In many societies, family life is organised around gender roles, so responsibilities within the family unit are often allocated to members according to their sex. This division of labour is often perceived to the product of a fundamental difference between the biological basis of men and women. However, this is a highly controversial assumption, usually applied to the cultural differences and what society needs and expects from the individual and the sexes. When referring to the ‘symmetry’ of the family, one is using the term to describe the equal division of conjugal roles.
Early sociologists studied the effects of changing times within the family, and the impact this had on the division of roles. Elizabeth Bott developed the notions of ‘segregated’ and ‘joint’ conjugal roles, implying that the family is either symmetrical, or indeed, not. Joint conjugal roles are generally categorised by the sharing responsibilities, decision-making and leisure activities. Bott’s research concluded that couples that have less dependency on social networks will generally share conjugal roles more equally. centering activities around the family unit and almost creating a microcosm within the household.
With the reliance for support and leisure more heavily on the spouse rather than a separate circle of friends, centering activities around the family unit and almost creating a microcosm within the household. Wilmott and Young support the notion of the increasing isolation of the middle class nuclear family, leading to joint conjugal roles. However, it is recognised that the male participation maybe an attribute to a certain ‘trend’ of equality. This ‘trend’ has in fact been the revolutionising of the nuclear family unit since the early seventies.
However, the dramatic change of family size has decreased within the last hundred years, the 19th century middle-class trend of limiting the family size was adopted by the working class after the First World War, the slight fluctuation between an average of two or three children finally resulting with the nineties average dropping below two. Without the implications of child bearing being the priority of one’s adult life, more options are generally open, and without the strains of the work roles being segregated between the sexes, and women’s confinement being within the home, this may lead to a more liberated view, and sharing of roles.
The consideration of marriage as an option and longer life expectancy are also some of the more recent demographic changes, perhaps indirectly leading to the sharing of conjugal roles. With a significant contribution to the national economy and family income, one can hardly presume that the female will be expected to continue to be the somewhat demoted member of the partnership. Another study has been completed by Young and Wilmott, attempting to discover the numbers of ‘symmetrical’ families through the percentage of husbands assisting in household chores.
The results claim that 85% assisted, however, this could include a mere weekly chore of washing the dishes. The Guardian (7. 3. 91) completed a survey of 11000 readers, concluding that 49 percent of cohabiting women shared the household chores ‘equally’ with their partner. One may question the need for them to recognise that they as women are sharing them, rather than the chores simply being shared, still implies a somewhat bias notion. This complies with the results of a study completed by Fiona Devine in 1992, regarding car workers’ families in Luton.
An increasing number of women were working part-time, often resulting in a greater involvement by men with childcare, but not necessarily house-work. However, it was concluded that this involvement was generally due to financial needs, and the housework was still considered to be predominantly the work of the female. Martin and Roberts (1984) completed a study noting that when a woman takes on paid employment, there is only a marginal reduction in the time she spend on housework. Women are often perceived to continue with the burden of housework if their husbands are unemployed.
However this view is generally varied -a higher reliance and association with male peer group generally makes them less likely. Such expectations of society implies that it is not necessarily a matter of role segregation, but a trend brought about by peer pressure. Home-centred men are seen to have a more “flexible approach to labour” as suggested by L. Morris, 1987. Women still often perceive an unfair balance within the household, whilst some argue that it is indeed a personal responsibility to do something about that within today’s diverse society.
It has been suggested that women generally control the purchasing of food, clothing of the children, decoration of the home etc, whilst men decide the more ‘serious’ issues, such as moving house, new cars. This was suggested by Stephen Edgell, examining the segregation of decision making within middle-class couples, opposing the view of Wilmott and Young, which suggested that the middle-class does not imply more equality. The notion of segregated roles has clearly emerged from a stereotypical notion of the need for a clear distinction between the sexes.
One may observe them as a product of society, clearly with the option to be left behind, however it almost seems that such notions are thrived upon in a way to keep the ideal of the nuclear family pulsing in its fading reality. This desperate grasp towards tradition seems unjustified, as such dated notions of role segregation do not comply with the political correctness of the modern Western culture. One may note that some cultures comply and oppose such concepts to the extreme. The origins of such diverse attitudes is hard to conceive.
Clearly, it is not a fundamental disposition to segregate roles -however, this does not imply that the family is indeed symmetrical. Sociobiological methods often suggest a fundamental difference between the sexes, suggesting that segregation is obvious. However, the roles being biological imperatives are more easily dismissed than the notion of the maternal instinct implying that a woman’s place is with the children. The mere observations of a variant society can easily contradict this.
It is also widely held that the conjugal roles of mankind primarily emerged from an ancient matriarchal society, in which the men were considered the less important sex, therefore being sent out to hunt and complete the more laborious tasks which were less desirable. It is perceived to be a bizarre twist within perceptions which has had resulted in the modern world. The contemporary family is generally that of an unpredictable, rapidly changing and often reconstituted concept.
With regards to the ‘symmetry’ of roles, there is often no one to share the conjugal roles with. However, this ‘symmetry’ within a family is generally considered to be an attribute to the modern, post-industrial, contemporary nuclear family. In an often conceivably post-modern world, one may perhaps look to the family as a post-modern entity; often beyond definition and categorical actualities. The diversity is so extreme that it is often hard to excruciating to place the term ‘nuclear family’ upon any clear definition.
The family is an ever-changing notion, often in the loosest of terms, rapidly developing with surrounding sub-cultures and often idolising the current ‘trend’ which is being portrayed. The ideology of the family has never conclusively had the opportunity of a desirable amount of equality in order to ‘choose’ and share roles, without a certain breakdown of the original concept. One may consider that the family cannot be symmetrical, as surely it cannot stand still long enough to have the generalisation made within the present world.
Although one could counter-argue that it is indeed this somewhat ‘liberation’ of equality which has resulted with the breakdown of the family. However, perhaps the most important objective is that a key issue with regard to examining the activities of the family, is that isolation from the rest of society is often necessary. One may consider that the segregation and distribution of conjugal roles in fact primarily a product of socialisation; despite how contemporary it may consider itself to be.