"Families" in International Context: Comparing Institutional Effects across Western Societies

By Cooke, Lynn Prince; Baxter, Janeen | Journal of Marriage and Family, June 2010 | Go to article overview

"Families" in International Context: Comparing Institutional Effects across Western Societies


Cooke, Lynn Prince, Baxter, Janeen, Journal of Marriage and Family


We review comparative evidence of institutional effects on families in Western societies. We focus on 2 key aspects of family life: gendered divisions of labor and people's transitions into, within, and out of relationships. Many individual-level models assume the effects are robust across countries. The international evidence over the past decade suggests instead that the socioeconomic and policy contexts strongly influence the significance and even direction of individual effects. A growing body of evidence also highlights important differences across social groups and family forms within countries. The pattern of relative gender, class, and other group equality varies across countries, as do related family experiences and outcomes. We conclude with suggestions for future comparative family research.

Key Words: divorce, family and work, gender, international, policy, unpaid work.

In this article, we highlight international evidence from the past decade as to how "families" vary across Western societies. We introduce the term in quotes to signal the growing diversity in what comprises families today. The topic is vast, so we focus on a few pivotal areas. We situate our review around policy effects on gendered divisions of labor. Policies codify institutional and cultural expectations of a gendered division of paid and unpaid work under different "family regimes" (Kaplan & Stier, 2008). The term "regime" refers to the configuration of policies, ideologies, and institutions commonly used to compare welfare states (Esping-Andersen, 1990, 1999; O'Connor, Orloff, & Shaver, 1999; Walby, 2004). The policy context therefore provides an excellent indicator of the macro environment in which individuals live, love, and labor.

We focus on how policy shapes gendered divisions of labor because these divisions form the basis of several dominant theories associated with families. How individuals allocate their time between paid and unpaid labor is predicted to affect relationship formation, fertility, parenting, and relationship stability. U.S. academics developed many of the theories relating to these individual dynamics (cf. Becker, 1985; Blood & Wolfe, 1960; Cherlin, 2004, 2009). The growing pool of cross-national comparative data has enabled researchers to link the micro and macro levels, filling a gap in our understanding of gender and family processes by comparing individual effects across socioeconomic contexts.

In the first section we outline how policies in industrialized countries (primarily Australia and New Zealand and those in Europe and North America) institutionalized group differences in paid work and responsibility for unpaid domestic and caring work (Fink, 2001; Misra, Woodring, & Merz, 2006). We focus on policy contrasts with the United States as Bogenschneider and Corbett (2010) provide a detailed discussion of recent U.S. policy in this volume. Policy effects derive not only from family policy per se, such as policies relating to marriage, divorce, or children, but from the full range of policies in industrialized societies. These include education, immigration, labor, public health, taxation, transportation, elder care, and pension policies, to name just a few (Baxter, 2005a; Cooke, 2010; Gershuny, 2000; Misra et al.). We do not have the space to detail all policy effects, but together a country's slate of policies influences the ways individuals divide their time among employment, housework, and care (Gershuny; Pfau-Effinger, 2010).

Policies implemented in many countries before and shortly after World War II reinforced gendered divisions of labor along with women's economic dependence on men. Men were expected to support a family financially and women were responsible for unpaid work in the private sphere (Crompton, 2006; Lewis, 2001 ; Morgan, 2006). In the latter half of the 20th century, more partnered women remained in or entered employment, whereas men's employment rates declined somewhat (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development [OECD], 2009a). …

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