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The meaning of cultural things

The title of this section is a play on Harris's book title The Nature of Cultural Things (1964). In this book, Harris makes the distinction between what he terms the emic (insider) and the etic (outsider) perspectives. He initially intended the terms to apply to data-collection methodologies, where etic referred to observed behaviour and emic referred to subjective statements about the meanings of culture on the part of the informants. The terms retain their original meaning, but can also be applied to research orientations (for example, see Zeitlin, this volume). An etic (outsider) interpretation of behaviours or attitudes is done without reference to the emic (insider) meaning of the observed phenomenon. A great deal of research in developing countries, particularly that using solely quantitative methods, is conducted from the outsider perspective. For example, Rosenzweig in this volume refers to the assumption that all household members benefit equally from the production of household "goods" such as cleanliness, sanitation, and meals.

He further suggests that the economic values of each member may in fact condition his or her access to these goods. Economic value is measured as an outsider's etic concept. Household members themselves may have divergent expectations for their differential access to food, such as a belief that some foods are not appropriate for particular ageor sex-groups, or that boys "need" more food than girls. As Engle's contribution to this volume documents, food is not equally distributed in all households. A programme which assumes that food supplementation aimed at improving children's nutritional status will benefit all children equally will not, in fact, have those benefits in the situation where boys by right are allocated more food than girls. A different strategy, such as a "snack bar" where children (girls and boys) could go to consume food on the spot might be more successful. Clearly, the challenge is to deal with the real process of allocation (the etic) and with the reasons behind it (the emic).

The problem of defining household and family clearly illustrates the need to get at meanings. In a review of the literature on household versus family, Messer (1983) states that while household may refer to the traditional co-residence and food- and firesharing, family may reflect kinship ties which extend beyond household. An approach to the related problem of multiple group memberships of individual household members is discussed in Heywood in this volume. To complicate matters, these boundaries and their importance will vary from culture to culture, and they have extremely important implications for resource allocation. For instance, a young couple may be dependent on relatives who do not live with them for as much as 50 per cent of their monthly financial resources.

March (unpublished information) has suggested the terms "soft-bounded" and "hardbounded" households as an aid to conceptualizing this problem of defining household versus family. He suggests that household boundaries be viewed as a semipermeable membrance, more permeable in some cultures than in others. This would permit some generalizations about cultures or groups of households, and help avoid the temptation to deal with households only as single, self-contained units. Cultural rules and generalities about what can be exchanged between households could be identified. For example, in United States suburban culture, money is seldom exchanged between neighbouring (nonkin) households, but food and services (a cup of sugar or babysitting) are frequently exchanged. In the same culture, relatives in a distant city could not provide food or services, but might provide money as needed. All these "items" (food, services, money) could contribute to the nutritional and economic well-being of the household. Data analysis involving pattern recognition would be particularly effective for quantitative data sets. Patterns of exchange and degrees of household "permeability" could be identified through the analysis of clusters of behaviours.

A classic example of widely divergent cultural patterns related to food allocation was provided in the actual experience of two young American women and the two Indonesian men they hired to take them by boat on a brief trip to another Indonesian island. The four ended up adrift with very limited supplies of food and water. The men ate food and drank water liberally, even spilling it. Concerned, the women divided the resources (which they had brought) and gave the men half. The Indonesians quickly consumed their rations and conflict erupted when the Americans would not share the remains of their half. The American women could not know that in the men's village culture many foods were freely available and were consumed at will. Potential later shortages rarely were a concern and were never planned for. Hoarding was considered anti-social. Tomorrow would somehow take care of itself. The actions of the Americans and the Indonesians marooned at sea were totally incomprehensible to each other. Fortunately, the four were rescued in time, although the Americans left the Indonesians stranded hundreds of miles from home because they had "behaved irresponsibly" (Ciotti, 1986).

Defining a resource also requires a full understanding of meanings. So far, research has tended to focus on resources such as income, which are easy to measure. Time-allocation studies have made an important contribution in revealing less obvious resources, such as the extent to which children tending herds free their fathers to work for wages (Nag et al., 1978). Thus children's time becomes an important resource which contributes to the production of income for the household.

An essential aspect of meaning, one particularly well-suited to identification and definition through anthropological techniques, is the distinction between variables and how these variables cluster to form patterns of behaviour. Thus, the fact that some of the children in a household may be from the mother's previous sexual alliance may be an important factor influencing the resources allocated to those children compared to their halfsiblings, but this pattern will not be picked up unless it is noted or suspected by the researcher. Individuals are not always conscious of their own patterns of behaviour (so that their assessment becomes a matter of outsider perspective), yet resource allocation is the product of complex interactions among individuals based on sex, status within the household, health, personality, age, family composition, and so forth. Sometimes these patterns cannot be identified through the analysis of survey data or econometric modelling, because the necessary variables were not included in the data collection or because the researcher did not know what pattern to look for. One of anthropology's strengths is the generation of holistic descriptions (Johnson, 1978; Dehavenon, 1984), which can then be used for generating hypotheses. These in turn can be tested with additional qualitative and quantitative methods. These descriptions can uncover the appropriate factors to be included in a correct, culturally sensitive econometric model, or can be used to design an effective, appropriate intervention. The measurement of outcomes of resource allocation illustrates the complexity of human behaviour. Many outcomes cannot be directly attributed to one resource. For example, nutritional status reflects not only food intake, but freedom from debilitating infections. Susceptibility to infections could be influenced by maternal (or other family member) attention (e.g. keeping a child from playing in the area of the patio used for human wastes), money and time spent on preventive medical care such as vaccinations, time spent on cleanliness, and so on.

Understanding the full range of possible factors affecting a given outcome is essential to more accurate and meaningful research which will result in more effective programme design. Thus, the strengths of the anthropological approach for eliciting and identifying the underlying factors and meaning of behaviours (even on a small scale) are an essential adjunct to the large-scale survey approach for enhancing and refining the understanding of behaviour and its meaning. Generating an appropriate matrix for hypothesis testing is clearly as essential to ensuring more accurate and meaningful research as it is to effective programme planning.


The basic techniques of anthropology are well known and well described (Wax, 1971; Naroll and Cohen, 1973; Pelto and Pelto, 1978; Spradley, 1980), and volumes exist on quantitative methods from the perspectives of many disciplines, particularly sociology, psychology, economics, demography, and political science. What are optimum combinations of the two approaches for studying intra-household resource allocation? In the following discussion, the assumption is made that time and financial resources are no' infinite, and that a realistic rather than an ideal proposal must be made. For clarity, the suggestions which follow are presented in terms of a village. Studies at the regional or national level can sample accordingly, as can studies conducted in large urban areas.

The discussion on meaning in the previous section makes it clear that at least three phases are necessary, and that a fourth is desirable:

  1. Exploratory ethnographic work.
  2. Structured observations and interviews in a small sample of households.
  3. Survey of a large random sample of households using a brief, focused instrument developed on the basis of results from steps 1 and 2.
  4. Additional focused observations and more detailed interviews with a subsample of the survey households, based on the outcomes of the first three steps.

Exploratory Ethnographic Work

The traditional ethnography takes a minimum of a year. This not only ensures deep and accurate knowledge of the culture, but permits the researcher to live each season of the year with people and understand the impacts of seasonal variation on their lives. In a study of something as complex and multifaceted as resource allocation, the importance of seasonality cannot be ignored. Moreover, it takes time to gain a more than superficial understanding of a culture. Development projects, however, do not have the time nor the resources to hire an anthropologist for a year prior to initiating a project. Nor is it a realistic approach for a national or regional project in a country with ethnic, economic, and rural-urban variations in its population. Under these circumstances, a compromise is necessary.

The best strategy is to work with one or more anthropologists, already experienced in the culture(s) to be studied, and to conduct brief, focused ethnographic overviews in a small group of households. These should be sampled to reflect the variation economics, household size, presence of young children in the household, etc. - present in the community that is important to the research. While specific kinds of behaviour relevant to the project would be the focus, the ethnographer would not be limited by the variables presumed to be of importance, but should be open to all relevant information. The question of seasonality should be handled either by touching base with the households briefly during each season, or by picking the one or two most important seasons for the research and concentrating on them. For example, most agricultural societies have a "lean season," the time just before the crops are ready to harvest and the resources from the previous year are depleted or nearly so. Obviously, it is crucial for projects on resource allocation to study behaviour during the lean season.

If an experienced researcher is involved, this focused ethnographic work can be as little as six weeks to look at 15 households in one community and gather background information on the community. This approach has been successfully utilized in a recent multinational series of studies of health-seeking behaviour at the household level sponsored by the United Nations University (UNU). Researchers in 16 countries focused on the evaluation of primary health-care and nutrition programmes from the household perspective, using guidelines developed by the group (Scrimshaw and Hurtado, 1985). Five hundred and fourteen households in 46 communities yielded rich data on how households were, or were not, affected by these programmes (Scrimshaw, Mitzner, and Scrimshaw, forthcoming, 1989).

One essential aspect of the approach is to focus the data collection fairly narrowly on the project's interests by means of the use of research topic guides. These guides are not questionnaires, but "shopping lists" of information required on a series of topics. They are assembled on the basis of project goals and priorities and a knowledge of the culture. The guides developed for UNU's 16-country study on nutrition and primary health care are presented in a field guide entitled Rapid Assessment Procedures for Nutrition and Primary Health Care: Anthropological Approaches to Improving Program Effectiveness (RAP) (Scrimshaw and Hurtado, 1987). They are intended to be modified for each programme by adding or deleting topics as appropriate. The information in these guides is collected over a series of visits with each family by means of observation, informal interview, and participant observation. The existence of a guide ensures that the same topics will be covered with each family, although the way in which the topics are discussed and their order will vary as appropriate to each family's situation. The guides are kept in a folder for each family, and supplemented by field notes as indicated. Checking the folder before setting out to visit a family enables the researcher to see what topics still need to be brought up in discussion with that family. Summarizing the information on guide sheets facilitates subsequent comparisons between families and data analysis in general.

The guides are supplemented by the usual ethnographic diary and field notes, and by brief formal interviews on household composition (age, sex, occupation, education, etc., for each household member), ethnicity, religion, and other household conditions (e.g. water supplies) relevant to health. These more formal interviews are usually completed early in the field-work period. They provide a good introduction to the family, and also facilitate data analysis and the comparison of communities through standardized pre-coded questions. The manual developed for the United Nations University projects contains more details on data collection and analysis for this type of brief and rapid interview (Scrimshaw and Hurtado, 1986).

Structured Observations and Interviews

Structured observations and interviews should be developed on the basis of the information gained during the ethnographic overview. For example, if the ethnographer finds that food allocation is carried out by several household members, focused observations of food allocation over a specific period or a sampling of periods should be conducted for each person involved in the allocation. It might be that programme efforts focused only on one type of person (e.g. mothers) when in fact several types (e.g. grandmothers and older siblings of children under five) should be involved in the programme as well.

Observation instruments should be developed on the basis of behaviours observed by the ethnographer, and might include a behaviour checklist of the type psychologists often use. For instance, Dehavenon (1978) used video cameras in people's homes to observe the family hierarchies reflected in food-allocation and request/compliance behaviours. Because it is so labour-intensive, she suggests this technique primarily be used in the design of observational and interview instruments. In recent research on labour and delivery in Mexican women, Engle and I started with field notes taken during labour, then structured those notes within specific time periods, and finally developed precise instruments collecting 78 columns' worth of data over five minutes, which could then be coded and entered into a computer for analysis (Scrimshaw, in press, 1989). As indicated by Johnson in this volume, observations on time allocation should be supplemented by interviews and informant recording of information.


The range of survey methodologies is well documented (Babble, 1982; Bailey, 1982; Sanders and Pinhey, 1983). The integration of quantitative and qualitative research can be difficult if the specialists in each method do not really respect or appreciate the contributions of the '`other" method. It is essential either to have researchers who are familiar with and value both methods, as many now do, or to have quantitative and qualitative researchers work as a team throughout the project.

Just as the anthropologist or other qualitative research specialist has to compromise on the ideal project in phase 1, the quantitative specialist must be willing to carry out a parsimonious survey in phase 3, incorporating questions derived from and designed on the basis of the previous two phases. Dehavenon (1983, 1988) boiled down her voluminous data on East Harlem families to a four-page interview instrument used annually to measure hunger and food emergencies in a sample of 500 families from that same community.

Integration of qualitative information in the survey design phase must be followed by integration in data analysis and the presentation of results. A good report weaves the two together, illustrating survey findings with concrete examples, pointing out discrepancies between what people say they do and what they actually do, exploring interrelationships according to qualitatively derived hypotheses, and validating qualitative findings with survey data.


Obtaining data on a topic as cross-culturally and individually varied and as elusive to people's memories and awareness as intra-household resource allocation calls for a multifaceted methodological approach. A combination of quantitative and qualitative research techniques is needed in order to understand the process being studied in culturally appropriate terms, to obtain accurate information on behaviour, and to interpret the meanings behind the behaviours. A three-phase approach is suggested involving initial ethnographic work, focused observations and interviews, and large-scale surveys. The inclusion of ethnographic phases does not need to be lengthy or costly, but can be scaled up or down according to time and resource availability. The essential ingredient is the coordinated combination of methodological approaches.


This paper has been guided by discussions with Mary Scrimshaw, Daniel March, Patricia Engle, and Anna Lou Dehavenon. Their comments and suggestions are greatly appreciated.


  1. The question of observer bias in ethnographic research has been discussed at length in the literature. Pelto and Pelto recapitulate the Robert Redfield/Oscar Lewis debate, the discussion of Ruth Benedict's Patterns of Culture, and other anthropological controversies (Pelto and Pelto, 1978, pp. 23-33). More recently, Derek Freeman's (1983) attack on Margaret Mead's work has been well analysed by several anthropologists (Brady, 1983; Shepper-Hughes, 1984).


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