Beyond Drudgery, Power, and Equity: Toward an Expanded Discourse on the Moral Dimensions of Housework in Families

By Ahlander, Nancy Rollins; Bahr, Kathleen Slaugh | Journal of Marriage and Family, February 1995 | Go to article overview

Beyond Drudgery, Power, and Equity: Toward an Expanded Discourse on the Moral Dimensions of Housework in Families


Ahlander, Nancy Rollins, Bahr, Kathleen Slaugh, Journal of Marriage and Family


Current research and theorizing on housework in families has emphasized technical, economic, and political dimensions. Little theorizing on is subject has recognized the moral dimensions of housework stemming from its familial/relational context. Following an overview of historical and current orientations to the study of housework, we critically examine the prevailing assumptions that underlie this research, with special attention to those that limit or exclude the possibility of moral discourse. We point to ways in which the current literature might lend itself to an expanded moral discourse, and consider the potential benefits of such discourse. Finally we suggest reconceptualizing housework as family work with its basis in moral obligation.

In the past 2 decades the study of household labor or housework, formerly notable by its absence from family research, has emerged as a mature specialty in the social science literature. Presumably its emergence is associated with the continuing increase in women's paid employment, political appeals for gender equality, and the rise of women's studies devoted to illuminating women's subordination and domination (e.g., Smith, 1987). However, while much of the motivation to study housework may have been timely, postmodern, and even revolutionary, the writing itself has represented paradigmatic continuity rather than innovation, in that it has generally applied prevailing "scientific" methods and dominant theoretical orientations to work in the home, as if work in family settings were no different from work in other contexts.

Often building on the assumption that housework and child care are drudgery, to be avoided if possible, this body of literature has framed the study of family work in issues of efficiency and productivity, power and equity. When the discourse has included a moral element, typically it has been an appeal to fairness and gender equity, or an affirmation of the often-implicit norm that everyone should do their share of undesirable work. Rarely has a recognition that families provide a special context for work, and generate unique "products." led to moral discourse on the meaning and social importance of family work. Instead, the family has been just one more context where modern technologies, theories, and research modes have been applied with little regard to the social impacts of that application or to the lack of fit between scientific paradigms and the special milieu of normative nurturance and commitment represented in much family work (Beutler, Burr, Bahr, & Herrin, 1989).

In this article, we are proposing a moral discourse that recognizes that housework in families or family work is "human action undertaken in regard to other human beings...[and where] matters of what is fair, right, just and virtuous are always present" (Fenstermarker, 1990, p. 133). While the existing literature on this subject sometimes includes considerations of fairness and justice, issues of the virtue, goodness, or transcendent value of the human interaction associated with family work have usually been neglected. Yet family work is the essential labor of life, the activity of nurturing and caring for that makes social life possible. "Our moral lives are based in particular loyalties and relations," stated Hauerwas (1981), and "if we are to learn to care for others, we must first learn to care for those we find ourselves joined to by accident of birth" (p. 165). Since "human relationships, whatever else they may be, are moral in character and consequence" (Clark, 1990, p. 265), words that carry the "burdens of morality," namely "trust, care, obligation and responsibility," must have a place in the discourse (Thomas, 1990, p. 267). It is our intent to call attention to their rarity in the current dialogue, and to create a space for an expanded discussion on the positive aspects of family work.

We emphasize at the outset that our interest is in the ways family professionals have studied family work, the research questions that have been asked, and the paradigms that have been applied. …

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