“Daddy brings home the bacon and mama fries it up in the pan,” this old and in so many ways outdated saying is actually a handy way to remember the sociologist Talcott Parsons complementary sex role theory. In this piece Nathan Palmer takes a look back at Parsons’s theories and shows us how a recent iPhone game called Girls Like Robots seems like it could have been designed by Parsons himself.
The world is a more stable place when women focus on taking care of children and maintaining the household. Wait! Wait! Don’t go! Before you write me an ALL CAPS email calling me a sexist, let me tell you that what I just said is actually the belief of one of the most prominent sociologists ever, Talcott Parsons. I personally disagree with Parsons, but it’s important that any student of sociology know about such a important historical figure in sociology. But before we talk about Parsons, let me tell you about Structural Functionalism.
Sociologists who subscribe to the structural functional theoretical camp see society as a collection of institutions that all work together for the survival, stability, and advancement of the whole. Functionalists, as they are commonly referred to, approach their social research with one question in mind, “how does this affect the stability and security of the rest of society.” So something is said to “function” when it increases stability and security, but if something threatens the stability and security of society, then it’s labeled a “dysfunction”. But let me be clear, a function of society is not necessarily a good thing nor is a dysfunction a bad thing. For instance, some functionalists have argued that having poor people is good because it ensures that there will be someone to do the dirty jobs no one would ever choose to do if they weren’t desperate. If you’re one of these poor folks, you are not likely to see it as a positive or good thing, but regardless structural functionalists see it as a function of society. Okay, now that you know a tad about functionalism, let’s talk about how the Über Functionalist, Talcott Parsons, looked at family structures.
Parson’s Complementary Gender Roles
The family as a social institution is absolutely critical. The family is where the next generation is created, it’s where people of different families integrate with one another via marriage, and the family unit has a profound impact on other institutions like the economy and religion. So how does a society keep the family as an institution stable and secure?
Talcott Parsons in the 1940s and 50s argued that the family is held together by gender socialization and complementary roles between men and women. To generate his theories on the family Parsons looked at the “typical” family (often called the nuclear family) of the 1950s where the mother would often take care of the children and the household while the father would labor in the economy. Looking at this division of labor, Parson argued that women were primarily responsible for managing the day-to-day needs of the family and their emotional well being, while men were responsible for representing the family outside of the home and bringing resources from the outside world to the family.
To prepare children for these complementary adult roles Parsons believed that little girls were socialized to develop their “expressive attributes” (i.e. dealing with people’s emotional needs and being sensitive to others’ feelings.) Little boys on the other hand were socialized to maximize their “instrumental qualities” (i.e. their independence, leadership, and competitiveness). In Parsons mind, the division of labor in the nuclear family was thoroughly functional.
If Parsons Made An iPhone Game
Parsons and his complementary sex role theories are widely criticized by modern sociologists. His ideas about the family are of a different era, so you can imagine my surprise when I played a game on my iPhone recently that could have been designed by the man himself. In the puzzle game Girls Like Robots you win or lose based on your ability to be sensitive to the preferences of others and keep everyone happy. The puzzle you’re always trying to solve in the game is how to seat a collection of characters in a way that keeps everyone happy. Girls like robots, robots like girls but get overwhelmed when surrounded by girls, nerds like being on the outside edge away from everyone. If this isn’t the work of the expressive role, I don’t know what is.
Parsons’s sex role theory, and functionalism in general, can seem like a product of a by gone era, but it’s important to learn where sociology came from and to remember that these ideas are still with us. While many families with children are not divided along the complementary gender roles that Parsons envisioned, we still see little girls and boys being socialized to the expressive and instrumental roles. You could argue that within the U.S. we are much more tolerant of boys and girls being socialized to the “opposite” gender’s role, but you don’t have to look hard to find evidence of traditional sex role socialization.
- Do you think that the little boys and girls in your life are socialized toward either the instrumental or expressive roles? What examples of this type of socialization do you see in your community?
- Conflict theorists argue that while Parsons’s gender roles may have been complementary they weren’t equal. What is it about the gender roles that makes them unequal? Who has more power and why?
- What other pieces of culture (i.e. movies, books, songs, games, etc.) reinforce the complementary gender roles Parsons wrote about?
- How has gender socialization changed since Parson’s day? Do these changes increase or decrease the stability of the family as an institution and society as a whole?
Parsons actually was only looking at the typical white middle class family. Many low income families and families of color did not feature a stay-at-home mother. Furthermore, many families didn’t have both parents present. Finally, if we look at the family unit throughout history, the “nuclear family” was rather untypical, but that’s a post for another day. ↩
Conflict theorists on the other hand would point out that the nuclear family was highly unequal with women being left financially dependent upon their husbands. But remember, inequality is not a concern of a functionalist as long as the inequality doesn’t threaten the stability and security of the institution and/or society. ↩