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I’m continuing with posts looking at the research from 2000 by Bianchi, Milkie, Sayer and Robinson on the division of housework. On pages 193-196 they summarize three theoretical perspectives. In this context “theory” means an overall conceptual framework for understanding something. A general theory about how society works will lead to more specific hypotheses which researches can then test with data.

The three theories the authors present are:

  1. The time availability perspective
  2. The relative resources perspective
  3. The gender perspective

The time availability perspective

The time availability perspective suggests that the division of labor is rationally allocated according to availability of household personnel in relation to the amount of housework to be done… Hence, women’s and men’s time in housework should be strongly related to time spent in market labor and family composition (p. 193).

Of course, gender could a major determinant of time availability, such as shaping how much, and if, women work outside the home. But there is a difference between something being a direct cause vs. an indirect cause.

The relative resources perspective

The relative resources perspective argues that the allocation of housework reflects power relations between men and women: the level of relative resources partners bring to a relationship determines how much domestic labor is completed by each partner… Higher levels of education and income relative to one’s spouse, for example, are expected to translate into more power, which is used to avoid doing domestic tasks. A variant on this theme is that women are primarily responsible for housework because they are economically dependent on their husbands and hence cannot successfully bargain out of domestic work… (p. 193-194)

So again, gender is an indirect cause in this theory.

The gender perspetive

But what about gender as a direct cause? Here comes the third theory:

In recent years, a strong critique of time availability and relative resources perspectives has risen largely from feminists, who argue that the allocation of housework is about much more than time availability and rational choice. The gender perspective argues that housework is a symbolic enactment of gender relations and explains why there is not a simple trade-off between time spent in unpaid and paid labor among mend women in either marital or cohabiting relationships…With its focus on ideation and interaction expressions of gender, this perspective emphasizes that housework does not have a neutral meaning but rather its performance by women and men helps define and express gender relations within households. The roles of wife and mother are intimately tied to expectations for doing housework (regardless of other pressures) and displayed through outcomes such as a clean house…

So which is right? They don’t really contradict one another. In other words, they could all be true to some degree. The question, then is how much of the domestic labor gap is explained by each one.

I posted the abstract toward the start of this series. It concluded:

Regression results examining factors related to wives’ and husbands’ housework hours show more support for the time-availability and relative-resource models of household production than for the gender perspective, although there is some support for the latter perspective as well.

Future posts will look at those results and results from their follow-up article in 2012.