Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Family Studies

Changes in the Breadwinner Role: Punjabi Families in Transition

Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Family Studies

Changes in the Breadwinner Role: Punjabi Families in Transition

Article excerpt

The concept of the breadwinner has historically served to define relationships within families and societies. As family units respond to the dynamics of their social and economic environments, the concept of the breadwinner role changes, but such change may not be easy to accommodate. Corresponding shifts in patterns of relationships within the family or household are called for.

In the developing world, traditional family systems are running up against the exigencies of industrial production and modernization, and the taking up of paid work by women is often the locus, and focus, of conflicts (Blumberg, 1991 ; Dwyer and Bruce, 1988; Beneria and Feldman, 1992; Lewenhak, 1992; Tinker, 1990). It has been observed that changes in the role of the breadwinner within the same culture, taking place over a period of time, are easier to accommodate and assimilate. However, when changes in the role of the family breadwinner across gender lines are necessitated by migration from one culture to another, they may be too rapid and domestic for individual immigrant families to cope with. In these cases, adjustment and rearrangement in gender roles means a complex mix of gains and losses. There may be considerable cost to individuals, families and communities in terms of damaged male self-esteem, resentment of and increased authoritarian behaviour towards women, identity, confusion, and weakening of family cohesion and solidarity While immigration inevitably means some cultural dislocation (cf. Ames and Inglis, 1973) the need to earn a living looms so large in everyday life that conflicts around the breadwinner role are particularly salient.

To address these and other concerns, a seminar on Punjabi Cultural Traits was organized by the leaders of the Punjabi Cultural Association of Edmonton (Canada), whose members have migrated from rural and urban Punjab, and several social service agencies of the City of Edmonton. The senior author was asked to present material on the changing roles of the breadwinner in Punjabi families. The present note results from an attempt to response to this need of the community leaders and social service agencies.

The senior author would like to state at the outset that he has done little research work in this area, having focused mostly on Canadian rural life over the last 20 years, along with some work in other cultures, particularly in African countries. However, being a Punjabi, he is interested in his own culture, and therefore approached this assignment with considerable enthusiasm.

Unfortunately there seems to be no published research material on the Punjabi concept of the breadwinner specifically. We consulted studies on family and kinship systems, economic and social institutions, customs, values and beliefs of Punjabis in India and overseas, and these have been helpful in giving us some direction. These, combined with our own understanding of North Indian culture and observations of social change processes in Canada and other countries, are the basis for the material presented here.


As one begins to think about the question, it becomes clear that the notion of breadwinner is complex, with economic, social, political, legal and cultural parameters. In a Western industrial society, the breadwinner may be definds as someone who does productive work for pay, outside the home, for the benefit of the market economy, in order to support a dependent family. The complementary or reciprocal role is that of the housewife, (very occasionally househusband), who does unpaid productive and reproductive work in the private household, for the benefit of the family (what the International Labour Organization classifies as "unpaid family work"). This division of spheres has been referred to as the "Husband-as-Economic-Provider (HEP) ideal" (Hood, 1986:350). Because breadwinner or provider is a role, with attendant beliefs and expectations about whom this role belongs to and who is ideally responsible for it household members who contribute financially are not necessarily recognized as sharing the breadwinning. …

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