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close this bookIntra-household Resource Allocation: Issues and Methods for Development Policy and Planning (UNU, 1990, 204 pages)
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View the documentThe internal dynamics of households: A critical factor in development policy
View the documentIncorporating household dynamics into the planning process
View the documentMethodological issues in the study of intra-household dynamics

The internal dynamics of households: A critical factor in development policy

Tufts University School of Nutrition, Medford, Massachusetts, USA


Development projects have diverse objectives: the modernization of agriculture, improvement in health and nutritional status, reduction in fertility, and increased levels of literacy and education, to name but a few. The underlying goal of all such projects, however, is the same: to generate self-sustained economic development in order to improve the well-being of the poor in developing countries. The best methods to achieve this goal have been a subject of theoretical argument and empirical exploration for at least 50 years, and, in spite of continuing debate, progress has been made in understanding some of the connections between development projects and development itself.

This progress has added new dimensions to an initially rather simple model of the relationship between a country's aggregate economic activity and the economic well-being of its members. Without denying the importance of national, macro-economic factors, it has more recently been recognized that sectoral relations (e.g. between agriculture and industry) must also be considered; that urban-rural and socioeconomic class distinctions must be recognized; and that disadvantaged population groups must be targeted specifically if they are to benefit from the development process. The most recent step in understanding development has been the insight that the process does not stop at the door of the household. If they are to be successful, development projects must take into account the ways in which households (themselves very variable in structure) allocate both goods and responsibilities among their members.

Project objectives, after all, focus on individuals. Health, nutritional status, literacy, even productivity are characteristics of individuals. Income, frequently measured at the level of the household, is a composite of individual members' incomes. Increasing evidence indicates that individual incomes are not simply pooled and then spent to meet household needs in some unified fashion. They are spent at least in part according to the earner's own preference.

The household is certainly an important unit for planning and analysis, but it cannot be the only unit. It serves as a framework for specialization of effort and redistribution of goods, but it can also be a mechanism for limiting access to productive resources and for disproportionately allocating the burdens of work and its returns. While altruism is indeed one motivating force of household members in the allocative process, self-interest is surely another.


The recognition that households follow allocative rules which may not always protect the most vulnerable members is of great significance for the selection and design of development projects. First, project benefits may be lost between the household and the target individual. It is a well-recognized problem of nutritional supplementation programmes, for example, that substitution of the supplement for home-supplied food often redirects the benefits of the supplement to other, less needy household members. Increasing a household's food supply should increase the food consumption of all members, but if only particular individuals within the household are targeted, patterns of distribution may cause those individuals to receive less than the projected amount. If the patterns are understood beforehand, then quantities can be adjusted or the programme can be redesigned to assure that sufficient food actually reaches the individuals in need.

Similarly, there are numerous cases in which agricultural extension services have been provided to households with the intention of increasing food production for subsistence, but the services were provided to men (or in such a way that only men would make use of them), while it was the women who had the primary responsibility for producing food (UNECA. n.d.; Loose, 1980). If the intra-household allocation of responsibilities had been understood in advance, services could have been planned to reach the appropriate individual, and the projects would have been more effective (Huggard, 1978).

Projects designed to increase household income have sometimes failed to improve indicators of individual well-being (Kennedy and Cogill, 1987), as in cases where the project increased the earnings of one member at the cost of another's, or where the form or the timing of the income was altered. It is not uncommon, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, to find that husbands and wives have explicit responsibility for different aspects of household maintenance (Guyer, 1980). If women in a given setting are primarily responsible for providing food to the household, then an increase in income to men may not be translated directly into nutritional improvement of at-risk members. This is not to say that women's income is always spent on family well-being and men's income is not. In some cases, men may devote their incomes to investment in productive resources, while women purchase gold or jewellery as a form of savings. One study showed that Bangladeshi women save through hoarding (Alamgir, 1977). These examples emphasize the point that income is often spent differently by different earners. In order to predict the results of increasing household income, planners must understand that all income is not treated the same.

Moreover, designing a programme on the assumption that resources are pooled, and that therefore it makes no difference who receives the benefits in the name of the household, results in inequity to those household members who do not actually receive the benefits. After the severe drought in the Sudan and the Sahel in 1975, herds were restored by granting cattle to male "heads of household." This scheme failed to acknowledge that, within the family unit, some cattle are owned by women who separately control their products, and that the women's loss was as serious and as important to rectify as the men's (Cloud, 1978). In the Mwea-Tebere irrigated rice settlement scheme in Kenya, payment for the harvested rice was given entirely to the nominal male head of the household upon delivery of the crop. Even though other household members had contributed a substantial amount of labour, they were unable to obtain payment equal to the value of their own work, because its full value was not recognized (Hanger and Moris,1973).

Of course, neither households nor their internal patterns of distribution are static. Households adapt to changing circumstances, and if, for instance, the member traditionally responsible for feeding the family can no longer do so, other members will surely take over. Out-migration of male household members seeking urban employment has resulted in women assuming formerly male agricultural tasks. LeVine (1966) has documented this in Kenya and South Africa, and Colvin and colleagues (cited in Chaney and Lewis, 1980) in Mali. In highland Peru, women manage the farms when their husbands are engaged in wage labour elsewhere (Albert), 1982).

Understanding existing distribution patterns may eventually permit planners to predict how they will change in response to particular interventions. The current state of knowledge in this field is not yet sufficiently advanced for that. At present, it can only be said that households do adapt, but not always rapidly, and not always in the most advantageous ways.

A second implication of intra-household dynamics for project planning is that benefits to some household members may result in burdens to others. Projects should therefore be planned, taking into account their potential secondary effects on household task allocation. Projects which encourage the education of children illustrate these trade-offs. In many if not most developing country settings, school-age children are important contributors of family labour, either in market or in home production (Nag et al., 1978; King-Quizon, 1978). The loss of children's labour time when they go to school results in a greater burden on the remaining household members (Minge - Klevana, 1978; Reynolds, n.d.). How this burden is redistributed will depend on how the children's work was viewed. If the children are seen as "helping their mothers," then the mothers may have to absorb the effects of their absence. This occurred in the Mwea-Tebere irrigated rice resettlement scheme in Kenya, where children were sent away to school as a project benefit (Hanger and Moris, 1973).

Alternatively, the product of children's labour may simply be lost to the household. In a number of societies where women of childbearing age are secluded, their children provide them with access to the market-place. Among the Moslem Hausa of northern Nigeria, for example, children are intermediaries in the sale of processed food produced by women at home (Longhurst, 1980). Here, the loss of children's labour may cause not only an increased workload for the women, but an actual reduction in their personal income. For households which can afford it, the greater returns to children's work after schooling in the long run may be worth the short-run loss, but not all households are free to make that calculation. An education programme will achieve higher participation under these circumstances if an accommodation can be made to fulfil the household's labour needs.

Several agricultural projects have had unanticipated effects on household labour use. In the Gambia, the introduction of irrigation for rice culture permitted an increase in planted area, which augmented the workload of women in weeding and transplanting even though they personally could not own land in the scheme. Eventually, women refused their labour, and the output of rice production actually fell (Dey, 1981). In Sierra Leone, a swamp rice project significantly increased the labour burden of male children relative to the rest of the household (Spencer, 1976). Thus, the introduction of one kind of labour saving technology increased the burden of another kind of labour. Had planners taken into account the different responsibilities of household members, they could have attempted to alleviate the latter burden as well, either directly or by reducing the labour cost of some other tasks normally done by these individuals.

A programme may even fail completely if it neglects the intra-household dimension. The concern over the loss of children's labour, which may hinder participation in educational efforts, also may be a basic cause of the rejection of family planning by many households. The long-range expectation of support by grown children in old age is often cited as a barrier to voluntary reduction of fertility, but the present or short-run economic contribution of children may be equally important. A less obvious example of the importance of understanding patterns of intra-household exchange is that of the Tolai Cocoa Project in Papua New Guinea (Epstein, 1975). Cocoa growers refused to bring their crop to the local marketing co-operative, even though the cooperative offered higher prices than private traders. Anthropological study found that, because the land which they farmed was inherited through their wives' line, farmers were reluctant to have public written records of the productivity of the land. When the co-operative stopped keeping these records, project participation increased.

A fourth concern for project planners is the danger that economic change may disrupt existing patterns of support among household members and within the extended kinship group or community. In a variety of settings, reciprocal arrangements among household members have been altered by shifts in the economic status of their various tasks. In the Gambia, for example, women's access to household resources was reduced when groundnuts, produced by men, were promoted as a cash crop, so that the perceived relative contribution of women to household income fell (Dey, 1981). In Java, the monetization of agricultural labour reduced the observance of traditional labour-exchange arrangements which guaranteed that the landless would have access to employment in return for a share of the crop (Hart, 1982 )

The conclusion to be drawn from these examples is that the success of development projects in any sector depends on an understanding of the sometimes complex economic and social relations among household members. In this context, "success" refers not only to the specific outputs of projects but also to their broader consequences for individual well-being. As we have shown, project benefits may be diluted or lost altogether as they are distributed among household members. Furthermore, projects, even those which achieve their proximate objective, may cause inequitable distribution of burdens and rewards. These secondary effects may create barriers to participation which ultimately result in outright project failure. Negative results can be avoided, and the likelihood of success increased, if the dynamics governing the allocation of resources and responsibilities within households are understood and taken into account in the planning process.

The papers in this volume present some of the recent evidence on how resources and responsibilities are allocated within households, and discuss ways of measuring the processes and the outcomes of intra-household allocation. Although research is still needed to identify the determinants of intra-household allocation patterns, what is already known can be used to improve the design of programmes and projects now being implemented.

Incorporating household dynamics into the planning process

All development involves the introduction of some economic or environmental change to achieve certain specified outcomes. Understanding household functioning permits a more accurate evaluation of the likelihood of the outcomes. Behavioural change cannot be forced, but can be induced. It is therefore critical not only to project planning but also to the formation of effective development policy that intra-household dynamics be taken into account.

Four broad areas relating to the household must be considered when setting development goals and selecting or planning projects. These are: (1) the amount of time available to different household members for participation in the project; (2) the allocation of household tasks to different members and the degree to which these tasks are transferable among members; (3) differential access to goods, both for production and for consumption; and (4) differential control over income.

Time Availability

Time is a critical element in development projects. Many types of interventions affect the total amount of time available to the household or propose to alter how time is spent. It was mentioned earlier that family-planning programmes and, to a lesser degree, primary education programmes indirectly lower labour time available to the household by reducing the number of its members or their availability. It has been well documented that the labour burden per person is lower in larger households (Loose, 1980; McSweeney, 1979; Evenson et al., 1979), since (apparently) the amount of extra work involved in maintaining additional household members is smaller than their contribution. A number of studies suggest that the net contribution of labour time which children provide becomes positive as early as age six (e.g. Navera, 1978). Given the other forces which militate against limiting family size in some cultures, such as the dependence of a woman's prestige on the number of her children and the reliance on grown children's support in old age, the poor showing of many family-planning projects does not come as a surprise. Such programmes might achieve better results if the labour constraints on households could be alleviated. Fetching water, for example, is a time-consuming task in many settings, often occupying one household member close to full-time. Piped water or a conveniently located well might reduce the labour burden, creating enough slack in the system so that the loss of a child's labour for education could be absorbed. This illustrates how one apparently unrelated project could enhance the effectiveness of another.

A primary issue in any agricultural or income-generating project is whether the proposed beneficiaries have the time to participate. Examples were cited earlier of projects which failed because the additional time burden they created was unacceptable. The same consideration applies to programmes which directly provide consumption goods such as health care, supplemental food, education and training. As Rosenzweig discusses in the next chapter, one of the major conceptual contributions of the "new household economics" (Becker, 1965; Lancaster, 1966) is the recognition that consumption of goods entails two kinds of costs - the direct costs of the goods consumed and the time it takes to consume them. Goods which are ostensibly free, therefore, still have a real cost such as that of the time taken to walk to the supplemental feeding site or health clinic, or the time required to attend a training programme.

Task Allocation

Closely related to the question of time availability is the issue of the distribution of tasks among household members. In most cultures, different kinds of work are considered suitable for different household members. These distinctions encompass the sexual division of labour as well as division by age and by status in the household. The rigidity of these distinctions is quite variable, and, with the exception of baby care and cooking, which are always women's tasks, and ploughing and land-clearing, which are usually men's, there is tremendous variability in the allocation of specific tasks between the sexes and ages from one culture to another. Attempts have been made to identify in a generally applicable way the determinants of task allocation to one sex or the other (Brown, 1970; Murdock and Provost, 1973), but these schemes do not have good predictive value, since the division of labour seems to be quite culture-specific. For example, similar tasks were allocated between the sexes differently in three ethnic groups of Nigeria (Tolley, 1978).

Nor is the division of labour immutable. Within certain limits, evidence shows that as circumstances change, so may the division of labour. Cases were already mentioned of women taking over the agricultural tasks of men who had migrated to the cities (Levine, 1966; Pala, 1978; Alberti, 1982; Reynolds, 1982). It has been argued that women can take over men's tasks more readily than men can adopt those of women (Reynolds, 1982), but changes in task allocation occur in both directions. There are numerous instances of men taking over crops formerly cultivated by women when the introduction of new technology or the development of cash markets made these crops more profitable (Burfisher and Horenstein, 1982). Considerable evidence from settings as diverse as Ethiopia, Bangladesh, and India indicate that the sexual allocation of tasks is less rigid in lower socio-economic groups where such artificial constraints on productive work are an unaffordable luxury (Taddesse, 1982; Alamgir, 1977; Mies, 1982). And certain women, such as widows and the elderly, seem to be exempt from the task limitations imposed on other women (Little, 1987). These issues are addressed in detail by Messer and SafiliosRothschild in this volume.

What is important, for planning purposes, is that particular tasks are not always transferable among household members and, once transferred, may not revert. Project planners must recognize both the barriers to task reallocation and the dangers inherent in redefining tasks as a result of a project. A number of writers (Abdullah and Zeidenstein, 1975, 1982; Chand et al., 1980; Bryson, 1981; Mitra, 1981; Burfisher and Horenstein, 1982; Acharya and Bennett, 1983) have identified the need to target women specifically in development projects and have suggested that one way to accomplish this is to implement projects which focus on women's activities or women's crops. In certain cases, this approach was tried but was unsuccessful. For instance, a project to promote marketing of rice, cassava, and melons in Nigeria, where these were traditionally subsistence crops grown by women, resulted in the crops being adopted by men (Burfisher and Horenstein, 1982). Apparently it was not the crop, but its subsistence nature, which gave it its identification with women. This shift could have been forestalled, or at least mitigated, if, for example, marketing had been through women's co-operatives. Similarly, the introduction of mechanized rice-hulling in an area of Java caused this task to be taken over by men, depriving women of an important source of cash employment (Storer, 1977).

The solution is not to withhold labour-saving innovations in areas of women's employment, but rather to introduce them in such a way that they do not shift the allocation of the task away from women. Moreover, work burdens will not necessarily be reallocated equitably. For example, in Laguna, Philippines, when women work in the market up to six hours per day, they do not reduce their work time at home (Folbre, 1984), and men do not increase their contributions to household tasks (King-Quizon, 1978).

Access to Resources

A third major concern in project planning is that household members have unequal access to the goods owned or obtained by the household. The determinants of access to consumption goods are discussed by Engle in this volume, As she points out, the concept of joint ownership by the household, rather than by individuals, is inapplicable in many settings, particularly in Africa (Guyer, 1980). Goods such as food may be distributed within the household according to accepted cultural patterns which do not match planners' preferences. The argument has been made that food, as well as other goods such as health care and education, are allocated within the household according to the perceived economic contribution of the members. The word "perceived" is critical, since much productive work, which contributes to real household income, does not enter the market sector, and thus may not be recognized in the household's structure of entitlements. Examples of this kind of work are food processing and preparation, child care, and household maintenance. This is work which conserves rather than earns income. The services provided are essential to the household and would have to be purchased from outside if they were not provided internally, but since no economic transaction takes place, the value of the service is often not recognized (Abdullah and Zeidenstein, 1975; Hogan and Tienda, 1976).

The generalization that women and children are always disfavoured in food distribution is not supported by the evidence (see, for example, Lipton, 1983). In much of sub-Saharan Africa, where women have well-defined, explicit economic roles (Guyer, 1980), they also appear to receive their fair share of food in the household (Nicol, 1959a, 1959b; McFie, 1976; Kennedy, 1988). Distribution of food within the family, however, often fails to meet the needs of all members when the quantities available are only barely adequate, and there are systematic patterns in some cultures which determine who in the household is most likely to fall short. For example, there is evidence of discrimination against women and girls in food distribution in South Asia, where women's economic roles are more circumscribed (Grewal et al., 1973). A provocative analysis of Indian census data (Rosenzweig and Schultz, 1981) found that differential allocation of resources among children was parallel to their potential economic roles. The survival of girls vis-à-vis boys, taken to reflect the distribution of food and health care, was higher in areas with significant earning opportunities for women, and lower where women had few economic options. Not surprisingly, this relationship was strongest in low-income households, where resource constraints were greatest. A parallel finding from African studies is that females apparently are favoured in household resource distribution in areas where a high brideprice is paid; where no brideprice is paid or a dowry is given, girls did not receive as large a share of the household's food. Other studies in Africa, however, have found that women do consume less than their proportionate share (Schofield, 1974/75).

This discussion underscores the importance of understanding intra-household behaviour if one is to predict the effects on individuals of policy change and programme implementation. Although much of this evidence is suggestive rather than definitive, it does imply that one policy approach which would encourage equitable distribution of resource flows inside the household is to work toward providing economic opportunities in the market sector to both women and men on an equal basis. Alleviating the burden of women's tasks inside the home, though it would provide real benefits, may not have the same effect on women's command over resources as providing work opportunities outside the home, where their economic contribution may be more visible. Certainly, current research indicates that resources provided to a family or household as a unit may not reach the target individual unless distribution patterns are taken into account.

Changes in Income

Finally, those planning development projects and guiding policy must understand the potential effect of altering the form, period, or earner of income. There is considerable evidence that all income which enters a household is not treated identically (Kumar, 1978; Guyer, 1980; Jones, 1983a). A central objective of most development policy is to raise the incomes of the poor, and generally it is recognized that programmes which expand income-earning opportunities are the most likely to generate continued, self - sustaining economic growth. But there are numerous examples of large-scale economic development projects which had unintended negative effects for some household members because they changed the form in which income was received, the period, or the earner. The Mwea-Tebere irrigated rice resettlement scheme, which disrupted many aspects of the resettled household's economy, also channelled all income through the male household head. Women felt that they had less access to and less control over the income than when they were earning their own income directly (Hanger and Moris, 1973). A plantation development project in Papua New Guinea, which raised incomes substantially but changed the economy from subsistence-based to cash, had a negative nutritional impact on children because households were unaccustomed to using scarce cash to purchase food (Lambert, 1982). Had this problem been anticipated, it could have been avoided, perhaps by incorporating a home food production component into the project.

In many studies, women report that they have much greater control over the income which they directly earn than that which is earned, for example, by their husbands (Ahmad, 1980 [Bangladesh]; Loose, 1980 [Senegal!; Roldan, 1982 [Mexico|). Anecdotal evidence (Pale, 1978; Tripp, 1981; Nelson, 1979), supported by some empirical research (Guyer, 1980), suggests that the income earned by women is disproportionately spent on food and basic household necessities, in comparison with men's income. Few studies make the point, however, that women generally work in the market out of severe economic necessity so it is not surprising that their incomes should be spent on basic needs (Singh, 1977). Kumar (1978) found in Kerala, India, that in households where women worked for wages their incomes were more highly correlated with their children's nutritional status than were total household income or men's wage income. These households, however, were poorer and had less land available to them than did those in which the women were not engaged in wage work. It is to be expected that cash-income increments will have a greater effect on child nutrition in households with the most severe resource constraints.

Moreover, the argument supporting women's spending preference for food does not always take into account how men's income would be spent in the absence of women's income. In an irrigated rice project area of Cameroon, Jones (1983a) found no significant association between the amount of rice retained for home consumption and the sex of the individual controlling the disposition of the crop. Nor was the amount of household expenditure on the sauce ingredients (to supplement the grain staple) significantly different in male- and female-headed households. Married women spent less of their own money on these items than did independent women; their husbands' contributions made up the difference. In contrast to the irrigated rice area, women in the poorest, non-rice cultivating village in the study bought the bulk of purchased grain for their households during the hungry season, using their own incomes.

Jones (1983b) also found that women preferred to maximize their own incomes rather than the total income of their households, when the two were in conflict. Once again, the important conclusion emerges that income is not entirely fungible. In designing projects and proposing broader sectoral policies to promote development, policy-makers must be alert to the possible consequences of altering the nature of income while attempting to raise it.

Defining the Household

Throughout this discussion, I have relied on an intuitive understanding of what a household actually is. This has been intentional, since the definition of the household is an intractable theoretical problem (Messer, 1983). Given the varied and complex nature of human society, no definition of the household, however general, completely fits all circumstances. One can identify a variety of functions usually associated with the household: co-residence; joint production; shared consumption; kinship links (Bender, 1967). Yet as Heywood points out in part III of this volume, these functions often define different sets of individuals. In many places, the unit of joint production consists of a different set of individuals from the food consumption unit (e.g. Dorjahn, 1977 [Sierra Leone]; Foster, 1978 [Thailand]; Longhurst, 1980 [Nigeria]). Moreover, co-residence may not always be associated with shared production or shared consumption (White, 1980). The definition of co-residence itself may not be clear where many dwelling units form a single compound (cf. Gurney and Omolalu, 1971). Migration of household members also creates ambiguities: a person may leave the household for most of the year but return to contribute labour in certain seasons, share in the product of the household of origin, and contribute remittances for the support of resident household members.

Any fixed definition of the household can create arbitrary and possibly misleading distinctions. For example, in Taiwan, the census defines a nuclear family as part of an extended family household if it receives more than 50 per cent of its income from the extended family. This tends to understate disparities in household income, since the poorest nuclear families have their incomes combined with the larger unit (Greenhalgh, 1982). Yet to exclude the extended family from the definition leaves out an important dimension of sources of support for the members of the nuclear group and vice versa.

Planners and researchers alike must accept the fact that the equivalent of the Western concept of the household does not exist in most places. Guyer's (1980) definition acknowledges the fluid nature of the boundaries separating the household from the community of which it is a part. In her words, "a household is a particularly dense center in a network of exchange relationships." Rather than force a definition on the household which has more exceptions than rules, it makes sense, as Heywood (in this volume) suggests, to define the household unit according to the particular dimension of interest, whether it be sharing of production responsibilities, common uses of income, co-residence, or the common cooking pot. Adopting a definition of the household which is inappropriate to the culture being studied may result in erroneous conclusions about household processes. For example, in some cultures, women traditionally return to their natal home to bear their first child, and remain there for several months after the birth. Resources which raise the income of the woman's affinal family would therefore have no effect on the welfare of the mother and her newborn in these early months. It would, however, be a mistake to conclude that the head of the affinal household was somehow withholding resources from his wife and child; rather, the wife is, temporarily, a member of a different household whose resources affect her level of living.

There is no doubt that organization into households is a vital survival mechanism for individuals. Where traditional households (co-residential kinship groups of various kinds) do not exist, people commonly establish reciprocal relationships with "fictive kin" who serve similar functions of mutual support and specialization of household maintenance tasks (Nieves, 1979). Regardless of how it is defined, the household is definitely not a homogeneous unit in which all members share a common set of preferences. It can better be seen as a group of people bound by an implicit contract which specifies the rights and obligations of each member. As in conventional contracts, the balance of rights and obligations is determined in part by the alternatives available to each member and in part by their relative power. Thus Jones (1983a) found that married women in Cameroon provided their husbands with labour at below-market wage rates. Although these women could not completely refuse to work out of fear of being beaten, they worked less for their husbands than did wives who were paid a higher wage. Moreover, they spent the balance of their time working on crops which were less profitable, but whose profit they personally controlled. Similarly, within the Moslem Hausa conjugal unit in northern Nigeria (Longhurst, 1980), labour and goods are often exchanged for cash, rather than pooled and redistributed according to need. Jelín, in this volume, describes an example of how the consumption preferences of individuals within households conflict with one another.

A cultural component is inherent in the nature of what might be called the household contract. A strong tradition exists in Africa of separate economic spheres of activity for men and women, with considerable independence for each (Guyer, 1980). But even in a traditionally patriarchal Asian society such as Bangladesh, economic forces affect the balance of decision-making power in the household. Women who bring in wage income have a greater influence on how the income is spent than do those who work only in the home (Alamgir, 1977). That traditional patterns are in fact mutable is significant for development policy. It demonstrates that cultural factors are not an absolute constraint on behaviour, and that economic forces can generate lasting change and progress. This underscores the importance of identifying patterns of household behaviour because those patterns are indeed subject to outside influence. Jelín, in this volume, details some of the negative consequences these influences have if they are not explicitly taken into account in development policy.

Methodological issues in the study of intra-household dynamics

The study of internal household dynamics poses difficulties of definition, access, and measurement. Defining the household for study or for programme/project planning is already a difficult task. Households are private institutions, and their interactions and relationships may be considered too personal to discuss. Moreover, there is still much to be learned about what needs to be measured and how to measure it. Most of the empirical research on these issues has been carried out in the context of long-term research projects and doctoral dissertations where the cost of time-consuming data collection methods was not a deterrent to their use. Approaches are needed which can provide at least some guidance to project planners within a practical time horizon. One such approach is presented in the Appendix to this volume.

As a start, certain information may be obtained from the analysis of secondary data such as census information, household income and expenditure surveys (if they contain demographic information), and consumption and nutrition surveys. Valuable information can also be located in the ethnographic literature available on the area. There are few instances of planning for development in a location where no prior research has been done.

This is not to suggest that data collection as part of the planning process is superfluous, but any project should be evaluated in terms of its potential rate of return for the effort and resources expended. As this paper has demonstrated, knowledge of intra-household dynamics is vital to an accurate assessment of project outputs. It is therefore crucial to identify the most efficient ways of obtaining such knowledge. The issues which need to be addressed in this context are the following:

  1. Defining the unit of analysis.
  2. Measuring individual income and expenditure - that is, resource flows among and within households.
  3. Measuring time use and task allocation.
  4. Measuring individual access to household resources, including productive assets, food, education, and other human capital investments.
  5. Measuring the distribution of power and decision-making responsibility.

Defining the Unit of Analysis

The difficulty of defining precisely what a household is has already been discussed. Aside from this theoretical question, the practical problem exists that household composition and structure are highly variable over time. One study of household economy found that, over a one-and-a-half-year period, 20 per cent of the sample Embu households in Kenya were disrupted in some way (Haugerud, 1981). In a study of food consumption in Zambia, household structure was charted anew in each monthly round of data collection because variations in composition were so great (Kumar, 1982). Households adapt by changing their structure (Nieves,1979; Jelín, n.d.), so that information on the flexibility of household units over time is an important indicator of their ability to cope with economic stress and change (cf. Jelín, this volume).

In addition, individuals may belong to several different households at one time (Loufti, 1980), as when they receive support from both their natal and affinal families. While people cannot be studied outside the context in which they live, an effective way of getting around this problem is to take the individual as the point of departure, and to analyse the household or other support network to which he or she belongs as a characteristic (Watts and Skidmore, 1976). Heywood discusses a practical application of this approach in part III of this volume.

Income and Expenditure

Most income and expenditure surveys measure all income (cash and kind) flowing into the household and the household's total expenditure or consumption in a given reference period. It is still unusual to find a survey which distinguishes income by separate earner (exceptions are Kumar, 1978; Guyer, 1980; Jones, 1983b; Kennedy and Cogill, 1987; Rogers and Swindale, 1988) or expenditure by individual. Yet it is well recognized that, to obtain accurate income data, each earner must be questioned and each source of income separately identified: household members often lie to each other about the amount of their income or simply keep it secret. While useful for some purposes, aggregate household income does not provide the information needed to study intra-household processes. In many cases, this data is obtained in household interviews, and simply needs to be preserved in disaggregated form so that it can be used in later analyses.

Obtaining details about individual income flows requires making the trade-off of a smaller sample size. For planning purposes this does not pose a problem: the statistical accuracy preserved in quantity measures of large-scale surveys is likely to be less important than capturing the nature and approximate relative size of resource flows in and out of households and among their members.

Data from large-scale surveys may in some cases be used to infer patterns of intra household resource allocation. An example of one such innovative analysis is the Rosenzweig and Schultz (1981) study which used census data on male-to-female ratios and additional information of female employment opportunities by region to infer something about the determinants of investment in child health and survival. Many countries use household-level income and expenditure surveys to establish the basis for a consumer price index. These might also be used to compare the spending patterns of households of varying composition, and then to make some educated guesses about the consumption patterns of given categories of individuals. This type of analysis must be viewed in most cases as indicative rather than conclusive, because it is often impossible to distinguish between equally plausible explanations of an outcome. For example, Hanger and Moris (1973) attribute reduced expenditure on food in the Mwea-Tebere rice project, with no reduction in income, to the shift in income earner. An alternative explanation might be the shift from a steady flow of small amounts of income to an annual, lump-sum payment. The observation that spending patterns and task allocation are different in households where women work may be explained by women's greater power and influence in such households, or simply by the difference in the implicit cost of women's time once they have entered the labour force. This confusion confirms the real need for undertaking studies which are explicitly designed to investigate intra-household questions.

Time Use and Task Allocation

The literature amply illustrates the danger of relying on recall and self-report to obtain information on time use. Studies which have compared recall with direct observation have found substantial differences between the two methods. One study in Upper Volta found that 44 per cent of women's work activities measured by direct observation were missed in a recall questionnaire (McSweeney, 1979). This is even greater than the 30 per cent difference measured between a 24-hour and a one-month time-use recall questionnaire in Java (Sajagyo et al., 1979). In the Philippines, King-Quizon (1978) found that children's market work time was three times as great when measured by direct observation than by recall. Relying on recall data to measure time use raises several problems. First of all, people simply may not know how much time they spend at a given task. Even in cultures that are not ruled by the clock as ours is, it is possible to construct appropriate chronometric references, as Zeitlin explains in part 111 of this volume. Furthermore, people may not define their tasks in the same way as the researcher; some activities done by one group may simply not be recognized as work by another. For instance, the women lacemakers in Narsapur, India, spend six to eight hours a day at the task, yet their husbands report this as leisure time, because it is not perceived as work (Mies, 1982).

Johnson's paper in this volume reviews the various methods for measuring time allocation. Time use can be directly observed by following a small sample of individuals continuously during a day or a sample of days; by observing a random sample of individuals during randomly selected 15-minute periods (Johnson, 1975); or by participant observation over some period of time (24 hours minimum). The method of spot-checking at random moments has the advantage of minimally disrupting normal activities and of providing a systematic body of observations. Pre-defined categories are not used, and multiple activities can be recorded. However, these random moments do not provide a sense of the organization and sequencing of activities, which may be important factors in how time is used and constrained. Therefore, this method should be combined with the observation of whole tasks (see Appendix, table A) or a time-use record that accommodates simultaneous and frequently interrupted tasks and maintains their temporal relationships (cf. Schlossman, 1986).

Access to Resources

The special case of intra-family food distribution has received considerable attention (Horowitz, 1980; Carloni, 1981; Nutrition Economics Group, 1982). The importance of individual-level measures has long been recognized, and various data-collection methods have been tested. The food question is complex because, unlike education and other resources, food consumption has meaning only in relation to nutrient need. Chaudhury (1983) suggests that one explanation for the commonly held notion that women receive less than their fair share of household food is that careful controls for activity level and body weight have not been used in data analysis. Making such adjustments, his study in one village in Bangladesh found no evidence of sex discrimination in food distribution in most age-groups. The question of whether the recommended nutrient intake used to determine dietary adequacy levels (WHO/FAD, 1985) may be set too high adds another dimension of uncertainty.

It is easier to measure outcomes (e.g. weight gain or loss, or nutritional status) than food consumption directly, but such measures do not distinguish patterns of food allocation from differences in energy expenditure, or in morbidity which affects growth. For purposes of simply indicating patterns of distribution, short-cut methods may be adequate. Check-lists and food frequencies have been used to indicate overall dietary quality, but once again methods designed specifically to measure intra - household distribution of food have not been widely used. Pinstrup-Andersen and Garcia, in part III of this volume, show clearly that such methods are indispensible, as household-level measures are inaccurate indicators of individual food intakes.

Power and Decision-making within the Household

The measurement of decision-making power within the household poses serious conceptual problems. First, genuine differences of opinion are likely to exist among household members as to who makes what decisions (Safilios-Rothschild, 1969). Second, people may not admit the true allocation of influence. Alamgir (1977) suggests that the female contribution to household decision-making is greater than either party will publicly acknowledge. A third consideration is that decisions take place in a context which limits alternatives. Studies from many countries indicate that women and men make decisions which pertain to their own spheres of activity (Laird, 1979 [Paraguay]; Cloud, 1978 [Sahel]; Alamgir, 1977 [Bangladesh]), but presumably in the female sphere some of these decisions are fairly limited in scope: not what type of crop to plant, but how much to plant. Roldan (1988) makes the important point that management of household finances need not imply control over them. In an environment of severe resource constraint, she points out that there are no decisions to be made; expenditure patterns are dictated by survival needs.

The best way to observe the allocation of decision-making may be to look at the results, that is, to look at investment and consumption decisions among households of a given type: female- versus male-headed, households where women do or do not work outside the home for pay. The only other approach is to use psychological methods or measurements which are not well suited to project planning.

Participant Observation Methods

Several researchers have argued that it is essential to have a fundamental understanding of a culture, such as can only be obtained by living in it, before more specific research questions can be addressed or interventions developed (e.g. Haugerud, 1979). Certainly, project experience has demonstrated the danger of treating, as it were, one symptom rather than the whole patient. One can view household dynamics as the fundamental and complex expression of a culture, requiring an integrated study of its various dimensions.

Epstein (1975) has suggested that the aid agencies make greater use of the relatively cheap resource of anthrolopogical studies, and argues that ordinarily there is sufficient lead time for such studies to be carried out in an area which has been targeted for aid

before specific projects are planned. An effort should at least be made to seek out those who have already worked in the target area and to review the work which has been done in the light of the specific questions which pertain to household dynamics. In this way, specific knowledge gaps can be identified, and resources can be most efficiently concentrated on obtaining the missing pieces of information. An awareness of the need for this information is probably the most important first step. The Appendix contains an approach to obtaining the information on intra-household dynamics needed for effective development planning.


The study of household dynamics in relation to development policy is a relatively new field. There are still a number of important empirical questions to be answered. Among these, perhaps most relevant to economic development, are questions of the effect of changing income-earning opportunities on the behaviour and well-being of household members. This relates to the ways in which the form, period, and reliability of income, as well as who earns it, influence how it is spent, and how these alter household decisions about consumption , investment, and fertility. Another important question underlying sound development policy is the balance between market work, home production, and the care of children. A third area of exploration is how to influence patterns of control over productive resources, especially as technological or marketing interventions alter their productivity and value.

As vital as these empirical questions are, it is perhaps even more important to identify timely and low-cost ways of obtaining information on development programmes. Such information has seldom been sought outside an academic or research context, and, as a result, the development of innovative and efficient data-collection methods has not been a priority. Now that the relevance of these questions is being recognized by the aid community, the development of systematic, practical approaches to their resolution should be placed high on the policy agenda. This volume is offered as a contribution to this process.


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