Essay on the Theories of Sex-Role Differentiation – A Sociological Analysis



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Each approach focuses on culture, rather than biology as the principle cause of gender differences. But, in other respects, there are wide disagreements between advocates of these sociological perspectives.

Arguments of two major sociological perspectives, a) functionalist perspective, and b) conflict perspective; – relating to sex-role differentiation maybe considered here.

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A Functionalist Theory OR Explanation:

The functionalist view maintains that the sex role differentiation was highly functional in tradi­tional and pre-industrial societies, for men and women were to play very different roles. It stresses that a society functions more efficiently if there is a division of tasks and responsibilities and if its members are socialised to play specific roles.

Though this division of labour need not necessarily take place along the sex lines, it could also be done on the basis of sexual differences. The functionalists also maintain that gender differentiation has contributed to overall social stability.

Are the traditional sex roles still functional in a modern industrial society? Tacott Parsons and Robert Bales, two functional sociologists have suggested a positive function of sex-role differentia­tion.

They have claimed that the modern family needs two adults who will specialise in particular roles. The father assumes the “instrumental role “, which focuses on the relationship between the family and the outside world.

This role is also concerned with job and money-making or income-generating activities. The mother assumes the “expressive role which focuses on relationships within the family. The mother is also responsible for providing the love and support that is needed to hold the family together. This role includes the task of maintenance of harmony and the internal emotional affairs of the family.

The functionalists have thus concluded that “the male’s instrument role requires that he be dominant and competent; the female’s expressive role requires that she be passive and nurturant. The family unit functions more effectively than it would if the roles were not so sharply defined.” [Ian Robertson-]

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Functionalist theory has been bitterly criticised. A few of the main points of criticism can be mentioned below.

1. Some sociologists have argued that this theory oversimplifies the complexities of contemporary sex-roles.

2. This theory only defends the status quo relating to the traditional sex roles.

3. Critics have said that the traditional sex roles may have been functional in traditional societies but they make no sense in a diversified modern society. In these societies, the daily activities of men and women are far removed from these primitive origins.

4. The theory is silent about the strains that the traditional roles place on women who want to play an “instrumental” role in society, or on men who would prefer to play an “expressive role “.

5. The theory also says nothing about the dysfunctions to society of preventing half of the popu­lation from participating fully in economic life.

A Conflict Theory or Explanation:

A functionalist can explain how sex-role inequalities arose, but a conflict analysis may offer a better explanation of why they persist. These theorists do not deny the presence of a differentiation by gender. In fact, they argue that the relationship between males and females has been one of unequal power, with men in a dominant position over women.

Previously, men might have become powerful in pre-industrial times because their size, physical strength and freedom from child-bearing duties allowed them to dominate women physically. But, in present day societies, such considerations are not that important. Yet, cultural beliefs about the sexes are now long established. Such beliefs support a social structure which places males in controlling positions.

Conflict theorists always see gender differences as a reflection of the subjugation of one group (women) by another group (men). A few opinions expressed by some of these theorists may be considered here.

Letly Cottin Pogrebin (1981), a feminist author, suggests that the two crucial messages of gen- der-role stereotypes are that – “boys are better ” and “girls are meant to be mothers “. The system in order to maintain male dominance makes arrangements to socialise children to accept traditional gender role divisions as natural and just.

Barbara Bovee Polk [1974], a sociologist, while describing the “conflicting cultures approach” to gender differences, observes that “masculine values have higher status and constitute the domi­nant and visible culture of the society. They provide the standard for adulthood and normality.”

According to this view, “women are oppressed because they constitute an alternative subculture which deviates from the prevailing masculine value system”

Helen Hacker (1951) has argued that women can be regarded as a minority group in society, in much the same as racial or other minorities that suffer from discrimination. She draws a number of convincing comparisons between the situation of women and the situation of Blacks in America. She has also shown that both groups are at a disadvantage as a result of a status ascribed to them on the unalterable grounds of sex or race.

Randall Collins (1971), yet another conflict theorist, argues that sexual inequalities, like any other structure, social inequality, are based on a conflict of interests between the dominant and sub­ordinate group. Because of the sexual inequalities, women who constitute the lower-status group are not able to make use of their best talents.

This naturally gives a chance to the males who constitute the superior status group, to make use of the best in them. Men may not hatch any deliberate conspiracy to take this advantage. It only means that the existing arrangements benefit the dominant group and hence it may not get any motivation to change them. “Since the cultural arrangements of any society always reflect the interests of the dominant group, sex roles continue to reinforce the pattern of male dominance.”

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Each of these theories has its own argument but none of them explains every kind of sex-role differentiation. At the same time, these two theories are not found to be contradictory always, espe­cially on the issue of sex roles. There are functional theorists who would also accept that traditional sex roles are becoming dysfunctional in the modern world.

Similarly, there are conflict theorists who would accept that sex inequalities may have arisen because they were functional then, even if they are no longer functional now. What is more important is that both perspectives agree on one point: the existing sex-role patterns are primarily social in origin, not biological.

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