Sociology: Couples


The domestic division of labour

The division of labour refers to the roles men and women play, e.g. housework, childcare, paid work.

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Parsons identifies two conjugal roles: the instrumental role of the male breadwinner and the expressive role of the female nurturer/carer 

Parsons argues that this gender division of labour among couples is functional for the family its members and wider society. He sees this division as biologically based- women are naturally suited to nurturing, men to providing- so everyone benefits from this specialisation 

The New Right agree with Parsons that this biologically based gender division of labour is the best way of organising family life

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Feminists reject the functionalist view- the division of labour is not ‘natural ‘ (e.g. it is not found in all societies) and it only benefits men

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The ‘march of progress’ view

This view sees conjugal roles becoming more equal in modern society. Bott identifies two types:

  • Segregated conjugal roles are seperate. There is a sharp division of labour between male breadwinner and female homemaker. Husband and wife spend their leisure separately. Young and Willmott found segregated conjugal roles in working-class extended families in Bethnal Green in the 1950s 

  • Joint conjugal roles involve couples sharing domestic tasks and leisure
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The symmetrical family

Young and Willmott see a long-term trend towards joint conjugal roles and the symmetrical family, where roles are more similar and equal:

  • Most women now go out to work

  • Men help with housework and childcare 

  • Couples spend their leisure time together. Men have become more home-centred and the family more privatised

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The rise of the symmetrical family is due to major social changes during the 20th century, e.g higher living standards, labour- saving devices, better housing, women working, smaller families

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Feminists reject the march of progress view. They see the family as patriarchal, not symmetrical or equal. Women still do most of the housework and childcare

Oakley found no evidence of symmetry in domestic labour. She argues that Young and Willmott exaggerate men’s role: although husbands ‘helped’, this could include just ironing their own shirt once a week 

Boulton argues that we need to look at who is responsible for tasks, not just who performs them. This wife is seen as responsible for children’s welfare, even when men ‘help’. Less than one in five husbands took a major part in childcare

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The ‘march of progress’ view

Most women today are in paid work. The march of progress view argues that this is leading to a more equal division of domestic labour

Sullivan found women now do less domestic work,men do more traditional ‘women’s’ tasks, and more couples have an equal division of labour 

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The feminist view

Feminists do not believe women working has led to greater equality. Women now carry a dual burden of paid work and domestic work. British Social Attitude shows women do twice as much and couples still divide household tasks along traditional gender lines. There has been little change since the 1990s

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Responsibility for children

Although fathers help with specific tasks, usually mothers take responsibility for children’s well-being

  • Dex and Ward found that only 1% of fathers took the main responsibility for caring for a sick child 

  • Braun et al found most fathers were ‘background fathers’. They held a ‘provider ideology’: their role was breadwinner, not primary carer

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Responsibility for ‘quality time’

Women generally take responsibility for managing the family’s ‘quality time’. But in late modernity, the 24/7 society and flexible working mean people’s time is more fragmented and de-routinised. Working mothers find themselves juggling competing demands on their time 

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The triple shift

Duncombe and Marsden found that women were required not only to carry a dual burden, but a triple shift: emotion work, domestic labour and paid work 

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Explaining the gender division of labour

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The cultural or ideological explanation

Patriarchal cultural norms shape gender roles. Women perform more domestic labour because this is what society expects and has socialised them to do

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The evidence

Equality will be achieved only when attitudes, values and expectations, role models and socialisation change. There is some evidence for this:

  • Gershuny argues that couples are adapting to women working full-time, establishing a new norm of men doing more domestic work 

  • Kan found younger men do more domestic work

British Social Attitudes found a long-term change in attitudes

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The material or economic explanation

Women earn less than men, so it is economically rational for them to do more domestic labour while men spend more time earning money

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The evidence

If women earn as much as their partners, we should see couples doing more equal amounts of domestic work. There is some evidence for this:

  • Arber and Ginn found better-paid women could buy in products and services, e.g. childcare, rather than carrying out domestic tasks themselves 

  • Ramos found that where is the full-time breadwinner and the man is unemployed, they do equal amounts of domestic labour
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Note Crompton’s view that, since women continue to earn less than men, there is no immediate prospect of a more equal division of labour

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Same-couples and gender scripts

Radical feminists argue that heterosexual relationships are inevitably patrirarchal and unequal- even when women are in paid work. They contrast this with same-sex relationships. For example, Dunnes study of 37 lesbian couples with children found a more equal division of labour. Dunne uses the idea of gender scripts:

  • Heterosexuals were socialised into gender scripts that set out different masculine and feminine roles and gender identities 

  • Lesbains did not link household tasks to gender scripts, so they were more open to negotiation and thus more equal
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However, Dunne found that where one partner did much more paid work, they also did less domestic work- i.e. material factors were still an important influence on the division of labour

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Resources and decision making

Kempson found that women in low-income families denied their own needs to make ends meet. But even in households with adequate incomes, resources are often shared unequally, leaving women in poverty 

Unequal shares of resources are often the result of who controls the family’s income and who makes the decisions about spending it- usually the man 

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Decision making and paid work

One reason men take a greater share of resources and demand a bigger say in decisions is because they earn more. This is supported by Pahl and Vogler. They identify two types of control over family income:

  • The allowance system, where men work and give their non-working wives an allowance from which they budget to meet the family’s needs 

  • Pooling, where partners work and have joint responsibility for spending, e.g. a joint bank account 

There has been a big increase in pooling in recent years. However, Vogler found that men still tended to make the major decisions, reflecting their greater earnings 

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Professional couples and decision making

Edgell’s study of decision making among professional couple where both partners work full-time also found inequalities. Very important decisions were taken either by the husband alone or with him having the final say. Important decisions were usually taken jointly. Less important decisions where usually made by the wife

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There are two main explanations for inequalities in decision making:

  • Material Men have more power in decision making because they earn more. Women are economically dependent, so they have less say

  • Cultural Feminists argue that gender role socialisation in patriarchal society instils the idea that men are the decision-makers
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The personal life perspective on money

The personal life perspective focuses on the meanings couples give to who controls the money. The meanings that money may have in relationships cannot be taken for granted 

Nyman argues that different couple give money different meanings. These meanings reflect the nature of the relationship

Smart found that some same-sex couples did not see the control of monry as meaning either equality or inequality. This may be because they do not enter relationships with the same ‘heterosexual baggage of culteral meanings’ that see money as a source of power

Hence Smart argues that it is essential to start from the personal meanings of the actors involved in the situation

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Use ‘Smart argues that it is essential to start from the personal meanings of the actors involved in the situation’ to evaluate cultural and material explanations or decision making

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Domestic violence statistics

Domestic violence is too widespread to be just the behaviour of a few ‘disturbed’ individuals. The British Crime Survey (BCS) estimated that there are 6.6 million assaults per year. However, assaults are not random- they are mainly by men against women

According to the BCS, nearly one in four women is assaulted by her partner at some time. however, police statistics under-estimate its extent because of under-reporting and under-recording

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Domestic violence is the violent crime least likely to be reported to police. The BCS estimated that under a third of assaults are reported. Yearnshire found that on average a woman suffers 35 assaults before reporting abuse 

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Police are often unwilling to record, investigate or prosecute domestic violence because they are reluctant to become involved in the ‘private sphere’ of the family. They often take the view that individuals are free to leave if unhappy. In fact, many women cannot leave because they and their children are financially dependent on their partners.

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Police are often unwilling to record, investigate or prosecute domestic violence because they are reluctant to become involved in the ‘private sphere’ of the family. They often take the view that individuals are free to leave if unhappy. In fact, many women cannot leave because they and their children are financially dependent on their partners.

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The radical feminist explanations

Radical feminists see domestic violence as the result of patriarchy- male domination. In their view, all societies are patriarchal and the key division is between men and women 

  • Men oppress women, mainly through the family, where they benefit from women’s unpaid domestic labour and sexual services. Domestic violence enable men to control women, so it is inevitable in patriarchal society

  • Men also dominate the state and this explains why the police and courts fail to take domestic violence seriously 

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Dobash and Dobash

Dobash and Dobash provide supporting evidence. They found violence was triggered when husbands felt their authority was being challenged. They conclude that marriage legitimates violence by giving power to men

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Radical feminism explains why most violence is by men against women. It doesn’t explain violence by women against men, children or lesbian partners. Elliot argues that not all men benefits from it

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Lack of resources

Wilkinson and Pickett argue that these patterns are a result of stress on the family caused by social inequality. Families that lack resources- e.g. low income, poor housing- suffer more stress and this increases the risk of violence

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Marxists feminists

Marxists feminists also see inequality producing domestic violence. Ansley argues that male workers exploited at work take out their frustration on their wives

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This fails to explain why not all male workers commit domestic violence

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