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Social distribution of rights and responsibilities

A key factor determining the impact of policies on household members is the composition of the household unit. In a previous discussion of the household focus in nutritional anthropology, I suggested that:

Prior to initiating a nutrition survey or nutrition intervention, one should begin by defining the group and its members - by co-residence, kinship ties, tasks, food exchange, or some combination of relevant factors. By next investigating how such units conform to structural rules - and, as Arnould and Netting ( 1982) point out, it may be the flexibility" rules that are the most significant - one can chart the different patterns in social organization and resource use within cultural groups. From these patterns, one can begin to discuss how they facilitate the interpretation of the dynamics of eating patterns, . . . socialization, and other aspects of household functioning that either favour or interfere with nutrition and health. (Messer, 1983, p. 10)

Clearly, the same considerations would apply to the distribution of all resources (not just food) at the household level.

To analyse how resource production and distribution decisions are made at the household level, I suggested that one consider:

  1. Eating units - defined with respect to:
  1. production units (or common budget units);
  2. residential groups, further characterized according to:
  1. all members eat together;
  2. some eat together, with others eating outside and foraging outside according to fixed rules;
  3. non-co-residents who receive food from this co-resident hearth are included;
  1. kinship linkages;
  2. child-care units;
  3. child-feeding habits or rules for when, what, and how children should eat and who should feed them.
  1. Food budget units - defined according to:
  1. who is responsible for seeing how a particular kinship, co-resident, or activity group or child/set of children are fed;
  2. from whose earnings the food budget derives;
  3. who makes the food-related decisions at each step from food production or acquisition to distribution and consumption.
  1. Child-rearing units - in relation to:
  1. where a child eats;
  2. what a child eats;
  3. formation of food habits as part of enculturation, socialization, and personality formation.
  1. Social networks:
  1. those which in normal times provide flexibility and options for meeting food needs;
  2. those to which individuals resort in times of food scarcity. Among the conceptual questions to be investigated in each case are the rules and practices for:
  1. making demands on kinship relations;
  2. shuffling of household membership by out-migration of certain members at times of diminishing resources or on a more continual basis in search of improved food resources;
  3. reorganization of eating and work groups though the residential group may remain the same.

Such eating and budgetary groups are essential units of analysis through which to examine "households" as production, allocation, and consumption units, and the potential labour inputs and welfare of their membership. Although most project design or evaluation teams take the "family" or "household" as units of analysis, these may not be accurate or appropriate units to study. In nutrition studies, for example, it may be that the individual mother, toward whom most nutrition education, food, or health programmes are targeted, is not entirely responsible for the food a toddler eats and his/her health environment (Messer, 1981). In Africa the newly weaned child may be fed by a grandmother or other mother surrogate, while in many parts of the world toddlers forage in addition to taking what is offered.

It is also necessary to investigate eating units, child socialization units, and food budget units to determine whether improving the mother's income will make a greater impact, relative to the father's income, on the amount of food available for youngsters. It is generally assumed (cf. Kumar, 1977; Tripp, 1981) that the working mother's income yields resources which directly benefit the child's nutriture and health. This depends, however, on the cultural rules for providing food to blood relatives and others, and the social organization of child-rearing (cf. Engle, this volume). Popkin (1980) has argued that, in fact, added work for mothers means less adequate nutrition for children, but other studies contradict this finding (see Engle, this volume). The anthropological perspective may help to identify the different circumstances under which mothers' work for pay has a beneficial (or detrimental) effect on child nutrition and health.

On the production side, it is generally assumed that a "household head" can allocate the labour of the household's members. Guyer's (1981) review of "household and community" in African studies revealed the fallacy of this view and the consequent shortfalls in labour for certain development projects. Hers is perhaps the most detailed and eloquent plea against taking "the household" as the unit of analysis unless we have additional data on its permanent composition and social relations, and on its seasonal or cyclical variations.

Unfortunately, neither social anthropological descriptions of "social structure" nor the Marxist depictions of "social relations of production" have yet provided adequate models to predict what forms labour organization will take under new conditions of production in a cash-based economy. Nor are we certain to what degree the preexisting social structure influences transitional or ultimate outcomes of development independently of political, social, and economic environments. One would like to be able to predict how the different household socio-economic units, existing between the societal and individual level, adjust as a result of changing macro-economic conditions. Economic pressures on extended family living environments are often catalysts for the emergence of nuclear family units, in contexts where, in time past, agricultural societies were organized in extended family networks.

The native's emic household constructs and his/her other cultural values, including gender ideologies, that lead to or limit options in residence, work, and resource distribution patterns are as important for predicting project outcomes as are the social scientists' etic definitions. Some circumstances may favour the consolidation of nuclear units, but new tax and economic policies may favour the atomization of these larger units. Studies of single women's extended kinship networks, particularly in urban settings, reveal a variety of arrangements other than the traditional family and household that provide a context in which individuals can find and retain employment, provide food, and be provided for by others (Lomnitz, 1978).

New work arrangements may establish new networks of resort in times of scarcity the appropriate individuals to whom one turns in times of dearth for sustenance or work. Certain anthropologists and political scientists have postulated that, in the past, there was a rule-governed moral economy which assured people of emergency assistance, but that this breaks down under penetration of the capitalist system (cf. Scott, 1976). Whatever the truth of such a generalization, new social and economic programmes certainly affect such "emergency" networks. For instance, it might be valuable to explore the effects of cooperatives or credit unions on family and extended kinship ties, which were the traditional sources of capital, co-operation, and emergency aid in most societies. It is possible that new institutions like credit unions develop by incorporating such traditional networks for resource distribition. It is also possible that they provide an alternative and thereby destroy the older forms. These questions can best be explored using an approach which incorporates ethnographic analysis.


We are by now familiar with the adverse or neutral health and nutritional outcomes of wellintentioned economic development programmes in both the short and long runs. In building a modern cash economy, development projects may destroy traditional social networks which provided for the poor; they may force the small landholder out of his bare subsistence living, without providing a living in cash (Dewey, 1980); they may support the (male) wage earner nutritionally, at the expense of the health and well-being of women and children (Gross and Underwood, 1971). More generally, the total resources generated by a project may be insufficient to cover the needs it creates.

To evaluate benefits, one must measure what additional products are forthcoming, what income they provide, who controls the income, and how it is spent, before increased income can be predicted to improve the consumption and well-being of all household members. At the community level, questions include whether a locality is more or less selfsufficient and whether resources are renewable as a result of a project. At the local level, does the project make females, for example, more or less equal with men; more or less subordinate in socio-economic relations? Are opportunities more or less open to all? Social and cultural anthropology provide tools which are particularly suited to the investigation of these qualitative questions. These questions should be answered in the process of planning an economic development project.


This paper has identified the three components which must be considered in anticipating and measuring the effects of projects on intra-household resource distribution: (1) resources, including human time and skills, and the cultural material environment; (2) cultural rules for classifying time and materials and social patterns of resource distribution; and (3) the health and welfare consequences of available resources and the cultural patterns for allocating them. Knowledge of what these quantities are, the appropriate units for measuring them, and the mechanisms comparing them from the outside observer's/scientist's point of view and from the native's cognitive point of view is a prerequisite for effectively anticipating the kinds of changes a project will bring about, and understanding why, in certain instances, people will reject efforts to "help" them. The anthropological models for analysing project consequences include:

  1. Ecological variables, such as measurements of:
  1. Economic variables to evaluate etic and emic values in the production process in terms of:

Cross-cutting each of these dimensions are social values in the production, distribution, and consumption process, encompassing the social and cultural values of human relations in production, allocation, and consumption. These go beyond the economic value of what is produced and the scientific notions of what would be most efficient. Time use of men, women, and children in households, what is produced, and who receives and controls the output of the production process are all affected.

  1. Social variables, examining the types of production and consumption units involved, with given structuring by age and sex, and flexibility in different contexts.
  2. Cognitive-symbolic variables, including the mechanisms and classifications used in the production and consumption of goods. Concepts to be defined are:

Anthropologists are currently improving our ability to examine the kinship and coresidential factors contributing to the formation of production, distribution, and consumption units as they relate to other functional and activity groups within a society and to identify the potential (positive or negative) effects of these patterns on nutritional, health, and socio-economic outcomes. The task remains to incorporate such perspectives on domestic organization into the social and economic models generally used by policy and programme planners. Incorporating anthropological perspectives is equally important whether the objective is to ascertain current nutritional, health, and socio-economic conditions, to identify aetiological factors in the social fabric, or to determine how such conditions contributing to inadequate social welfare might be modified. Moreover, the social historic data on forms and functions of household units can help policy planners anticipate the adjustments that might be made at the household level to particular kinds of economic development initiatives, given structure, function, and flexibility/formation rules of a particular society at a certain point in time. Current socio-economic changes taking place in both rural and urban environments indicate a pressing need to understand how men, women, and children allocate their productive time and arrange social obligations to ensure subsistence and decide on purchases beyond it.

Some of the changes entailed in social distribution of resources brought about by projects are less tangible; for instance, the "value" of being female, a mother, a member of a particular group or the possessor of a particular cultural skill. Anthropologists are sensitive to such concerns. Yet they are aware that, in most cases, people enjoying such "social value" are also amenable to changes that will bring about a less arduous style of life. As anthropologists record the contexts in which changes occur, by choice or default, they also try to understand the shifting trade-offs between exertion and social value, and to anticipate how such changes will affect the acceptance and success of development interventions.


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