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Processing and interpreting data

No matter which recording method or combination of methods is chosen, all entail common problems of processing and interpreting data. Investigators must be sure to collect sufficient information on the various kinds of households and individuals of nutritional interest. They must also be sure to collect data in time and activity categories that will ensure accurate presentation of significant variations within communities or between different societies. Four topics important for analysis and interpretation of time-use data are (a) social units, (b) activity categories, (c) cultural units of time, and (d) cultural time sense.

Social Units

General procedures for selecting communities and sampling within them have been addressed in the chapter by P. Pelto in this volume. For studies of time allocation, the community usually has some social or economic characteristics of particular interest to the investigator and is not selected at random within the region or nation. Within the population, households may be selected by some random principle, such as random numbers table; all households within a certain distance from the researcher; or every fourth household. Household selection may also be done on the basis of certain characteristics, such occupation, social status, or the presence of one or more children of particular age. In addition, given the intrusiveness and difficulties presented by time-allocation studies, households are selected in terms of their co-operativeness.

In selecting characteristics and categories for meaningful comparisons between households, it is important to consider not only cross-cultural comparability but also categories that are culturally significant in the society under study.

For example, to compare activity patterns meaningfully among women in African lineage systems, stages in the woman's life-cycle (e.g. having no children, having one or more children under six, having one or more married sons, being a widow) may be more significant than chronological age (Hemmings-Gapihan, 1981). Household samples may also be stratified along other relevant dimensions such as adult occupations that affect their presence/absence in the household, the presence of other adults or older children available to help with child care, and numbers and ages of children. For example, Quizon-King (1978) divided her sample into three family types by size, numbers of children, and father's occupations. In societies with sex/age grades, or in which specific ages are deemed appropriate to take on work, special attention should be paid to selecting these cultural categories, particularly in the observation of children's activities. For studies of women's activities in relation to child care, the age of the youngest child and the availability of surrogate mothers may form significant dimensions. For evaluating children's contributions to household work and income, numbers of siblings per household or per child may be relevant (Nag, White, and Peet., 1978).

Activity Categories

An additional concern is to establish categories of analysis that are both culturally complete and cross-culturally analysable. Categories should be chosen only after collecting several rounds of initial data in the field; even then, the categories may have to be amended. The list should include a careful breakdown of cash and home chores highly specific to the occupational life of the community, for purposes of within-culture comparisons. One can then try to combine these into a few cross-culturally valid general categories such as work outside the house, work inside the house, and leisure (Erasmus, 1955), or food acquisition, manufacture, and preparation, childrearing, eating, hygiene, and visiting/idle (Johnson, 1975). Several examples of activity categories and data tabulations are provided in tables 4-6. Special considerations, as mentioned earlier, must apply to the choice of categories to record children's activities and social interactions (e.g. resting, stimulus-seeking, stimulus-receiving) or aspects of child care (e.g. distance of child from mother or surrogate mother).

If computer programmes are to be used to aid in the analysis, precoding daily activities and entering precoded calculations as they are recorded is advisable. Whether data are collected by observation, recall, or diary records, they should be processed into culturally appropriate and cross-cultural (general) categories simultaneously with or immediately following collection, so that any problems in analysis or interpretation can be checked. Time must be written into the research schedule for this activity.

When daily activities are being tabulated, it is necessary to be consistent in counting time allocated to multiple tasks performed simultaneously. For example, in counting time allocated to child care, a useful distinction can be made between "primary'' child care (no other activities involved), and "secondary" child care, carried out simultaneously with other activities such as food preparation. Also, care of infants may be distinguished from care of older children. For studies of women's or children's work, one might want to collect quasi-experimental data to compare the rate of task performance with and without the simultaneous burden of child care. For a study of the "cost of children," one might want detailed information on how children of different age categories are cared for. Time allocated to household production can be construed to include time spent getting to and from locations of food acquisition, or, alternatively, travel time may be accounted for separately.

Finally, decisions must also be made on how to classify ambiguous activities in cross-cultural comparisons of time spent working. Erasmus's example (1955) of eating as female "work," in contrast to male leisure activity in Mayo society, and Minge-Klevana's example of children tending cows as "leisure," cited above, illustrate problems of classification. Moreover, in many societies it is difficult to disentangle "socializing" from time spent "working." (A good discussion of the problem of counting household "work" is contained in Minge-Klevana, 1980).

Units of Time

Time units used by the people under study to arrange their activities are a third factor to keep in mind when processing and interpreting time-activity data. Daily activities may be patterned according to the prevailing daylight hours and relative heat or cold. For example, in cultures without electricity, most productive work will probably take place before nightfall and after sunrise. However, in cultures with sources of artificial lighting, particularly those practicing some sort of cottage industry in the home, a significant amount of production may take place in the evening, particularly by women who work mainly after the children are asleep. Seasonal shifts in work hours may occur depending on the prevailing heat of the day. For example, the very early and very late daylight hours are devoted to work during the hot, dry season in the Middle East. To accurately describe time use in such situations, one will probably want to calculate separately the work patterns in the different seasons; averages are less useful in evaluating how people work in relation to their food supply.

Ritual and market cycles will also have to be taken into account at the initial stage of data collection and in the analysis and interpretation of results. White, for example. analysing the work input of Javanese children in 20 households, visited each household every sixth day so as to coincide neither with the five-day market cycle nor the seven-day administrative week (Nag, White, and Peet, 197X). In cultures where people pace activities according to the market cycle, one may want to consider production and selling periods in evaluating variance in activities over different days of the market "week." For example, in Messer's field-work in Mexico, people weaving and sewing goods for delivery to a middleman might work in ten-day cycles. The two days before the pick-up are extended, frenetic workdays, and the days after the goods have been picked up are periods of relative "rest."

While economists and nutritionists seem to prefer "average" figures in constructing time budgets and activity schedules, it is important to realize that time is used differently on different days. It is, therefore, important to calculate the significance of such different days and of such differences in determining average schedules or noting variance. Records of such pacing in human energy expenditure and energy intake may provide data of interest for addressing current controversies about the great variability in work ability and caloric needs. In poor, traditional Jewish communities, collecting intake and activity data on the Sabbath would skew results upward for nutrient intake, downward for work; yet missing the Sabbath entirely would not fully account for weekly nutrient intakes or regeneration of work, as well as spiritual, energies. Similar examples can be cited for most cultures.

In assessing the relationships between patterns of consumption and work, then, records of such variations should help qualitatively, if not quantitatively, to identify the significance of such patterns. Additional factors to be considered in presenting and analysing time-activity data are: (a) seasonal work demands, such as the extraordinary time demands on women agriculturalists during peak planting and harvesting seasons which often interfere with food preparation and child care; (b) children's school schedules, which may conflict with the ordinary family eating schedules and thereby jeopardize adequate food intake and health status; and (e) religious holidays, often whole seasons, which alter ordinary work and food-intake patterns.

Ethnographic Interview

It is advisable to carry out ethnographic field research prior to the systematic activity observations, and such ethnographic observations should continue throughout the research period. To supplement other data on activity and cultural schedules throughout the year, one will want to collect information on the following qualitative features of cultural time sense, as research abilities and research time permit: normal or preferred allocations of time; spacing and pacing of activities; and judgements of efficiency. Useful questions may be: What are the ranges of time usually allotted to specific tasks? What characteristics of individuals or technology improve or decrease efficiency of performance? Do people have notions of how long it should take to perform typical tasks, i.e. do they have this notion of "time sense"? Do they have standards that they apply informally to people in their culture about performance in time? Do they have ideas of rushed versus leisurely pacing, and do they relate their own endurance in the performance of certain tasks to nutritional or health status? Do they associate food intake directly with work, work performance, and degree of weariness in performing tasks and health status? Such information from the cultural or folk perspective may also contribute to evaluation and interpretation of intra-household distribution of food, work performance, and the relationship between nutrient intake and infection from the scientific perspective.

Procedures for collecting and analysing time-activity data efficiently and effectively

If one is interested in studies of women's time allocation, children's work and play patterns, and the organization of household activities in relation to food, health, and nutrition, it is probably best to collect data in sequence. By interview (activity-recall) methods, one can collect data on activities, income, and food purchases in standardized sequences (see descriptions of Nag, White, and Peet, 1978), so as not to overburden the respondents. Later, dietary (consumption) data and nutrition-health data can be collected. Or, one might observe activities (long-day observations) and later collect food and income data by interview. Alternatively, one can try to collect data on a range of questions, including activity profiles, food intake, and parent-child interaction, through long-day observations. In the following section, I describe the procedures and perils of collecting and analysing both activity and nutritional data simultaneously, for focal females and children, if not all household members.

In the study in Mexico by Messer (1981), activity patterns and food intake in a Mexican community were studied. Messer was interested in general in how the organization of household labour, including children's labour, contributed to income, general home care, food consumption by different household members, and health. She was also concerned with learning how children's activities and health status might interfere with the focal female's or general household's well-being.

Messer approached the work by observing one woman's activities in each selected household over full-day periods, and measuring nutrient intakes of all persons eating in the household. As noted above, households were selected according to occupations, and numbers and ages of children.

To acquire household data, an observer was in the household from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., the usual waking hours of women and children. Activities which went on before the arrival of the observer and after her departure were recorded during interviews after the observation day. Activity data were collected by continuous reporting: using a watch, the observer wrote down the inception and cessation of all activities and interactions, describing the actors and what they were doing. She then listed activities, by times, summing durations, according to standard categories: food preparation, household work, cash work, leisure, visiting, shopping, personal hygiene, and child care. Tasks such as laundry, animal husbandry, and sweeping were recorded under the general category 'household," and tortilla and meal preparation under the general category "food preparation," in the original field diary record, and were then converted to the main category in the initial time computations. Primary child care (without opportunity cost to other activities) or secondary child care (with other activities proceeding simultaneously) were counted in summing times allocated to child care. Observers found they could usually record and sum time records for the focal women simultaneously. Activity profiles of focal women, in hourly schedules, as well as proportions of time allocated to each activity, were analysed from these data. The data were presented by person, and compared across households, to show essential differences in women's work patterns and food-allocation patterns across households.

This method of data collection had the advantage that it enabled the observer to collect data on questions of children's nutrient intake and activity patterns, alongside that of the focal female. From comparative qualitative and quantitative records of tasks performed, the method allowed for efficient characterizations of task performance, and sanitary and health factors potentially affecting the focal female's time and children's nutritional well-being. Children's foraging patterns were followed. It was noted whether or not the focal woman in the household consistently supplied young chidren with food, whether they "foraged" in surrounding brush or their own cupboards, or "ate around" at the different hearths of extended family compounds. Since most residence is patrilocal in this community, grandparents, aunts, even sisters and brothers supplied food on demand to youngsters, who also gathered fruits in the bush. Meal patterns were analysed. It was noted that the poorest families regularly prepared only one hot meal per day, in contrast to other families, which prepared two. In many cases schoolchildren also ate only one hot meal per day and substituted snacks (tacos, sandwiches, or sweets) during their school recess period.

The pace of activities was analysed. A standard activity like tortilla manufacture was seen to vary not by the human physical energy availability of the focal female, but rather by the fuel available, the quality of the masa (dough), and the numbers of other activities (food preparation, child care) that were carried on simultaneously. Also, the organization of the task could vary, depending on the numbers and ages of other female children in the household.

It was also possible to observe any extra-household factors that affected health and hygiene. For example, in one household, a young mother with four sons under five years of age struggled in vain against illness. Although she herself washed all dishes and bottles in soapy hot water, and boiled all water and milk for her household, the family lived in a multiple family compound, where her four sons played constantly with the other children. Although they ate clean, hygienic food, drank from sterilized bottles, washed their hands with soap before eating with her, and also after defecating, they were constantly exposed to dirt and faeces deposited in the yard by the other family, the less sanitary food they shared in their snacks, and their continuous mutual infections. The focal mother was forced to clean a continual layer of faeces from her patio as well as clean up after her constantly sick children.

While the time the mother spent cleaning up after the children may not have been large, she commented, and it was possible to observe, how infections kept her children unhealthy and small, and wore her down. Furthermore, she had had some nutrition/ health/sanitation education, yet her children were recurrently ill. Such observations of unhygienic residential layouts beyond the control of the individual household suggest why exposure of mothers to nutrition and health education does not necessarily result in superior nutrition and health in their children.

All-day observations also enabled the observer to record the complete feeding habits of children. While children were observed to be anorexic during bouts of illness, such as bronchitis and fevers, healthy youngsters were observed to eat almost continually, munching on bread, fruit, and tacos, and having sweet beverages hourly, particularly on days following illness. Additionally, children under five generally fed constantly on bread, fruit, and beverages in and around their own houses, and also had the habit of snacking in neighbouring (particularly relatives') households. Observation explained in part why children seemed to eat very little at meals; they ate small quantities constantly throughout the day. These data were presented by time and type of food eaten per child per observation day.

In addition to these advantages, continuous recording by the observer creates a data set that can be referred to at a later time to answer questions about parent-child interactions and children's activity levels. Time and descriptive data can be analysed to indicate (a) time "bottlenecks" when cash work competes with time for food preparation and inhibits the focal female from providing better food and health care; (b) the more general implications of women's participation in the cash economy for the time available for household and child maintenance, and the potential effects of labour-saving technologies; (c) related changes in dietary staples due to food preferences but also to the time required to prepare them; (d) patterns of adult-child interaction and how they affect children's food intake, emotional style, cognitive development, and health; and (e) the potential acceptability of nutrition and health programmes, given food habits and women's schedules.

The disadvantages of the combined method for collecting nutritional/activity data, however, are also great. While the quantity and quality of observations are enormous, so is the time required for processing the data for within-culture analysis or between-culture comparisons. The original record must be sifted through for each separate aspect of the study, since it is not feasible to precode every possible aspect of nutritional and behavioural relevance. Samples must necessarily be small, unless one has a large research team. Even so, numbers of days of observation will be limited, particularly if one follows the Philippine procedure (Evenson et al., 1978) of spending one day just accustoming the household to one's presence for every day of recording. Where there are weekly cycles or seasonal variations in activity schedules, one must carefully schedule one's research time to capture their significance for time use and diet without skewing one's interpretation of what usual time allocations are and how they influence nutrition. Finally, this method is very intrusive; it may not be acceptable in all environments and must be very carefully implemented if combined with large, multidisciplinary studies that are constantly in households collecting other kinds of health, activity, and economic data. Otherwise, one will end up altering the very phenomenon - activities in time - one is trying to study.

Even with these problems, however, the quality of observational reports and the possibilities for suggesting which factors of time use and household organization influence nutrition are probably greater than if time data are collected by other methods..

So far, the analytical insights ascertained by this method have been qualitative rather than quantitative - for example, the suggested effect of residential patterns on hygiene, infections, and nutrient intakes of youngsters, and the toll these take on the young mother. The video-like script remains to be analysed.

If nutritional anthropologists are seriously interested in doing detailed studies of household behaviours, and especially children's behaviour, in order better to understand the linkages between nutrition and human behaviour, they would do well to review the methodologies for observation and data analysis currently being developed by some primatologists (Clutton-Brock, 1977; Altmann, 1974). These researchers simultaneously observe and code their data in standard behavioural units and are advanced in developing interactive data analysis programmes for expediting interpretation.


There are a number of potential applications of time-allocation study methods for nutritional anthropological questions. Few would question the assertion that the organization of household activities, particularly by the focal female, is an important determinant of the nutritional status of household members. The Protein-Calorie Advisory Group (PAG) of the United Nations, for example, has suggested that more studies of women's activity patterns and schedules are needed to evaluate adequately the factors leading to undernutrition, as well as the hindrances to greater economic participation by women (1977). More data on focal women - their activity schedules and patterns of interaction with children - would give a finer index of women's work and its potential impact on household diet than simple correlations of their economic (occupational) role with the nutritional status of children. Studies of the expenditure in rime, not just in cash, can provide another dimension to understanding food choices and householdresource allocations.

Detailed studies of household organization and of how some households manage to allocate time to numbers of cash-producing and socializing activities, yet still eat well while others languish, suggest that data are needed on the structuring of activities in time, rather than simply the time use of individuals as representatives of social categories. Day-long observations in nutritionally successful versus less successful households, facilitated by interviews on how tasks are organized, would probably yield the most complete results. Purposeful selection of households for observation could proceed after initial sorting by nutritional status of children, occupational status of adults, or particular political positions of focal females. While it is interesting to know the average time allocations of focal women, it is also useful to know the range and variations of activity patterns, e.g. how the community leaders pass their days in contrast to less outstanding members of the community. It is also important to know if those households with fewer malnourished are operating differently from others, as shown by time activity profiles and the social organization of production and consumption.

There remains the question of how many persons and how many observations one needs to make a study reliable. These will depend on the variance of the study population. Also, is the outcome jeopardized if households are chosen opportunistically rather than randomly, and visits scheduled for convenience, rather than by some random visit principle? Again, initial observations in the culture under investigation provide the major clue. Are activity schedules and activities significantly different across households? Are tasks performed at constant task rates or does work density or efficiency differ? Is it reasonable to rely on a random sample if one wants to be sure to cover a range of different daily schedules on limited resources? Perhaps the best solution to these problems is a phased study, which collects community data by spot observation or interview methods (the easiest to precode, code, and analyse). Preliminary findings can then be used to select households for the study of more specific questions on organization of work, nutrient intake, and activity scheduling by intensive observation, interview, or diary methods.

If possible, it is preferable not to do all recording tasks simultaneously, or at least not on the same days. While Messer managed to collect by observation and food-weighing day-long activity data and food intake, the study was designed as much to develop methods to analyse nutrient intake in relation to "function" as to give comprehensive data on different food intakes among households in the community. It is probably better to collect food and activity data in sequence: to use activity recording days to cite what is eaten, then to record what is eaten, quantify the items, and analyse nutrient content on subsequent, regularly scheduled occasions (e.g. 24-hour activity recall, full or 12/13-hour-day direct observation, 24-hour food recall or direct observation). It may also be more important to collect cycles of food intake/expenditure by week, rather than by day; daily or even two- or three-day "averages" may be inaccurate. All these factors suggest that, it possible, nutrient intake data should be recorded separately from activity data, although all activity data will contain information on food.

Finally, some cautionary notes are in order. There are diverse ways to collect activity data in time, and these serve different purposes. Be sure of your major objectives (e.g. to understand how a focal female's time allocation affects food provisioning in individual households). Be sure as well of your "hidden agenda," for example, to understand how the significance of subsistence activities and the time allocated to them change as a result of the different occupational organizations of households. Choose a method that will allow you to collect data to answer these questions, given your time and resource constraints. Be familiar with the other activity studies, whether or not recorded in terms of time profiles, of the region in which you are working, or of the categories used to describe children's behaviours, if you are interested in comparing child development in different households and relating this data to the nutrient intake of children. This kind of review will help you to record data in cross-culturally comparable categories for your geographical or intellectual area of study.

If you are collecting data by diary, recall, or spot observations, make sure you check for accuracy periodically by observation. It may be that one of these methods is the most efficient for collecting data on activity frequencies; this will enable you later to sketch in some of the background data missed by oral or written self-reports or random visits. For example, such methods may underreport the time that children spend playing or working, if the numbers of reports are limited.

If you are principally interested in children's nutrient intake, a child-following method may be the only appropriate one, but without substantial labour resources this will necessarily limit your sample. It is probably worth while, in such cases, to consider methods developed in primate studies to report dietary results (Hladick, 1977, pp. 328, 340).

In conclusion, anthropologists and related social scientists have been studying activities, and their significance in time, as segments of more general ethnographic studies, but they have not, for the most part, focused on the questions of vital nutritional interest. This chapter has identified the essential functional (behavioural) measures of nutrition, reported in terms of activities, which might productively be studied "in time." It has also discussed at length what the methods for studying time allocation and activities are, with their advantages and disadvantages for shedding light on particular sets of social, economic, psychological, and cultural questions. The processes of data collection are time-consuming, as are the periods of data analysis, but it is necessary to allocate some of our anthropological resources to the task. I have not come to any firm conclusions on the circumstances under which it is more productive to pursue systematic qualitative data collection, rather than complex quantitative analytical frames. The values of different methods will be determined by the questions. My only cautionary note is: in the beginning and the end, one should never sacrifice potential qualitative categories for understanding the cultural processes by which children and other human beings get nourished in the interest of designing a quantitative instrument.


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Appendix 1. Messer, mitla field notes, 4 September 1980

7 Ma making tortillas (L[5 yrs], baby [1.5 yrs] watching her. Ch [4 yrs] still asleep in house).
7.20 Ma sends L to get the tortilla basket - if she won't fall down.
Ch gets up. Ma asks if his cough is gone. He says Yes.
Ma breaks out a new bottle of Nescafé ($60 pesos, note in Conasupo $57).
7.25 L says that she wants to wash her face. Ma and Pa say yes. There's water.
7.26 Ma puts up pot for almuerzo [first main meal].
Ch says he wants to drink [coffee].
Ma puts 2 tablespoons lard in pot, for cooking eggs.
7.30 Ma sends Ch with Pa to get bread from inside [bread stored in basket by altarplace].
Ma calls Pa to eat.
Pa comes. Plays with baby.
Baby: drinks a bit of Fanta [orange pop], 15 g bread, 20 g egg with lard.
Pa: 1 (200 ml) bowl coffee, 43 g bread, 90 g, 84 g, 83 g tortillas, 1 piece egg, 1 chilito, 10 g pasta with chilito.
Ch: 1/4 cup coffee, 41 g bread (he gives a piece to baby; tells her to blow on it [since it is soaked in hot coffee]. 13 g egg, 24 g tortilla.
7.35 Ma tells L to bring her petate [palm mat]. She looks for it. Ma tells her where to find it.
L imitates her: "L, L, L." She comes back with two pieces of bread.
7.37 Pa sends L for can-opener, but Ma goes after it since she knows it is high up.
Ma: 1 bowl coffee, 48 g bread. 74 g, 39 g, 40 g tortillas, 26 g pasta (leftover), 24 g egg, 3 chilies.

Calculations of time of mother

7-7.37 Food preparation, tortillas

Child care

(Times are calculated as day proceeds, just summing minutes from starting to end of activities.)

Time allocations (summing minutes over the day allocated to food preparation, child care, household maintenance, rest, cash work, visiting, shopping)

49 (12)a
12 (25)
63 (23)
23 (20)
15 20
(32) (15)
197 45
(229) (140)

Then calculate these totals as percentages of total time observed. Compare across days.

a. Parentheses indicate mother was engaged in more than one activity at the same time.

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