Gender, parent-child relations and normative obligations

  • Alice S. Rossi Social and Demographic Research Institute, University of Massachusetts, USA


This article reports the perspective, design and major findings of a large-scale study of the parent-child relationship across the life course, drawing on data from a probability sample of 1 390 residents in the Boston Standard Metropolitan Statistical Area (SMSA), together with spin-off samples of parents and adult children of these respondents. Parent-child relations are analyzed with attention given to the gender of parent and child. The highest level of interaction, affection, shared values and help exchange is found between mothers and daughters, and the least between fathers and sons, with opposite-sex parent-child pairs falling between. Special attention is given to a unique method of studying normative obligations to a wide array of kin and non-kin - the factorial, or vignette technique. This method permits a comparison of the degree of obligation felt toward parents and children with numerous relatives, each specified in terms of gender and marital status, facing four types of crisis events and three types of celebratory events. Analysis shows a symmetry largely determined by degree of relatedness to the 74 kin and non-kin types, with the gender of both vignette person and respondent tipping the balance toward higher scores on the obligation scale for women than for men. Findings relating to gender differences are discussed in terms of their social policy implications.


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