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Asked by DebraMel | Apr 13, 2007 | AS Level > Sociology > Advice
DebraMel asks:

I am currently in the process of doing a research project - investigation into the gendered division of domestic labour. I am using Willmott & Young's study of the symmetrical family as one of my secondary studies. Can you give me any information re the study, in particular the methodology they used with regard to the study.

Thanks in anticipation.

etutor answers:
The Willmott/Young studies of family life in London covered a period from the 1950s to the 1970s - published as 'The Symmetrical family' in 1973. They were particularly focused upon working class families and their conclusion was that the family has gone through four stages:

Stage One was the pre-industrial family. The family is seen as a unit of production, with husband, wife and unmarried children working together as a team, typically in agriculture or textiles. This type of family continued well into the 19th century, though was steadily supplanted as a result of the industrial revolution.

Stage Two families developed with the IR and reached their peak at the start of the 20th century. They were no longer a single unit of production as individual members became wage earners. Families responded to high unemployment, low wages and poverty by extending the network to include relatives beyond the nuclear family. The extension was largely conducted by women, with the result that the husband-wife relationship (conjugal bond) became weak compared with the mother-daughter relationship. Such families are still found in many low-income, long-established, working class areas - based on the authors' study of family and kinship in Bethnal Green in the 1950s. At the time, two out of three married people had parents living within two or three miles. There was a close bond between female relatives - over 50% of the married women had seen their mothers during the previous day. There was a constant exchange of services such as washing, shopping and babysitting in these 'extended' families.

Stage 3 (based on the interviews described below) represented the evolution of the 'symmetrical' family. Stage 2 families had largely disappeared by the 1970s, especially in the case of the working class. The symmetrical family dominates, and is characterised by the separation of the nuclear family from the extended family, by the weakening of links between females, and by the return of husbands to the family circle. Life is largely home-centred, particularly when children are young. Leisure is largely home-based, with growing watching of TV. The conjugal bond between husband and wife is strong, and tasks, decisions and time are increasingly shared. There is, however, still 'work for men' and 'work for women'. So conjugal roles become symmetrical rather than interchangeable. The nuclear family became increasingly self-contained and self-reliant. There are several reasons for the transition - higher real wages, a lower male mortality rate, increasing employment opportunities for womemn, a reduction in the need for the kinship network as a result of the growth of the welfare state, increasing geographical mobility, the reduction in the number of children, more comfortable homes making them more attractive, and a greater range of home entertainments. Members of the working class were more fully home-centred than members of the middle class, since the latter were more work-centred. The authors thus see the nature of work (fulfilling or dull) as the main influence on the nature of family life.

In addition to historical research, the basis of the early 1970s Willmott and Young study was structured interviews of 1928 people in Greater London and in the outer metropolitan area - in other words, questionnaires administered to individuals by interviewers. This had the advantage of using trained interviewers which ensured the questionnaires were completed according to the researchers' instructions and enabled any potentially ambiguous questions to be clarified. The method was, however, criticised on grounds of likely interviewer bias, implying that the responses obtained were likely to have been influenced by the presence of the researcher.

The authors' Principle of Stratified Diffusion argues that what the top of the stratification system does today the bottom will do tomorrow - lifestyles, patterns of consumption, attitudes and expectations are thus diffused. In 1973, the authors postulated a Stage 4 family using this principle, based on a study of the family life of 190 managing directors. Work-centred activities dominated; leisure activities are fairly seldom home-centred and less likely to involve wives than Stage 3 families. And as technology reduces routine work, more people (including women) would have more interesting jobs and become increasingly work-centred. The prediction was that the typical Stage 4 family would be asymmetrical.

In 1988 Willmott published the result of his study in a north London suburb, where he found that contacts with kin remained important in both middle and working class families - despite the characteristically longer travelling distances now involved. Access to cars was the key factor. Relatives also continued to be the main source of informal support and care - in both classes.

I hope this is helpful.

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