Family Roles

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Family Roles

People throughout history depended on families and the kinship system for their survival. This dependence permitted and required that they conform to expected family roles depending on their living circumstances. This gave a family strong control over its members, a circumstance that is changing in the modern world because people no longer always need families for economic survival.

Intentional and unintentional forces worldwide continue to introduce important changes in family roles, in expectation and practice. For example, recent research in a variety of settings reinterprets women's historical roles in Egypt (Watterson 1998), among the Vikings ( Jesch 1996), in medieval Europe (Lewis et al. 1999), and among Native Americans (Klein and Ackerman 1995). Industrialization, urbanization, and the global economy, along with their communication systems, reach into a nation's families, changing where and how men and women live, how often and when they have children, and how they work. World citizenship, global cosmopolitan culture, and international conferences change gender roles. But role change is not unidirectional and may become either narrower or more diverse.

Social roles pivot on assigned and attained places in various social settings, including work, politics, religion, and family activities. Across cultures, gender is an important assigned social location among these (Goody 1996). In the past, sex role was the common designation for activities based on being male or female. Gender role is more frequently used now because it seems less restrictive than sex role. Both terms continue to be used interchangeably.

Social role applies to family in multiple ways, but examining adult roles is complicated by a family's living arrangement. Family roles vary importantly among one-parent, two-parent, and multiple-parent families depending on the combination of persons by gender. Nations variously prescribe what constitutes the family unit through their laws. Preindustrial cultures more commonly prescribed, or permitted, a marital unit with one male and more than one female (polygyny), and less frequently a unit with one female and more than one male (polyandry). The status of a male or female reflected, in part, how many spouses one would have (Cassidy and Lee 1989). Higher status males tended to have more wives. The social context of these different family living arrangements dictates different rights and responsibilities based on gender (Dodoo 1998). Modernizing societies tend toward equalizing gender status and power.

Several terms identify basic social role dimensions, and an extensive body of literature discusses these dimensions (Farmer 1992). One dimension is role location. Common titles identify family role location such as mother, father, daughter, son, uncle, or aunt. These titles identify the general status and gender of the people within the family. Hence, these titles reflect family rights and responsibilities, duties and privileges, power and authority. Gender is important in making social distinctions because families often transmit wealth and property by gender, making a person's sex a factor in determining family status. Role status and the precision of these terms vary widely among the world's cultures. Increased family mobility and modernization blur traditional kinship statuses, particularly in countries based on traditional agricultural economies.

Cultures and Role Restriction

Cultures vary considerably in their degree of governing gender roles in families. Some cultures closely prescribe male-female roles, and others permit a variety of roles. Worldwide, the male role in early cultures is described as hunter-warrior and the female role as gatherer and childcare giver. However, continuing research suggests that early cultures may have practiced diverse gender roles. Descriptions of wife-husband roles emerging from the nineteenth century Western world assumed a male provider role and a female mediator-nurturant role. Crossing gender lines, such as women doing traditionally male tasks during war, was tolerated and expected, but it followed that with peace, traditional gender roles ought to follow. Deviance from gender roles met with overt and covert punishments and, in some cultures, punishment by death. Generally, punishments were more harshly applied to women than men (Stephens 1963).

Cultures that strictly enforce one role for men and one for women are meeting with considerable criticism. Such countries assume a division of labor based on political and economic conditions no longer suitable amidst economic and industrial change (Ashford 2001). Although loosened roles might focus on lessening female restrictions, both males and females often see personal advantages in moving toward more role options. Some people want to incorporate role dimensions not currently assigned to their gender; males may want to be more expressive and nurturant and females more career-oriented. Extensive research shows that assumptions about roles and actual role behavior do not necessarily coincide.

Industrial and postindustrial cultures tend to permit husbands and wives more role latitude. Cultures ease role restrictions by allowing women to emulate men's greater freedom in the marketplace and inducing men to have greater domestic responsibilities. Single parenting requires even more flexibility in both female and male parenting roles. Although cultures permit multiple parenting roles, parenting is based on gender identity.

There are signs that married roles are becoming even more flexible, as reflected in the individualized ways marriage ceremonies are conducted. Individualized ceremonies and agreements may elaborate traditional norms or reflect innovative lifestyles.

Personal Identity and Roles

People may advocate that married roles ought not to be gender distinctive at all (androgyny) (Singer 1976). Two individuals in a close relationship may have mutual understandings about their responsibilities and privileges, but not base them on gender. This is theoretically possible in all but specific reproductive activities. Females continue to become pregnant and have babies, and males do not. Hence, one may think of cultures aligned along a continuum with one wife and husband role at one end and no gender-based family roles at the other. Role conflict occurs in a single gender role system because of limited role options. However, a lack of clear roles creates role ambiguity. When roles are not clearly delineated, but gender distinctions continue to be made, roles become ambiguous. People respond either by developing new roles or having a confused identity. This latter condition occurs in China where the older Confucian ideals are supplanted by more equalitarian family codes of the Chinese national government (Pimentel 2000).

Elaborate sets of norms, or role prescriptions, delineate behavior appropriate to gender role status. Depending on gender and age, the child differentially defers to the father, mother, or some other designated relative such as an uncle. In the family setting, daughters expect to imitate activities reflecting the mother's status, and sons, the father's. A family often experiences role conflict when children do not conform to their gender status, as occurs in societies undergoing rapid social change, as in Korea (Chun and MacDermid 1997).

Self-identity is an important dimension of social role. Another kind of conflict occurs when cultural norms strictly enforce gender roles that do not match gender identity. Resolution commonly includes finding ways around these prescriptions. In the family setting, the mother or father may reject aspects of their role assignment, as for instance, the father accepting the mother as being a better provider. An extreme resolution includes surgical intervention changing the body's morphology to conform to the self's gender identity, a medical procedure begun in Sweden. Self-identity conflicts arise when a person is unable or unwilling to fulfill societal norms or their partner's expectations. Societies often have a double standard or different sets of norms for females and males, with the female's behavior usually being more restricted.

Role stereotypes introduce another source of role conflict. Stereotypes are shorthand assumptions about how husbands and wives behave in different social categories. Conflict occurs in the failure to distinguish between stereotypical assumptions and actual behavior, causing misunderstanding and misinterpretation between men and women. An example of such a stereotype is machismo, which refers to Latin male forcefulness, vigor, and strength, and which requires deference and obedience. It may be viewed positively or negatively depending on its cultural and gender reference. Machismo may be used to describe emergent behavior in other cultures, such as among the Tewa Pueblo where it is applied to young males ( Jacobs 1995). Much literature discusses communication used to diminish marital conflict derived from gender stereotypes.

Role Expectations and Demands

Gender roles, as they pertain to the family, are interactive. Being a daughter implies that there is a mother or father. It suggests that being a daughter entails expectations about a female's behavior visà-vis a parent and a parent's behavior vis-à-vis the daughter. A daughter or son reasonably expects physical care and emotional support to a certain age, and parents might expect increasing domestic responsibility and self-direction with their child's physical maturation. Societies usually codify these responsibilities in general terms.

In rural communities around the world, for example, in China and India, kinship responsibilities were well understood without specific laws. With urbanization and industrialization, informal relations weaken, and laws emerge to specify gender-kinship responsibilities. Precise rights and responsibilities are often interpreted by specific cases channeled through the society's legal and welfare systems, particularly for those families needing outside assistance.

Role anticipation is associated with becoming an adult as children mature and leave the family (Nilsson and Strandh 1999). Role anticipation assumes that a particular role will exist in the future, and self-anticipation assumes the person will someday occupy that role. For example, in the fifteen member countries of the European Union (Austria, Belgium, France, etc.), mothers tend to be employed and concomitantly have fewer children (Lesthaeghe and Williams 1999). Role anticipation occurs when the daughter assumes this will be true for her in the future. If she also assumes she will be an employed mother some day with reduced fertility, she engages in self-anticipation. Children emulate the behavior of the parent they identify with, usually the same-gender parent. In this case, the mother becomes an important referent for the daughter's learning the anticipated role.

An assumption is that role learning for the son will be more difficult if the father is absent from the home. Fathers in industrializing countries often leave home, sometimes permanently, to find employment in cities, thereby creating mother-only families. Daughters also have different learning experiences with absent fathers because cross-gender parent experiences are absent or limited. In modern societies, fewer families have absent mothers. A study of people in thirty-nine countries found that the family's national and cultural context may importantly mitigate parental absence through greater social integration (Gohm et al. 1998).

Role compatibility is important in a society that permits multiple role sets for wives and husbands, as when a wife expects her role to include employment outside the home and her husband does not. These kinds of incompatibilities produce role conflict, in this case between the female's self-expectations and the male's role prescriptions. Therefore gender roles become an important part of premarital assumptions and anticipations. Such incompatibilities require varied forms of negotiation, and sometimes counseling, to reduce conflict. Various theories address these negotiations that may include professional mediation and counseling. A study of Australian males, who became primary childcare givers while their wives worked, indicated how difficult it was to shift one's behavior away from traditional role expectations. These men were highly pressured by peers to return to traditional family roles (Grbich 1992).

Role overload and role conflict are closely related. A frequent international phenomenon of role overload occurs when an employed wife also does a large part of the domestic chores traditionally assigned to her. This produces role strain in that not all tasks can be performed in the time available. Consciously acknowledging this imbalance may lead to arguments and, if the issue is not resolved, to marital breakup if the culture permits it.

Work role and other demands outside the family heighten both role strain and conflict. The wife's external employment introduces another set of role demands that increases role strain and conflict through social power adjustments (Standing 1991). Married women's employment outside the home increases stress when they are expected to be primary caregivers to their elderly parents as is expected in traditional extended families. For example, Japan is experimenting with various plans to substitute or supplement the traditional family care of the elderly (Ogawa and Retherford 1997).

When a female enters the marketplace, as is increasingly common worldwide, she derives status benefits from her direct contribution to the family income. However, careful research of past and present cultures indicates that actual family bargaining power is often hidden, though persisting along gender lines. With the wife's greater economic independence, she is more likely to sever the relationship if conflict is unresolved. Dual-earner families may gain greater independence from their employers because dual incomes permit more employment choices. For example, the husband may elect to spend more time in domestic duties while the wife pursues her career goals.

The feminist movement influences gender role change both in and outside the family in multiple ways. Broadly speaking, the movement may be viewed as a social process focusing on female role identities and prescriptions. Its basic premise is that gender ascriptions produce power inequities in family systems where the male is the primary paid earner and the female is confined to domestic duties. Domestic work is viewed as important but is not well rewarded in money or status (Al-Nouri 1993). Feminism identifies inequities and suggests strategies for their modification. Education examines gender role inequities and challenges traditional gender roles (consciousness raising), providing females with greater control over their reproductive functions (McDonald 2000). The 1994 Cairo International Conference on Population and Development specifically addressed women's health issues. Since then, forty countries, including South Africa, Brazil, and Bangladesh, have instituted laws and policies reflecting goals set at this conference (Ashford 2001). Such activities intend to weaken gender role bias by leading to more equitable and individualized family roles.

See also:Childhood; Cohabitation; Disabilities; Division of Labor; Dual-Earner Families; Family Life Education; Fatherhood; Filial Responsibility; Gay Parents; Gender; Gender Identity; Grandparenthood; Housework; Housing; Husband; Industrialization; Lesbian Parents; Life Course Theory; Marital Quality; Marital Typologies; Motherhood; Power: Marital Relationships; Rape; Role Theory; Rural Families; Sibling Relationships; Social Networks; Stress; Symbolic Interactionism; Time Use; Transition to Parenthood; Unemployment; Widowhood; Women's Movements; Work and Family


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laurence l. falk