Fatherhood is a social institution and includes the rights, duties, responsibilities, and statuses associated with being a father. A useful distinction is made between the terms father, fathering, and fatherhood. The first refers to the connection made between a particular child and a particular man (whether biological or social). The second refers to behavior; the actual practices of ‘‘doing’’ parenting. The third refers to more general ideologies and public meanings associated with being a father.
Fatherhood research is conducted in a number of academic disciplines and commentaries on fatherhood have also become commonplace outside academia in literature and nonfiction. Within the social sciences, researchers working from a developmental perspective use quantitative techniques to explore the effect of paternal influence and father–child relationships on the well-being of children and fathers. Statistical techniques, applied to survey material, are also used to develop cause and effect linkages between men’s structural positions and their fathering behavior. Qualitative approaches, often associated with a symbolic interactionist perspective, are adopted by scholars interested in exploring individuals’ perceptions and experiences of diverse forms of fatherhood. Discourses of fatherhood are examined by poststructuralists using images of fatherhood in policy documents and the popular media. Apparent discrepancies between representations of fatherhood and fathering behavior mean that exploring the alleged gulf between the ‘‘culture’’ and ‘‘conduct’’ of fatherhood (La Rossa 1988) has become a major focus for scholarly attention.
The breadth and depth of research on fatherhood have developed exponentially since the 1970s. Debates about women’s role in society that emerged at this time stimulated a complementary interest in exploring masculinity. Women’s increasing participation in the labor market intensified discussion about the construction of motherhood and led to an awareness of the relative lack of comment about men’s roles in the family. Thus fatherhood research gained attention to provide balance to family research that was dominated by analyses of motherhood. Justification for the significance of fatherhood as a research topic in its own right drew on psychological evidence, which emphasized the importance of fathers for the successful emotional and educational development of children (Lamb 2003).
The changing nature of fatherhood is a consistent theme in research. The stereotypical image of Victorian fatherhood as strict and detached has been frequently adopted as a basis for comparison with contemporary ideas, and the emergence of scholarship on fatherhood in the 1970s sometimes led to an impression that a fundamentally different kind of fatherhood began during this period. The absence of a ‘‘usable past’’ (La Rossa 1997) may explain the tendency towards making overly neat distinctions between old/traditional and new fatherhood. A simplistic historical pattern describes the father as moving from moral guardian, disciplinarian, and educator, to the single role of financial provider, to the modern version of nurturing involvement (Pleck & Pleck 1997). However, more nuanced accounts have challenged this narrative by drawing attention, for example, to the presence of emotional responses to parenthood in men’s lives in earlier periods. It is now widely accepted that a linear progression does not easily fit onto historical reality or adequately indicate the complexity of fatherhood.
While there is general agreement that the meanings of fatherhood have altered, there is less consensus over the extent of change and the meaning of modern fatherhood. A key question is the degree to which being the financial provider remains a significant aspect of fatherhood. Those who claim the ideology of breadwinner/rice winner has been replaced with the nurturing father model suggest it is the quality of the father–child relationship and childcare that is increasingly prioritized by men. Given women’s higher levels of participation in the labor market throughout the life course and the rise of dual income households, providing money to support family life can no longer be described as the preserve of the male parent. On the other hand, in two parent households men continue to contribute a larger proportion of the family income than women and the continuing expectation that men will provide for their family is exemplified in the common legal requirement that a father continues to be financially responsible for his children after divorce or separation.
Another focus is describing the components of ‘‘new’’ fatherhood. One characteristic is the development of an emotional relationship between father and child, but there is an increased emphasis on ‘‘caring for’’ in addition to ‘‘caring about.’’ The words ‘‘nurturing’’ and ‘‘involved’’ are frequently invoked in order to capture this aspect of modern fatherhood. Nurturing is often applied to mothers and can be conceptualized as encompassing day to day care within the private sphere and focused on child development. Its application to men suggests a growing similarity between the roles of mothers and fathers. Involvement is a broad term that has been the subject of further qualification. In terms of childcare, three aspects have been demarcated: engagement, accessibility, and responsibility (Lamb et al. 1987). These refer respectively to interaction with a child through care or play; availability for inter action; and taking on the planning and forward thinking around children. Some authors have commented that providing money should be recognized as a form of involvement, although this suggests that involved fatherhood is a counter to negligent or absent fatherhood rather than to ‘‘traditional’’ fatherhood.
There is an awareness of fatherhood in political and policy arenas, which both reflects and encourages academic discussion. Concern over deadbeat dads (US) or feckless fathers (UK) is mainly associated with the absence of financial support for families, but also the potential impact of the lack of male role models and paternal influence over children’s lives. This has been characterized as the problem of ‘‘fatherless families’’ and has prompted right wing authors to support a return to traditional family values and the male breadwinner model. An alternative explanation for fathers’ absence from families is because they are undervalued and discriminated against in society. Many of the expanding fathers’ rights groups focus on the legal position of fathers with respect to issues such as the right of fathers to insist on or veto abortions and, perhaps most notably, custody access post-divorce. Structural, especially workplace, constraints have also been noted as influential in men’s frustrated attempts to be ‘‘good dads.’’ Authors interested in this position concentrate on the extension of parental rights to fathers, such as paternity leave and access to reduced working hours. From a feminist perspective an increased role for men in relation to childcare seems essential in order to move towards gender equality, but there is skepticism over whether an extension of rights by employers and states will lead to wholesale transformation.
Recognition of the heterogeneity of fathers’ social situation and relationship to their children has been an important development in fatherhood studies. Until recently, fatherhood, unlike motherhood, has not been a proven bio logical fact. Instead, fatherhood was confirmed indirectly through a man’s relationship to the mother of a child. The significance of biological fatherhood has increased with the arrival of DNA testing and the possibility of identifying the genetic parent. Perhaps paradoxically, social fatherhood without any biological tie is also gaining more attention. Increasing divorce and remarriage rates have led to more men entering fatherhood through either formal or informal adoptive and step relationships. Variations in the experiences and ideals of fatherhood due to differences in residency, age, class, sexuality, and ethnicity are also increasingly the subject of study. Further research can be expected to explore these terrains in order to develop a fuller picture of fatherhood. The future aim will be to establish the sociology of fatherhood as a sui generis area of study within the social sciences, albeit one which draws strongly on interdisciplinary perspectives.
- Deinhart, A. (1998) Reshaping Fatherhood: The Social Construction of Shared Parenting. Sage, Thousand Oaks, CA.
- Hobson, B. (Ed.) (2002) Making Men Into Fathers. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
- La Rossa, R. (1988) Fatherhood and Social Change. Family Relations 37: 451 7.
- La Rossa, R. (1997) The Modernization of Fatherhood: A Social and Political History. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
- Lamb, M. E. (2003) The Role of the Father in Child Development, 4th edn. John Wiley & Sons, New York.
- Lamb, M. E., Pleck, J. H., Charnov, E. L., & Levine, J. A. (1987) A Biosocial Perspective on Paternal Behavior and Involvement. In: Lancaster, J. B., Altmann, J., Rossi, A. S., & Sherrod, L. R. (Eds.), Parenting Across the Lifespan: Biosocial Dimensions. Aldine de Gruyter, New York.
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- Peters, E. & Day, R. D. (Eds.) (2000) Fatherhood: Research, Interventions, and Policies. Haworth, New York.
- Pleck, E. H. & Pleck, J. H. (1997) Fatherhood Ideals in the United States: Historical Dimensions. In: Lamb, M. E. (Ed.), The Role of the Father in Child Development, 3rd edn. John Wiley & Sons, New York.
- Van Dongen, M. C. P., Frinking, G. A. B., & Jacobs, M. J. G. (Eds.) (1995) Changing Fatherhood: A Multidisciplinary Perspective. Thesis Publishers, Amsterdam.