Work and Marriage: Mother-Daughter Similarities in Sri Lanka

Article excerpt

Generational interaction and gender roles are two of the most important dimensions of family life in most societies. This is especially true for Asian cultures where status and roles in the gender and generational hierarchies are key to understanding the nature of, and the transformation in, rapidly changing family systems (Caldwell et al. 1983; Fricke et al 1986; Malhotra 1991; Thornton et al. 1986). However, while the importance of the parent-child relationship for gender norms and behavior is relatively well documented for Western contexts, there is little understanding of intergenerational influences in non-Western contexts (Glass et al. 1986; Miller and Glass 1989; Thornton and Axinn 1995). Studies that address the interaction of age and gender in Asian settings by covering more than one generation on attitudinal and behavioral issues of major relevance to women's lives are rare.

In this paper, we attempt to fill this void by focusing on the mother-daughter dyad in Sri Lanka with regard to the issues of marriage and work. Entry to marriage and participation in the paid work force are not only two of the principal defining features of adult life, but for women in particular, they are critical in defining gender roles, both in the family, and in the larger social context. To better understand these processes, we examine a cohort of young unmarried girls aged 15-30, and their mothers in the Kalutara district of Sri Lanka. We are fortunate in having qualitative and quantitative information on both attitudinal and behavioral aspects of marriage and work for both generations. Since the daughters are single, we examine attitudes with regard to marriage, and since the dyad shares a household, its economic constraints and familial responsibilities, we examine actual participation in the labor force. The questions of chief interest are a) what is the degree of overlap in the work patterns and attitudes on marriage timing for women sharing a household, but a generation apart, and b) how do these factors, their determinants, and the degree of overlap by generation reflect the historical context of women's roles in Sri Lanka?


Recent research in many settings makes it evident that parent-child relations have major consequences for important life events and attitudes: marriage, work, childbearing, sense of achievement, independence, development of support networks, to name but a few (Axinn and Thornton 1989; Caldwell et al. 1983; King et al. 1986; Malhotra 1991). And yet, for most Asian societies, we have but a very limited knowledge of the dynamics involved, in terms of communication, interaction, and power relationships. Generational interaction within the same sex is likely to function differentially from interaction across the sexes, and so an exploration of the mother-daughter dyad is but one essential element to the development of suitable analytic frameworks for obtaining a comprehensive picture of family dynamics.

One reason we concentrate on this particular dyad is because the nexus of the mother-daughter relationship has been a significant feature of sociological theories for the transmission of social norms and practices: mothers attitudinally and behaviorally train daughters to fulfill gender appropriate roles (Chodrow 1978; Coltrane 1989; Thornton and Axinn 1995). But certainly in societies where family and other social institutions are in transformation, daughters are just as likely to influence mothers, both ideologically and behaviorally. In fact, social change theorists have argued that with each successive generation, the nature and direction of generational influence tests the viability and continuity of social norms and family obligations (Glass et al. 1986; Mannheim, 1952; Miller and Glass 1989; Ryder, 1965; Thornton and Axinn 1995). The degree of confluence in attitudes, therefore, can give us a better sense of the type of transformations occurring in family life. …


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