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Assess the View That Roles and Relationships Are Becoming More Equal?

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    Some sociologists see roles and relationships among couples as becoming more equal however there are a number of sociologists who are critical of this view. Sociologists argue that a number of changes have taken place in gender roles and relationships within families. They suggest that changing attitudes to gender roles and increased participation by women in the labour market have led to more equality in modern family life. For example, Young and Willmott believe that the roles among couples are becoming more equal as they see a trend towards the symmetrical family.

    In a study of families they conducted in London, they found symmetrical families were more common among younger couples, people who were geographically and socially isolated and the more affluent. Young and Willmott saw the rise of the symmetrical family as the result of major social changes that took place in the past century such as changes in women’s position, new technology, geographical mobility and higher standards of living. Another sociologist who supports this view is Gershuny.

    Gershuny found that men were making more of an effort to do housework when their wives were in full time employment. He explains this trend towards equality in terms of gradual change in values and parental role models. However, he found that men still tend to take responsibility for different tasks. Similarly, Oriel Sullivan found that there was an increase in the number of couples with an equal division of labour and men were participating more in household tasks.

    Sullivan and Gershuny’s views are optimistic similar to Young and Willmott’s ‘march of progress’ view. On the other hand, some sociologists are critical of this view. Feminists are much more cautious about drawing such a conclusion. They point to inequalities of power and control that persist in modern family relationships. Ann Oakley criticises Young and Willmott’s view that the family is now symmetrical. She argues that their claims are exaggerated and that their evidence of symmetry is hardly convincing.

    In her research on housewives, she found some evidence of husbands helping in their home but no evidence of a trend towards symmetry. She describes that the housewife role has become the dominant role for married women. Mary Boulton’s research supports Oakley’s findings. She argues that Young and Willmott exaggerate men’s contribution by looking at the tasks involved in childcare rather than the responsibilities. Similarly, Warde and Hetherington found that men would only carry out routine ‘female’ tasks when their partners were not around to do them.

    This further supports Oakley’s views. The functionalist Talcott Parsons’ view of the family shows a clear division of labour between couples. He argues that this division of labour is based on biological differences. Women are naturally suited for the nurturing role (expressive role), which is aimed at primary socialisation of the children and meeting the family’s emotional needs as well as being a full time housewife.

    On the other hand, men suited the provider role (instrumental role), which is aimed at protecting the family and providing for them financially. He claims that this division of labour benefits men and women, their children and a wider society. The arguments that roles and relationships are becoming more equal are stronger. Gershuny clearly shows this in his work. Ann Oakley and the feminists are wrong to say that things have not changed for many women.

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