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Micro-social research on household organization and expenditures in Buenos Aires, Argentina

We used the life-cycle approach to study certain aspects of household dynamics. In our longitudinal empirical study,(2) we first examined activities and tasks in relation to the set of institutional constraints in which households have to adapt. Times of recession, repression, and crisis (such as the study period) often are accompanied by a reduction in social services, increasing the burden on households. We then looked inside the household specifically at consumption and expenditure patterns, disaggregating data according to sex, age, and kinship.

The Setting

During the last decades, political instability in Argentina has been chronic; the economy has gone through drastic ups and downs within a generally recessive framework; and the society has experienced periods of intensive public mobilization followed by harsh repression.(3) The period of military rule, from 1976 to 1983, witnessed profound structural adjustments in the polity, economy, and society. High inflation, limited employment opportunities, and low wages were characteristic. The results for the working classes have been longer working hours, fewer available social services, and more household members in the workforce. At the same time, the government became committed to an ideological shift, the "change of mentalities," intended to destroy collective identities and to replace them with the market-place - the impersonal arena where individuals, never collectivities, exchange their goods and services-as the basic mechanism of social life.

On the political and ideological level, the exclusion of all channels of expression of dissent and the prevalence of fear led to increased levels of uncertainty in personal and family life. Longer-term personal and family plans were postponed while more immediate issues of day-to-day survival came to the forefront. The dimensions of public policy and economic performance most directly affecting the organization and daily life of urban working-class families were: (1) conditions of the labour market; (2) inflation and shifts in relative prices of consumer goods; and (3) provision of public services. Budgeting and planning expenditures became impossible, and consumption patterns changed to follow a different logic. Money was spent as soon as it was earned or became available, often before it reached the pocket of the earner. In low-income families, this contributed to a chronic state of debt, current income being used to pay off previous debts. In sum, under such conditions, the dynamics of consumption seemed to follow both the logic of indebtedness and a strategy of substituting goods and services in response to changes in relative prices.

Little is known about how these conditions affect the behaviour of families and individuals. Although our study offers some hints as to how working-class families live and organize under such constraints, there are limitations to the study. The method can identify issues to explore, but is not suitable for a problem-oriented, focused project evaluation or planning study. First, although the study was longitudinal, it covered a period in which there was comparatively little macro-social change. Because we do not have longterm time-series information about these factors under changing sociopolitical and economic conditions, it is not possible to separate the effects of the Argentine recession and repression from more stable patterns inherent in working-class life. Second, because we do not have inter-class comparisons, it is impossible to discern whether the findings are peculiar to the working class or would be similar in other social strata. The exploratory nature of the study does allow us to suggest ideas and hypotheses about the range of variation in behavioural patterns, and to present selected methodological considerations. Programme planners and evaluators are encouraged to make use of such studies as a context in which to plan or evaluate projects.

The Research Process

Longitudinal micro-social research can be carried out only on a small number of cases at the same time, given the personalized and committed relationships which must be developed with the subjects. Case selection involves a purposeful search for "meaningful" or conceptually "relevant" cases. Statistical representativeness is thus not part of the research design.(4) The project is in itself a process taking place in time. Three separate stages are carried out simultaneously or with much overlap: information gathering, data formation, and analytical model construction.

First, information gathering is anchored in the inter-personal relationship between researcher and subject. This relationship is an integral part of the overall organization and interpretation of the social reality under study. Initial encounters with the families are geared to gain the researcher access to their everyday life. Enough information is obtained in these encounters to construct a preliminary, albeit naive, picture of the family situation. At this stage in our study, we collected information on personal and social dimensions: household composition, job conditions of the members, access to services, dwelling conditions, kin and networks of social relations, income and expenditures, and so on. Some of the more dramatic and traumatic experiences in family life were shared with the researcher, promoting greater intimacy and trust. As time passed, it became possible to penetrate more deeply into the subjects' reality, not so much by gathering information about new dimensions, as by dealing repeatedly with the same issues, but in more depth. The foundation was thus laid for collecting information about processes of household change: hidden themes and issues emerged that were not disclosed during the initial encounters. The task then proceeded along two lines: we continued gathering new information towards a deeper understanding of the data already obtained, thereby enriching the picture of the subjects' social reality; and we remained open to disclosure of previously hidden aspects of reality. We began to understand the meaning of activities, tasks, and events in the subjects' lives, for the individual, and how this subjective interpretation affected his/her actions. The process of information-gathering is not cumulative and unidirectional; the descriptive picture of everyday life is continuously revised. New pieces of information may produce a reinterpretation of the situation as previously understood, bringing new meanings to the information already gathered. This feedback may even alter the viewpoint from which information is subsequently gathered.

Second, data construction involves the transition from a superficial or "thin" description to a deeper and more complex one (Geertz, 1973). This is done by synthesizing the growing body of information and by incorporating meanings of actions into the description of the subjects' realities. This process of selection, ordering, and re-elaboration of empirical material requires stepping back from that material.

Finally, the construction of analytical models is anchored in the empirical evidence of the range in social patterns. Verbatim quotations from interviews are used in constructing analytical concepts. The quote or description of a given case expresses the typical patterns of behaviour, partially embodied in concrete human beings. The researcher chooses the cases that most clearly express the variability under study, and illustrate the complexity of types encountered in reality.

Results: Priorities in the Satisfaction of Needs and the Micro-social-Dynamic of Family Expenditures

Selected results are presented in the next sections to illustrate the dynamics of expenditures during a period of uncertainty in Argentina, as they were revealed in this life-history approach.

The Categories of Expenditure

In periods of high inflation and deteriorating real wages, consumers face chronic instability in the prices of basic articles of consumption. This compounds their difficulties in organizing the budget. Under such conditions, expenses are broken into: daily or "outof-pocket" expenses, and "fixed" expenses. Pocket expenditures include transportation to and from the workplace or school, food purchased away from home, and cigarettes; they require having cash available each day. Fixed expenditures include those billed monthly: rent, credit payments, electricity, taxes. etc., in addition to goods and services purchased on formal or informal credit. Wage workers usually keep for themselves a certain amount of income for their out-of-pocket expenses before contributing to the family budget. Normally, the wife manages the household budget, but neither she nor members of the household with no personal income (e.g. children, elderly relatives) have access to cash to cover these personal daily costs. Moreover, out-of-pocket expenses seldom are budgeted.

One way in which people handle this apparently chaotic situation is by establishing a direct relationship between the type of earning and the type of expenditure. Obviously, this can occur only in those households where there is more than one source and type of income: the most stable and predictable earnings pay for fixed expenses, and the variable income covers more elastic expenditures.

Two examples:

Family 1
The father is a boot-black with a variable daily income; the daughter is a clerk with a monthly wage. The daughter pays for the rent and electricity; the father gives money daily to the mother for the purchase of food.

Family 2
Several members work and contribute wages to a "common fund" for various expenditures. The mother earns a monthly wage cleaning a school, augmented by her overtime hours which are paid by the week. She uses her overtime income to purchase meat. Her monthly income is put into the "common fund" for fixed expenditures.

In the short run, food is a very elastic consumer need: non-perishable foodstuffs can be accumulated when more money is available or the price is lower; meat consumption is curtailed when less money is available. The purchase of food can also be converted into a fixed expenditure through a system of local credit, the libreta.(5) Households receiving their principal income in stable monthly earnings use this type of credit more often. Access to credit in the neighbourhood grocery, however, is limited to cases of occupational and income stability. When family earnings are very scarce, unstable, or unpredictable, the risk run by the store-owner is too great, and access to any form of credit is unavailable.

Two examples:

Family 3
Basic family income is earned by the father, a public servant. He receives a monthly salary, and the second week of every month he gets additional payments for travel expenses. His wife organizes the budget and relies almost exclusively on libretas and other forms of monthly payments.

Family 2 (described above)
Given the variety of sources of earnings, they managed without the libreta, taking money from the "common fund," and assigned overtime earnings to meat purchases. When the husband's earnings became monthly and he no longer worked overtime, they found it more difficult to plan and manage the monthly budget, so they adopted the use of local credit at the greengrocer's.

Under conditions of recession and scarcity, two alternatives exist: to postpone consumption, or to postpone payment. People might delay home improvements; they might not purchase medicines when needed, but they always pay their electrical bills on time. The purchase of non-durable consumer goods may decline: one buys fewer clothes, less food, or food of lesser quality. Consumption theory suggests that households follow orderly patterns when adapting to declining income. From our study, however, it appears that during periods when money is very scarce, daily consumption is the result of unrelated, on-the-spot decisions, more than of a premeditated consumption plan.

Families seem to follow one line of logic for paying fixed expenditures, related to their links with the creditor, and another for "cash" consumption. The first takes into account the formality of the ties and the potential penalties for default, more than the nature of the goods or services or their urgency. Informal credits are loose; there is some slack in payment deadlines. These credit lines are established through close personal relationships or more distant kinship relationships. Affective-emotional ties may also come into play. Formal debts, on the contrary, are paid more punctually.

The second line depends in some cases on how indispensable the expenditure is, or how long the purchase can be delayed; in others, there appears to be no apparent logic except to spend on "some" thing when "some" money is available. Each individual with access to cash may decide for him/herself, suggesting an alternative to the unified preference function (cf. Becker, 1981; Rosenzweig, this volume). Moreover, there are no clear personal criteria for setting priorities between one and the other type of expenditure. Instalments usually are paid, often before knowing whether there will be any money left over to buy food.

A hierarchy of control over income and expenditures of the different household members is inherent in this dynamic. The power derived from bringing in money tends to be transmitted to decision-making. The members with the most stable work decide on renting a house, purchasing land or consumer durables, and securing the corresponding loans, generally formalized in contracts. Women, through their control of daily expenditures, manage the less formal debts and maintain the networks of informal relations of mutual aid, while men tend to operate in the transactions of the formal market.

The Consumption Patterns

Consumption patterns reveal how households and individual family members exert their power and influence. Moreover, investigating apparently illogical purchases or "overconsumption" of certain types of goods provides a key to understanding the coping strategies families and individuals develop to mitigate the constraints and uncertainty of a recessive economy.

Electrical Appliances
The purchase of electrical appliances is "overloaded" with meanings linked to hiding social subordination and the deterioration of living standards. For low-income households, these purchases constitute evidence that they still have a margin of choice. They can show that their living conditions are not "so" deplorable and unhealthy. For the adult who decides on the purchase, usually the father, to do so indicates his power as a consumer in the marketplace and as a provider for the satisfaction needs of his family. For the adolescent who enjoys them and talks about them, the goods are a means of publicly presenting him- or herself and his social condition as relatively privileged. The most pragmatic side of this type of object-purchase is expressed by the mother who views these electrical appliances as an investment. Usually mothers argue that when there is some money, it disappears with no trace if it is not invested in consumer durables. Indeed, they consider that even when the objects are not used, they function as securities because they can always be sold or pawned for cash.

While living spaces tend to be small and crowded, and furniture tends to be old secondhand purchases or hand-me-downs from relatives - electrical appliances are numerous and constantly accumulated. They are acquired solely through their purchase in the marketplace, but in cases of emergency (a broken iron or sewing machine) they can be obtained by loan or transfer through informal networks. They are not part of those public goods and services that can be received by "right" or through charity; these are privately acquired goods for family use. Each appliance has a certain use-value which contributes to family well-being: saving domestic labour (refrigerators, washing machines), improving access to information or contributing to recreation (television, record-player, taperecorder).

Although the use-value influences the decision to purchase, additional factors explain the abundance of appliances in the homes of the popular sectors.(6) For several decades, the Argentine working-class family has been able to acquire the basic home appliances such as refrigerators, gas stoves, radios, and sewing machines. In the last few years, goods of a distinctive nature have been added, namely objects which are tied to the leisure time of the young: cassette-players, colour televisions, and record-players. Access to these new consumer goods, which until recently were seen as luxuries for the rich, function as a mechanism to compensate for, and/or hide, the deterioration in public services such as health and education.

In macro-social terms, the meaning of these appliances cannot be derived from a theory that sets out "basic human needs" and studies the historically and culturally specific "satisfiers" of these needs. As Leiss (1976) pointed out, the character of human needs cannot be comprehended without explicit reference to the actual means and ways in which they are satisfied in particular social systems. These objects are therefore tangible evidence of the logic of a consumer society, in which individuals orient their needs toward the type of satisfactions embodied in a growing number and variety of goods.

The contrast observed in clothing between different family members is enormous. Preschool children dress practically in rags. The mother wears very worn and old clothes in the house, while maintaining a "presentable" outfit if she works outside. The father is usually somewhat better dressed, in view of his greater presence outside the house. But, without a doubt, adolescents are the best dressed. Their clothing is not only in good condition and clean, but it always follows the latest fashion.

Teenagers' clothing is a subject of permanent discussion and decision-making in the family circle. The adolescents plead, demand, order, and appear to have power in decisions regarding their own clothing. They do not directly control the money, but they demand it in such a way that their parents finally give in to pressure. The desires and needs of the young adults also dominate in decisions to purchase electrical appliances, records, and cassettes. How is it possible for adolescents to have so much influence over decisions on expenditures? It should be noted that we are not speaking of the young who work and spend their own earnings, but of dependents who have no earnings of their own. Why do parents give in to such an extent?

Undoubtedly there are altruistic feelings on the part of parents, who feel satisfaction when they see their children happy with the things they like to have. But the family interaction around this subject seems to reflect the acceptance of adolescent clothing as a "need." Why? It is our contention that a mechanism of "public presentation" of the family operates through the adolescents. They are the ones who participate most in commercial leisure activities, who go out most, who have the most contacts outside kinship circles. That a son or daughter would "have nothing to wear" or not be able to go dancing for lack of money would be a very obvious manifestation of failure. This is not considered a failure of the young but rather it is parents who view it as their own by not giving their children what they need.7


Our experience with the life-history method and the in-depth longitudinal study of households leaves many more questions than answers, especially answers applicable to the general population. None the less, we consider this methodology essential to raise for consideration issues that are taken for granted or seldom questioned in the most common household studies.

While census reports and large-scale surveys simply describe household composition and organization, our study shows very clearly how much can be gained in analytical depth if the two dimensions of household organization, namely the patterns of intra-household division of labour and of internal allocation of resources, are studied in and of themselves, rather than having assumptions made about them that are based simply on household composition.(8)

Second, the introduction of a time perspective into household studies has very often been limited to time-budgets, i.e. the allocation of time to different activities on a daily basis. We disaggregated the various dimensions of time: daily time, biographical time, family time, and historical time. The detailed focus on time-budgets tends to mask longerterm processes. It is important to realize that these longer-term dimensions and their effects are present in all instances of activity, and do not constitute a separate object of analysis from that of everyday life. This systematic analysis and combination of the various time dimensions allows for a constant consideration of development and change, bringing to light processes that otherwise remain hidden and invisible.

Finally, this type of study demonstrates the importance of the interrelationship between households and their environment. Households are open social structures, moulded and transformed both by their internal dynamics and by external factors. Although for analytical purposes it may be convenient to draw boundaries to households and talk about "household composition" as given, a dynamic perspective has to focus on the way external forces - changes in social policies, the general macroeconomic and political conditions, specific development programmes and projects interact with intra-household dynamics in shaping a household response. Any study concentrating its analytical efforts inside the household must also study the specific ways in which households as units and their individual members enter into significant relationships with other institutions.


  1. The processes examined and exemplified in the present paper are more fully analysed in Jelín, 1984c.
  2. Research methods: Data were collected through in-depth interviews and participant observation. During the three-year study period (1979- 1982) a four-person research team frequently visited 15 low-income households in Greater Buenos Aires. All adults and adolescent members of the household were interviewed repeatedly, and these interviews were complemented by observations of household activities under a variety of circumstances. Most interviews were tape-recorded, and although there were thematic guidelines in most cases, the interviews were open-ended and often did not follow the format that the researcher had in mind.

Guidelines were developed for the collection of life-histories, for dwelling histories, for weekly changes in household activities and patterns, for monetary and time budgets. The exact use of the guidelines in actual data gathering was not a priority of the study. Rather, the respondent's own views, criteria, and discourse took precedence over the systematic recording of data based on analytical categories and questions.

Given the focus of the study on daily activities and household organization, the primary respondents, with whom the rapport was established and maintained during the period of field-work, were the women in charge of the domestic tasks.

The larger study on which this report is based has led to a series of papers and publications devoted to specific theoretical, methodological, and empirical issues. These include: Jelín and Feijoo (1980); Ramos (1981, 1982); Feijoo (1983); Llovet (1984); Jelín (1984a, 1984b, 1984c); and Jelín Llovet, and Ramos (1986). The study was funded by PISPAL, Ford Foundation, ILO, Inter-American Foundation, IDRC, and CLACSO.

  1. Political and economic characteristics of Argentina after the Second World War can be found in O'Donnell (1976) and Canitrot (1975). On the more recent period, see Canitrot (1980, 1981). Landi (1982), and Rouquie (1982).
  2. The issues discussed in this section are discussed at length in Jelín Llovet, and Ramos, 1986. 5. The libreta is a form of credit in a specific establishment (neighbourhood grocery, vegetable stand, meat market, etc.) or with a household delivery service (soda, milk, wine, etc.). Acquired goods are listed in the booklet each day. Payment is made according to the periodicity in which family income is received. The libreta system converts the purchase of basic food stuffs into a "fixed" expenditure to be paid monthly along with the rent, taxes, electricity, and commercial credit payments.
  3. It is necessary to distinguish phases in the period covered by this study. During 19791980, with the free-trade policy, the market was "flooded" with imported electrical appliances, including products new to Argentine consumption (sound equipment and colour television). Families from the popular sectors were active buyers in this market. The deep recession of the later period led to a severe decline in the sale of these products. What we are describing was the case during 1979-1980 and does not apply to the later period.
  4. Parents' emphasis on wanting their adolescent children to start working and earning their own income is not based on their direct contribution to the family budget, but on their ability to buy more or better clothing without stressing the family budget. In family 2, the adolescent daughter did not work outside the home. The mother said that, if she got a job, "she could buy what she want[ed],because we buy her what we can but not all she wants." The father did not want his daughter to work and to support his negative view he compensated her with money to buy clothes whenever he was paid. In family 4, the mother complained constantly that her son made demands but did not take seriously his search for work. Not that he should contribute to the family budget, but should have an income to pay for whatever "pleasures he wants to give himself," which range from shampoo and deodorant to tickets for a Queen concert and the latest style in bluejeans.
  5. This is especially clear in the way the category "household head" has been constructed and utilized. Usually, the existence of an adult male in the household is taken as an indication of his role as household head, without any further questioning as to the division of labour and the allocation of resources Jelín 1982).


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