Family Roles and Changing Relationships – AS&A Level Notes

This article delves into the inner complex of family as a unit of analysis. It will deeply analyze the power dynamics that operates within the household and how the external and the internal factors influence the hierarchal structure of this naturalized relationship. Besides these, it also caters to the concept as to how inequality is embedded within this structure and creates a sense of resistance among the family members. How does this ascribed familial status operates in the society and in what ways it contributes in the social stability; all these aspects are discussed meticulously in this article.

Family Roles and Changing Relationships notes

Family is considered to be the basic unit of the society. The working mechanism that operates within the family is the micro-model of the larger society, to which an individual is a part of. The socially constructed concepts of Division of Labor and the conjugal contracts are very much prominent in the analysis of the household as they reflect  the unequal relations which is subsumed in it. In the contemporary times, the intersectionality of the existing family-gender or family-age dynamics; all have underwent a major shift in its theoretical as well as practical paradigm. This paradigm shift is mainly the result of the feminist waves and the radical school of thoughts. Thus, let’s understand the intersectional dynamics in its full length and breadth.

 Gender Equality and Experiences of family life

In order to circumvent into the larger complexities existing within the family, the understanding of the Liberal, Radical and Marxist standpoints of feminism play a highly crucial role. The Liberal Feminism advocates for legal equality between both the sexes and becomes more responsive towards individuals women’s rights. Since, within the family, the inequalities pertaining to Division of Labor or in the marriage domain; is quite conspicuous this liberal feminism stands for bridging the differences between the existing inequalities by targeting the social, cultural values existing in the society. For example- In United Kingdom, till 1991, marital rape was not considered within the realm of crime; but due to the resurgence of feminist waves  during that period, orders took a different toll. Another feminist school of thought i.e. Radical feminism; advocates for the radical changes in the society. It believes that through the change in laws, not much can be achieved. It states that men will continue to subjugate and oppress women until they find some alternative way of living. It led them to advocate for gender separatism too. Radical feminists stand against the process of socialization which treat girls and boys to behave differently. They understand the root cause of the women’s subjugation and considers family to be instrumental in its promotion. Marxist feminists consider family as a meditating body catering to the increment of both patriarchy and capitalism and this is turn subjugate women to its peak. It makes women exploited not just within the domestic sphere but also in the outer social world. For instance- Ann Whitehead (1981) while analyzing the Kusasi tribe in the North-Eastern Ghana,  stated that millets or any other staple food can only be grown by male members of the family. Also, men can ask for women’s help with nothing in return; but the vice-versa doesn’t hold true.

Also Read: 10 Famous WOMEN Sociologists and their Contributions

There exists a larger debate around the conjugal roles existing in the family, which pertains to the domain of housework, childcare and power dynamics. Conjugal role can be broadly understood as the divided responsibility that exists between the men and women within the household. It is basically the output of the existing conjugal contracts. The social construction of marriage caters to the larger Division of Labor in the household work. Functionalists like Willmott and Young (1973) in their work ‘The Symmetrical Family’ has stated that the extended family can be  characterized by the segregated conjugal roles. Such roles signify that husbands go out to work whilst wives are exclusively responsible for housework and child-care. They also stated that the extended family has been replaced by a privatized nuclear family which is  characterized by the symmetry. Functionalists like Parsons, Fletcher etc. state that after industrialization, the marriages have become egalitarian in its sense. According to them, the modern marriage can be characterized by the joint conjugal roles in which women are now holding a fairer sharer in the domestic and the foreign chores. Sherry B. Ortner, in her work If female to male as nature is to culture?’ explains about the nurturing roles of the women. According to the accepted social norms, women is expected to provide the emotional support to the family and the one resisting against it, is considered as a ‘deviant’ in the society. Duncombe and Marsden (1995) stated that this triple shift work imposed on women have negative implications on women’s mental health as they in totality are neglected from every sphere.

The entire familial unit in itself is very exploitative, skewed, unconducive and partial. It can also be referred to as ‘the site of domination of women and children.’ Mostly, the norms that are predominant in the society is made by the patriarchs. Women in the society are curbed from progressing as masculine constructs are threatened by their rise. As a result, they employ flawed tactics of ‘domestic violence’, ‘marital rape’, ‘sexual assaults’ etc. to control them. Mirlees-Black and Byron (1999), pointed out that women were more likely to suffer domestic violence than men as 70% of the reported domestic violence is violence by men against their female partners in Britain. Even Nazroo’s research substantiates the same. The persistence of such evil social norms and practices within the family, makes it problematic and unfavorable for the family members.

Age and family life

Family as a whole caters to the different age groups and gender lines altogether,  where children are  being structured at the lowest level of hierarchy. Children need a lengthy process of socialization in order to befit themselves in the society and this process is initially looked after within the realm of the family.  Many sociologists even claim that childhood is the result of the social construction which is why in every society, children are groomed in a different manner. Kehily (2008) stated that Childhood is not universal; rather, it is a product of culture and as such will vary across time and place.” Generally, male kids are asked to be aggressive, leading, brave, dominating and furious than females. When the socialization in itself is so lopsided then how can evade the idea of inequality that it can lead to in family and the society! It has also been observed that the grooming process of the child takes place differently in different class groups, race and gender lines. For example – Americans for a long time, in history, saw children of minority races as a ‘threat’ to them. Also, upper-class children were prevented from mingling with the lower-classes; which in itself creates a divide in the society. However, it varies from culture to culture.

Also Read: Sociology of Family

The process of childhood construction involves multifarious factors. Out of which, the role of the grandparents is highly important. On the familial level, the role of the grandparents are often shaped by the special needs of their grandchildren rather than shaped by their own aspirations. The grandparents-grandchildren roles are mostly like care-givers and care-recipients within the family. Also, their functions are often described as that of the family stabilizers and family watchdogs. Their role is augmented during times of family crisis like giving divorces etc. and also neutralizes the lopsided effect of Division of Labor in some way. Through this, they help in strengthening the foundation of family life and making it more profound. Besides these, they are the transmitters of values and cultures to the younger generation; thereby making contributing to the path of socialization. The role of the social class, race, gender, immigrant status, sexual orientation etc. are important in strengthening the extent of socialization. However in the contemporary times, the differences may seem peripheral but reality shows a different light. Employment and educational level of the family members is crucial for the endowment of the high status in the society, which largely impacts the children grooming as they will be labelled to inherit the ascribed status. Since wealth shapes and influences patterns of class mobility and financial stability; thus every single aspect related to nurturing the child and stabilizing the familial relation gets important.

However, in the contemporary times, due to the impact of education and technological advancement; things have taken a different toll in which even the idea of fatherhood and motherhood have changed. Fatherhood is defined to be a social institution which is endowed with the rights, duties, responsibilities, and statuses associated with being a father and motherhood is defined to be the social institution catering to all rights and responsibilities associated with the mother. Earlier, the notion prevailed that father shall be strict, be the bread-winner in the family and shall be the primary decision-maker. All the monetary aspects usually lied within the domain of the fatherhood but now it is experiencing a larger flexibility. The concept of modern fatherhood now revolves around nurturing of the child, giving emotional support to them and empathizing with them in every situation. It is stabilizing the role of unequal division of labor within itself. The idea of motherhood has evolved as now it’s largely influenced by the feminist waves. The monetary realm within the family is now being catered by the mothers too as they are in the process of becoming financial independent fully. Now, the idea of motherhood does not revolve about reproduction and nurturing; it’s more about the sharing the workload equitably within the household. They now have the choice that whether they want to have kids or not; and some society accepts it totally; however some are in the process. Betty Friedan in her work ‘The Feminine Mystique’ has stated that women have made major strides in education and employment, and the American workplace has been transformed. Thus, it can be said that the idea of parenthood in summation has underwent a larger transition.

Also Read: Difference between Family and Household


Analyzing holistically every aspect of family gives one an inference that family is a larger complex as it involves the union of multiple members, perspectives, ideologies, personalities and hierarchies. There have much transitions in the family dynamics and society in whole. The idea of parenthood, childhood construction, power execution; all now works in an intersectional manner rather working separately. Thus, it can be said that in the modern times, the family unit is becoming more liberal, flexible and egalitarian in its working.

Also Read:

Changing Family Roles in the Work Space

Theories of the family and social change


Different kinds of feminism. (2020). Magazine of ‘We Rise’.

 Duncombe, J. & Dennis, M. (1995). ‘Workaholics and ‘Whingeing Women’: Theorizing Intimacy and Emotion Work — The Last Frontier of Gender Inequality?’ Volume 43( 1).

Family Roles and Changing Relationships. A level Sociology. accessed on 4th April, 2023.

Kehily, J. (2008). An Introduction to Childhood Studies.

Lareau, A. (2016). Unequal Childhoods: Inequalities in the rhythms of Daily Life. National Council on Familial Relations.

Mirrlees-Black, (1999). Survey on Domestic Violence.

Whitehead, A. (1981). Women, Land and Agriculture. Edited by Sweetman, C.

Willmott & Young. (1973). The Symmetrical Family.

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Pushpanjali is a Sociology student at Miranda House with a keen interest in reading fictional novels, discerning aesthetics within the ordinary, and expressing her complex emotions through writing. She is dedicated to championing various facets of feminism and is committed to leveraging her viewpoints to effect positive change in society.