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Role of the Family in the Production of Social Inequalities

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Sociology
Wordcount: 3749 words Published: 23rd Sep 2019

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This essay will attempt to examine the relationship between and role that ‘the family’ does play in the reproduction of social inequalities. It will begin by defining the terms ‘family’ and ‘social inequalities’. The primary inequalities on which this essay will be focused on are gender and sexuality, however the role of the family in class inequality will also be examined in relation to education and job opportunities.

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Within sociology and other social sciences, the definition, constitution and role of the family has been a subject of contentious discourse. A number of theorists have examined the sociological meaning of ‘the family’, hence the rise of several theories such as Functionalist and Marxist. An example of a functionalist theorist is Talcott Parsons, he saw the family as an institution of socialisation and stabilisation which, he believed, was essential to obtaining and maintaining of a healthily functioning society. Alternatively, the founder of Marxism, Karl Marx, claimed that the primary function of the traditional nuclear family was economic and that is enables the continuity and development of capitalism in societies. (O’Keefe, 2018) However, this essay is not a historical account of the development of the sociological definition of the family or the theorists involved.

          Currently there is no universally accepted definition of ‘the family’ despite the concept of a family itself being a globally recognised one. While there is no absolute agreement there are a number of characteristics which are traditionally accepted as being a basis for ‘the family’, these are: common ancestry or kinship. marriage or committed relationships, and adoption. These characteristics will serve as the framework for the definition of family that will be used to examine its role in the reproduction of inequalities.(O’Keefe, 2018)It is also very important to note that ‘the family’ is a social institution. Furthermore, the family is the oldest of the five social institutions recognised in sociology, the other four being economy, state, religion and education.

          Social inequalities are disparities in resources between groups in society, which especially affect minority groups. The generational reproduction of social inequality is also known as the process of social reproduction. Inequalities can occur in a multitude of realms including education, healthcare and housing. The main social inequalities that is reproduced by the family that will be explored in this essay is that of gender inequality, sexual or sexuality inequalities and class related inequalities in education will also be examined.

While the term ‘gender inequality’ seems inclusive the groups it represents are often inherently binary, in that it refers to disparities between sexes. That is, between men and women or males and females. Individuals who are born with ambiguous or variant genitalia are referred to as intersex, that is not fitting into the traditional categorisation of male and female genitalia.  Ones gender and their sex are not necessarily the same thing and as such the binary view of gender inequality often ignores the discrimination that is faced by those who identify under the transgender, nonbinary umbrellas or who are classed as intersex at birth. For the sake of clarity, conformity, and due to the current literature and available studies, this essay will mainly view gender equality and inequality as relating to the binary male or female cisgender person.                                                                                                                                            

          In simple terms gender inequality occurs when there is a disparity between the division of various labours, responsibilities or expectations between people of different genders. Gender inequalities occur both within the family and external to the traditional nuclear family unit. There are gender inequalities in virtually every aspect of adult life. The origin of most inequalities is rooted in the notion of stereotypes, that is especially true for disparities related to gender. Gender inequality stems from the belief that there is only one way to be a man and only one way to be a woman, ‘men are from Mars women are from Venus’ and that the two sexes have little in common. Essentially from birth, male assigned persons are socialised to take part in and enjoy what are considered to be masculine hobbies and jobs, such as roughhousing and construction. While female assigned persons are socialised to partake in and enjoy what are thought to be traditionally feminine roles and hobbies, such as ‘mothering dolls’ and administrative or secretarial work, etc. Gender inequalities begin in childhood through socialisation and the internalising of the gender norms and expectations to which they encounter. In her 1981 article, Heidi Hartmann explores the inequalities based of ones perceived gender within the family unit through the medium of housework.

          In this article Hartmann states that the data collected by Kathryn Walker and Margaret Woods in 1967 and 1968 was the most “comprehensively analysed data on time spent doing housework in the United States” (1981, p. 377). This study demonstrated a clear gender-based division of labour. This analysis found that the average amount of time that one of the 859 unemployed childless married women in this data set would spend working within the home was fifty-seven hours per week. This amount vastly increased if there were children in the home. In contrast to these fifty-seven hours of housework, the women reported that their husbands only worked for an average of eleven hours within the home. This led to the assertion that for homemakers, “Household production is clearly more than a full-time job” (Hartmann, 1981, p. 378). The conclusions that were drawn from this data survey were backed up by later other time-budget studies, such as the 1971 study of 300 couples in Greater Vancouver and the 1976 study of 3500 couples in the United States.

          In many communities and cultures world-wide the division in the roles of men and women within the family is clearly made. The husbands are to be the ‘breadwinners’, they are to work outside the home to provide financially for the family. Fathers are also often assumed to take on the role of disciplinarian and to have the final say in decision making. While wives are to be homemakers, they are to do tasks such as cook and clean. Mothers are to nurture and care for their children as well as to teach them, they are often thought to be more emotional. While in many developed countries this view regarding the roles of men and women in traditional nuclear families/homes has softened/lessened, it is still present in some communities, cultures and belief systems, such as in Mormonism. There is a popular text that is still used by Mormons today which states that: “No career approaches in importance that of wife, homemaker, mother – cooking meals, washing dishes, making beds for one’s precious husband and children” (Franklin, 2014). Texts such as this leave little room for ambiguity in their understanding and clearly imply that a woman’s role is within the home thereby creating and perpetuation the inequality between the sexes.

          As previously stated, gender inequality occurs throughout the lifespan and can occur in a number of areas, both within the family and external to the family unit. The gender pay gap between men and women of the same qualification, experience and job. is probably the most commonly cited source of discrimination or inequity in the work sphere. Gender quotas have been introduced in many sectors, both public and private, to try and equalise the numbers of men and women within a specific sector, such as within political parties, in which they must have a certain percentage or ration of females to males. While it has improved, there are also still instances of gender inequality in the workplace in which women’s ideas carry less weight or importance than the same exact idea from a man.

          Thus far this essay has been focused on gender inequality as it applies to women as the majority of available literature relates to it. However, it is extremely important to note that there are also instances in which males are discriminated against on the basis of their gender. Two important examples of this include the absence or restriction of paternity leave for fathers, and, in cases of separation or other similar custody cases, the maternal figure has an almost unflinching ability to retain or gain custody of the child(ren), regardless of the children’s wishes or the suitability and responsibility of the mother or maternal figure to care for the child(ren).

Sexual inequality is often intertwined with gender inequality yet in isolation it is important type if social inequality that is reproduced by the family.

          In their 1996 article, Emily Kane and Mimi Schippers examined three main domains of beliefs regarding sexuality. They were: sexual drives, sexual power and compulsory heterosexuality.

           They drew upon Jeffrey Weeks 1986 book Sexuality and said that the beliefs regarding the ‘nature’ of both men and women’s sexual drives had varied over time. They noted that the current contemporary belief was that men’s sexual drive was stronger than that of their female counterpart. Kane and Schippers stated that this belief had been used as an explanation for sexual violence, as a “justification for a broader ideology of female passivity”, and as the “foundation for sociobiological theories of gender inequalities” (pp. 651-652). They further noted that there had been very limited attention paid to beliefs regarding sexual drives.

           Regarding sexual power, they found that there was no universally acceptable understanding or evaluation of it. While a number of feminist scholars, including Nicola Gavey and Adrienne Rich, had noted power disparities regarding when and how sexual relations between males and females occurred. These disparities were viewed by some of these scholars, Susan Brownmiller for example, as contributing to the incidence of sexual violence against women. Amongst feminist scholars there are conflicting beliefs regarding the sexual power balance in a heteronormative relationship, with some academics firmly believing that women held the power to be “gatekeepers in heterosexual activity” (Kane & Schippers, 1996, p. 652). While sexuality had been identified as a key site of gender politics, Kane and Schipper felt that more attention needed to be directed at understanding the beliefs about gender inequalities regarding sexual power.

           Adrienne Rich’s 1980 article Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence and related work has been hailed as extremely influential in the recognition of compulsory heterosexuality as a key practice in the social construction of gender inequality. R. W. Connell further highlighted the importance of this notion as a key structural feature of the “gender order of wealthy, capitalistic nations” (Kane & Schippers, 1996, p. 652). In his 1987 book, Gender and Power; Society, the Person, and Sexual Politics, Connell attempted to explain one of the potential complex reasons behind the Western culture’s homophobia by stating that “part of it must be the degree to which the fact of homosexuality threatens the credibility of a naturalized ideology of gender and a dichotomized sexual world” (p. 248).

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          The results of Kane and Schippers study found that there was little difference between male and female samples regarding the belief that males had a greater sexual drive, this belief was held by approximately 70% of the sample. There was a slight variation between the two sexes as to whether it was natural or whether it was socially or culturally cultivated.

         In contrast, on the topic of sexual power, a clear and consistent pattern was discovered regarding gender differences in beliefs. Each sex was found to believe that the other held more, or even too much, sexual power. This was, perhaps due to the personal interpretation of the meaning of the term sexual power. In addition to this, each sex was found to believe that the other benefits more from the balance of power.

          The results pertaining to the notion of compulsory heterosexuality found few differences between the beliefs of men and women. It was found that the majority of both sexes felt some societal or social pressure towards heterosexuality. Both sexes were also found to believe that sexual orientation was, at least in part, natural in its origin. Despite both sexes believing that one’s sexual orientation was a natural occurrence, it was still found that men were more likely to have a negative attitude towards homosexuality and to view it as harmful to society or dangerous to the tradition, nuclear, heteronormative, cisgender ‘family’. The difference between males and females in relation to the previous pattern of thought or belief, while present, was not significant.

          Emily Kane and Mimi Schipper theorised that the dominant belief amongst the sample, as a representation of the population, that males naturally had a stronger sexual drive “creates a foundation for naturalizing and even excusing sexual violence and for construing men as naturally more active and aggressive than women-beliefs that clearly work to justify and maintain gender inequality” (1996, p. 662)

Another area of social inequality that is reproduced by the family is that of class inequality. A key way in which this occurs is through the intergenerational transfer of sources of wealth. These sources could be companies, properties, jewellery, art, antiques or large sums of currency. This transmission has typically occurred through male bloodlines, in essence, from father to son. It is important to note that the class system favours traditional, nuclear family formations. It can also have racial or religious preferences.

          In our current capitalist society, more than 70% of the world’s wealth is concentrated amongst 10% of the population. 1% of the population control 33% of the world’s wealth. Conversely, the bottom 50% of the world’s population only possesses less than 2% of the total capital. While the remaining 40% of the population, known as “the global wealth middle class”, controls less than 30% of the total capital (Alvaredo, et al., 2018).

          The intergenerational transmission of wealth also has a clear impact on the reproduction of class based educational inequalities. These inequalities can include the calibre of social networking opportunities, the quality and availability of education, as well as one’s career or job prospectus. 

          Article 28 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) states that “States Parties recognize the right of the child to education, and with a view to achieving this right progressively and on the basis of equal opportunity…” (United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner, 2002, p. 8). This convention has been ratified by 195 states, this include all western or developed countries except the United States of America as it has yet to ratify the UNCRC.

          As children have the legal right to a minimum of primary education, it is typically free and is sometimes referred to as public school(ing) as it is funded by the government or state. Alongside these public schools, there has been an increase in the number of private or privately funded schools. These private schools are often elitist, as they have high tuition fees. The ability to pay these fees is often unfeasible to the lower and impoverished classes. These private schools “may also have more discretion on curricula and instructional methods, and so can adapt them to the interests and abilities of their students” (The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, 2012, p. 9). This discretional ability may put students who attend these schools at a greater advantage in terms of personal development, further education and job opportunities. It would also afford the students a more influential social network.

          It also allows for the social stratification of it’s pupils by basing their ability to attend the school on their family’s wealth or power status. While many private schools have begun to offer scholarship programs aimed at young people for whose family the tuition and related fees are simply unfeasible, this process gives the private school agency to choose the most gifted of these students, be it musically, sportily or academically. While the obtention of a scholarship for such individuals is a positive it disadvantages those in public school and implies that the other disadvantaged students are simply ‘not good enough’ to attend an elitist school.

          The role of the family’s social class or financial standing in the education of their children is important. Aside from affording their children / young people the ability to obtain a private and perhaps superior education to their peers, it also affords more greater ability and flexibility regarding third level educational opportunities. It does this by partially or fully covering the financial aspect of undertaking courses or degrees in third level, therefore affording their children the ability to attend more prestigious universities or colleges that may be located a great distance from the family home or even abroad. The families perceived class can also play a role in the access to improved job prospects and opportunities regardless of whether or not they have the necessary abilities or experience levels. His could relate to obtaining a new job or being ‘fast-tracked’ to higher positions ahead of others who may be more apt to fill them. In this way the family allows for the production and reproduction of class-based employment inequalities or inequities.

This essay examined gender inequality in the family through the lens of housework. It went on to look at sexual inequality using three beliefs: sexual drive, sexual power and compulsory heterosexuality. The third type of inequality that this essay looked at was that of class inequality and how one’s family’s class and social standing could influence their child’s experience of education as well as briefly touching upon how this same influence could create inequality in the work sector.


  • Alvaredo, F. et al., 2018. World Inequality Report 2018, Paris: World Inequality Lab.
  • Connell, R. W., 1987. Gender and Power: Society, the Person, and Sexual Politics. Stanford: Standord University Press.
  • Franklin, S., 2014. The Guardian. [Online]
    Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2014/jun/14/why-i-rejected-life-as-mormon-mother-religious-scepticism
    [Accessed 24 December 2018].
  • Hartmann, H. I., 1981. The Family as the Locus of Gender, Class and Political Struggle: The Example of Housework. Signs, 6(3), pp. 366-394.
  • Kane, E. W. & Schippers, M., 1996. Men’s and Women’s Beliefs about Gender and Sexuality. Gender and Society, 10(5), pp. 650-665.
  • McLanahan, S. & Percheski, C., 2008. Family Structure and the Reproduction of Inequalities. Annual Review of Sociology, Volume 34, pp. 257-276.
  • OECD (2012), Public and Private Schools: How Management and Funding Relate to their Socio-economic Profile, OECD Publishing. http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/9789264175006-en
  • O’Keefe, T., 2018. Week 1: What is the family? An introduction, Cork: University College Cork.
  • O’Keefe, T., 2018. Week 2: Sociological Theories of the Family, Cork: University College Cork.
  • United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner, 2002. Convention of the Rights of the Child. [Online]
    Available at: https://www.ohchr.org/en/professionalinterest/pages/crc.aspx
    [Accessed 24 December 2018].


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