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July 9, 2008 / C H Thompson

Patriarchal or matriarchal families

Are families patriarchal or matriarchal? In other words do men or women generally run the family?

To help answer such a question sociologists look at the nature of power, then apply their responses to the nature of power within the family. The sociologist Stephen Lukes identified three different views or ‘faces’ on power, they are:

  1. decision making (what Lukes termed the first face of power)
  2. agenda setting otherwise known as non-decision making (what Lukes termed the second face of power)
  3. controlling wishes and desires (Lukes’ own radical or third face of power)

1. Decision making – this examines how power is gained through winning the argument/discussion over an issue. The person or group who win the argument gain all the power and can act on their decision. One example which illustrates this is the June 2013 protests in Egypt.

However within the family it is important to distinguish between major and minor decisions. When the actual decisions were looked at in detail what Edgell 1980 discovered was that only about half of the family decisions were taken jointly.  The husband dominated the more important decisions like moving house, family finances, and buying a car.

The more frequent and less ‘important’ decisions were left to the wife. These decisions tended to be about interior decorating, food management, and children’s clothes. This difference between the power to make major or minor decisions indicates that power is more complicated than just winning the discussion as some groups/individuals can set the agenda relegating an issue from a major to minor one.

2. Agenda-setting (or non-decision making) – helps address the capacity to create major and minor issues. With setting the agenda or non-decision making, some ideas about family life have already been made for people, and so it’s difficult to start discussing them because the agenda has already been set (agenda setting).

Try and think of some areas of your life where it is difficult to alter certain assumptions. For example is it possible to discuss with your headteacher, teacher, parent about whether you need to wear a school uniform or not, or has the agenda already been set? If the agenda has already been set about an issue, this means one group or person has the power to set the agenda. Therefore the recipient group have no power and subsequently unable to make a decision, known as non-decision making.

Setting of the agenda is important in family life as those people who gain from setting the agenda hold more power. One example is where men’s jobs are largely seen as being more important that women’s. This transfers to the family whereby a husband’s power comes from his ‘superior job’ and can stop the discussion (agenda is set) of him cooking the evening meal because he’s worked all-day. Therefore because the wife/partner’s is seen to have a ‘lesser’ valued domestic role the agenda is set she’ll cook the meal.

Feminist writers argue this agenda setting means men gain a two-fold advantage as they aren’t tarnished by the negative aspects of being a carer/housewife while at the same time benefitting from women undertaking these roles. Oakely argues that having set the agenda the wife is becomes dependent on the male breadwinner and women’s housework is seen as different a softer option form ‘real’ work. Defining housework as a female activity means the agenda is set, as such work is naturally female rather than this:

Lukes pointed out that the second-face of power didn’t explain – in this example, women – why so many women accepted housework as being ‘natural’. This led Lukes to create his third or radical view of power.

3. Shaping desires – the final type of power is the ability to shape the wishes and desires of people. This is known as Lukes’ third face of power. This form of power is more subtle than the previous two because it is about one group or individual shaping the wishes and desires of another group/individual without them realising they’re being manipulated as evident in the clip below.

The idea with this view of power is the ability of one group to control another without them knowing it’s happening. This occurs in the family because women have grown to accept their subordinate status through Lukes’ third face of power. One ‘tool’ used to sell a woman’s subordinate status is through ideology.

By cementing certain ideas into society as normal and inevitable women accept their subordinate role as carers and housewives because they’ve been ‘sold’ this idea. In general women don’t try and challenge these normal ‘biological’ ideas because if they do they’re seen as odd – which is clearly what Ali G thinks.

The next page will allow us to apply each of the three faces of power to real family situations.


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