Perceptions of Couple Decision Making in Panama

Article excerpt

Family is viewed as central to Latin American society, and yet little is known about the interdynamics between husbands and wives within a patriarchal society that has had strong influences from the Roman Catholic Church. Family is the context in which cultural values and norms about gender roles are formed and transmitted from one generation to another (Castillo de Miranda, 1993; Gonzdlez de la Rocha, 1994), and a major part of how gender roles are identified in families is through decision making processes.

Decision making processes within marriages are key to understanding the dynamics that occur within these relationships (Rettig, 1993) and also to understanding how the public and private domains of a society interact (Jelin, 1991). This is because decision making processes reveal interaction and agency within relationships, and can indicate where individuals are acting out or resisting social norms. Just as an association between the power dynamics and decision making processes between husbands and wives is often drawn too quickly without a breadth and depth of understanding about the processes, so too, has the gender differentiation of the public-private duality (domestic-private/female/powerless domain in opposition to public/male/powerful domain) led to the analysis of household activities in isolation from the sociocultural and socioeconomic context of the societies in which they are embedded.

Although this study can only be viewed as exploratory, it begins to provide some means for dialogue about whether there is a pattern of gender norms for decision making within Panamanian couples. The study has two purposes: (a) to investigate perceptions of decision making process, outcome and implementation within urban Panamanian couples, and, (b) to investigate the amount of convergence between the perceptions of husbands and wives.


Most family decision making studies have emphasized the outcomes of decision making until recently (McDonald, 1980; Olson & Cromwell, 1975; Safilios-Rothschild, 1976; Scanzoni & Polonko, 1980; Scanzoni & Szinovacz, 1980), when they began to use the organizing concepts of decision context and process (Danes, 1993; Danes & Rettig, 1993; Godwin & Scanzoni, 1989a, 1989b; Hill & Scanzoni, 1982). The decision context of this study is greatly affected by the foundations of Panamanian society.

Culture and politics, along with strong sociocultural norms rooted in the Roman Catholic Church, have created an environment where public and private life are viewed as separate (Jelin, 1991). Family is understood to be a private institution and is so defined in public documents. Panama's constitution indicates that the state will create an organism to protect the family and promote responsible fatherhood and motherhood. The constitution also recognizes the Roman Catholic faith as the country's predominate religion (Meditz & Hanratty, 1989). A renewal movement by the Catholic Church began in the 70s and 80s in the urban areas to promote the establishment of community services for the poor and educational courses to solidify the familial base within the communities (Flores, 1990; Opazo, 1988). Given these foundations, family life and domestic labor are taken for granted as existing within a private sphere that is outside the realm of scientific investigation (Jelin, 1991).

Although there is little discussion about family decision making patterns in the Latin American literature on families in the United States, there is a wealth of literature addressing the social and cultural context surrounding gender roles in Latin American societies. The twin phenomena of machismo and marianismo are said to influence a pattern of expectations based on real or imagined attributes of individuals (Scott, 1986; Stevens, 1973). The chief characteristics of machismo are exaggerated aggressiveness and an uncompromising stance in male-to-male interpersonal relationships, with callousness and sexual aggression in male-to-female relationships. …


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