Contents - Previous - Next

This is the old United Nations University website. Visit the new site at

4. Intra-household allocation of resources: perspectives from anthropology

Alan Shawn Feinstein World Hunger Program, Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island, USA


This paper introduces the various anthropological frameworks used to predict the effects of socio-economic interventions on households and their members. Anthropologists conceptualize household characteristics and processes, and study the changes brought about by development projects from three different perspectives: cultural, social, and biological.

Cultural anthropologists analyse the ecology, economy, technology, symbols, ideas, and values in human environments. Programme planners and project designers are concerned with how knowledge and materials are distributed at the household level, and how distribution of resources affects production, consumption, and health outcomes. Anthropologists generally characterize cultural change by considering structure and content separately. For example, a programme which introduces paid employment for unmarried women, where young women have not worked for pay before, may "increase" female employment and (depending on prevailing rules of distribution) household income. This is a change in content but it may also upset the existing age and gender relationships in that society. This structural change in the culture can lead to longer-term changes which may alter other dimensions of social life, such as increased decision-making power over expenditures of money earned by young women (cf. Fernandez-Kelley, 1983; Nash, 1983). Primary schooling provides book learning for the young and alters their perspectives on society and the economy. In many cases, it also removes children from fulltime household chores, causing temporary as well as long-run structural readjustments in the labour force (Minge-Nevana, 1978).

Agricultural and cultural programmes that push native peoples into new relationships with the land may in the short or long run reduce their ability to rely on local subsistence production (e.g. Gross et al., 1979). Cultural anthropology traditionally studies the ways in which culturally determined rules and definitions affect the uses of materials and knowledge in a society. Cultural anthropologists ask whether economic and social changes affect the potential of a household unit to respond to perturbations in the environment, including subsequent socio-economic programmes, and whether new adjustments maintain or eliminate the possibility of falling back on previous emergency strategies. For example, new green revolution agricultural packages may destroy through herbicides the "wild" edible items of an ecosystem (Messer, 1976). New plant forms that must be mechanically processed may eliminate income-earning opportunities for poor people who traditionally processed them by hand (cf. Soekir-man, 1978).

Many policy changes and programmes affect not only the material culture and ideas of the society, but its kinship and territorial structure. At the household level, social anthropologists analyse the structure and function of household units, and the effects of social forces beyond the household on its stability and change. Before we can predict the effects projects have on intra-household resource allocation we must first understand what constitutes "households" and their resources in different cultures, at various times. As I have suggested elsewhere (Messer, 1983, p. 3), for purposes of policy formation and evaluation we are usually interested in "that group of people, their relationships and activities, who acknowledge a common authority in domestic matters, a 'budget unit,' or a group who have a common fund of material and human resources and rules and practices for exchange within it.'" To anticipate potential project impacts, "one must examine marriage rules, residence rules, and the social and biological processes leading to cycles of shared residence, work, and consumption of individuals and domestic unit." This includes understanding how labour is recruited, the sex and age division of labour, the rules for transmission of property within and across generations, concepts of ownership of material possessions, skills, information, and time, as well as rules for sharing such resources. Ideally, one should also know who makes decisions at various points in the flow of raw materials from production or purchase, through preparation, distribution, and finally consumption. When measuring changes in allocation of people's time, energy, and material goods, it is of vital importance to know how the structuring of labour changes temporarily or permanently in response to development projects. Do the units themselves change, or do they merely adjust contextually to the demands of the project? Social anthropology provides the tools for studying these questions.

A third subfield, biological anthropology, which includes medical and nutritional anthropology, evaluates the health and nutritional outcomes of local survival strategies, and the impact of socio-economic and policy changes, direct or indirect, on these parameters. Although such outcome measures are usually derived from anthropometry, morbidity and mortality data, social and psychological data should also be used. For a more complete picture, physical development and nutritional and health status should be investigated in relation to indicators of cognitive, emotional, and social functioning, such as work performance in adults or school attendance in children. For example, the net effect of an employment programme for women might include better school attendance by children who no longer have to work to contribute to household income, since their mothers now do. The children might also be better nourished and healthier if mothers' income were directed toward their nutritional and health needs. All of these aspects of biological and socio-cultural function are interrelated (cf. Calloway et al., 1979).

In sum, anthropologists evaluate project impacts in the following terms:

  1. The resources available to a social unit - its land, labour time, skills, energy, and potentially productive materials.
  2. Its rules for classifying, using, and distributing these resouces - e.g. rules for what work men, women, and children should do, and how they should be compensated for their contributions to the unit's well-being.
  3. The nutritional and health consequences of these rules for resource allocation and use. Are people using scarce resources optimally or at least adequately to assure the welfare of all household members? What combinations of resource availability and distribution rules might be changed to improve the well-being of individuals at risk?

Any of these cultural, social, and biological parameters can be viewed from the "scientific" outside analyst's (etic) point of view, or from the native's (emic) perspective. These are respectively termed the "operational environment" (that which can be objectively measured in cross-culturally comparable units such as minutes, dollars, kilocalories, or nutrients), and the culturally specific "cognized environment" described in terms of local ethnic concepts of time (cf. Zeitlin, this volume), costs, energy expenditure, feelings of nutritional well-being or deprivation and perceived cause and effect relationships in the natural and cultural environment (cf. Rappaport, 1968). The "fit" between the scientist's and the native's units of measurement and understanding of the process of change is often a key to the project planner's ability to anticipate outcomes, and therefore shapes the success or failure of a project. A local mother's perception of the opportunity cost of visiting a health clinic, for instance, may be far greater than that anticipated by the project planner, and thus reduce participation rates. In certain cultures, women have daybreak-to-sundown times allocated to specific activities.

The following sections detail some of the data and data-collection processes needed to document household structure and function from these combined anthropological and particularly etic and emic points of view.


Economists generally evaluate the effects of development projects on "standard of living" in material terms such as income or consumption outcome measures (Mellor and Johnston, 1984). They also use education, health, and nutrition indicators. Yet, attempts to improve these socio-economic indicators may not always work as expected. Consider, for example, programmes to improve economic well-being through (a) cash cropping, (b) livestock production, and (c) cash tree cropping. Substituting cash crops for food crops will limit the absolute amount of food (income in kind) available for distribution among household members, and may result in poorer nutrient intakes unless (1) sufficient income is generated by cash crops to cover the costs of purchasing an adequate diet, and (2) income is allocated to purchasing that diet. On the first point, Dewey (1980), among others, found that when Mexican subsistence farmers were integrated into a cash-crop development scheme, they suffered nutritionally, in part because earned income was insufficient to purchase an adequate diet, and in part because income allocated to food was not necessarily used to purchase the most nutritionally advantageous foods. DeWalt (1983, 1984), in analyses of dietary strategies among another Mexican population, noted that increased income generally improved the variety and nutritional quality of the diet. At levels just above subsistence, however, increased cash and dietary variety did not ensure an improvement in nutritional status: food choices were not necessarily nutritionally optimal.

Cash cropping may also alter the sex division of labour, control over land, and decisionmaking over crops and their distribution. These changes condition the impact and acceptance of programmes (Kumar, 1979, 1983; Jones, 1983). In Africa, as men assumed responsibility for cash crops, women lost access to land and its products, and lost the power to decide how the land's products would be allocated (Afonja, 1981). These changes reduced women's access to income and their ability to provision their households. Cash cropping, as it changes the nature of the crops grown, may deplete the resources available to marginal members of the population. It may also alter the traditional system of exchange and labour allocation, substituting economic "rationality" for the traditional system of exchanging labour and food within communities. A study in Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso) (Hemmings-Gapihan, 1982) shows how elderly women in particular may find themselves commanding less land and labour for production as the social unit of production changes from the extended to the nuclear family. According to Smith (1980), the development of scrub land into scientifically managed forests may eliminate an important source of free firewood, increasing the time women must spend in foraging for fuel. Similarly, the introduction of improved breeds of swine and poultry which consume commercial feed may result in competition between the food needs of the animals and the human household members. The animals may compete with children for adult time when cash flow is short or if the animals must be managed or fed by adults rather than children. These examples all underscore the importance for programme planners and project designers of understanding the entire ecosystem and rules for its use, before attempting to modify even one aspect of it.

In addition to these ecological and economic consequences, projects can also affect the cultural symbolic-cognitive nature of resources, that is, how resources undergoing change fit into the larger fabric of cultural knowledge and practices. Projects that mechanize food processing, provide fuel (which women no longer have to gather), or provide education or paid employment for women where none existed before, change the meaning of women's lives and their relationships to men, other women, and children. Projects that provide a new agricultural technology which the young master, while the old find their traditional knowledge useless in a changed environment, can radically alter the dominant-subordinate relations between old and young. So do health and nutrition education efforts that indicate to the young that traditional knowledge is obsolete.

New agricultural technologies, such as irrigation, can put the young and old at a sudden disadvantage by altering essential cultural age and sex classifications. Wells and pumps, designed to reduce labour time and provide water which was not previously available, may entirely transform the household labour structure. In one Mexican community with a tradition of pot irrigation by hand, large numbers of sons were traditionally of value to help irrigate more and more land (Messer, 1972). With the introduction of pumps, however, there was suddenly more labour than land to be irrigated. Sons were, consequently, exported to town to learn a trade or commercial activity or to the city for industrial work. The younger generation can no longer count on participating in household production prior to setting up their own households, nor on an assured income thereafter, since the labour of all but a few sons is now superfluous.

The decreased value of child labour in agriculture and food preparation due to new technologies can be viewed as beneficial in that it frees children from farm labour for schooling. For instance, the introduction of labour-saving technology for women, such as grain mills and gas stoves, greatly reduces the household need for female labour. Young girls no longer participating in home production through food preparation might therefore be encouraged to go to school. However, schooling greatly delays the returns to parents' investments in their children's food, clothing, and medicines, so they are more likely to send girls to seek income-generating paid employment as servants in cities. In the short run, it may decrease the allocation of resources to existing children.

Economic interventions may alter the social structure of a community, possibly with some adverse consequences for particular groups. For example, as extended households break up into nuclear units, adults advanced in age may no longer have the labour inputs of younger people available to them (Hemmings-Gapihan, 1983). The elderly as a group seem to have been neglected in the development economists' focus on improving the incomes of adults of productive ages, and in nutritionists' focus on women of childbearing age and pre-school children. It is this elderly group whose knowledge and skills may be devalued by new technologies, and whose control over household resources may be eroded by the breakdown of traditional social relationships.

Migration patterns may also disrupt traditional culturally determined occupational categories. When the youthful labour force is drawn away from the rural home setting to plantations, mines, or cities, personal incomes may seem more assured, but the home base may be left with inadequate labour to carry out agricultural tasks (Richards, 1939). On the positive side, migrants' contributions provide an important share of household income in many parts of the world. Their remittances are used for day-to-day consumption, investment in land and materials, and to offset the loss of the migrants' labour to household production. Aside from cash contributions, migrants also bring home with them new skills and ideas learned in another setting which may have profound consequences for the old, traditional community. For example, time and distance from a home setting may relieve the migrant of many of the cultural rules for favouring some age-groups (e.g. the elderly) or sex-groups (e.g. male) over others. The returning migrant may bring with him/her a modern, and possibly more equitable household form, though, as stressed above, these are not necessarily to everyone's equal benefit.

To predict the full impact of economic policies on intra-household resource distribution, it is crucial to understand the conditions under which migrants at different distances and relationships to the family consider themselves obligated as contributing members of the home household, even though they are no longer co-residents. This is an area in which anthropological approaches can make an important contribution.


Anthropological approaches are particularly suited to identifying the perceptions of individuals about the appropriate uses, rights, and obligations regarding household resources. This brings up the issue of the etic versus emic perspectives on such matters as time and resource availability and costs of participation in work or health programmes (see, for example Minge-Klevana, 1980). In advance of final project design and implementation, it is essential to have some detailed knowledge of the social organization and work schedules and values of the population. Social organization of work, division of labour by age and sex, and time use of the principals and their associates in the household must be identified so that project planners can anticipate what disruptions in scheduling of ordinary tasks or social relationships will occur as a result of their proposed intervention.

It is important to know how people behave, but also how they see themselves allocating time and resources: how much is "adequate" versus "too much" or "too little" time to spend on various tasks, including those to be introduced in a work or health project? Information on these perceptions is needed so that some reasonable assessment of what people are likely to accept in terms of time commitments to a given project can be made in advance of scheduling participation.

The planner's perspective - the etic perspective - on appropriate uses of individuals' time may be quite different from the perspective of the community. The "positive deviants" in the society, who perform tasks efficiently and manage to produce healthy, well-nourished offspring in spite of scarce resources, should be identified from both etic and emic points of view. Their behaviours and practices should be analysed, since they represent positive adaptations which have emerged within the cultural context of the community (cf. Zeitlin et al., 1983, for a full discussion of this concept). Both the normal group and the positive deviants might have useful suggestions on how tasks might be rearranged should new tasks be introduced. For instance, they might offer some idea of what constitutes adequate food and child-care provisions for their households and how food and child care will be provided should the principal female be otherwise engaged. These emic assessments can be compared with the operational projections on the same questions. All shed light on what resources a household has, what it perceives it has, and how such resources are structured. Such information will reveal not only how resources might be restructured to produce the least disruption or deficit in household well-being and consumption patterns, but also what types of changes people most likely will not tolerate, or, from the positive perspective, which aspects of their current life-styles they would most like to change.

Beyond the impact on time allocation, development projects may affect women's and children's work and the value of their time and labour in several other ways. Projects which provide industrially processed foods, replacing those which are traditionally homeprocessed, for example, may remove important sources of cash earnings from local women, while also depriving local society of variety in traditional foods. Basson (1981) describes an example from Jordan, where commercially processed sour milks have replaced traditional home-processed products, thereby removing the possibility of extra income for women, without offering any meaningful alternatives in terms of either income production or status enhancement. While economists generally do not worry about the latter problem, anthropologists recognize that women gain prestige and personal value from producing a good food product and from earning income, and lament the loss of such employment. Projects which jeopardize the status of a particular group may also encounter resistance to participation. In urban areas, traditional food processing by women is one of their main sources of part-time earnings. Where these are replaced by industrially prepared products, the question of providing alternative employment also arises (cf. Simmons, 1975). In either case, where women are the main providers of household food budgets, allocation of resources to all members of the household will be affected.

Contents - Previous - Next