The Household: Informal Order around the Hearth

February 5, 2009

The big question this book asks is: how does a leaky roof get fixed? It isn't trivial or ironic at all that Robert C. Ellickson, a professor of law at Yale University, hints that the failures of most utopian "intentional" communities (such as countercultural communes) are mostly about washing-up and repairs. This book attempts to provide an overview of how households (as distinct from families) find solutions to problems like leaky roofs. The jacket claims that Ellickson uses legal analysis, sociological theory and economics to reach his conclusion. In reality, what he uses is transaction cost economics, and those branches of social and legal theory that have been colonised by it, to come to a very limited answer about how the washing-up gets done or the roof gets fixed.

Ellickson works through all the reasons why for him (although he claims it as a universal principle), the "consort with intimates" model works best. In the case of the household (those people who share one of three relationships: co-owners, landlord-tenants or co-occupants), sharing "hearth" and kitchen works best for small groups of intimates because this reduces the transaction costs in negotiating. And where this small-scale consort with intimates occurs, the law is best left out (in his partial view) other than in providing the fundamentals of private property, free exit and contract. People will resolve potential conflict through their own rational but informal interactions.

The account of household strategies or "informal order around the hearth" is an empirically rich, carefully argued and intriguing read, but one that is utterly flawed. Where there are liberal legal systems, Ellickson argues, a universal household type will follow. In essence, he claims, people (in liberal societies) form their "best" informal relationships with intimates. That both these claims are tautologies does not seem to trouble Ellickson in the slightest. Perhaps, in law, this does not matter; analytically, it does. There is a considerable amount of empirical data in the book: that all of it is drawn from liberal regimes, bar those "failed" utopian experiments in the Soviet Union and Israel, equally does not affect his confidence.

Ellickson does concede - in a "thick" model of rational choice theory, in other words one that accepts some limiting social structures - that "exogenous norms" have their influence on behaviour in the household. That these norms are simply taken for granted speaks volumes about the value he places on the legions of studies exploring the cultural specifics of intimate ordering around the hearth by anthropologists and sociologists, which he dismisses in a swoop by suggesting that they "shun overarching theories and instead ... stress the influence of particular cultural traditions on household structure and governance". Clearly, however, that specificity is the point of social anthropology. How washing-up and roof mending are done expresses different things in different contexts.

Gift exchange is just one of the strategies Ellickson cites as operating in this informal rational-choice model. British sociology held a vigorous, intellectual and controversial debate on the notion of household strategies, sparked by Ray Pahl's interest in, among other things, how households fix their leaky roofs in his book Divisions of Labour (1984). One answer was indeed the gift of labour by, for example, a father skilled in building who fixes it for his son. The sociologists, however, balked at the suggestion that this is a simple solution. There is choice at the point of offer but constraint (for example, in the gendered, classed notion of who can fix leaky roofs) at the point of opportunity. Ellickson recognises that gendered, classed exchange plays a role in how leaky roofs might get fixed, but he doesn't give a hoot as long as the game concludes efficiently. He claims that ultimately the person who owns the roof will make the best decision. I have less confidence.

The Household: Informal Order around the Hearth

By Robert C. Ellickson. Princeton University Press. 2pp, £14.95. ISBN 9780691134420. Published 21 August 2008.

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