HOUSEHOLD. Definitions of what constitutes a household have always been dynamic and dependent on political, historical, and cultural factors. Prior to the nineteenth century, typical households were large and agriculturally self-sustaining, with most family members contributing to homestead productivity. The industrial revolution in Europe and the United States brought about changes in household and family structure that influenced fertility patterns and household size, including changes in gender roles and definitions of modernity.
The contemporary American household continues to change in composition and size. Married couples comprised 78 percent of households in 1950, but this percentage dropped dramatically over the next forty years to a low of 53 percent in 1998. The average size of the American household has also decreased in recent years. Over half of American households (57 percent) now consist of only one or two people, compared to an average of 3.1 persons in 1970 (USDS, 2001).
Other nations have also experienced rapid shifts in household size and composition. In their 2000/2001 General Household Survey, the National Statistics Office of Britain reported a doubling and tripling, respectively, of one-person and two-person households between 1971 and 2000. The percentage of married-couple households with dependent children dropped from 31 percent of all households in 1979 to 21 percent in 2000 (Walker et al., 2001).
The basic definition of "household" given by the U.S. Census is "all the persons who occupy a housing unit." The only qualification is that there can be no more than eight persons not related to the head of the household; the unit then becomes "group quarters" (USCB, 1999). Another governmental definition of household, determined by the Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is "individuals who live in a residential unit and purchase and prepare food together." This definition plays an important role in the Food Stamp Program, as the household is the basic unit on which benefits are granted. According to Food Stamp Program policy, people who share a housing unit but do not prepare and purchase food together are not considered a household. Thus, food is a crucial component of the Food Stamp Program's definition, even if not of that of the U.S. Census.
Food also plays a role in how other countries define a household. In the view of the Swiss Household Panel, one criterion that defines a household is whether household members share a meal at least once every week. Anthropologists and others often define a household in terms of food preparation and consumption: all individuals who consume food from one hearth belong to a household. Central to this is the idea of "commensality," or food sharing, and anthropologists have often documented the key role of food in the formation and maintenance of social relations both within the household and beyond. Nutritionists and economists have often used the household as a primary unit of analysis. While the household appears to be a "natural unit" for studies of food consumption and nutrition, this conceptualization poses a problem in many parts of Africa and Asia where households are polygamous or where "extended family" households are common.
Anthropologists are increasingly engaged in the examination of household dynamics, focusing on social interactions, marital-sexual power relations, and work or food allocation. Recent research has shown that household composition and size can play a considerable role in dietary intake and distribution. In some settings or cultures, particularly where food resources are insecure, gender or age discrimination may result in unequal food distribution among some household members.
Many cultures also assign significantly different positions and/or status levels to males and females. The types of high-social-value foods vary between cultures, but depending on the kind of food, its restriction could have significant nutritional implications for one gender or the other. Some cultural groups, such as the Chagga of Tanzania, have distinct food prescriptions and proscriptions for men and women. Males are proscribed against eating green vegetables, so females in households are ultimately the only members consuming these foods. Other societies may prohibit women from receiving foods considered to be of high social value, such as meat or animal products, particularly during pregnancy or lactation. However, these cultural norms of proscription or prohibition do not always reflect behavioral adherence. Women denied meat may be at higher risk for protein and iron deficiencies. In rural Nepal, unequal food distribution and cultural beliefs were shown to influence inadequate micronutrient intakes by women, and plate-sharing within households was protective among children for mild xerophthalmia, a clinical deficiency of vitamin A. Cultural beliefs, then, can influence both positive and negative nutrition and health outcomes.
To investigate nutrition and health status within and across households, it is important to understand the complex interrelationships of the overall environment. This is the strength of a biocultural approach that situates individuals and households within specific cultural and social settings.
See also Anthropology and Food; Division of Labor; Food Stamps; Gender and Food; Malnutrition; Nutritional Anthropology; Places of Consumption; Population and Demographics; Time.
Bentley, Margaret E., and Pelto, Gretel H. "The Household Production of Nutrition." Social Science and Medicine 33, no. 10 (1991): 1101–1102.
Castner, Laura, and Randy Rosso. Characteristics of Food Stamp Households Fiscal Year 1998. Alexandria, Va.: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Service, 2000.
Messer, Ellen. "Intra-Household Allocation of Food and Health Care: Current Findings and Understandings." Social Science and Medicine 44, no. 11 (1997): 1675–1684.
Pelto, Gretel H. "Intrahousehold Food Distribution Patterns." In Malnutrition: Determinants and Consequences, edited by Philip L. White and Nancy Selvey. New York: Liss, 1984.
Pelto, Gretel, and Pertti Pelto. "Anthropological Methodologies for Assessing Household Organization and Structure." In Methods for the Evaluation of the Impact of Food and Nutrition Programmes, edited by David Sahn, Richard Lockwood, and Nevin S. Scrimshaw. Tokyo: United Nations University, 1984.
Ruether, Rosemary Radford. Christianity and the Making of the Modern Family. Boston: Beacon Press, 2000.
Walker, Alison, et al. Living in Britain: Results from the 2000/01 General Household Survey. London: Office for National Statistics, 2001.
United States Census Bureau. State Household and Housing Unit Estimation Methodology: 1990–1998. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Census Bureau, 1999.
United States Department of State. "The American Family, by the Numbers." U.S. Society and Values 6 (2001): 8–10.
Margaret E. BentleyErin Fields
J. A. Cannon
house·hold / ˈhousˌ(h)ōld/ • n. a house and its occupants regarded as a unit: the whole household was asleep ten percent of households had a television. ∎ the affairs related to keeping a house: it is mostly women who are responsible for running households | [as adj.] household appliances.
Individuals who comprise a family unit and who live together under the same roof; individuals who dwell in the same place and comprise a family, sometimes encompassing domestic help; all those who are under the control of one domestic head.
For the purposes of insurance, the terms family and household are frequently used inter-changeably.