Changing Roles In The Family Sociology Essay

Families are viewed by functionalists as a nuclear family structure, which are composed of a father, mother and approximated two children. According to Murdock in every society have a form of nuclear family structure, which are the majority type of family in every society that he investigated. However, family structure have gradually changed by several reasons, and different family’s structures have emerged in UK.
Functionalists such as Talcott Parsons, suggested that there are two important role within the family, called expressive and instrumental roles. The woman is the expressive role, and it means that she was the one who raised, disciplined, and educated family morals to the children. The father is the instrumental role, which means that is whom maintained the family financially, suggesting these are a segregated type of family, as they have separated conjugal roles. Parsons argued that this separated roles occurred naturally, and it is fundamental in order to have a well-structured family.
Young and Wilmott (1970) suggested that nuclear families become to have joint conjugal roles, leading to the development of a more symmetrical family structure, as men and women’s roles become more balanced, with similar roles. They believed this new family structure was developed within the middle class families, and extended to other family class such as working class, knowing as the principle of stratified diffusion. They research showed that couples commenced to share family decisions; and it also showed that the man started to stay more in the house, performing housework and looking after the children, where women began to leave the house to have a salaried job.
However, feminists has criticised the idea of symmetrical family, such as Ann Oakley. She believed that there are still existing a considerable difference in conjugal roles. She interviewed several mothers about their family’s relationship and their household roles; and the results showed that women still mainly responsible for the children and the housework, although some assumed that they have had a little amount of help from their partner. This research was supported by others feminists such as Boulton (1983), who also investigated symmetrical family and discovered that domestic division labour still unequal.
Margaret Benston (1972), a Marxist feminist, also believed that women are overloaded with jobs, and she named it as triple shift, which are the roles that women execute on the daily basis such as childcare, housework, paid job, and on the top of all of this, they have to deal and manage the emotional side of the family, acting as a therapists. This showed that all this effort that women put into the family are mainly beneficial to their husband, as he would have everything ready for him, such as clean clothes, ready meals and therefore he would be able to go out fresh, and successfully perform well at his job, and eventually leading to pay increase, as he do not have as much responsibilities as the woman still doing at home.
Consequently, woman have adopted feminist ideas and decide to reject tiring family’s roles, and from that onwards, family structure have changed even more. Laws such as the 1975 Equal Pay Law Act and Sex Discrimination was stablished, and the number of women going out to paid jobs have expanded. For this reason they become more independent financially and there was no more need to rely on husband financial earnings.
Furthermore, women was influenced, and supported by feminists, to divorce or to leave unsatisfied relationship Subsequently, this idea of independence have caused an increase on the numbers of divorce rates, and new family structures have emerged, such as reconstituted family. Reconstituted family structure is when a single parent try to build a new family, with another person that may even have had children, and they raise their children together. Nowadays it has become the most popular family structure in UK.
Over the years, a diversity of family structures have developed, and some of the possible reasons that facilitates those new trends, a part of the financial independence, are the changes on divorce laws. This legal changes collaborate and simplify legal proceedings, such as legal aid act and divorce law reform act. As result, people have more access to divorce, and encouraged to leave failed relationships, such as empty shell marriages, as there were no love between them, but simply other reasons that kept them together, such as the children or financial dependence, and in consequence more family structure emerged. Singletons is also another family structure that have surged as result of divorce, which means that when someone decide, or have to go and live alone. The majority of this type of family structure are constituted by males. However, New Right supporters have linked divorce laws to the reasons of the high rate of family breakdowns, because individuals are not devoted to their family as their used to be
Postmodernists see diversity in family structure and consumer choices, as factors that indicates that the society have acquired more choices and freedom. Individuals are not judged as before if they do not live in a traditional family structure, as people’s acceptance have expanded towards new ideas and beliefs, which has led to new laws and rights, in order to support and protect every family, making them equally respected. Postmodernist Beck-Gernsheim (2002) argued that family diversity are the replacement of family traditions and marriages expectations, as people do not feel obligated to follow traditional ideas. The result of this change are the increase of divorce, birth outside marriage, and new different family structures such as same sex family, or cohabitation, which means people that live with someone without being married. However, this have been criticised and disagreed by others that believe that family diversity become extremely, and they believe that basic family traditions still intact by the majority of the society.
Childhood has also been affected over the years. Phillipe Aries believed that childhood is a process of development, as in the middle age it did not exist. Children were treated from an early age, such as seven, in the same way as an adult. In the twenty century, people recognised that children were not emotionally and physically strong as an adult, resulting in the decline of child mortality, as their living standards began to improve. Therefore, children’s laws has been stipulated in order to protect them, such as Prevention of Cruelty to Children Act 1889; Children’s Act 1989, which refers to the right to choose which parent they want to live with if they divorce, and 1991 Child Support Act, which demands the absent parent to provide financial contribution. Children also become more family centred. However, Melanie Phillipes argues that the parents are slowly losing their authorities over their child, as the children’s right have given a considerable amount of power to the children. This result in their innocence been taken away with it; as they are in many cases using those rights in order to threat their parents; instead of being motivated to respect their parent’s authority. Adding to that, she argues that the mass media have more influence and effect on the child’s behaviour compared to their parent’s advice, and that they are not prepared and mature enough to understand it. On the other hand, this has been criticised for example by Morrow, whom suggested that generalised conventional approaches do not allow the children to be aware of the dangerous that they can be exposed in the real world.
Postman, also believes that the media are ending with today’s childhood, by facilitating them to enter into the adult word at an early age. Nonetheless, David Brooks has criticised it, suggesting that this view was exaggerated and parents has become extremely protective, controlling their child, taking away the child’s own common sense and awareness to what is surrounded them.
Britain become a multicultural country as result of international migration. The increase in the ethnicity variety has brought a huge influence on British culture and family traditions. Asian families are more likely live in extended families, whether Afro-Caribbean tend to form lone parent families. In consequence, mixed race marriages has influenced and changed family traditions in Britain, such as the increase of extended families, where more than one family generation live together.
In conclusion, there are a variety of reasons and influences that have modified and increased the variety of family structure in UK. Postmodernists argued that relationships are based on voluntary individual’s commitment. Interactionists such as Clark, suggested that one relationship is different from the other, and some couples are encountering difficulties, and living day after day, without setting any direction. Furthermore, families become diverse and multicultural, and are all influenced by their immediate surroundings through society, media, learning and work environment, and social interactions have a strong effect on relationships roles, resulting in the increase of the variety in family roles and structures in UK.

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 Roles

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.

Role Conflict

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).

Role Attribution

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.

Social Structure

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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