Couples & Conjugal Roles

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The domestic division of labour

  • Conjugal roles = roles played by husband and wife.

  • Domestic division of labour = roles men and women play in relation to housework and childcare.

Sociologists have looked at whether or not couples share roles equally.

  • PARSONS (1957)-functionalist- traditional NF= men and women have separate roles.

  • The man plays the instrumental role- going out to work and providing for the family (breadwinner)

  • Woman plays the expressive role- raising children and looking after the emotional needs of the family- does majority of housework (homemaker).

  • PARSONS argues these roles are natural- result of biological differences between men and women (same view as the New Right).

  • A03: YOUNG & WILLMOTT argue PARSONS’ work is dated, as men now do more housework as many women go out to work.

  • A03: Feminists - gender roles (how males and females are expected to behave) aren’t natural- but socially constructed- shown by the increase in women working.


  • BOTT (1957) argues there are two types of conjugal roles:

  • Segregated conjugal roles- couple has separate roles- a male breadwinner and a female housewife. Leisure time is often spent apart.

  • Joint conjugal roles- couples share housework and childcare and spend leisure time together.

  • YOUNG & WILMOTT (1973)- ‘march of progress’

  • Family becoming more equal over time.

  • 1950s study they found that working class extended families = segregated conjugal roles.

  • 1970s - Trend towards joint conjugal roles and the symmetrical family: - men and women have similar (but not identical) roles.

  • This family emerged due to:

  • 1) Changes in the position of women - especially them working more.

  • 2) Geographical mobility: more couples living away from where they grew up, so they spend more time together.

  • 3) New technology - e.g. labour-saving devices (dishwashers, etc.).

  • 4) Higher standards of living.

  • Some of these factors are related e.g. if both partners work, they can make their homes more attractive, encouraging the male to spend more of his free time there.

  • AO3:  OAKLEY criticised YOUNG & WILLMOTT’s work - they argued that most couples had husbands who helped out once a week- not really equal. Did her own research and found only 15% of husbands did a high level of housework/25% did high level of childcare. However, she only studied full-time housewives- results= expected to some extent. He also argued that the housewife role is socially constructed- women working in the early industrial period but were excluded from work- became dependent on men. Working again, but housewife role= main one, and many ‘female’ jobs are an extension of it e.g. cleaner.

  • GERSHUNY - women who work full time do less housework (73%) compared to women who work part-time (82%) or don’t work (83%). Shows a change in values towards equality.

  • AO3:However, while men are doing housework, they tend to take responsibility for different tasks than women.

  • A03: Feminists- despite women working more, they still do a majority of housework, now =


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