achieving success at work so he can provide for the family financially. He is the breadwinner.

The wife has an expressive role, geared towards primary socialisation of the children and meeting the family's emotional needs. She is the homemaker, a full-time housewife rather than a wage earner.


Young and Willmott (1962): Argue that men are now taking a greater share of domestic tasks and more wives are becoming wage earners.

Feminist sociologists: Rejects 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) distinguishes between two types of conugal roles; that is, roles within marriage:

Segregated conjugal roles - where the couple have separate roles: a male breadwinner and a female homemaker/carer, as in Parsons' instrumental and expressive roles. Their leisure acitivities also tend to be separate.

Joint conjugal roles - where the couple share tasks such as the housework and childcare and spend their leisure time together.


Young and Willmott's study of traditional working-class families in Bethnal Green showed that men were the breadwinner and played little part in homelife and spend their leisure time in the pub with work mates.

Women were full time housewives and were responsible for housework and childcare and had limited leisure time with female family members.

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The Symmetrical family

Young and Willmott (1973) see family life as gradually improving for all its members, becoming more equal and democratic. They argue that there has been a long-term trend away from segragated conjugal roles and towards joint conjugal roles and the 'symmetrical family'.

What is meant by the 'symmetrical family'?

-Women now go out to work, although this may be part-time rather than full-time.

-Men now help with housework and childcare.

-Couples now spend their leisure time together instead of separately with workmates or female relatives. They are more home-centred or 'privatised'.

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The Symmetrical family

Young and Willmott found that the symmetrical family was more common amoung younger couples, those who are geographically and socially isolated, and the more affluent (better off).

For example, the young couples who had moved away from Bethnal Green and were living at a distance from the extended family and workmates were more likely to have a symmetrical relationship.

Symmetrical family came as a result of many social changes:

Changes in the position of women, including married women going out to work.

Geographical mobility, more coupkes living away from the community they grew up in.

New technology, and labour-saving devices.

Higher standards of living.

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Feminist view of housework

Feminist sociologists reject this 'march of progress' view. They argue that little has changed: men and women remain unequal within the family and women still do most of the housework. They see this inequality as stemming from the fast that the family and society are male-dominated or patriarchal. Women occupy a subordinate and dependant role within the family and wider society.

The feminist Anne Oakley (1974) criticises Young and Willmot's view that the family is now symmetrical and claims that it is exaggerated. Although they found that most of the husbands 'helped' their wives at least once a week, this could be a very small contribution.

In her own research, Oakley found some research of husbands helping out but not evidence of symmetry. Only 15% of husbands helped out at a high level in housework and only 25% helped out at a high level with childcare.

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Feminist view of housework

Mary Boulton's (1983) research supports Oakley by finding out that fewer than 20% of husbands had a major role in childcare. She argues that Young and Willmott have exaggerated men's contribution by looking at the tasks involved with children instead of the responsibilities.

Research conducted in Manchester by Alan Warde and Kevin Hethrington (1993) shows that sex-typing of domestic tasks remained strong. For example, wives were 30 times more lifely to have been the last person to do the washing, whereas husbands were 4 times more likely to have been the last person to wash the car.

In general, Warde and Hethrington found that men would only do the 'female' tasks when the women wern't around to do them. Nevertheless they did find evidence against that with younger men.

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