Problems in Defining and Measuring
Marital Power Cross-Culturally
Helen M. Hacker Originally published 1977
Much research effort has been invested in measuring the relative power of husbands and wives and in seeking the determinants of marital power without coming to grips with the concept of power itself. Interest in this problem may result from the wish simply to gain enhanced understanding of what is culturally defined by these investigators as an important aspect of family structure and process or, more pointedly, to evaluate the conditions that facilitate or militate against sex equality in both the familial and extra-familial domains.
The first difficulty in defining the concept of power is to decide whether it should be considered from the actor’s or the observer’s point of view—a question that becomes especially pressing in cross-cultural research. Power in the Weberian1 tradition has been defined as the ability to achieve goals that run counter to the goals of other actors in the situation. This model implies the overcoming of resistance in getting one’s own way and makes power a zero-sum concept. In the absence of opposition can the question of power be raised? And how can this view of power be reconciled with the familiar proposition that that power is greatest which is most invisible? Sociologists who have been socialized in a society that places a high premium on equality, individuality, non-exploitation, and the provision of a wide range of choices may well adjudge persons or groups as relatively powerless who themselves are quite accommodated to their subordinate status and limited options. The sociologist may see them as victims of false consciousness.
Conversely, more privileged persons or groups may lack any awareness of power. A homely example of this reciprocal situation is provided in the case of the wife of an American career diplomat who automatically discarded her own plans for graduate education to accompany her husband to a foreign capital. It is possible, of course, that if she had not acquiesced so willingly, her husband might have resorted to persuasion or even coercion. It is also possible that the young husband might have preferred to decline the opportunity, but was constrained by the requirements of the masculine role to accept it. Or he may have acceded to the wishes of his wife, who deemed her husband’s career a more profitable investment than her own. Clearly, the dyadic model cannot stand alone. Both spouses are helped or hindered, according to their outlook, by dominant value orientations and social structures.
Thus, the Weberian model, which focuses on the actors’ perception of the situation and the degree of legitimacy they accord to cultural definitions of appropriate actions, may appear inadequate to the researcher who seeks to transcend cultural relativity. Other frequently cited concepts of power are similarly deficient in bridging the gap between the subjective awareness and the objective manifestation of power. Bierstedt,2 for example, defines power as latent force or the ability to employ force. But how can a latent force be measured? Bierstedt states further that “authority is institutionalized power.” Authority appears more amenable to investigation. Informants can report who is invested by cultural norms and/or legal sanctions with the authority to make decisions in certain situations or relationships. They may not, however, be able to ascertain the wishes of the persons involved or to specify the circumstances when authority is whittled down by manipulation or influence. In short, although authority may be a source of power, it does not automatically confer power in the face of opposition. Power, as distinct from authority, is non-cultural. It exists in the interstices of culture. The dilemma remains. The researcher who wants to compare relative spousal power cross-culturally must decide whether to look through the eyes of participants in assessing familial processes, such as decision-making or conflict resolution, or to compare husbands and wives in terms of such objective indicators as education, health, leisure time, sexual freedom, control of reproduction, freedom of movement, possibility of divorce, marketable skills, possibilities for remarriage, alternatives to marriage, and so on.
In a sense, most investigators of marital power have resolved the dilemma either by using marital power as an indicator of the general relative power of men and women in a society or by making certain assumptions in regard to the structural and cultural support given to either sex and then examining individual differences in spouses’ ability to capitalize upon the advantages or to surmount the difficulties presented by the larger social context. In regard to the former approach, Strodtbeck,3 in his 1949 comparison of conjugal power among Navaho Indians, Mormons, and Texans, deliberately selected these groups because they “presumably differed in terms of the degree to which the wife was favored by the cultural phrasing of power.” Blood and Wolfe,4 on the other hand, have been criticized, most notably by Gillespie,5 for erroneously assuming that American husbands and wives embark on their marriages against an equalitarian background so that subsequent power differentials may be attributed to disparities in their competence as marital partners. Gillespie argues that the resources that bolster competence and power are not randomly distributed among individuals but “structurally predetermined in favor of the male.” (Further methodological objections will be considered subsequently.)
In addition to the dilemmas and difficulties in the conceptualization of marital power are the problems of the validity of the measuring instruments employed that confront the investigator of any social phenomenon or relationship. Historically, researchers in this area have not utilized the objective indicator approach discussed above, but have chosen direct observation of individual couples and families. Roughly their strategies fall into two chief categories: (1) the investigation of real-life processes of marital interaction and (2) simulated situations that involve laboratory methods or some kind of game-playing. Both methods encounter methodological hazards when used cross-culturally.
Although participant-observation might be considered a good example of the first strategy, it is impractical on several counts, including time and non-access to the husband-wife exchanges that take place behind closed doors. Investigators in this category have typically settled for some kind of self-report measure. Thus Blood and Wolfe identified eight areas which they considered important and typical for the average American family, and the wives in their Detroit sample were asked who usually made the final decision in regard to such matters as what job the husband should take, what car to get, whether or not to buy life insurance, where to go on vacation, what house or apartment to take, whether or not the wife should go to work or quit work, what doctor to have when someone is sick, and how much money the family can afford to spend per week on food.
Obviously, many of these decisions would be quite irrelevant in another society. The substitution of relevant questions in terms of the cultural context might permit the cross-cultural comparison of power scores were it not for the fact that the method itself leaves much to be desired: (1) Safilios-Rothschild6 has dubbed it “wives’ family sociology” since husbands may have a different view of the decision-making process; (2) self-reports are subject both to the distortions of recall and to the tendency to give socially approved responses; (3) the “scope” of the eight areas varies widely; and (4) the salience of the problem for the couple queried is conjectured on the basis of a general knowledge of the society rather than constructed empirically from reports of the respondents concerning the importance and frequency of various decisions according to their particular life circumstances. This last difficulty theoretically could be overcome, but would require considerable methodological sophistication in weighting and standardizing the actual conflicts reported so as to facilitate comparative studies.
More crucial to cross-cultural comparisons, however, is the validity of decision-making itself as a criterion of power. Here one must ask whether a decision made by one spouse runs contrary to the wishes of the other, and over what time period. It may happen that a spouse who “lost” a decision may later discover that the actual decision made did indeed conduce to his or her greater satisfaction in the long run and retroactively change his mind.* Or trade-offs may occur over the family life cycle which nullify the appraisal of the balance of power made at only one point in time. The more fundamental objection, though, lies in the equating of decision-making with power. Couples may agree on the independent domain of each or gladly abdicate responsibility even in what they view as their shared domain—indeed the struggle may be over who decides who is to decide. On the whole it would seem that Blood and Wolfe are really concerned with relative authority more than power.
Does the second main strategy of games or laboratory experiments hold more promise for cross-cultural research? These approaches have the merit of building conflict into the situation so as to provoke disagreement and consequent power struggle between spouses. Even more than decision-making, however, they pose the problem of validity or the resemblance of outcomes in these simulated situations to outcomes in everyday life. They depend upon the involvement of the couple in the game or test, as well as upon cultural norms which do not differentiate between the kinds of means that are appropriate for winning in the situation set up by the game as compared to disagreements in family matters. For example, Strodtbeck’s Revealed Differences method, previously alluded to, requests subjects who have shared experiences to make individual evaluations of them and then jointly to reconcile any differences they may have in their interpretations. More specifically, they are asked to decide which one of three families they know well best fulfilled some twenty-six conditions presented by the experimenter. The initial responses given separately by the husband and wife are compared with the single, joint decision which emerges from their subsequent discussion of each question in order to determine which spouse won the decision. It is interesting to note that talking was positively correlated with winning. The question arises, though, of whether talking more is cause or consequence of power, and whether this relationship would obtain in “real life” conflicts of presumed greater importance to the “silent sex.”
Since Strodtbeck’s pioneering work, several variants of the Revealed Differences technique, such as color-matching, have been employed. One that to some extent overcomes the problem of validity and appears adaptable to cross-cultural research is the Inventory of Marital Conflict (IMC) developed by David Olson and Robert Ryder.7 This inventory consists of eighteen case descriptions of problems likely to arise in the early years of married life of the prototypical white American middle class. Although the same essential facts concerning each case are presented in the forms administered separately to the husband and to the wife, in six cases the language is identical and in the remaining twelve the language is emotionally slanted to favor the wife’s point of view on the wife’s form and the husband’s point of view on the husband’s form. Regardless of language, half the stories appear to represent the wife, and the other half the husband, as the instigator of the problem. After registering their opinions separately as to who is primarily responsible for the problem and which spouse should modify his or her behavior to solve the problem, the couple is asked to engage in a discussion and arrive at a single joint opinion, For research that I am currently conducting I have added a question concerning the strength of their feeling about the case which will be used to weight the scores and thus help surmount the problem of saliency.† A query whether the husband or wife has had a similar problem, coupled with a conscious attempt to make the case descriptions culturally relevant, may heighten the validity of this technique in comparison to revelation of differences that may not matter very much to spouses, especially in societies in which competitive norms are not fostered, and to games, such as the SIMFAM technique employed by Straus8 in three societies, and the “two-person bargaining game” in which each operates a vehicle that must travel from separate starting points to separate destinations in the least possible time, as described by Ravich.9 Although Straus has persuasively argued the case for “experimental isomorphism,” he admits the need for “constant interplay between laboratory studies and field studies.”10 Practical considerations, however, often make interview methods more feasible than laboratory experimentation.
So far this discussion has centered on problems in the conceptualization and measurement of power with scant attention to the sources of power. I should like now to describe a unique structural and cultural setting to which the inventories of marital conflict and family values might be adapted for the purpose of investigating the relationship between the private or dyadic or domestic power of women as individuals and the social power of women as a collectivity or their status as a group. This project ties in with the normative resources theory of power propounded by Blood and Wolfe. An interesting contrast with the United States is provided by the Moshav Shitufi, a cooperative form in Israel which combines equality of income with traditional family patterns. This type of social organization represents a compromise between a kibbutz and a regular moshav. Productive work is carried out on a communal basis as in the kibbutz, but each family lives in its own home, as in the moshav, and draws up its own budget. The collective income is distributed to families according to the number of persons in the household. Men and women alike are expected to work an eight-hour day, but married women are given “credit” towards their required hours for the performance of household tasks in amounts varying with the number of children in the family. In effect, then, women are paid by the community to perform homemaking and childrearing functions. Since women are economically independent of their husbands, and kibbutz-type collectivized services are lacking, it might appear that wives have the potentiality of greater power than their husbands in the marital relationship. The very fact, however, of women’s partial or total release from collective work serves to separate them from prestigeful and policy-making positions, leaving them dependent upon a male-dominated community. This situation challenges the Marxist view of economic dependence on the husband as the chief cause of women’s inferior social position. In this type of structure husbands do not mediate any economic rewards to wives, although rewards from differential standing in the community are not to be excluded. Furthermore, there is no place for a single man without a woman to take care of him. Women, it is assumed, can cook and clean for themselves. In regard to the determinants of marital power the question arises as to which factor carries greater weight—women’s monopoly of housework and domestic services or the superior representation of men in prestigeful work and in political and economic decision-making positions in the community?
Field work relating to work satisfaction has already been conducted in two of the Moshauei Shitufiyim.11 Planning is now in progress to measure relative spousal power against a background of the comparative resources of husband and wife and the cultural expectations about the distribution of marital power. In adapting the inventories of marital conflict and family values to the special case of the Moshau Shitufi the issue of the cultural equivalence of the vignettes must be faced. In the following examples I have retained the format of the Olson and Ryder approach, but have concocted stories based on my observations and experiences during a ten-day sojourn in one of these communities in 1974.
Inventory of Marital Conflicts
Original Case Description (Non-conflict)
Bob and Frank are good friends. Janis, Bob’s wife, likes Frank but is increasingly annoyed with his unannounced and excessively long visits to their apartment, especially at mealtimes. She has suggested to Bob that he ask Frank to please phone before visiting, but her husband feels this would be insulting to his friend. Janis suggests that she might ask Frank to please phone before visiting, but this only makes her husband angry. After accusing his wife of interfering with his friendship, he refuses to discuss the matter further.
Substitute Israeli Case Description (Non-conflict)
A childless couple, Aaron and Devora, frequently visit another family, the Yaaris, who do have children, often around afternoon coffee time. The husbands like each other, but Haggit Yaari is annoyed by the constant complaints of Devora about other women’s lack of responsibility in their work assignments. She would like to tell Aaron and Devora not to come so often, but Shmuel, her husband, objects.
Original Case Description (Conflict)
Husband’s version: It is Friday evening and the Carter family has a dinner engagement, which had been made the previous week. Frank comes home a half-hour early so he can be sure to be ready on time. He showers, shaves, and is dressed and ready to leave on time. But when it is time to go, Mary is still in the bathroom combing her hair and putting on makeup. Since Mary almost always makes them late this way, Frank becomes upset. Mary retorts that she isn’t very concerned about being late since they always get where they are going sooner or later.
Wife’s version: It’s Friday evening and the Carter family has a dinner engagement, which had been made the previous week. Frank surprises his wife by getting home from work a half hour early and uses the bathroom continuously until it is almost time to leave. Since it takes Mary more than the few minutes Frank has left her to wash, comb her hair, and put on her makeup, it becomes obvious that they will be late for their appointment. Frank raises his voice and accuses her of always making them late. Mary tries to calm Frank down by saying that being a little late is not all that serious, but Frank just becomes more enraged and an argument develops.
Substitute Israeli Case Description (Conflict)
Husband’s version: Yosef wants his wife Rachel to accompany him to a meeting and in general to take a more active part in community affairs so as to set an example for the other women. Rachel, however, thinks the meeting will be boring and prefers to stay home and watch television. When his attempts to persuade her fail, Yosef leaves the house before he says anything he may regret later.
Wife’s version: Yosef wants his wife Rachel to accompany him to a meeting. Since Rachel has no experience in the branch that is presenting a problem that night, she does not feel she can make any contribution and therefore prefers to stay home and watch television. When she tries to explain her reasons to Yosef, he refuses to listen and leaves the house without saying goodbye.
An additional seven stories of the eighteen in the IMC have been recast in the spirit of cooperative communities in Israel. Obviously this adapted form will require pretesting for relevancy and degree of involvement. It will also be interesting to find out whether Moshav Shitufi members believe the discussions in which they jointly resolved their differences to be as therapeutic as Olson and Ryder report their American subjects did.
In conclusion, this brief paper has attempted only to indicate rather than to resolve some of the problems in defining and measuring marital power, both within the confines of one society and cross-culturally. Indeed, efforts to carry out such research in social and cultural contexts that differ markedly from our own force attention to the theoretical and methodological difficulties besetting investigators whose work is confined to the American scene. A cross-cultural perspective, however, can be helpful in identifying the conditions that account for variations in power, that is, the sources of power. Although some may consider the measurement of marital power an ethnocentric enterprise, characteristic of a competitive society in which individuals are socialized to be power-seekers and to convert all relationships into a power struggle, others would justify it as one indicator of the extent to which equality of the sexes has been achieved.
Postscript: Many of the problems raised here are treated in depth in an excellent volume published after this paper was written: Cromwell, R. E. and D. H. Olson. 1975. Power in Families. New York, NY: Halsted Press (a division of John Wiley & Sons).
* An operational definition of power that included A’s ability to change either the goals or the perceptions of B would require longitudinal studies.
† I am indebted to Dr. Lenora Greenbaum for the insight that winning decisions about which one does not feel strongly indicates greater power than if one did care.
- Weber, M. 1964. The Theory of Social and Economic Organization. Translated by A. M. Henderson and T. Parsons. New York, NY: The Free Press. P. 152.
- Bierstedt, R. 1950. “An Analysis of Social Power.” American Sociological Review 15(6): 730-738.
- Strodtbeck, F. L. 1951. “Husband and Wife Interaction over Revealed Differences.” American Sociological Review 16(8): 468-473.
- Blood, R. O., Jr. and D. M. Wolfe. 1960. Husbands & Wives: The Dynamics of Married Living. New York, NY: The Free Press.
- Gillespie, D. L. 1971. “Who Has The Power? The Marital Struggle.” Journal of Marriage and the Family 33(3): 445-458.
- Safilios-Rothschild, C. 1969. “Family Sociology or Wives’ Family Sociology? A Cross-Cultural Examination of Decision Making.” Journal of Marriage and the Family 31(2): 290-301.
- Olson, D. H. and R. G. Ryder. 1970. “Inventory of Marital Conflicts (IMC): An Experimental Interaction Procedure.” Journal of Marriage and the Family 32(3): 443-448.
- Straus, M. A. and I. Tallman. 1971. “SIMFAM: A Technique for Observational Measurement and Experimental Study of Families.” Pp. 381-438 in Family Problem Solving: A Symposium on Theoretical, Methodological, and Substantive Concerns, edited by J Aldous, T. Condon, R. Hill, M. Straus, and I. Tallman. Hinsdale, IL: The Dryden Press.
- Straus, M. A. 1970. “Methodology of a Laboratory Experimental Study of Families in Three Societies.” Pp. 552-577 in Families in East and West: Socialization Process and Kinship Ties. Edited by R. Hill and R. König. The Hague: Mouton.
- Ravich, R. A. 1969. “The Use of an Interpersonal Game-Test in Conjoint Marital Psychotherapy.” American Journal of Psychotherapy 23(2): 217-229.
- Rodman, H. 1972. “Marital Power and the Theory of Resource in Cultural Context.” Journal of Comparative Family Studies 3(1): 50-69. Padan-Eisenstark, D. and H. M. Hacker. 1974. “Ideological Factors in the Selection of a Reference Group: Women in a Cooperative Community in Israel (the Moshav Shitufi).” Eighth World Congress of Sociology, Toronto, Canada. To be published.