Family Gender Roles
This article focuses on family gender roles. Sociologists study family gender roles as a means of exploring how gender is constructed and performed; how familial relationships are formed and maintained; and the ways in which the family unit affects society. This article explores the sociology of family gender roles in five parts: an overview of family gender roles and social roles in general; a description of social role theory; a discussion of the family studies field; an exploration of the ways in which sociologists apply social role theory to studies of family life and behavior; and an analysis of the issues associated with changing family gender roles. Understanding how sociologists conceptualize and study family gender roles is vital for all those interested in the sociology of family and relationships.
Keywords Family; Gender; Gender Role Self-Concept; Identity; Interpersonal Role Conflict; Intrapersonal Role Conflict; Norms; Role Models; Roles; Social Role Theory; Society; Sociology; Values_
Sociologists study family gender roles as a means of exploring how gender is constructed and performed; how familial relationships are maintained; and the ways in which the family unit affects society. In 1955, two sociologists, Talcott Parsons and Robert Bales, published a book entitled Family, Socialization and Interaction Process, which provided a functionalist explanation for the existence of the nuclear family and differentiated family gender roles. Parsons and Bales described the roles of women and men necessary to support the individual family. According to Parsons and Bales, the nuclear family, with its gender-based social roles, functioned to support the economy and society. The functionalist explanation of family gender roles advanced by Parsons and Bales typifies sociology's classical or traditional take on family gender roles until the 1960s. Beginning in the 1960s, contemporary sociology, strongly influenced by the feminist and civil rights movements, has argued that family gender roles are converging and changing to accommodate shared responsibilities of employment, education, and parenting.
Understanding how sociologists conceptualize and study family gender roles is vital for all those interested in the sociology of family and relationships. This article explores the sociology of family gender roles in five parts: an overview of family gender roles and social roles in general; a description of social role theory; a discussion of the family studies field; an exploration of the ways in which sociologists apply social role theory to studies of family life and behavior; and an analysis of the issues associated with changing family gender roles.
Types of Social Roles
Modernization and industrialization reshaped American society and the composition of the American family unit. Starting in the early twentieth century, the family became nuclear and isolated from its extended kin. The nuclear family consists of husband, wife, and dependent children. According to Parsons, the nuclear family is a functioning system that requires and depends on equilibrium and successful role performance. Common family roles in the nuclear family unit include providing income, cleaning house, preparing food, caring for children, disciplining children, socializing children, and visiting and maintaining relationships with friends and family (Huntington et al., 2001). Classical or traditional sociology, as represented by sociologist Talcott Parsons, divides family gender roles into expressive roles and instrumental roles.
In traditional social role division, women's roles and men's roles in the family are differentiated. The classical sociological view of the male caregiving role is managerial and instrumental in nature. Men play instrumental roles by earning money in their chosen profession. In contrast to the men's role in the family, the classical sociological view of the female caregiving role is characterized by emotional, physical, and maintenance work. Female family roles are traditionally understood to include relationship maintenance and an overall effort at keeping kin close and connected. Women play expressive roles, taking care of the home and emotional life of a family.
In the 1950s, Parsons advanced the idea that the isolated nuclear family contributes to the functioning of economy and society. The isolated nuclear family socializes and educates its young but remains mobile and able to move should the man's employer require. In industrialized societies, social institutions such as schools, libraries, community centers, and government programs take over some roles that were once served by families. Parsons believed that the family performed very clear functions for its members and society as a whole. Family functions included socialization of children and stabilization of adult personality. Parsons argued that a full-time mother was responsible for the family needs, while the father/husband was responsible for income and thus could move between home and work contexts. Women were limited to their roles of wives and mothers. Parsons predicted increased gender role segregation in the future. According to Parsons, the marriage becomes the source of feminine and masculine role socialization. Sociologists in the 1950s believed that young girls were given mixed messages by providing the girls with a full education and then offering marriage and motherhood as the best or only roles available (Breines, 1986).
Ultimately, the work of Parsons, along with Bales, represents the classical sociological belief of a division between gendered family roles (i.e., instrumental versus expressive roles within the nuclear family). In general, contemporary sociological theory, including feminist theory, opposes the belief in differentiated gendered family or caregiving roles (Carroll & Campbell, 2008).
Social Role Theory
The field of sociology has long studied the importance of social roles for individuals and society. For instance, French sociologist Emile Durkheim studied the part that social roles play in solidarity and social cohesion. Durkheim found that the interdependent social roles or functions that people perform hold society and institutions together. Contemporary sociologists recognize that gender roles, particularly family gender roles, are socially constructed and taught through the socialization process. Social constructs refer to culturally created parameters for social action or behavior. Common social constructs include social roles, gender, time, nature, illness, and death. Sociologists explain and explore social roles, including family gender roles, through the lens of social role theory.
Social role theory argues that men and women act in accordance with their social roles. Social roles, which tend to be gender based, require unique skill sets and are associated with unique expectations. Gender stereotypes, such as women are natural nurturers and men are natural leaders, are linked to clearly differentiated gender-based social roles (Vogel et al., 2003). Sociologists apply social role theory to diverse contexts. For instance, social scientists have studied the changing social roles of contemporary Palestinian women (Huntington et al., 2001); the relationship between managerial responses and gender-based roles (Bowes-Sperry, 1997); and the connections between sex-specific family-work roles and well-being in African American families (Broman, 1991).
Social role theory, also referred to as role theory, originated in the field of social psychology. A social role refers to the social behavior, rights, and duties associated with a specific identity or situation. Roles may be associated with cultural expectations, gender, biological characteristics, or a given situation. Social roles function to differentiate groups of people by class, gender, education, etc. Over the life course, an individual will play or serve multiple social roles. Individuals may have multiple roles at the same time, such as parent, child, sister, teacher, or volunteer. Social roles specify particular norms of behavior and associated values.
Social role theory anticipates and explains role conflict. Individuals with competing or conflicting roles may experience role conflict. Sociologist Robert Merton (1910–2003) described the problem of role conflict by classifying two different types of role conflict: intrapersonal role conflict and interpersonal role conflict.
• Intrapersonal role conflict refers to conflict that may exist between people, seen often in work settings, regarding the expectations associated with different roles.
• Interpersonal role conflict refers to the conflict that arises from the competing roles performed simultaneously by a single person.
Both intrapersonal and interpersonal role conflict may cause tension, stress, and antisocial or deviant behavior. Merton made significant contributions to the sociology of deviance (O'Connor, 2007).
An individual's social roles may be chosen or attributed to them by his or her family, institution, or society. The gender role self-concept refers to an individual's sense of self as related to gender roles, attributes, and behavior. Social scientists have found that an individual's identity, as related to gender roles, attributes, and behavior, is affected by his or her chosen role models and reference groups (Wade, 2001). The theory of social role valorization argues that roles vary widely in their degree of social support, respect, and compensation. Social role theory offers suggestions for building self-esteem and success through active changes in one's social roles. For instance, a woman who performs devalued social roles (such as that of an addict) may build self-esteem through the choice or opportunity to take on valued roles (such as that of an employee). The acquisition of socially valued roles is part of the recovery process for some types of addicted or abused individuals. For instance, Alcoholics Anonymous encourages its members to seek out valued social roles and opportunities to serve as role models for others (Stenius et al., 2005). Critics of social role theory argue that the theoretical perspective offers no means of evaluating and explaining deviant behavior.
Ultimately, social role theory is part of sociology's larger concern for social structure. Traditional sociologists take social structure and society as their objects of study. Social structures include roles, status, groups, and institutions. Roles are the actions associated with a person's status. Individuals generally play multiple roles in society. Status refers to the socially defined position of individuals in society. The roles people perform, which may be gendered, professional, authentic, conflicting, or multiple, reflect the social...
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