Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Research on Household Labor: Modeling and Measuring the Social Embeddedness of Routine Family Work

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Research on Household Labor: Modeling and Measuring the Social Embeddedness of Routine Family Work

Article excerpt

This article reviews more than 200 scholarly articles and books on household labor published between 1989 and 1999. As a maturing area of study, this body of research has been concerned with understanding and documenting how housework is embedded in complex and shifting social processes relating to the well-being of families, the construction of gender, and the reproduction of society. Major theoretical, methodological, and empirical contributions to the study of household labor are summarized, and suggestions for further research are offered. In summary, women have reduced and men have increased slightly their hourly contributions to housework. Although men's relative contributions have increased, women still do at least twice as much routine housework as men. Consistent predictors of sharing include both women's and men's employment, earnings, gender ideology, and life-course issues. More balanced divisions of housework are associated with women perceiving fairness, experiencing less depression, and enjoying higher marital satisfaction.

Key Words: division of labor, domestic labor, fairness, family, gender, housework

American families are facing complex and contradictory challenges as we embark on the 21st century. Although beliefs about the appropriate roles of men and women in the workplace have undergone substantial shifts in the past several decades, assumptions about who should perform unpaid family work have changed more slowly. And changes in domestic behavior have been slower still. Although the vast majority of both men and women now agree that family labor should be shared, few men assume equal responsibility for household tasks. On average, women perform two or three times as much housework as men, and the vast majority of men, as well as most women, rate these arrangements as fair. In part, this is because most husbands are employed more hours and earn more income than do their wives. Compared with past decades, women are doing less housework and men are doing slightly more, but the redistribution of household labor has been slower and less profound than anticipated. In this review, I suggest that these patterns can only be understood by attending to the symbolic significance of household labor in the social construction of gender and by analyzing the social, cultural, economic, and political contexts in which men and women form families, raise children, and sustain households.

As a topic worthy of serious academic study, housework came of age in the 1990s. Not only did the number of books and articles on the subject expand dramatically during that decade, but scholars from a wide range of academic disciplines turned their attention to isolating the causes and consequences of divisions of household labor for men, women, children, families, and society. Many of these studies attempted to operationalize concepts and test hypotheses emerging from the time-use research tradition (Berk & Berk, 1979; Robinson, 1977), or from past interview and observational studies (Hochschild, 1989; Hood, 1983). The more than 200 works cited in this review do not exhaust research on the topic, but they do represent a cross-section of influential social science works in the field. Because the foundation for this research was laid in past decades, readers interested in the history and development of the field are encouraged to consult classic housework and marriage studies (Bernard, 1972; Blood & Wolfe, 1960; Oakley, 1974; Vanek, 1974), and earlier reviews (England & Farkas, 1986; Ferree, 1990; Miller & Garrison, 1982; Osmond & Thorne, 1993; Shelton & John, 1996; Szinovacz, 1987; Thompson & Walker, 1989).

The most important theme to emerge from household labor studies in the past decade is that housework is embedded in complex and shifting patterns of social relations. Although most studies focus on only a few aspects of this embeddedness, taken together, they reveal how housework cannot be understood without realizing how it is related to gender, household structure, family interaction, and the operation of both formal and informal market economies. …

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