A Cross-National Exploration of Husband-Wife Involvement in Selected Household Activities

ABSTRACT - The paper presents the findings of an exploratory study of relative husband-wife involvement in a variety of household activities, based on data from couples in urban communities in five countries; two English speaking, - the U.S., the U.K.; and three French speaking, - France, Belgium and Canada. Similarities and differences in involvement for various types of activities between countries and between the two language groups are examined.


Susan P. Douglas (1979) ,"A Cross-National Exploration of Husband-Wife Involvement in Selected Household Activities", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 06, eds. William L. Wilkie, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 364-371.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 6, 1979      Pages 364-371


Susan P. Douglas, Centre d'Enseignement Superieur des Affaires

[The data on which the study was based were collected in Belgium by Dr. Benny Rigaux, CESAM, in Canada by Professor Jean-Marie Lefebvre, Lavel University, in the U.K. by Professor Peter Doyle, University of Bradford, and Professor Michael Baker, University of Strathclyde, and in the U.S. by Professor Harry Davis, University of Chicago. The author wishes to acknowledge their assistance as also the valuable aid of Professor Davis in the planning and analysis of the data. Financial support for analysis was provided by the Marketing Science Institute, Cambridge.]


The paper presents the findings of an exploratory study of relative husband-wife involvement in a variety of household activities, based on data from couples in urban communities in five countries; two English speaking, - the U.S., the U.K.; and three French speaking, - France, Belgium and Canada. Similarities and differences in involvement for various types of activities between countries and between the two language groups are examined.


Recent years have witnessed the emergence of a growing interest in studying household decision-making and task organization (Davis, 1976). This appears to have been stimulated largely by the radical changes which have been taking place in husband and wife roles, and the accompanying breakdown of traditional sex-role ideologies and cultural norms governing the division of labor and responsibility in the household. Concern has thus emerged in examining the impact and implications of such changes for consumer decision-making and behavior. Most studies of these issues have, however, been conducted by U.S. researchers, in relation to changes in U.S. society. Considerably less is known concerning the existence and impact of similar trends in other countries.

A number of studies of household decision-making and task involvement have been conducted by family sociologists in countries outside the U.S. These include studies in Belgium (Leplae, 1968; Silverman and Hill, 1967), Denmark (Kandel and Lesser, 1972), Finland (Haavio-Mannila, 1972), France (Michel, 1967), Germany (Lamouse, 1969; Lupri, 1969), Greece (Safilios-Rothschild, 1967, 1969), Japan (Blood, 1967), Mexico (Cromwell et al., 1973) and Yugoslavia (Buric and Zecevic, 1967). Inspired by the classic Blood-Wolfe (1960) study of the division of labor and responsibilities in households in the U.S., these are primarily concerned with testing the "resource" theory of marital roles. [The "resource" theory of marital roles hypothesizes that the relative power or influence wielded by the husband or the wife will be determined by the relative importance of the resources, e.g. education, income, they bring to the household. The principal competing theory is that of "ideological" role theory, which postulates that relative power or influence vs. determined by the dominant sex-role ideology, e.g. male-dominant, egalitarian in the family.] They develop a measure or overall score of relative husband-wife influence for each household across a number of decisions and tasks, and examine the attitudinal and socio-economic determinants of this score in each country. Findings at this level of aggregation, i.e. across decisions and tasks, are, however, only indirectly relevant for consumer behavior. Recent studies (Davis, 1976; Douglas and Wind, 1978),show, for example, that relative husband-wife involvement in a given household varies from one product category to another.

A few studies more specifically related to consumer decision-making in households outside the U.S. have also been made. Generally, these have been conducted in a single country, and with one exception (Hempel, 1974) there is little explicit attempt to make a cross-national comparison. Davis and Rigaux (1974) Rigaux-Bricmont (1977), for example, have investigated husband-wife involvement at different stages of the decision-making process for 25 economic decisions in Belgium. The Hempel study, on the other hand, examined husband-wife influence in relation to various stages and aspects of the decision to buy a house in both the U.S. and the U.K.

Comparison of findings in different countries is, however, hampered by lack of explicit hypotheses to guide interpretation, and to indicate where and why similarities or differences should be expected to occur. Furthermore, problems concerning the comparability and equivalence in each country, of a consumer decision such as the purchase of a house or a lawn mower also arise.

The purpose of the exploratory study reported in this paper was to gain some insights into the question of how to approach cross-national comparisons of household decision-making and consumer behavior. In particular, it was concerned with probing the basis on which countries should be selected, and with investigating which areas of family life were likely to be of interest for comparative purposes. Husband-wife involvement in a variety of household activities was, therefore, studied based on small samples of husbands and wives, living in urban areas in five different countries.

Since language group lines have been found in various cross-national studies to be a major parameter delineating differences and similarities in values and behavior (Haire et al, 1966; Hofstede, 1976; Roberts, 1970), the samples were selected from countries in two language groups - French-speaking and English-speaking in the North American and European continents. Language is also considered in cultural anthropology to be an important factor in defining appropriate units for comparison. One leading cultural anthropological methodologist has, for example, proposed the use of the culti-unit "a group bound by a common language, and belonging to the same state or territorial unit" in making cross-cultural comparisons [While it is recognized that a country is not equivalent to a culture, and hence that a cross-cultural study is not necessarily cross-national, and v.v., one of the purposes here was to attempt to identify relevant dimensions in cross-national comparisons, of which culture (as operationalized in terms of language) might be one. There is also a substantial body of literature in socio-linguistics and anthropology, which postulates language to be an important factor in the formation of thought patterns, and modes of response, as in the development and transmission of behavior patterns (Cole and Scribner, 1974; Fishman, 1973; Hall, 1976; Hymes, 1967; Spier et al., 1941).] (Naroll, 1971).

The household activities examined, covered a broad spectrum of family life. They ranged from traditionally sex-specialized tasks and decisions such as giving the children a bath, going to the supermarket (wife-dominated), taking the car for servicing (husband-dominated), and traditionally joint or shared decisions and tasks, such as going shopping for furniture, to areas where cultural role expectations are less clear cut, such as deciding to have the husband's suit cleaned, calling in repairmen, or inviting guests for dinner.

The data base of the study and the research methodology are first presented. Then, the findings concerning the relative involvement of husbands and wives in the various activities are studied, and similarities and differences between the five groups examined. The implications of these findings are discussed, and some suggestions and directions for future research outlined.


Sample Characteristics and Data Base

The data base consisted of questionnaires administered separately to couples living in major urban areas in each country. These were Chicago, London, Glasgow, Paris, Brussels and Quebec. Due to the cost and difficulty of obtaining responses from both husbands and wives, convenience sampling was used. [The sample size is small in each urban area, ranging from 160 couples in Chicago to 76 in Brussels, 95 in Quebec, and 101 in Paris. The use of small sample sizes is, however, by no means uncommon in family research (Starch, 1958; Davis, 1970; Davis and Rigaux, 1974) particularly when responses are obtained from both husband and wife, since costs and administrative difficulties are substantially increased. In this particular study, typically less than one-quarter to one-third of the questionnaires initially distributed, were returned or satisfactorily completed by both husband and wife.] The samples are somewhat "upscale" in all cases except for Quebec (see Appendix 1). The same questionnaire was filled out by both spouses, and couples were instructed not to consult each other during the completion process.

Respondents were asked questions relating to involvement in decisions and tasks, for two types of situations, one general, and the other specific: 1) who was typically responsible for each of 17 general household activities (as listed in Table 1) and 2) who was responsible for performing each of six tasks the last time guests were invited for dinner. [Initially following the classification of marital role categories identified by Herbst (1952), five response categories were used: "mainly husband" (husband dominant); "mainly wife", (wife-dominant); "sometimes husband, sometimes wife" (autonomic) and "generally both together" (syncratic) and "other". In the analysis, however, the autonomic "sometimes husband, sometimes wife" and syncratic "generally both", categories were combined, as there appeared to be considerable ambiguity concerning this distinction for respondents. The "other" category was also eliminated from the computations since the number of responses was minimal in all samples.] In addition, a number of questions were asked relating to family background characteristics, including standard variables such as income, education of husband and wife, as well as descriptors of their home, such as ownership of household appliances, number of rooms and type of dwelling.



Plan of Analysis

Husband-wife involvement in the two types of situations were analyzed separately. First, relative involvement in the seventeen household activities was compared. Similarities in the distribution of responses for each activity between five urban groups were examined. Then, following Wolfe (1959) two separate dimensions of husband-wife involvement were distinguished; the relative involvement of the husband as opposed to the wife and the proportion of couples who shared responsibility for an activity. These dimensions were examined overall, i.e. across all seventeen activities, and by each individual activity. [Responses of husbands and wives were pooled in the analysis. Some incongruence in responses occurred and hence it was considered preferable at this aggregate level to include both responses in order to avoid a "sex" bias.]

Spearman correlations of rank order on the 17 activities were calculated between all possible pairs of the five groups, (i.e. ten in all) for each of the two dimensions of husband-wife involvement. McQuitty hierarchical clusterings for these two sets of correlations were then performed (McQuitty, 1960). Next, where differences between the five groups for an activity occurred on either dimension these were studied in more detail, and differences within and between the two language groups examined. Similar procedures were used to examine task performance in the dinner situation. The same two dimensions of involvement were identified, and used to make comparisons between the five groups. The results of this analysis did not, however, add significantly to those of the general household situations, beyond confirming certain tendencies and hence are not discussed here in more detail.

Finally, the relation of husband-wife involvement to certain socio-demographic characteristics was examined. Not only, according to the "resource" theory of marital roles are these key determinants of the allocation of household responsibilities (Blood and Wolfe, 1960) but they have been found in various studies to be related to roles in consumer purchasing decisions (Davis, 1972; David, 1976; Green and Cunningham, 1975; Hempel, 1975). In addition, previous studies of marital roles and authority in various countries have revealed some differences in the strength of these relationships (Davis, 1972; Michel, 1967; Silverman and Hill, 1967). In some cases the way in which these are related to the balance of authority in the family has been found to differ, but in countries at lower levels of economic development than those examined in this study.

Five background characteristics previously found to be related to marital roles - husband's education, wife's employment status, family income, type of dwelling and husband's age, were selected for examination. These were cross-tabulated with the two measures of husband-wife involvement for each of the seventeen activities to see whether observed similarities and differences might be accounted for, or related to differences in background characteristics between the samples, and lambda asymmetric statistics calculated to test the degree of association.


The initial inspection of husband-wife involvement for the 17 household activities showed a substantial degree of similarity between the five sample groups. As shown in Table 2, for nine of the activities, the degree of husband-wife involvement was much the same for all five groups. Whether in Chicago, Glasgow, Paris, Quebec or Brussels, husbands are mainly responsible for taking the car to the garage for servicing, wives with vacuuming and bathing the children, and both are involved in going shopping for furniture, and deciding to go out in the evening. Equally, going shopping for a new car is either a husband-dominated or joint activity, while involvement in paying bills, buying records and making travel reservations varies from one household to another.



A more detailed examination of husband-wife participation in the seventeen activities, separating the two dimensions of shared and husband involvement reveals, however, a number of differences between the five groups. Both at the overall and at the individual activity level, these differences occur primarily between the two language groups.

Overall Comparison of Shared and Husband Involvement Between the Five Groups

The McQuitty clustering of the correlations of the shared involvement measures shows that the nature or proportion of joint activity across all seventeen activities was most similar between the Chicago and London/ Glasgow pair (Figure 1). The correlation coefficient for this pair was .91. The next most similar were Paris and Quebec with a coefficient of .89, joined by Brussels at the .78 level. The three French-speaking samples were thus more similar to each other than to the Chicago/ London-Glasgow pair.

In the case of husband involvement the closest pair were Paris and Brussels, both characterized by similar levels of husband involvement across all activities (correlation coefficient .95) (Figure 2). Quebec again, was more similar to this pair than to Chicago or London-Glasgow (joining them at the .91 level). Thus, again, similarities within the two language groupings emerge, though in this case, less marked than in relation to shared involvement.



In the French language samples the wife had a more significant role. Equally, husbands in the latter group were more involved in taking out the garbage than in the former group. In doing the garden and calling in repairmen, however, the most marked differences occurred between Chicago and the other samples. In both cases, husband involvement was substantially lower in Chicago than elsewhere.

Relation Between Husband-Wife Involvement and Background Characteristics

Examination of the relation between the five background characteristics and measures of husband-wife involvement showed few systematic relationships of a nature which might account for the similarities and differences observed between the five groups. As Table 4 shows, relatively few of lambda statistics were over .10. [Calculation of gamma statistics, an ordinal symmetric test, or Yule's Q for the 2 x 2 tables, resulted in a substantially larger number of significant relationships ranging from 20 out of 40 cross-tabulations for type of dwelling, to 33 out of 40 for income. The lambda statistic is, however, a more appropriate test, given the nature of the variables.] Husband's age was related to husband involvement in calling in repairmen in Brussels, and in taking care of the garden in Chicago. The wife's employment status was related to husband involvement in taking out the garbage in Glasgow and London, and in calling in repairmen in Brussels. Family income was related to husband involvement in taking out the garbage in Brussels, in calling in repairmen and in taking the husband's suit to the cleaners in London and Glasgow.

Since, however, the lambda statistic is a relatively rigorous test of association, and in view of findings of significant relationships in previous studies, a further check was provided by breaking down each sample into comparable subgroups. The degree of shared and husband involvement in working wife, and non-working wife families, in young and old couples, low and high education couples, low and high income couples, and apartment and house-dwellers, in the five samples was then compared. Invariably, the same tendencies and differences observed between the total samples occurred. Husbands in working wife families, for example, in Chicago and London-Glasgow were more involved in taking their suit to the cleaners, and were less likely to participate in grocery shopping than in working wife families in Paris, Brussels, and Quebec. Similarly, whether in high or low income families, there was less joint decision-making about savings and investment in Chicago and London-Glasgow than in Paris, Brussels and Quebec. In a few instances, there were some differences, but these occurred in cases where sample sizes were small, for example, taking out the garbage, or calling in repairmen, and hence, are somewhat ambivalent.

Consequently, while household socio-economic characteristics affected the degree of shared or joint involvement, they appear to do so in a similar way in each sample, and are thus unlikely to account for the major differences observed between the samples.


The study thus provides a number of interesting indications concerning husband-wife involvement in the five samples. These should, however, be regarded essentially as providing guidelines for further research, particularly in view of the sample sizes and sampling procedures. Further investigation of the various points on larger samples is required before any conclusions can be drawn concerning similarities and differences between the five groups. The key points arising from the study are next discussed, and directions for further research outlined.

Key Findings

First, it appears that with regard to a number of activities husband-wife involvement is substantially similar in all five samples. This is consistent with the conclusions of family sociologists who have found many similarities in involvement in various household decisions, and to a less extent in relation to husband-wife participation in household tasks (Blood and Hill, 1970; Silverman and Hill, 1967). It is also consistent with the findings of a comparative study of housing purchase decisions in the U.S. and the U.K. (Hempel, 1974).

The study extends these conclusions to cover a wider range of family activities, and suggests that similarities occur not only in relation to activities traditionally central to husband and wife roles as, for example, the car, vacuuming, the children, and activities involving both, such as shopping for furniture or going out for dinner, but also those where husband and wife involvement varies from household to household, such as making travel reservations and buying records. Consequently, findings of similarities do not appear to arise from lop-sided focus on areas of family life in relation to which cultural role expectations are traditionally clearly defined, and are dominated by husband or wife, but occur throughout the broad spectrum of the way in which husbands and wives carve up household responsibilities.

Secondly, it appears that where differences in relative involvement do occur between the five samples, they frequently divide up along language group lines. This is particularly noticeable in relation to two types of activities - those relating to husband's clothing, and certain household maintenance activities. In the latter case, these appear to be activities which traditionally have been the responsibility of one or the other spouse, but in which current trends differ from one language group to another.

In the case of husband's clothing, the greater degree of wife involvement in the French language group suggest that she has a more important role and influence in relation to male clothing decisions. One possible explanation for this finding is that in Latin countries, clothing and fashion are perceived as essentially the woman's domain, leading to greater involvement of the wife in male clothing and care decisions (Boss, 1976; Douglas, 1976). In Anglo-Saxon countries, there is greater male independence with regard to clothing and personal grooming decisions, and hence less female involvement.

Similarly, high levels of shared or husband involvement in traditionally wife-specialized tasks such as going to the supermarket, vacuuming, and taking out the garbage, suggest a greater crossing of the line, and aid given to wives by husbands in the French language groups. Equally, there was greater joint involvement in the French language group in the otherwise husband-dominated activity of savings and investment. Similar differences did not, however, occur in relation to another traditionally male dominated area - the car. The findings are somewhat contradictory to those of an earlier study comparing husband-wife task involvement in the U.S. and Belgium (Silverman and Hill, 1967) in which U.S. husbands were observed to participate more than Belgian husbands in household tasks. This may, however, be explained in part by the time lapse between the two studies and by the evolution of marital and sex role ideologies in the two language groups.

Even prior to the current trend towards equality between the sexes, egalitarian role norms have generally been more prevalent in Anglo-Saxon than in Latin cultures (Rocheblave-Spenle, 1964). The advent of "women's lib" has reinforced such tendencies, and opened up areas predominantly the prerogative of one sex to the other. How this actually affects relative husband-wife involvement appears to depend on the specific activity concerned. In the U.S., for example, while more joint involvement has taken place in automobile purchasing, traditionally a male bastion, over the last eighteen years, the purchase of insurance has become even more husband-dominated, and shopping for groceries more wife-dominated (Cunning-ham and Green, 1974).

In Latin cultures, on the other hand, acceptance of egalitarian role norms in more recent. Consequently, households mark this new development by husband involvement in traditionally female tasks, and joint activity in certain traditionally male-dominated areas. Findings of a similar nature have been noted in the family sociology studies of marital authority. These show that in egalitarian cultures, families with highly educated husbands tend to be male-dominated, while in patriarchal cultures, husbands with high educational levels cede authority to their wives. This latter finding is interpreted as a demonstration by the husband of his more advanced and liberated views relative to prevalent cultural role norms (Rodman, 1967).

Directions for Future Research

From these exploratory findings, four major areas for future research can be identified:

1. In the first place, the somewhat complex way in which husband and wives are involved in different areas of family life in the five community groups, suggests the need to compare decision and task involvement across a broad range of activities. With one or two exceptions, few activities seem to be systematically categorized across all five groups as husband-dominated, wife-dominated or joint. Different views about who should do what could thus underlie observed differences and similarities in relative involvement. In this study, for example, whether clothing is perceived as the wife's domain, and savings decisions as requiring joint discussion seem likely to be important parameters determining relative involvement.

Future research should therefore identify for each cultural group which activities are perceived as primarily the responsibility of one or the other spouse, or in which both should be involved, as well as which are perceived as central to family life and household organization. Involvement in all these activities could then be compared across all cultural groups to see to what extent similarities or differences were related to such perceptions.

2. The differences in relative involvement observed between the two language groups suggest that this is a useful unit of analysis for future studies. A more extensive comparison of relative husband-wife involvement in English and French-speaking countries, based on nationally representative samples would appear a logical next step. Extension to other major language groups, such as a pair of Spanish language countries, could also be undertaken. Such research should focus on investigating the extent to which differences between language groups are greater than differences within language groups, and hence, provide an appropriate consumer grouping for market segmentation.

The impact of language as opposed to other macro-cultural variables, such as religion or the importance of the family as an institution, in determining relative husband-wife involvement could also be examined. For example,





Examination of Differences Between the Five Groups in the Degree of Shared and Husband Involvement in Various Activities

A more detailed examination of similarities and differences between the five groups by each activity showed that, for the measure of shared involvement, substantial differences (i.e. range between lowest and highest sample of over 20%) occurred for only three activities - taking care of savings and investment, balancing the checkbook, and going to the supermarket. As Table 3 shows, in two cases, savings and investment, and going to the supermarket, the differences occurred predominantly between the two language groups. In the English-language group the degree of shared involvement was lower, averaging .35 and .25 for these two activities, as compared with .57 and .42 for the French-language group. In the case of the checkbook, however, Chicago was at one end of the spectrum with 12% shared involvement, and Quebec at the other, with 45%, while the three European samples ranged between 20 - 30%.

In regard to the degree of husband dominance, differences occurred in relation to five activities, and again, predominantly between the two language groups. In the two English language samples, the husband was primarily responsible for taking his suit to the cleaners, and for deciding what clothes he should wear for dinner, while Catholic or Protestant families in English and French language countries could be compared. Equally, comparisons of regions or urban vs. rural families within and between the major language groups of countries, could be made.



3. A systematic investigation of the relationship between household socio-economic characteristics and husband-wife involvement is also an important research priority. In this regard, two issues can be distinguished. First, since socio-economic or demographic characteristics are frequently used to draw national samples, differences between national samples may reflect differences in the distribution of these variables from country to country, rather than in the dependent variable. Preliminary investigation of this issue did not suggest this to be a major problem here. More systematic and detailed investigation is, however, clearly required.

Secondly, socio-economic and demographic characteristics such as the wife's employment, or the husband's education are frequently hypothesized to be important determinants of relative husband-wife involvement (Heer, 1963; Hoffman, 1960). Comparison of the impact of such variables from country to country gives rise, however, to a number of questions concerning their cross-national comparability and equivalence. Income levels relate to different standards and costs of living, occupations differ in their earning power, social position or prestige in different countries, and even family life-cycle is affected by socio-economic factors, since young adults in wealthy societies can afford to marry younger and live longer than in poorer societies (Blood and Hill, 1970). One approach to reduce such problems is to construct indicators of equivalent or comparable constructs, rather than directly comparing income or education variables. Indicators of social status might, for example, be developed by combining various education, income and occupation variables or of the wife's time pressure from the presence and number of young children and her occupation status (Davis, 1976).

4. Cultural role norms and the attitudes of individual family members towards such norms constitute another set of variables which need to be examined. It was earlier hypothesized that differences in the prevalence and tradition of egalitarian role norms in the two language groups might account for some of the observed differences in relative involvement. More explicit investigation and testing of this hypothesis is required, examining husband-wife involvement in countries or environments covering a wider range of dominant cultural norms or traditions.

Examination of the extent to which individual households subscribe to prevalent role norms may also aid in understanding how they divide up responsibility for various decisions and tasks. Since relative involvement varies from one household activity to another, and not along any simple clear-cut lines, the impact of these cultural role norms needs to be examined relative to specific tasks and activities. Consequently, in addition to general attitudes to husband dominance, or egalitarian sex roles, attitudes towards involvement in specific tasks and decisions, as for example, husband involvement in household chores, or wife participation in financial decisions should also be investigated.

The study thus provides a number of guidelines for future cross-national comparisons of the division of labor and responsibility in the household. In particular, it suggests key types and categories of activities to examine, as well as appropriate units of analysis for making such comparisons. If the list of unresolved questions, and methodological problems in such research appears somewhat formidable, the potential insights to be gained not only concerning household task involvement in other countries, but also in understanding the basic forces at work and underlying husband-wife interaction in the household, should encourage continued research and investigation.




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Susan P. Douglas, Centre d'Enseignement Superieur des Affaires


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 06 | 1979

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