Canadian Journal of Sociology Online March - April 2000

Toby L. Parcel, ed.
Research in the Sociology of Work, Volume 7: Work and Family.
Stamford, Connecticut: JAI Press Inc., 1999, 281 pp. NPL cloth (0-7623-0605-X).

The latest volume of the series devoted to Research in the Sociology of Work (series editor: Randy Hodson) contains ten research articles that examine various facets of the work-family nexus. The papers explore a number of important aspects of the linkages between work and family life, mainly through analyses of large-scale, quantitative surveys targeting various groups primarily within the United States. As such, the volume will be of more limited interest to the international audience, although the issues examined are central to ongoing debates about the struggle to balance work life and domestic responsibilities, as well as the challenges that families, businesses, and governments confront in attempting to manage that struggle. Indeed, it should be noted at the outset that the editors clearly invested a tremendous amount of time and energy in attempting to establish a high degree of editorial consistency and organization in constructing the volume. Each chapter can stand alone as a contribution to the research, complete with full bibliographic information and references cited.

The authors of the studies review the current literature on their respective issues, although the theoretical discussions are generally quite limited in scope. Some of the authors draw upon life course and feminist perspectives, as well as some strands of the organizational literature. For the most part, however, the literature reviews are intended essentially to provide the context for using mainly survey research to address a number of well-defined, empirical questions pertaining to the work-family nexus. Thus the primary contributions of this collection of papers are threefold. First, the papers provide relatively sophisticated empirical evaluations of a number of specific research questions that currently inform many of the debates in the sociology of work. Second, the papers present detailed methodological explanations of the manner in which several national surveys have been conducted, how the various key measures are constructed, and the analytic strategies employed. Finally, each paper considers briefly the policy implications of the results.

The strategy for most of the papers involves identifying specific research questions, drawing upon various samples who have participated in surveys, and then modeling the relative effects of variables drawn from the literature on specified outcomes. For example, Crouter et al. examine the relative impacts of parental work experiences upon housework, involvement in parent-child activities, and parental monitoring of children’s daily activities. The analysis, drawn from a longitudinal study of families with school-aged children, assesses factors such as temporal availability, relative resources, and the psychological demands of work as determinants of who assumes more responsibility in household labour and child-rearing responsibilities. Aronson provides a particularly interesting analysis of a panel study drawn from a Minnesota sample, wherein she compares the expectations of young women who have not had children with those who had already become mothers with respect to the balancing act. Perhaps not surprisingly, she finds that the childless women have much more optimistic views about their ability to balance family and work life, whereas those with children report having considerable difficulty. As a third example, Moen and Yu’s articles draws upon a national U.S. study to model those factors in work and family environments that have the strongest predictive value of “perceived success” in both spheres simultaneously among two-earner families. Their work highlights in particular the relative vulnerability of younger families, or those in the “launching stage,” as well as those who work an exorbitant number of hours, or who have less secure or stable work arrangements.

Several other important issues receive attention in the volume. These include Kozimor-King and Leicht’s study of attitudes toward work and family roles among women, Rogers’ examination of job satisfaction and marital satisfaction upon individual well-being, Powell and Parcel’s comparative analysis of parental work patterns, family size, and social capital upon adolescent educational performance, and Sandberg’s study of the effects of family obligations and workplace resources upon men’s and women’s usage of family leaves. Finally, two studies address the development of “family-friendly” policies in the corporate environment.

As a whole, the studies provide considerable grist for the empirical mill, with detailed accounts of how a variety of measures are operationalized in the context of a variety of longitudinal studies. Anyone interested in empirical work exploring work-family linkages will find the collection an invaluable resource to stimulate their own research programs. In addition, several of the studies attempt to supplement the survey results with qualitative approaches, such as in-depth interviews with selected participants. A particularly refreshing aspect of the volume, though, concerns the extent to which the authors address work-family policy issues, whether by suggesting how such policies are formulated, what their relative effects may be, or in identifying possible policy directions and practices that firms and families may wish to consider.

In closing, an important limitation of the volume requires some discussion. The half dozen studies that use general linear model approaches as their main analytic strategies invariably explain less than one-third of the variation in the outcomes in question. The relatively weak explanatory power of such models certainly has considerable precedence in the field of quantitative survey analysis. Yet for all of their methodological sophistication, the studies demonstrate clearly that much theoretical work still needs to be done to provide guidance in developing more powerful models. Perhaps driven by the limitations of the survey data, the researchers as a whole rarely venture beyond the confines of their data to develop more layered or contextual models that deal with social structural and cultural factors at the community or societal level. In fact, most of the studies in effect “hold constant” potentially interesting community and societal factors. For the most part, the research here does not seriously factor in the state as a salient feature that can have variable impacts on the balance of work and family responsibilities. The work-family research nexus will be enhanced considerably if future studies can address concurrently macro-level forces such as labour market trends, community resources, various dimensions of inequality, and other facets of the globalization process. Such analyses inevitably point to the need for further comparative work to flesh out and test more general sociological theories that can extend the work in the current volume.

Joseph H. Michalski
Department of Sociology
Trent University

March-April 2000
© CJS Online