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The British Journal of Sociology 2004 Volume 55 Issue 3

Domestic equipment does not increase domestic


work: a response to Bittman, Rice and Wajcman

Jonathan Gershuny

Bittman, Rice and Wajcman (hereafter BR&W) reopen the old controversy
over the domestic labour paradox. They deploy evidence which directly con-
nects household ownership of domestic equipment to household members
time allocations, suggesting paradoxically that possession of household equip-
ment in effect adds to domestic labour rather than reducing it.
There is a methodological trap, confusing evidence of cross-sectional differ-
ences between people for historical change in peoples behaviour. BR&W tell
us that they are aware of the trap (in the guise of unmeasured heterogeneity).
This, unfortunately, does not stop them falling into it. They are also guilty of
a minor, though revealing, error of scholarship: they claim that the 1997
Australian time diary survey provides a unique opportunity by collecting data
on equipment in diarists households. In fact, a brief scan of the collected doc-
umentation on around 300 time-use studies worldwide, downloadable from
<http://iser.essex.ac.uk/mtus/technical.php> reveals that many post-1980 diary
studies do include this information. That it is infrequently used, reflects com-
plexities of analysis and interpretation which, as we shall see, BR&W appar-
ently prefer to ignore.

The domestic labour paradox

Though Vaneks American Scientist article is cited as the source of the paradox,
priority in fact belongs to Philip Converse, John Robinson and Alexander
Szalai (1972) who, comparing countries with low levels of diffusion of labour-
saving domestic technology with countries with high levels of diffusion,
concluded:
if it were possible to take account of additional amounts of housework
accomplished by paid household help . . . there might well be a fully

Gershuny (Institute for Social and Economic Research, University of Essex) (Corresponding author email:
gershuny@essex.ac.uk)
London School of Economics and Political Science 2004 ISSN 0007-1315 print/1468-4446 online.
Published by Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 9600 Garsington Road, Oxford OX4 2DQ, UK and 350 Main Street, Malden,
MA 02148, USA on behalf of the LSE. DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-4446.2004.00027.x
426 Jonathan Gershuny

counter-intuitive relationship . . . between the efficiency of household tech-


nology and the amounts of time given over to household obligations. (1972:
125)
In parallel with their work for Szalais mid-1960s UNESCO study (Szalai
1972), the same authors also investigated the (impressively rich) US empiri-
cal literature on time-use from the 1920s through to the 1960s, producing
(Robinson and Converse 1972) the first, and what is still the most detailed and
helpful published discussion of this material.
Their results were presented in a more nuanced way than Vaneks. As was
Vanek several years later, they were unable to identify any general unequivo-
cal upwards or downwards trends in unpaid work: but they held back from a
strong no change conclusion, expressing instead, cautious concerns about the
comparability of the surviving tables drawn from a heterogeneous range of
survey materials, and the partial nature of the populations they represent. We
may presume that Vaneks bold (1974) no historical change in domestic work
time assertion was in some degree prompted by the phenomenon first
observed by Converse and Robinson.
It is generous of BR&W to say that I changed my views in my recent book.
But in fact, Gershuny (1983: 148) contained the schematic reproduced here as
Figure I.

FIGURE I: Output growth productivity growth and domestic work time

Increasing laundry
time

Top loader (1955)

Decreasing
% increase in laundry consumption

laundry time

Automatic (1975)
Wash boiler (1935)

% increase in the efficiency of equipment relative to wash boiler


London School of Economics and Political Science 2004
Domestic equipment does not increase domestic work 427

Initially, we see a modest domestic innovation, providing a relatively small


increase in effectiveness over the previous technology, but nevertheless
stimulating very considerable extra demand for the product. The output
growth it stimulates is greater than the productivity increase, so the move from
the wash boiler to the top-loading electric washing machine, moves us above
the 45 line of equality, and unpaid labour time increases. Subsequently, the
increase in the demand for the product is smaller (i.e. approaching saturation)
but (as competition increases and design improves) the increase in productive
efficiency is greater, so the move from the top loader to the automatic washing
machine takes us below the line of equality, and domestic labour time declines.
At first, the top loader encourages my grandfather to move from wearing
detachable collars to wearing seven shirts per week, perhaps doubling his
laundry consumption, and my grandmother observes that the washing
machine does not save her time. But she subsequently buys an automatic
machine, my grandfather does not move to several shirts per day, and my
grandmother as a result reduces her laundry time in absolute terms. Vanek
does not put her argument in this product-cycle form, but otherwise our
accounts entirely agree that the effect of a piece of domestic equipment over
a period might be either reducing unpaid domestic labour time or opting for
increased quality of domestic services leading to an increase of this time. Our
accounts are alike in understanding labour-saving as reduction in labour
input per unit of service output without requiring any conclusion about the
total of unpaid work time.
There are two distinct sorts of time-use consequences of a technological
innovation relevant to some sphere of domestic provision. (1) growth or
decline in time devoted to the particular sphere of domestic output; and (2)
transfer of any time freed from the particular sphere as a result of labour
saving devices, to other spheres of provision, where there is still some latent
unsatisfied demand. Both effects of new technologies are worthy of discussion,
and both are explicitly discussed in the 1970s and 1980s time-use literature, so
there is little basis for the BR&W accusation of proponents talking past each
other. A more recent Social Forces piece on leisure services from the inter-
net (Gershuny 2003) sets out these sorts of time-use change within a more
extended model of choice between alternative modes of provision of services.

Historical reduction in domestic work time

We might remind ourselves, before we turn to BR&Ws central claim, of the


now undisputed common view of overall historical change in time use from
1960 onwards. Unpaid work time is reducing across the populations of coun-
tries in the developed world. Wherever there are time diary sample surveys
providing historical comparisons, womens core domestic work time (cooking,
London School of Economics and Political Science 2004
428 Jonathan Gershuny

laundry and cleaning) has been found to have declined substantially over the
last half century, while mens contribution to these has remained static (and
relatively low), or increased marginally. Other household production child-
care, shopping, gardening etc. are constant or rising, generally with men
increasing childcare and shopping, while women increase contributions to the
previously strongly male-gendered activities such as gardening and DIY. Some
variation between countries emerges, but in each of the countries covered by
the Multinational Time Use Survey, decline in the core activities outweighs
increase in other housework to provide a reduced total of unpaid work, and
within this a small but historically quite regular increase in the proportion
undertaken by men.
This is not the place for a general literature review, and these claims are in
any case not explicitly contested by BR&W. But the unstated implication of
BR&Ws presentation of their cross-sectional finding that the presence of
domestic technology in households is positively associated with work time,
seems to be that it is somehow inconsistent with this historical summary.

An example

The central issue, properly identified by BR&W, is that, while we have increas-
ingly good micro-analytic evidence of time use patterns, none of the time-use
literature establishes the connection with the presence of domestic technol-
ogy at the household level. Virtually all of the literature contains essentially
the same inferential leap: since we are not notably less well-fed, well-clothed
or wellhoused than were those like us half a century ago, the reduction in
unpaid work time must be a consequence of the diffusion of new domestic pro-
duction technologies. Not just domestic equipment in the narrow sense, but
also easy-care materials, pre-prepared meals and so on, mean that we can get
more, and higher quality, domestic services, with less input of unpaid work
time.
Is there really any inconsistency between this long-term historical trend
of unpaid work reduction, and the cross-sectional finding, prefigured by
Robinson and Converse, and now demonstrated by BR&W? These two are in
fact perfectly consistent with each other. Of course households with lawn-
mowers spend more time mowing lawns than those without: what differs
between these households is not that they have lawnmowers, but that they
have lawns.
BR&W deploy a single survey, which tells us about differences between
people. So, they also require us to make an inferential leap: that differences
between people in cross-sectional evidence, will be reproduced by historical
change in the time use of particular individuals as their other circumstances
change. The nub of the problem is this: there are other differences between
London School of Economics and Political Science 2004
Domestic equipment does not increase domestic work 429

TABLE I: Models of weekly domestic work time, women with male partners Britain, 19922001

Models

1 2 3 4 5

Household has washing machine 4.54** 4.57** 2.08** 1.85** 2.92**


Hhold got a washing machine -2.43* -0.17 -0.11 -1.01
Womans hwork hours last year 0.59** 0.59** 0.54**
Child aged 0 or 1 in hhold 2.03** 2.12** -0.08**
Child aged 2 to 4 in hhold 1.72** 1.69** -0.07**
Child aged 5 or older in hhold 0.79* 0.68* 1.61**
Partners hwork hours last year -0.11** 1.24**
Partners change in hwork -0.04* 1.06**
Womans monthly wages 000 -2.33**
Partners monthly wages 000 -0.20*
Womans wages as % of both -1.97**
(Constant) 14.76** 14.76** 4.93** 5.91** 7.87**
Multiple R 0.06 0.06 0.63 0.63 0.67

Note: (hours/week: * sig at .05; ** sig at .005)

households that do and do not have particular sorts of domestic equipment,


that may be the real causal origin of the differences in the observed unpaid
work time. We find that households with tumble dryers do more laundry work
than those without. But could this be because these particular households have
other differences also, more people, perhaps, or different sorts of people with
different sorts of consumption tastes or work-clothing requirements?
This is the problem of heterogeneity a class of problem indeed which
BR&W mention in their introduction. But while they are aware of the
problem, they do not adequately deal with it. The problems of heterogeneity
cannot be made to go away just by entering lots more variables into the equa-
tion: two sets of issues, of unobserved heterogeneity (characteristics not mea-
sured in the study, or sometimes just not included in the analysis), and of model
specification, remain. These can be illustrated through an example using the
British Household Panel Study (Taylor, et al 2001).
The question About how many hours do you spend on housework in an
average week, such as time spent cooking, cleaning and doing the laundry?
has been repeated in every wave of the BHPS since 1992. This does not
produce evidence as good as the time diary data that BR&W use, but it is still
useable for our purposes. Table I presents a sequence of regression models
with answers to this question as the dependent variable. The table covers only
women members of the main sample in heterosexual partnerships, and it
pools the answers to these questions across waves to give a total of 13,317
cases.
Model 1 provides an analogous result to BR&Ws: women in households
with washing machines do about four and a half more hours/week of house-
work than others. Subsequent models control for some of the other differences
associated with possession of this equipment. Model 2 simply uses the
London School of Economics and Political Science 2004
430 Jonathan Gershuny

longitudinal information in the BHPS to register that in those households that


acquired a washing machine in the last year, housework time declines by 2.4
hours. In model 3 we add in the age of the youngest child and how much house-
work the woman did last year; the apparent washing machine effect falls by
more than half to two hours/week, and the acquisition effect disappears. We
see here the effects of partially controlling for heterogeneity among the
respondents: the machine and acquisition effects are probably proxies for
household composition and change. We might perhaps have expected more
reduction in the machine effect as a result of including the womans work
time last year but we know that the question itself contains much more error
than is associated with the diary-based materials used by BR&W.
In Model 4, the male partners domestic work, and its change from last year
to this, both lead to small but significant reductions in the womans own unpaid
work. So by controlling for just a few interpersonal differences we have
reduced the machine effect from 4.5 hours/week to 1.9 hours/week. By
adding in more of the appropriate BHPS data we could doubtless reduce it
further. But extra causal variables do not necessarily produce reductions in
this effect.
Model 5 adds information about the partners absolute and relative earn-
ings (reflecting respectively their resources and their relative power); the
machine effect now apparently increases to nearly 3 hours/week. But this
model contains an error in model specification, an endogeneity problem: much
of the variation in peoples access to household equipment is a direct conse-
quence of their households wealth and the distributions of power within them.
The wage variables here predict the presence or absence of the machine, but
both wages and the presence of the machine are included in the regression;
the machine effect now reflects residual variation in access to washing
machines, having controlled for the wage effects. While rich households have
generally more laundry to do, those few of them that have no washing
machines, do substantially less washing than others because they pay
someone else to do the laundry. These endogeneity issues lead to the exag-
geration of the machine effects in Model 5. When we look behind the mar-
ginal effects reported in BR&Ws Table III, to the underlying regressions in
Table A3, we find exactly the same error.

Individual differences are not appliance effects

The point is that, per contra BR&W, we can never use survey observations to
examine directly whether domestic appliances save domestic labour, since we
can never have adequate counterfactuals against which to contrast our obser-
vations. But in principle there is no reason why the straightforward observa-
tion that at various historical points, households with more technology have
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Domestic equipment does not increase domestic work 431

longer hours of unpaid work, should be inconsistent with the comparative


cross-sectional observation that all classes of households have reduced their
core unpaid work since the 1960s.
The change in the total of domestic labour devoted to any particular sphere
of domestic production depends on the ratio between the change in produc-
tivity and the change in household output over the period. And if time is saved
in one sphere, it may be transferred to another (e.g. childcare) in full or partial
compensation. There is no socioeconomic law that says that unpaid work time
must decrease. But the evidence is that, across the world, in the second half
of the twentieth century, unpaid housework and cooking have regularly
declined. Nothing in BR&Ws article tells us that domestic equipment
increases work over time.
(Date accepted: May 2004)

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London School of Economics and Political Science 2004