Married to the mop

The Social and Political Economy of the Household - The Measurement of Household Welfare
October 26, 1995

How to relate the private issues of domestic and personal life to the pace and nature of social and economic change in the public world is one of the greatest challenges facing us all. This includes social scientists, who to date have demonstrated a remarkable resistance to developing theoretical frameworks and methodological practices capable of integrating the two. Trapped in the metalanguage of "work" as opposed to "family life", and of housewives and wives as appendages of houses and husbands respectively, social science was for long unable to accommodate the harshly gendered nuances of both public and private labour.

Then along came the feminists who drew a scarcely respectable attention to the practice of housework as work, and to an alternative view of households as repositories of social inequality. And then what? Much recent work suggests that the feminist reconceptualisation has now largely been relegated to history, although a few Jurassic Parks of dinosaur-like activity may still continue. The emphasis now is on the micro and macro-economics of household relations. "The" household has replaced "the" family as the normative icon and unit of statistical analysis. "Work" signifies, once again, the marketised unit of productive labour, rather than the unmarketised activity of biological and social reproduction.

These two books are splendid examples of the backlash against the feminist analysis of housework. Written and edited by mainly male economists and quantitative social scientists, both conjure up a landscape of household behaviour shaped by concepts such as preference, strategy, negotiation and choice which is very similar to the landscape of economic theory textbooks presented to first-year undergraduates in the 1960s. It is hard to gain any sense here of the real lives of ordinary men and women who struggle daily to make sexual love compatible with earning a living and bringing up children in a society where poverty and altruism sit side by side as outcasts of a competitive antisocialist system. The point is as much that quantitative study risks ignoring the necessary insights of qualitative work as that the hard labour of the home may simply elude rational economic man.

What additional understandings of the public-private divide can such books give us? The Measurement of Household Welfare begins with an argument for the value of the household as a topic in applied economics because of its ability to blend theory and practice. This suggestion that the household is mainly interesting as a tool for developing applied economics is borne out by the rest of the book, mostly devoted to equations or graphs which set out the detailed steps of applied economic analysis required in the application of different models. The book's overall focus is the measurement of individual welfare within the context of the household. Problems are acknowledged: the ageist incorporation of children's into parents' welfare; the non-sharing of household resources in practice; the inability of most available data to measure subjective perceptions of welfare; the assumption that all "nonmarket" time is leisure. Some models of household behaviour did succeed in updating the bias of early models in proposing the notion of a "single caring member" who allocates resources using altruism rather than self-interest. But the predictable problem here turned out to be that such members, being almost invariably women, are likely to lack the power to make their altruistic choices happen.

There is real value in testing the way theories and models work against real data. For example, Patricia Apps's chapter elegantly shows how the labour supply models used in tax reform studies ignore the different meanings of "work" and "home" to different household members, and are thus likely to produce misleading policy conclusions. Yet this merely points to a further fundamental problem - the derivation of the models themselves.

The authors of some of the models referred to in The Measurement of Household Welfare might have profited from reading some of the second book. The chapter on strategies in The Social and Political Economy of the Household by Michael Anderson and colleagues does, for instance, usefully demonstrate how women's ability to plan for the future is constrained by living in couples, whereas the opposite tends to be true of men. (This theme of planning and future orientations feeds into the fantasy of social scientists and policymakers that the poor, who have less, ought therefore to plan more. Planning does not make much sense unless you have resources to plan with and for.)

The Social and Political Economy of the Household offers both a contrast to, and a repetition of, the themes of the welfare book. It is more firmly rooted in empirical data - the six local labour markets studied in the Economic and Social Research Council-funded social change and economic life initiative - and it attempts to address some important questions about the relationship between changes in the labour market and in the home at the level of gendered practices and ideologies. In common with the other book, however, the dominant model is that of rational middle-class man and woman selecting, negotiating, and choosing their way through difficult career and family decisions with little sense of the breakdown in consensus and the emotional and physical conflicts that we know from other studies often mark these interpersonal processes. A few signs of this other reality do peek through, particularly of the amazing disparity between what men and women say about men, women and housework and what they actually do. The chapter by Jonathan Gershuny and colleagues is as convincing on the evidence for a "negotiated consensual myth" here as it is unconvincing on the revolution in men's commitment to housework. All studies show that the bulk of domestic work and childcare is still done by women, whatever the level of their own commitment to the paid labour market. It is this that needs explaining, and I somehow doubt that the economists have the tools to do so.

Ann Oakley is professor of sociology and director of the social science research unit, Institute of Education, University of London.

The Social and Political Economy of the Household

Editor - Michael Anderson, Frank Bechhofer and Jonathan Gershuny
ISBN - 0 19 8938 8 and 8935 3
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £40.00 and £14.95
Pages - 288

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