What Did Parsons Mean By The Instrumental And Expressive Role?

By Ayesh Perera, published Sept 26, 2022 | Fact Checked by Saul Mcleod, PhD


Murdock argued that nuclear families consist of instrumental and expressive roles. Instrumental roles provide financial support and establish family status, while expressive roles involve providing emotional support and physical care.

Parsons suggested that children needed to grow up in a family in which the instrumental and expressive roles are performed by the respective parents if the children were to develop 'stable adult personalities'.

Homemaker Wife Welcomes Working Husband Home Cartoon Vector Illustration

What is the instrumental (economic) role function within the family?

The instrumental or economic role within the family denotes the functionalist conception of the male position within a household. This role involves the achievement of specific goals such as earning an income to provide for survival, and enforcing discipline to maintain order.

Parson views the instrumental role are the contribution which men make to family life, as the main breadwinner and disciplinarian of the family. It stands in contrast to the expressive role of the wife.

The implications are that men are less involved in the rearing of children and more concerned with the financial aspects of marriage. The instrumental role also means that men are more likely to be involved in the public sphere of work.

What is the expressive (social) role function within the family?

The expressive role is the caring, nurturing, supportive role which many functionalists believe women perform 'naturally', as a result of biology. According to Parsons, this role is played by females within a marriage, and involves childcare and most of the domestic labour.

Expressive roles typically involve work inside of the family, providing emotional support and physical care for children, managing conflicts, and childrearing. The expressive role complements the instrumental role of the male breadwinner.

Parsons' Domestic Division of Labor

Domestic Division of Labour means the chores that are completed around the house such as cleaning, laundry, cooking, DIY and gardening.

The gendered division of labor is the allocation of tasks between men and women based on gender norms. This type of division of labor often results in women taking on more domestic responsibilities, such as cooking, cleaning, and child care.

In contrast, men are often seen as the breadwinners and are expected to work outside the home in paid employment. While the gendered division of labor has changed over time, it is still a common practice in many households.

In fact, research suggests that women spend approximately twice as much time on domestic tasks as men (Baxter, 2002). This unequal distribution of labor often results in women having less leisure time and fewer opportunities to engage in paid employment.

Socialization of Gender Roles

Gender socialization is a form of primary socialization which is the process by which children and infants learn the norms and behaviors associated with their gender. It is thought to occur within the family, peer groups, mass media and school curriculum (Bhattacharjee, 2021).

Consequently, men who earn money and enforce discipline as instrumental leaders, impart to their sons their habitudes and dispositions, whereas women who bear and nurture children as expressive leaders, instruct their daughters to do the same as adults. This idea did not sound strange to the people of Parsons’ day since it accorded well with the cultural expectations of the 1950’s.

The research work of Bacon, Barry and Child (1957) lent much credibility to Parsons’ propositions. The results yielded by their cross-cultural evaluation of sex differences in socialization indicated a widespread societal pattern prone toward the socialization of boys into self-reliance and achievement (instrumental traits), and girls toward responsibility and nurturance (expressive traits).

The researchers interpreted this pattern of socialization as denoting an “adaptation of culture to the biological substratum of human life.”

Critical Evaluation

Parsons’ understanding of expressive and instrumental roles was derived from, and constituted a reflection of, middle-class American society in the 1950s.

The observed sex differences in the expressive and instrumental roles were seen as the indirect fruit of sociocultural influences. The female role in childbearing and infant care was seen as responsible for the expressive-role definition involving frequent ministrations to others’ needs. The predominantly male involvement, on the other hand, in warfare and hunting was construed as undergirding the instrumental-role definition embodying self-reliance.

William D. Crano and Joel Aronoff (1975) analyzed different societies’ degrees of reliance upon certain subsistence activities (such as hunting, gathering, agriculture, animal husbandry and fishing), and females’ and males’ degree of contribution, in each society, toward these tasks.

The results suggested that the relative contribution of each sex across societies, encompassed a broad spectrum of variability. For instance, while in some societies, the female contribution to the subsistence economy was practically zero, in others, it reached nearly 80%.

Overall, females were responsible for approximately 44% of foodstuffs. Moreover, in 45% of the surveyed societies, women accounted for at least 40% of subsistence production. While these findings could not disprove Parsons’ thesis, they certainly enfeebled its force. 

Another study, also by Crano and Aaronoff (1978) of a cross-cultural and representative sample of 186 societies sought to test Parsons’ and Bales’ proposition of instrumental and expressive role specialization. The results implied that while females were intensely dedicated to playing an expressive role throughout their children’s infancy, this intensity substantially abated in early childhood. On the other hand, males were less likely to play an expressive role initially. Over time, however, they seemed to assume many expressive activities and maintain their dedication to these throughout their offspring’s early childhood. 

As acknowledged by Crano and Aaronoff (1978), an infant’s fragile physiological status inevitably imposes some minimum demands on the primary caretaker, a role often played by the mother. The failure to meet these demands would cause the infant to perish. The rudimentary survival demands, if they exceed the psychological and physical resources of a single parent, would engender at least a moderate form of complementarity.

Evidence, in fact, espouses the proposition that during a child’s infancy, there would be an authentically complementary relationship between the maternally expressive, and the paternally instrumental roles.

The drastic cultural changes many Western nations underwent in the subsequent decade, as well as the opportunities available for women to work outside the home today, may make some of his conclusions less relevant in American and European contexts.

Feminists disagree that 'expressive' tasks performed by women are showhow 'natural' to them. Eichler accuses Parsons of androcentricity, and says that men are able to interpret the housewife role in this way because they are rarely present when housework and childcare tasks are being performed.

Families are becoming more equal and democratic. There is a move away from the separate conjugal roles of Talcott Parsons and move towards more joint conjugal roles. With women going out to work, men need to take more of an active role in the family and couples are more likely to spend their leisure time together (Young & Wilmott, 1957).

Many women now want to have a career of their own rather than care for a large family, compared to before when women’s role was to do so.

That being said, Parsons’ propositions still reflect the reality in many developing countries in Asia and Africa wherein entrenched beliefs concerning gender-roles hold sway.

About the Author

Ayesh Perera recently graduated from Harvard University, where he studied politics, ethics and religion. He is presently conducting research in neuroscience and peak performance as an intern for the Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies, while also working on a book of his own on constitutional law and legal interpretation.

Fact Checking

Content is rigorously reviewed by a team of qualified and experienced fact checkers. Fact checkers review articles for factual accuracy, relevance, and timeliness. We rely on the most current and reputable sources, which are cited in the text and listed at the bottom of each article. Content is fact checked after it has been edited and before publication.

This article has been fact checked by Saul Mcleod, a qualified psychology teacher with over 17 years' experience of working in further and higher education. He has been published in psychology journals including Clinical Psychology, Social and Personal Relationships, and Social Psychology.

Cite this Article (APA Style)
Perera, A. (2022, Oct 03). What Did Parsons Mean By The Instrumental And Expressive Role? Simply Sociology. https://simplysociology.com/Parsons-instrumental-and-expressive-roles.html

APA Style References

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Bales, R. F., & Parsons, T. (2014). Family: Socialization and interaction process. Routledge.

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Barry, H;, III, Bacon, M. K., & Child, I. L. (1957). A cross-cultural survey of some sex differences in socialization. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 55, 327-332.

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