private and public spheres

private and public spheres

A dichotomous model of social relations which posits the separation between the domestic sphere of the family and that of socialized labour (wage work) and political activity. This model finds expression both commonsensically in phrases such as ‘a woman's place is in the home’ and within the social sciences (see Elshtain, 1981). It has been common practice for historians and social scientists to argue that industrialization and urbanization effected a separation between home and work, the personal and the political. This separation was gendered – the domestic sphere being associated with women and children, the public sphere with adult males. The domestic ideal of separate domains for men and women was particularly promoted in the 19th-century by the emergent middle classes and was given expression in 19th-century social policy and legislation. However, the splitting of the domestic from the economic and political spheres was, and continues to be, more ideological than empirical. It also serves as an example of the dualism found in much Western thought.

The work of Davidoff (1979) and Summers (1979) has questioned the historical existence of the dichotomy. Davidoff argues that the division between public and private spheres cannot be taken as given, even in the 19th-century. She argues that the existence of domestic service, the taking-in of lodgers, home work and the performance of a wide variety of subsidiary household tasks for payment indicates that the economy cannot be located solely outside the home. Summers documents the ways in which both middle- and upper-class women continually renegotiated the divisions between private and public in pursuit of their philanthropic work.

Siltanen and Stanworth (1984) also challenged the immutability of the boundaries between the spheres, criticizing both political and industrial sociology for taking the dichotomy for granted. Industrial sociology has operated according to the principle of the ‘job model for men’ and the ‘gender model for women’ (e.g. Blauner 1964). Men are defined in terms of their relationship to work and the economy, women in terms of their relationship to the family. Men's class position is therefore determined mainly by their place in the occupational structure, women's by their position in the family Political sociology has often located both women and the private sphere outside politics. Political sociologists have characterized women as either apolitical or more conservative than men (e.g. see Dowse and Hughes, 1972). A ‘male-stream’ view of women's engagement with politics and economics has been fostered, rendering their involvement invisible or subject to misrepresentation.

The resurgence of feminism in the late 1960s was responsible for stressing the political nature of personal life, particularly in the areas of domestic labour, child care, sexuality, and male violence against women. Thus the definition of what constituted ‘the political’ was widened to incorporate the private sphere. Siltanen and Stanworth argue, however, that feminists have been less successful in challenging the dichotomy as a whole. For them the relationship between the spheres is a matter for political analysis, which must take account of the fluid nature of the spheres and reject a tendency to depict them as fixed. They argue that just as politics is not the prerogative of the public sphere, so the personal sphere enters into and influences the public sphere. Neither sphere is the exclusive domain of one gender. Men's involvement in the public sphere is influenced by their position in the domestic sphere, and, historically, women have occupied space in the public realm, and continue to do so. Furthermore, the state continues to engage with the private sphere, regulating and reconstructing it.

Full browser ?