Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Why Emotion Work Matters: Sex, Gender, and the Division of Household Labor

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Why Emotion Work Matters: Sex, Gender, and the Division of Household Labor

Article excerpt

Attempting to explain why biological sex remains the primary predictor of household labor allocation, gender theorists have suggested that husbands and wives perform family work in ways that facilitate culturally appropriate constructions of gender. To date, however, researchers have yet to consider the theoretical and empirical significance of emotion work in their studies of the gendered division of household labor. Using survey data from 335 employed, married parents, I examine the relative influence of economic resources, time constraints, gender ideology, sex, and gender on the performance of housework, child care, and emotion work. Results indicate that gender construction, not sex, predicts the performance of emotion work and that this performance reflects a key difference in men's and women's gendered constructions of self.

Key Words: division of household labor, emotion work, family work, gender, gender differences.

Socioemotional behavior, or activity that maintains the relations among family members, has been considered an essential component of marriage and family life since at least the mid-20th century (Levenger, 1964). Although the functionalist role theory that produced the gendered symbolism of "instrumental" and "expressive" tasks has been broadly criticized (Osmond & Thorne, 1993), family scholars continue to confront the legacy of inequality signified by this initial characterization. This legacy remains evident in the well-established finding that women, even when they are employed full time, perform the bulk of routine housework and child care (Coltrane, 2000; Shelton & John, 1996).

Researchers attempting to explain this persistent gendered effect have generated promising new insights into the relationship between household labor allocation and the construction of culturally appropriate gender identities (Berk, 1985; Ferree, 1990). This gender constructionist approach has drawn attention to the symbolic importance of family work for how people do gender and to the potential for variation in the gendered meanings associated with doing each type of household task (Twiggs, McQuillan, & Ferree, 1999; West & Zimmerman, 1987). To date, however, this line of research has yet to fully examine how the emotional components of family work may advance social scientific understanding of the relationship between gender and the division of household labor.

This study extends the ongoing theoretical and empirical analysis of gender and household labor by examining the performance of emotion work. Building on Erickson (1993), I show that expanding the traditional operationalization of family work (i.e., housework and child care) to include emotion work provides a unique avenue of support for the view that the division of household labor varies according to culturally based constructions of gender rather than on the basis of biological sex. In so doing, this study reinforces Coltrane's (2000, p. 1210) observation that investigators' continued failure to include emotion work in their studies of household labor constitutes a "major shortcoming" in family research.


The Case for "Emotion Work"

Levenger's (1964) initial argument for including socioemotional behavior in studies of marriage was grounded in the social psychology of groups (Parsons & Bales, 1955; Thibaut & Kelley, 1959). From the standpoint of marital partners, socioemotional behaviors were differentiated from other, more instrumental, family tasks in that they could not be delegated to persons outside the group (Levenger). Levenger's research provided evidence for the importance of emotional expressivity by showing that it was more strongly related to marital satisfaction than was instrumental task completion.

Perhaps because Parsonian functionalism dominated family scholarship during the mid-20th century, few other researchers examined socioemotional behavior as a requisite task performed by marital partners. …

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