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July 2, 2013 / C H Thompson

Some key studies on the family – family roles

Below you can read about the numerous sociologists who have looked at the complex dynamics of between couples in the family.Power 1

How have relationships changed? Bott, 1957. Original text Elizabeth Bott ‘Family and Social Network’

Elizabeth Bott’s Family and Social Network describes two contrasting types of conjugal roles: segregated and joint. Segregated roles involve a clear differentiation between the tasks undertaken by men and women, with each pursuing clearly defined and distinct activities. A joint relationship, on the other hand, is one where the differentiation – or ‘division of labour’ – is much less clear, and tasks, interests and activities are shared to a much greater degree. What Bott’s study claimed is that if family members maintain ties with a network of friends or neighbours who know one another, the members of these external social networks can develop norm consensus and exert pressure on the network’s members to conform.

Are conjugal roles now less segregated? Wilmott & Young, 1973.

Wilmott and Young’s The Symmetrical Family detects a shift in conjugal roles which they see as reflecting a new type of relationship between husband and wife. They detect a movement away from traditional segregated roles towards more joint forms of relationship. The trend originated with middle class families, but increasingly, they contend, working class families have adopted the same arrangement.

Who takes care of the housework? Oakley, 1974.

Ann Oakley’s The Sociology of Housework underlines the persisting inequalities in family life. It was the first influential study to consider housework as ‘domestic labour’ – i.e. as another form of work. Her respondents depict their domestic obligations as repetitive, unfulfilling and under-appreciated. She found little to support the notion that roles in the family were becoming more ‘symmetrical’, with power more equally shared between couples. Her conclusion is that ‘housework is work directly opposed to the possibility of human self-actualisation.’

Is the husband pulling his weight? Hartmann, 1981.

Heidi Hartmann’s research found that women who had jobs outside the home nevertheless remained responsible for the bulk of the housework. Husbands with working wives did not tend to do any more housework than those whose wives did not. She concedes that the growth of female participation in the labour market has conferred on women some degree of independence. However, the low waged work typically available to them reinforces male dominance both in the home and in the wider society – findings summary

What happens when men don’t work? McKee & Bell, 1986.

Linda McKee and Colin Bell explored the effects of male unemployment on families. They found a strong resistance on the part of many of their respondents – both male and female – to the notion of a woman as the main ‘breadwinner’. The men in the study did not feel obliged to undertake housework to any appreciable degree. In fact, this was an attitude that the women themselves reinforced, for fear that their husband’s ‘masculine identity’ – already undermined by the stigma of unemployment – would be further challenged by enhanced domestic responsibilities.

Who does the emotional work? Duncombe & Marsden, 1995.

Duncombe and Marsden’s research reinforces earlier studies that revealed inequalities in power and domestic responsibilities. They add to this the finding that women believe they make the primary ‘emotional investment’ in the family and marriage. Many of their female respondents complained that their husbands were indifferent to their role in holding the relationship together. The upshot of this, according to the authors, is that women are frequently saddled with a ‘triple shift’ of obligations: outside work, housework – and emotional work.


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 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.

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