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8. Household organization and expenditure in a time perspective: social processes of change

Centro de Estudios de Estado y Sociedad (CEDES), Buenos Aires, Argentina


Household dynamics involve processes of change that are best studied in a time perspective. Changes in household organization over time are catalysed by two sets of distinct but interacting influences. First, there are the inevitable changes in household organization as members age and their status changes in culturally prescribed ways during their life-cycle. Superimposed on these are external forces including cultural, political, historical, and social factors that propel households to reorganize.

This paper addresses methodologic and conceptual issues pertaining to the measurement and analysis of processes of social and political change, and their effects on household dynamics. It illustrates the contributions of qualitative studies in the investigation of intrahousehold dynamics. Qualitative methods are particularly effective for uncovering patterns of social organization and mechanisms of change, and play an important role in identifying dimensions and measures to be included in subsequent, more representative, quantitative studies (cf. Scrimshaw, this volume). The paper is based on insights from an in-depth, longitudinal study of fifteen working-class households in Greater Buenos Aires, Argentina, from 1976 to 1983, a period of economic recession, political repression, and profound social transformations.


The household is a dynamic institution, its organization constantly adapting to internal and external influences. But how exactly does one assess these changes? Household organization itself is difficult to measure (cf. Heywood, Messer, this volume). Moreover, households do not exist in a vacuum. They function day-to-day in a larger context including cultural, social, historical and political components - that changes over time. Their organization must be examined in a time perspective in order to understand how households reorganize as they adapt to these influences.

Measuring the time dimension, however, poses a critical methodological problem. Most surveys and cross-sectional studies take a static view of family and household: reality is what is being chronicled at the moment. Time-use studies that record the allocation of time by each member to various tasks, such as outside work, housework, or leisure, focus on everyday life (cf. Johnson, this volume). But everyday life is only one point in the progression of individual life-courses and family cycles (Balan and Jelín, 1979). Shifts and transitions in the life-cycle are revealed in daily life, at times as very small, gradual, and almost imperceptible cumulative changes, at other times as dramas and crises. In this sense, the effects of time are not linear but occur in stages. Significant transitions qualitatively alter the life condition of the individual and the distribution of power and tasks in the household.

Furthermore, household members age simultaneously but along different personal and social paths. The transitions the various household members make may require mutual adaptations and shifts in the organization of the entire household: as children reach adulthood and start working, younger siblings may need to contribute to household tasks; a grandmother becomes ill and can no longer help with household maintenance, so her daughter takes care of her in addition to her own children; the birth of a baby, marital separation, or widowhood all are junctions accompanied by significant task redistributions.

Analytically, a dynamic perspective requires separating the various time dimensions that result in the cross-sectional picture. One of these time dimensions is the biographical lifecycle development of each person. "Normal" life consists of continuous change linked to the biological and social aspects of the aging process. The life-cycle is a socially structured pattern of shifts over time (Elder, 1975, 1978; Balan and Jelín, 1979). A second dimension is what Hareven (1977) calls "family time." This consists of the interaction between each individual's life-course and those of other family and household members. Although there are strong cultural norms regarding an ideal family cycle (Glick, 1947), the increasing variability and choice in family life-styles and household structures today call for the development of more flexible models. In family time, for instance, co-residence (household composition) may not always be the crucial factor determining mutual obligations and rights, as exemplified by the duties and responsibilities of divorced parents toward their children, or the financial and time obligations to care for aging parents living outside the home.

Just as in project identification and programme planning (cf. Rogers, this volume), the perspective from which a given problem is approached determines the ideal type of data to be gathered. The dynamic life-cycle perspective implies a longitudinal approach, with data collected via retrospective life-histories or follow-up studies. In so far as there are interrelationships among the life-cycles of various persons in the family and household, information must be gathered from all household members. Finally, since it is essential to understand the meaning of actions for the subjects involved in order to construct accurate analytical models, links should be established between the interviews of the household members.

Even in cases where the available sources of information are not longitudinal nor based on personal testimonies, cross-sectional data can be interpreted with a life-course perspective, taking time into account as a basic dimension of social reality. This is a particularly useful approach for programme planners and project designers who do not have the time to do long-term studies.

That the life-cycle unfolds in a social environment undergoing change makes the analysis even more complex. The historical circumstances, the specific conditions in which processes of family and individual change take place, are variables that must be included explicitly. Historical time has to be part of studies of household dynamics. Only then can one untangle changes due to the "normal" life-course from the transformations that lifecourses undergo in the process of macro-social change.


Households are the social units in charge of the organization of reproductive tasks, both those geared towards long-term reproduction of the population (i.e. childbearing and childrearing) and those which maintain daily household function. Even in highly monetized and market-oriented societies, the production of goods and services for household consumption is a key household economic activity. In fact, the participation of household members in the labour force (i.e. in the social process of production) rests on the provision of a considerable amount of domestic work, very often socially invisible, carried out in the "private" realm of the household (Glazer-Malbin, 1976; Michel, 1978; Himmelweit and Mohun, 1977; Jelín, 1984a).

A household is not an undifferentiated set of individuals who equally share all activities linked to its maintenance. It is a social organization, a microcosm of relations of production, reproduction, and distribution. Structured power relations and shared ideology cement the organization and assure its reproduction (cf. Safilios-Rothschild, this volume). Internal differentiation and stratification of households are revealed in the diversity of activities and tasks individual members perform, and in the ways in which goods and services are distributed. Although the household is a unit with a common goal, it is also the locus of divergent interests and capabilities. Both solidarity and conflict are rooted in the social relations governing the intra-household division of labour and distribution of goods and services (Hartmann, 1981). In so far as recruitment criteria are based on kinship and family ties, household organization and its internal division of labour follow the lines of age/sex/kinship distinctions embodied in the Western patriarchal tradition.

Household organization and dynamics can be analysed at two levels: (1) in relation to external political and social institutions; and (2) in relation to the intra-household division of labour and allocation of resources. Regarding the first perspective, societies differ as to how productive and reproductive responsibilities are allocated among social institutions. The question of where the responsibilities of the state, of private enterprises functioning within the free market, and of other non-profit organizations leave off, and those of individual households begin, is an issue of political and ideological importance. At the core of the issue is the social distribution of costs and benefits. In modern times, this question is especially controversial when it comes to deciding who bears the costs of maintaining and reproducing the population: how many state services, and for what sector of the population? What tax structure? How will taxes be spent? Since they are practically powerless to influence the inter-institutional division of responsibility in matters related to these areas, households adapt to, rather than struggle against, given conditions. A few neighbourhood or community organizations may be formed to defend local interests, to demand certain public services, or to provide collectively for certain basic needs, but they are not household-based orga nizations. The determinants of these institutional changes, although extremely important, will not be treated in this paper. These changes, however, have relevance beyond their impact on the specific economic conditions in a country, in that they usually imply the adoption of significant social policies affecting household tasks.

Table 1. Source and type of resources in urban working-class households

Type of resource
Source Monetary Non-monetary
Work of household members Labour-force participation Household production
Formal transfers Retirement pensions Access to public services, indirect subsidies
Informal transfers Mutual help based on reciprocity in exchange networks

The second analytical perspective probes the internal dynamics of households. The pertinent issues here are: (1) the intra-household allocation of tasks (division of labour);and (2) the intrahousehold distribution of goods and services (consumption and expenditure patterns). From the point of view of family well-being, the first is revealed in the way households obtain resources to carry out maintenance and reproductive activities. The second issue is the question of how patterns of consumption are established. Households elaborate mechanisms for the creation, defence, reproduction, and administration of resources. Urban working-class households procure resources in several ways (table 1).

How households combine their various resources and establish strategies for their own defence and improvement can be studied from long-term and short-term perspectives. In the life-cycle framework, when a new household is established (usually at the time of marriage in Western culture), the members provide the new household unit with material goods, ranging from clothes and household equipment to property or dwellings. They also bring "personal capital," their time and working capacities, to be sold on the labour market or utilized in domestic production. Third, they bring "social capital," a network of social relations based on kinship, friendship, and other criteria. Finally, they bring their social and citizenship rights, which give them access to a set of public goods, and their "cultural capital," in the form of information about goods, public services, the market, and how to gain access to them.

Social expectations exist about the progression of household goods over time: better household equipment, more social relations, and more cultural capital. The individual members' working capacities also change with time. The assignment of household members to market or household production is a key element of domestic organization. It can be observed in the division of labour at a given moment' and identified by studying the transitions in the life-cycle of members as they move from one phase of activity (such as studying) to another (gainful employment, for instance).

The assignment of tasks to various members involves a strong ideological "operation" geared to convince the members of their responsibilities to the group and to each other (SafiliosRothschild, this volume). At stake are decisions affecting the extent of contribution to the common budget of personal income, the performance of domestic chores for the benefit of others, and so on. Moral rewards and punishments, based on traditions and social definitions that ideologically sanction the division of labour be tween genders and generations, blur the visibility of the authority system, especially in the modern nuclear family where democratic and egalitarian values are acknowledged explicitly, if not observed in practice. Culturally prescribed sex-typing of family roles (i.e. the father being the breadwinner and the mother being responsible for the domestic and reproductive activities), and the social norms governing rights and duties of parents and children, constitute the traditional ideological pillars on which the perpetuation of this internal authority system rests.

The effects of these hidden dimensions of social organization on intra-household processes can only be uncovered through in-depth research on the various domestic activities and practices, on the assignment of household responsibilities, and on control and discipline within the household. Such research must be comprehensive, including: investigation of actual behaviour; verbal descriptions of activities; expressions of norms and values; and ideological contents and meanings (Jelín, Llovet, and Ramos, 1986).

The dynamics of budget and consumption patterns are usually more difficult to grasp than the logic of the division of labour. There is no clear-cut set of cultural norms governing resource distribution as there is for task allocation. In daily life, decisions about consumption are part of a wider pattern of intra-household social relations. And this takes place in a setting where love, affection, duties, and obligations are also present but not easily measured (cf. Engle, Safilios-Rothschild, this volume).

Given the chronic scarcity of monetary resources, bargaining about distribution among household members is an arena of intra-household conflict. Consumption involves constant and recurrent decision-making; it is a function of the flow of earnings, changes in relative prices, and individually felt needs. The division of labour and other arenas of domestic discussion and decision-making are relatively more stable, not requiring daily negotiations. They become subjects of discussion and decision-making during crisis situations (i.e. illness or unemployment) or at times of transition in the life-cycle (i.e. beginning school, childbirth, or leaving home). This is not to say that decisions about the division of labour are conflict-free. On the contrary, conflict over these issues may be particularly intense because it is rooted in deeply felt values and cultural norms. The most obvious example is the conflict over whether a woman "can" or "should" go out to work.

Outside the household, the socio-economic and political context, and its change over time, influences household dynamics. The impact of processes of social change on households can be assessed in two ways: first, the short-term quantitative effects (deterioration or enhancement of the standard of living, and increased or decreased labour-force participation); second, the long-term effects on household dynamics, both on the division of labour and on patterns of consumption.

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