Power, Ideology and Resources Within Families: a Theoretical Context for Empirical Research on Sleep

by Jan Pahl
University of Kent

Sociological Research Online 12(5)12

Received: 9 Jan 2007     Accepted: 14 Sep 2007    Published: 30 Sep 2007


The aim of this article is to outline and discuss theoretical approaches to the study of family life and to make suggestions about how these approaches might apply in planning and carrying out empirical research on sleep. It argues that, while theories about power and gender can inform research on sleep, the findings from research on sleep will help to extend and enrich theoretical approaches to family life and the social order. The article is concerned especially with gendered power relations and with 'sharing sleep'. It draws on Morgan's sociological analysis of family life, and on the distinction he makes between the political economy, the moral economy and the emotional economy. It uses research findings on the allocation of money and on domestic violence to examine different theoretical approaches and to consider how these theories might be used in research on sleep. In the past many of the battles which rage within bedrooms were individualised as 'her' or 'his' fault. Applying sociological understanding and theoretical approaches may enable some of these individual and very private troubles to be seen as more general issues, while making a contribution to the new sociology of sleep.

Keywords: Sleep, Money, Power, Ideology, Inequality, Resources, Theories


1.1 This article aims to review some theoretical approaches to the study of intimacy and family life and, by so doing, to provide a context within which empirical data about sleep can be located. However, the relationship between theory and empirical data is essentially two-way. It is difficult to decide what theories would be relevant without some idea of what the data might reveal. At the same time, it would be sociologically naive to rush out and do some interviews, without having a theoretical context within which to frame the questions and interrogate the responses.

1.2 So the article begins by outlining some of the data, and some of the questions, which have shaped current thinking about sleep. It goes on to consider briefly various theoretical approaches which might be relevant for sociologists planning to undertake research on sleep, drawing on Morgan’s distinction between the ‘three economies’ of family life: the political economy, the moral economy and the emotional economy. (Morgan, 2001).

1.3 The focus in this article is on what happens within households, and particularly on couples, whether married or cohabiting. The term ‘household’ will thus mainly be used to indicate couple-households, with or without children. Same sex couples share most of the issues of heterosexual couples, but sleep is a very different matter in single person households. It could be said that the focus of the article is on ‘sharing sleep’ and on the negotiations and adjustments which go on within couples, or between couples and their children.

1.4 The article draws in particular on ideas about the gendered nature of power and ideology within families and households. The notion of gendered power relations grows out of ideas about the family as a system of structures and practices within which men can dominate and exploit women (Walby, 1990). However, in the considering sleep, we are brought up against an alternative view of family life in which love and sharing are the dominant practices and the bedroom is the place above all others for the expression of that love.

1.5 There is an enormous literature on sleep as a physiological process, as can be shown simply by entering ‘Sleep’ into any internet search engine. However, It is increasingly clear that this physiological process is also social and cultural. One of the first to recognise this was Talcott Parsons, who noted that,

Though it has biological foundations, (sleep) is nevertheless profoundly influenced by interaction on the socio-cultural levels.

(Parsons, 1951, 396)

1.6 For example, being a ‘bad sleeper’ is a complex phenomenon in which physiological and social factors play a part. Different studies come up with slightly different prevalence rates, but it seems that problems with sleeping affect between a quarter and a third of the adult population. There are associations with gender and age, with women and older people being more likely to report sleep problems, but there are also correlations with occupation, employment status and marital status, which suggest that social factors play a significant part. Reporting sleeping problems tends to be associated with being in a manual occupation or being unemployed, while single people are least likely, and widows the most likely, to complain of difficulties in sleeping (Leger, et al., 2000). As we shall see, sleeping problems can also be associated with relationship problems, taking their most extreme form in households where there is domestic violence.

1.7 In this article we shall be exploring the socio-cultural aspects of sleep, and considering the ways in which theoretical approaches might be used to make sense of the growing body of empirical knowledge on this topic.

Some data - and some questions

2.1 Quantitative data on sleep from the UK 2000 Time Use Survey suggest that in general women sleep for rather longer than men each night, while the middle aged sleep less than the young and the old (National Statistics, 2005). This is particularly true for the 30 to 60 age range. While 8 year olds sleep on average for nearly 11 hours a night, this quickly reduces to under 10 hours by age 13 and to less than 9 hours by the time people reach their mid 20's. Sleep time then remains fairly steady until people are aged 60's and over, when it begins to increase towards a 9 hour average. However, men do sleep more than women at some ages: the UK 2000 Time Use Survey shows that between the ages of 13 and 16 and between 64 and 66 men are on average sleeping for longer than women. These data provide some support for my late father’s saying, that the rule for hours of sleep is, ‘Seven for a man, eight for a woman, nine for a fool’, a comment to which we shall return in the discussion of gender ideologies! A fuller discussion of the question of hours of sleep is given in Williams (2005, 105).

2.2 Qualitative data presents a more complex picture (see for example, Hislop and Arber, 2003a; Hislop and Arber, 2003b; Williams, 2005 and 2007). This literature, and casual empiricism, reveal that there are many more issues than simply hours of sleep. There are questions around:

2.3 There are other issues about the disturbance of sleep by factors outside the house altogether, such as the noise of traffic, neighbours’ parties, drunken passers by, and factory or building work. Clearly social class, income and perhaps ethnicity are likely to be associated with living in houses which are at risk of such disturbances, but we will not be concerned with these here.

2.4 The questions outlined above raise complex issues about power and decision making within households, about ideologies of gender, class and age, and about the normative structures surrounding roles, rights and responsibilities. Clearly there is a rich mix of theoretical approaches which could be drawn on in order to illuminate the topic, and there are a number of different ways in which the theoretical cake could have been divided up. What follows draws particularly on work by Morgan (2001), Vogler (1998) and Dallos and Dallos (1997.

The political economy of family living

3.1 Morgan uses the term ‘political economy’ to refer to the way in which the household can be seen as an economic unit in the wider society, receiving income in exchange for paid work and consuming goods and services. There is also an economy within the household, in which the money that enters the household, whether from earnings, benefits, gifts or savings, is controlled and managed within the household, before being allocated to spending on collective or personal items.

3.2 This approach may be linked to resource theory and to ideas about the structural power which individuals derive from the resources which they bring to the household and/or the resources over which they have control within the household. Resource theory conceptualises power as an inevitable part of relationships and argues that the greatest power tends to accrue to the partner who contributes the most resources. These resources may be socio-economic, such as money and status, or they may be affective or expressive, or they may be based on the provision of services, such as domestic work, child care or sexual services (Safilios-Rothschild, 1976; Ferree, 1990). More recently the list of resources available to individuals within relationships has been extended to include financial, emotional, social, sexual, physical and language power, as well as domestic expertise, child rearing expertise, legal expertise and technical expertise (Dallos and Dallos, 1997).

3.3 If theories about power were to be the basis for research on sleep, how might these ideas be operationalised in hypotheses and in data collection instruments? There is only space here to give a brief answer. We might predict that respect for an individual’s sleeping priorities would reflect the proportion of the household income which that person contributed. So a breadwinner might not have to get up to a crying child in the night, or might be granted a lie-in on Saturday morning, on the grounds that s/he had had a hard week at work, while the other partner, who had spent the week looking after the couple’s children, would have to get up as usual. If salaries became more equal one might predict that night time childcare and Saturday morning lie-ins would be shared more equally. However, this prediction also depends on the ideologies which surround paid work and unpaid child care.

3.4 Economic inequalities between men and women are very persistent. As Arber has shown, even when couples are both are in full time employment, only 15 per cent of women earn more than their partners, compared with 57 per cent of couples where the man earns more than his partner (Arber, 1999). Women’s economic disadvantages in the labour market, and the gendered ideologies within which households are imbedded, are translated into women’s additional responsibilities for domestic work and childcare within the family, which in turn reduces their ability to participate fully in the labour market.

3.5 The political economy of a particular household is often revealed in the financial arrangements adopted by the members of that household. There is now a substantial body of research showing that interpersonal power, and particularly financial power, can be translated into power in intra-household decision making (see for example, Blood and Wolfe, 1960; Pahl, 1989; Vogler and Pahl, 1994; Vogler, 1998). Marx was writing generally, but his point applies just as much within the household:

Money is ‘impersonal’ property. It permits me to transport on my person, in my pocket, social power and social relations in general: the substance of society. Money puts social power in material form into the hands of private persons, who exercise it as individuals.

(Marx, 1970, 150)

3.6 The most commonly used method of investigating decision making within households involves giving interviewees a list of decisions and asking who was responsible for making each one. The options presented typically range from ‘husband alone’,’ husband in consultation with wife’, ‘both together’, ‘wife in consultation with husband’, to ‘wife alone’. The answers can be used to derive a score representing the relative power of the two individuals concerned.

3.7 Results from my own qualitative research, and from the much larger quantitative survey carried out by the Social Change and Economic Life Initiative (SCELI), showed that in general husbands had more power in decision making than did wives (Pahl, 1989; Vogler and Pahl, 1994). Women who were in full time paid employment tended to have more power within households than women in part time paid work, who themselves had more power than women without paid jobs. There were links between power in decision-making and the system which the couple used to manage their finances. Inequalities in decision-making power were least in households with shared management of money, such as a joint account, and greatest in households with an explicitly male-managed system, such as a housekeeping allowance paid to the woman (Vogler and Pahl, 1994, 277). We shall return to this issue when we consider ideologies within households.

3.8 Differences in power can also be translated into differences in personal spending money and living standards. The research quoted above showed that in general men tended to have more personal spending money than women, and that if someone had to economise because money was short, it would be more likely to be the woman than the man. There were also associations between these aspects of family life and the system of money management:

Inequalities between spouses in financial deprivation and personal spending money thus tended to hang together. The housekeeping allowance and the two female managed systems were clearly associated with the largest inequalities between husbands and wives, both in terms of financial deprivation and in access to personal spending money. The joint, and to a lesser extent, the male managed pools, on the other hand, were associated with greater equality, both in financial deprivation and in access to personal spending money.

(Vogler and Pahl, 1993, 282)

3.9 Research on using non-monetary indicators to investigate standards of living and deprivation within households in Ireland has shown that even in affluent societies there may be differences in living standards between individuals in the same household (Cantillon, 2005). These differences included amounts of personal spending money and access to leisure activities. Women were significantly less likely than men to have a regular pastime or leisure activity, not out of choice but because they felt that they did not have enough money, or enough time. The presence of children in the household meant that the gap between men and women increased, partly because childcare responsibilities made it harder for women to pursue activities outside the home (Cantillon, 2005, 237). We might predict that the power relations which derive from money will also affect the right to sleep and patterns of ‘sharing sleep’.

3.10 Another finding from Cantillon’s research has important implications for the methods of research on the intra-household economy. When another adult, typically the spouse, was present at the interview, women were significantly less likely to admit to feeling deprived compared with women interviewed alone. This finding did not apply to men, for whom there was no significant relationship between the presence of another adult at the interview and reported deprivation (Cantillon and Newman, 2005).

3.11 In carrying out research on sleep with this theoretical perspective, it would be important to design data collection instruments in a such a way that it would be possible to identify different power positions and to collect this information in a context in which individuals could express ideas which might differ from those of their partner. Separate and private interviews have proved important in this respect and are most easily undertaken by using two interviewers and simultaneous interviews (Pahl, 1989; Cantillon and Newman, 2005).

3.12 However, theories which assume that power is based on control of resources have been criticised on the ground that they do not take account of ideology and, in particular, of the gendered nature of the ideologies with which couple-households are imbued. The intra-household power which derives from having a larger income, more savings or a stronger position in the labour market, which might be described as structural power, can be contrasted with ideological power. Dallos and Dallos argue for a fundamental distinction between these two sources of power:

The first can be seen as the power of domination – the power to be able to get someone to do something we want, or to prevent them from doing other things. In its most basic form we can see this in the ability that the physically stronger partner has to dominate the other by the threat of, or use of actual, physical force, by the withdrawal of money and so on. The second can be seen in terms of beliefs, construings, and understandings which shape how we think about ourselves and our relationships, for example, the different roles, duties and expectations that men and women are guided into in any given society.

(Dallos and Dallos, 1997, 10)

This idea of the ideological basis of power can be linked to the second economy in Morgan’s typology, which he called ‘the moral economy of family living’ (Morgan, 2001, 240).

The moral economy of family living

4.1 Morgan used the idea of the ‘moral economy of family living’ to explore norms about caring, but the term could equally well be used to examine the norms which surround broader ideologies within households. These ideologies are concerned with the roles and responsibilities of individuals within households, with the shaping of gender and age appropriate behaviour and with the balance between the individual and the couple.

4.2 If theories about the moral or ideological roots of power were to be the basis for research on sleep, what might this mean for the development of hypotheses and data collection instruments? Ideologies supporting female responsibility for the care of children might lead one to predict that it would be the mother who would be expected to get up to a sick child in the night. However, getting up for a distressed elderly relative might reflect ideologies about adult children’s responsibilities for their own biological parents. We might predict tension between the norm that proper married couples should share a bed, or at least a room, and the demands on individuals that they be fresh and rested, so that they can strive to be successful in their own careers.

4.3 There is extensive evidence of the gendered nature of childcare and domestic work. Despite a modest trend toward greater equality between men and women, it is still the case that women tend to be responsible for, and spend more time doing these activities. A study of the division of household tasks showed that looking after a sick child would be the responsibility of the mother in 60 per cent of families, and shared between both parents in 39 per cent of families; fathers took responsibility in just 1 per cent of families. The study showed little change over the last quarter of the twentieth century (Central Statistical Office, 1995, 32).

4.4 These findings are consistent with the results from research on low income families, which showed that women’s tendency to ‘go without’ in favour of their children was implicitly sanctioned within a hegemonic family discourse which sees the welfare of children as the primary responsibility of the woman and which normalises the idea that the mother should make sacrifices to this end (Goode, Callender and Lister, 1998).

4.5 Research on domestic work shows that women still carry the main burden, though there is some evidence of men increasing and women decreasing their involvement (Sullivan, 2000). The British Household Panel Survey asked both men and women what share they took of five activities: cleaning, cooking, shopping, laundry and childcare. From this it was possible to calculate an index of the domestic division of labour (Berthoud and Gershuny, 2000). The results showed that:

4.6 Data from a number of different countries confirm that there has been considerable convergence in terms of domestic work: women are doing quite a lot less, and men are doing a little more. However, Crompton commented that this may be one reason why so many people are feeling over-worked, despite the fact that the hours individuals spend in paid work have not increased. The reason is that they can no longer rely on the unpaid support of a woman at home (Crompton, 2006). Feeling over-worked may in turn lead to anxiety about getting enough sleep, which may be reflected in couples choosing separate beds or separate rooms, or becoming angry when their sleep is disturbed.

4.7 Women’s responsibility for children has a profound impact on their sleep patterns. The highly gendered nature of roles and responsibilities in households with young children, and the implications in terms of sleep, has been explored by Hislop and Arber (2003aand 2003b). They have argued that sleep disturbance is an inextricable part of mid-life women’s social realities. They concluded that being female within a family structure is associated with the loss of sleep rights (Hislop and Arber, 2003a, 709). The acceptance of this situation grows out of an ideological framework in which women are expected to sacrifice their own needs to the needs of other family members.

4.8 Research on the control and allocation of money has also revealed the ideological nature of patterns of money management within households (Pahl, 1989). Structural determinants, such as one partner having a larger income or more secure employment, can be over-ridden if the couple hold strong ideologies about their essential equality. Even when both partners are in full time employment, ideologies about gender roles can still mean that their responsibilities within the household can be very unequal; on the other hand, households with only one earner can still be quite egalitarian. Here are quotations taken from interviews with two husbands, each of whom was the sole earner in the household and each of whom was asked, ‘Why do you organise your finances as you do?’ In the first couple the man was in charge of finances. He explained that this was,

Because the biblical principle is that the man is the head of the home and it relieves my wife from these emotional pressures. I would take the strain of those pressures which God didn’t intend her to carry. It helps me to be a man and my wife to be a woman.

4.9 In the other couple money was pooled and managed by the wife. Her husband explained that they wanted to be,

Totally open with each other. I trust her implicitly and she trusts me. I couldn’t see that there was any other way. I couldn’t keep it all to myself; that wouldn’t be a very fair deal. Basically what we have we share.

(Pahl, 1989, 72 and 114)

4.10 The ideologies which surround breadwinning continue to be powerful. In the SCELI study, couples who both agreed that the husband was the main breadwinner were 35 per cent more likely to use the housekeeping allowance system (in which the husband controls finances) and 40 per cent less likely to use the joint pool (in which money is shared and managed jointly), even after controlling for the wife’s employment status (Vogler, 1998, 695). This supports the argument that differentials in economic power may be reinforced or reduced by ideological power. In families with a traditional division of labour, where wives were non-employed or in part time paid work, the ideology of the male breadwinner increased and reinforced the man’s economic power. By contrast, in households where women were in full time paid work, and economic resources were more evenly balanced, the ideology of the male breadwinner still limited the power of women.

4.11 The trend towards individualisation in couple finances reflects a dislike of the idea of the breadwinning male and the financially dependent woman, among both men and women (Pahl, 2005 and 2007). It often takes place because one or both want to maintain a degree of autonomy or privacy in their money management practices. They may agree to have a common kitty for collective spending, such as mortgage payments and utility bills, a system defined as partial pooling, or they may decide to keep their incomes completely separate and allocate collective bills to one partner or another. In both cases the aim is to protect some individual spending and a key issue is how much money each partner retains under his or her control.

4.12 Research has shown that independent management of money is particularly characteristic of younger couples, of those without children and of those where the woman is in full time paid work. For example, a recent study of family finances showed that out of the 35 couples where the woman was in full time work, nearly half maintained some independence in financial matters compared with one third of couples where the woman was in part time work, and very few of those where women were not in paid work or were retired (Pahl, 2005 and 2007).

4.13 Cross national research from Sweden, Spain, Germany and the USA has documented increasing individualism in financial matters. It is argued that there is a conflict between the norm that sharing with one’s partner is the core of a love relationship and the norm that a couple consists of two separate individuals who should have at least a degree of autonomy, best achieved through control of financial resources The research shows that there are significant differences between societies in terms of the extent to which couples value sharing or separation in financial arrangements Stocks, et al., 2007). Several studies suggested that individualization was winning over sharing, most notably in Sweden (see also Nyman,1999 and 2002).

4.14 It remains to be seen whether individualisation in finances will be reflected in increasing individualisation in sleeping arrangements. One might hypothesise that couples who maintain individual bank accounts, and who value autonomy in their economic lives, might be more likely to move from the joint bed to separate beds, or separate rooms, if one partner were disturbing the other by snoring, fidgeting or listening to the radio. As they grow older, this generation might be less embarrassed about moving into separate bedrooms.

4.15 However, ideas about increasing individualisation have not gone unchallenged. The focus on the ability of the individual to shape his or her own life, to make choices and act upon them, has been questioned by those who argue that structural factors and gendered power continue to be important. As Crompton argued,

Despite the claims of theorists of ‘individuation’, embedded normative and material patterns … still persist and have continuing power. As far as women are concerned, one of the most significant elements of embedded traditionalism is the persistence of the ideology of domesticity, in which the work of caring and nurturing is normatively assigned to women.

(Crompton, 2006, 10)

4.16 Ideologies about masculinity may also be relevant. The man’s responsibility for the safety of ‘his’ home and family might mean that it will be he who gets up to investigate a suspicious noise or who waits to go to sleep until the teenager is home and the front door can be locked. However, if a man was identified as ‘the breadwinner’, this might lead to his sleep being protected from disturbance once he was in bed. Norms about sleeping fewer hours being somehow more adult or more manly, and going to bed early being somehow ‘boring’, child-like or less valued, might lie behind the assumption that men need less sleep than women and should certainly not go to bed earlier than their partners. In some particularly ‘macho’ workplaces, sleep is for ‘wimps’ (Leadbetter and Wilsdon, 2003). These may be the attitudes which lay behind the remark by my father, quoted at the beginning of the article.

The emotional economy of family living

5.1 Morgan begins his section on the emotional economy of family life by commenting that it is both curious and understandable that issues of emotion have been somewhat marginal to sociological analysis (Morgan, 2001, 241). However, the sociology of the emotions has been an area of growth over the past few years and must be especially relevant to the investigation of sleep, an activity with which some very basic emotions are associated (Hochschild, 1983; Bendelow and Williams, 1998; Barbalet, 1998).

5.2 If theories about the emotional economy were to provide the framework for research on sleep, how might this shape the research? We might predict that the bedroom would be a prime site for the emotional life of a couple, both in terms of positive and negative emotions. Even the arrangements for sleeping may offer a reflection of the emotions which shape the life of a particular family. Families where the baby shares the matrimonial bed may give primacy to the parent-child bond, whereas families where the baby is ‘put to bed’ in his or her own room may be those which prioritise the couple bond over the parent-child bond. Having separate beds, or separate rooms, may reflect class, as in the traditional aristocratic family, or age, as people become less interested in sex and more concerned about getting a good night’s sleep, or the trend towards a more individualised model of intimate relationships.

5.3 The emotional economy has links with resource theory and with the idea of affective power, which has many different strands (Dallos and Dallos, 1997). For example, there can be differences between partners in terms of:

5.4 The terms ‘emotional labour’ or ‘emotional work’ have been developed to describe the work which goes on within families to contain and deal with all the emotions which are expressed there (Duncombe and Marsden, 1998). Bedrooms are likely to be the places where much of this emotional work takes place, partly because they provide privacy for couples to discuss emotionally difficult issues, and partly because preparing for sleep is likely to involve trying to resolve, at least temporarily, emotional issues which have arisen during the day. Distressing events can be ignored during the rush of the day, only to emerge with surprising force as sleep approaches.

5.5 Many of the emotional strategies employed by couples, and individuals within couples, are acted out within bedrooms and around the activity of sleeping. These were explored in research by Foreman (1996) and discussed by Dallos and Dallos (1997, 89). These strategies include:

5.6 The mention of ‘threats of violence’ is a reminder that the bedroom is one of the places where domestic violence is most likely to occur and that sleep can be a dangerous activity for some people. A pilot study of women’s reports of sleeping (or not sleeping) when they were being subjected to domestic violence showed that this can take a variety of different forms (Williams et al., 2004; Lowe, et al., 2007). Some men were reported as waking women up from sleep, while others prevented them from going to sleep: in both cases there are resemblances to the use of sleep deprivation as a form of torture to break down the resistance of the victim. Some women were afraid of going to sleep lest they be attacked, or even killed, while others only slept while their abusers were out of the house, and suffered from constant tiredness as a result.

5.7 Research on domestic violence shows that many of the immediate precursors of violence are associated with the bedroom. Violence may be triggered, for example, by the man coming to bed drunk, by the woman refusing sex, by either partner coming to bed later than usual, or by the demands of children when parents are tired. More generally the bedroom is simply the place where unspoken grudges built up over the day are finally expressed.

5.8 Overwhelmingly domestic violence takes the form of male violence against women. Though female violence against men does occur, it typically causes less serious injuries and is less prolonged and damaging (Hague and Malos, 1998; Mooney, 2000). However, the small numbers of women who have killed their violent partners have sometimes waited till he was asleep, as the only time when they would have any chance of success, given their relative lack of strength. Bedrooms can be dangerous places, as well as places of peace and tranquility.

5.9 The causes of male violence against women are complex and have been variously attributed to individual pathology, social and economic factors in the wider society, or the breakdown of the traditional family. However, most commonly domestic violence is considered to have its roots in the patriarchal family, built on male dominance and female subordination. Some stress the historically weaker position of women within marriage, while others point to women’s continuing responsibility for children, which puts them in a less powerful economic position. Some argue that the causes lie in ideologies which support male authority, while others would stress the part played by cultural factors, such as machismo and the normative approval given to male violence (Hague and Malos, 1998; Mooney, 2000).

5.10 The study by Levinson involved analysing anthropological research on 90 different societies across the world. He concluded that the strongest predictors of wife beating in a society were:

5.11 There are links between money and violence, in that in situations where women have their own financial resources they are less likely to be at risk of physical violence from their partners (Panda and Agarwel, 2005). There are also links with ideas about the structural bases of power, in that the relative economic situation of the partners is highly relevant. Sleep deprivation is not only a form of violence, but also an extreme form of the exercise of power in order to produce a compliant and powerless victim.

5.12 At the same time, the emotional economy of family life can be expressed in very positive ways. The double bed has been characterised as a ‘comfort zone’ predicated on the mutual sharing of secrets and vulnerabilities (Williams, 2005, 95). The shared bedroom and the shared bed are symbols of the unity and intimacy of a couple. The loss of a sleeping partner can be a traumatic event, and the ‘empty double bed’, whether created by separation, divorce or death, can be a constant and painful reminder of the relationship which has ended (Hislop and Arber, 2003b,197).

5.13 Investigating these sorts of issues in the context of sleep requires qualitative and ethnographic work, possibly of the sort which Terri Apter has used in her research on the relationships between teenage girls and their mothers (see for example, Apter, 2004). Spending time as a participant observer in families, and interrogating individuals about their sleep behaviour, would be a powerful strategy for research on sleep. In addition, it might be useful to draw on the skills of psychologists in order to make best use of the measures available for measuring emotional states and patterns.


6.1 After years of neglect by sociologists it is becoming clear that the study of sleep can illuminate broader issues within families and relationships. ‘Sharing sleep’ is a complicated activity. Gendered power relationships can play a significant part, but other factors, related to ideologies and to emotions such as love, trust and fear, can also be important.

6.2 There is a broader issue about how gendered power relations can be concealed simply by keeping those issues off the agenda. Thus domestic work was seen as trivial, as unsuitable for serious sociological study, until the pioneering research of the 1970s (Oakley, 1974). Domestic violence was a private issue and a source of family shame, until it was exposed by the Women’s Aid movement, and by feminist sociologists (see for example,Dobash and Dobash, 1980). The control and allocation of money within the household was regarded as a family secret, and was sociologically invisible, until the 1980s (see for example, Pahl, 1980 and 1989). Until recently sleep was regarded as primarily a physiological phenomenon, but now we are seeing how much can be learnt by using sociological approaches, as the other articles in this issue of Sociological Research Online demonstrate.

6.3 Developing a broader context for research on sleep is likely both to draw on, and to test and extend, existing theories. The results of empirical research on sleep will illuminate our understanding of a range of sociological theories. For example:

6.4 The bedroom has been described as an, ‘invisible workplace’, a control room from which the well-being of the family is managed (Hislop and Arber, 2003a, 703). It has also been portrayed as a ‘battleground in which partners engage in a power struggle for sleeping rights’ (Hislop and Arber, 2003a, 704). In the past many of the battles which raged within bedrooms were individualised as ‘her’ fault or ‘his’ fault. Applying sociological knowledge and theories may enable some of these individual and very private troubles to be seen as more general issues, and thus to contribute to the development of a sociology of sleep, as well as illuminating an activity which occupies a third of all our lives.


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