asymmetry hypothesis

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asymmetry hypothesis The argument that, because the household remains the unit of class composition in modern industrial societies, a married (or partnered) woman's class characteristics are determined mainly by the occupational position of her husband.

The hypothesis is clearly formulated in Talcott Parsons's early papers on family and kinship in the USA (see, for example, his ‘The Kinship System of the Contemporary United States’, American Anthropologist, 1943
). Parsons argued that, because the family is a unit of diffuse solidarity, the smooth functioning of the social system required its members to share a common status in the stratification order. Moreover, in contemporary industrial societies, it was in fact the occupational position of the husband that determined the social standing of the family as a whole. This conviction—which was said to be shared by both marital partners—eliminated intrafamilial status inconsistencies and in this way reduced the possibility of status conflict. Consequently, as Parsons puts it, ‘there is a typically asymmetrical relation of the marriage pair to the occupational structure’, whereby the status-conferring role is confined to that of the husband.

With the emergence of feminist perspectives in sociology the hypothesis has since been subject to a great deal of empirical scrutiny. Class analysts have been particularly involved, because the argument for asymmetry implies that it is the conjugal family that continues to shape class fate, class formation, and class action, irrespective of the increasing involvement of women in paid employment. The evidence itself is mixed. The findings for advanced capitalist societies tend to support the view that a married woman's class socio-political characteristics (for example her class identification and voting behaviour) are still best understood in terms of the class position (occupational role) of her husband—even when she herself is formally employed in an occupation having class characteristics different from those of her partner. However, those for the post-communist states of Central and Eastern Europe seem to refute the hypothesis, suggesting that the processes of socio-political class formation may be different under the different regime types (see Gordon Marshall et al. , ‘Class Gender, and the Asymmetry Hypothesis’, European Sociological Review, 1995