Spatial and Social Perspectives on Household Organization

Spatial and Social Perspectives on Household Organization

Households are conceived as both spatial and social units which may take on different configurations from each perspective. This point is represented in American culture in situations in which happily and successfully married couples live separately because they are employed in different locations. Spatially, and according to the census definition, they form two separate households: perhaps a single person unit and a lone-parent one. However, from a basic social perspective the two partners still function as a cohesive family and usually form a single economic establishment, holding joint assets and transferring income to meet needs as they arise. As such, the domestic functions are more important than the spatial arrangement in establishing the core unit for social analysis.

A similar problem emerges in the more general consideration of the matrifocal family. This is essentially a female-headed lone-parent family, which has become the most common domestic form in many African American communities. It is identified according to the standard census definition of a household as "housing unit". However, as in the previous situation, household members are often critically linked to individuals in other households with whom their share and exchange basic domestic responsibilities such as childcare and financial support. Accordingly, one researcher has suggested that the relevant unit of analysis for this arrangement is not the census household but the “domestic network” which involves cooperation between many types of kin (Stack 1974).

A final illustration comes from a completely different cultural context, a group of spatially dispersed Ga fish sellers in Ghana (Schwimmer 1976). This group of women understakes the distribution of one of the most critical food items in the country and its single most important protein source. In the traditional ocean fishery, before the advent of mechanized trawlers and packing plants, the whole catch was harvested from an inshore fishery with the use of canoes and nets. Men were responsible for the actual fishing. Their wives took undertook the processing and selling in a string of marketplaces that extended up to a hundred miles into the hinterland. To provide a stable organization for the distribution chain, agents of the larger fish traders would establish residences in the up-country markets to receive and sell the stock that had been shipped from the coast. The supplier-agent relationship was usually based on a mother-daughter tie or a similar kin relationship. The mother would be responsible for all the financing and would theoretically receive all the profits after providing commissions for her daughters. She would also accumulate assets in the business, which they would eventually inherit to start independent business of their own. The large trader would live permanently on the coast, usually with her husband. The upcountry sellers might also have husbands on the coast and live away from them or would marry and cohabit in their towns of residence. All the women in the system would keep the financing of their fishing operation strictly separate from their conjugal accounts, even to the point of paying their own husbands for the original catch. Thus from a spatial perspective, the residential arrangement reflects the presence of several, widely dispersed and separate units. However, the basic domestic economy suggests a single unit, composed of a mother and her daughters. It was also a strong social consolidation that was economically more important than and often outlasted the marital tie.

© Brian Schwimmer, All rights reserved
Department of Anthropology
University of Manitoba
Created: October 2003