Behavioral Demography Of Families And Households Research Paper

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The last half of the twentieth century has seen the study of household and family develop into a major subspeciality in demography, rivaling in scope and interest more traditional subfields, such as mortality– morbidity, fertility, migration, and urbanization. The study of households and families introduces a new order of complexity into demography since (a) the focus is now on a set of interrelated individuals rather than on the isolated individual or on a population aggregate described by summary measures, and (b) the balancing equations for these residential and kinship units involve several events other than those in the fundamental demographic equation (population change +births – deaths + in-migration-outmigration). Changes in households and families must be related also to marriage, cohabitation, divorce, separation, home-leaving of young adults, as well as other forms of exit and entrance to the group (e.g., the entry of an elderly parent or some other relative). The household may be viewed as a resultant of many individual behaviors.

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There are more fundamental complications relating to household and family identity: it is clear when a particular individual begins (birth) and ceases to exist (death), and there is individual continuity over the lifetime. By contrast, it often is not at all clear when a particular household or family begins or ends. Households, unlike individuals, can split apart into two or more smaller households (fission), or can merge to form larger and more complex units (fusion). This fundamental problem has been not solved so much as finessed by extensive data-collection and analysis of Individuals in terms of their family and household statuses and the e ents changing their statuses.

But progress has been considerable, particularly with the advent of large-scale social surveys containing event and status history data on marriage, family, and household (individual event-histories are much more common than histories of households or families). These data have allowed the description and analysis of individual family life-histories and changing household statuses, based on real cohort data. These newer studies stand in contrast to the synthetic approach of the original ‘family life-cycle’ studies, based on census data (cross-sectional) and sometimes misleading. Recent work has documented a proliferation of family and household behavioral sequences, overturning the stereotypical view of the ‘family life-cycle,’ based on averages or medians (a development anticipated by Hohn 1987).

Another important breakthrough is the work of Zeng et al. (1997), who have developed accounting equations for a number of specific family household types, equations that can be applied using routine census and vital registration data. The model produces detailed household projections by size and type of household that are consistent with population projections by age, sex, and marital status.

Review articles and summary volumes on the demographic approach to households include: Burch (1979), Bongaarts (1983), Bongaarts et al. (1987). Keilman et al. (1988) and van Imhoff et al. (1995). Work in behavioral household demography, of course, has not occurred in disciplinary isolation, and should be viewed in the context of parallel or overlapping efforts in family sociology, household economics, anthropology, and demographic history.

1. The Definition Of ‘Household’

The central idea of the household concept is that of coresidence: a household is a group of persons who ‘live-together’ day-to-day, or an individual ‘living alone.’ In demographic usage, the operational definition of this concept has tended to follow census practice, with households defined in terms of persons occupying a separate housing or dwelling unit (house or apartment), or, less often, the persons who participate in a common domestic economy. The housing unit approach provided a convenient basis for census enumeration (first identify housing units and then enumerate the people usually residing in each), and later, for modern large-scale sample surveys.

1.1 Households And Families

Whereas the household is defined in terms of coresidence, the family is defined in terms of kinship, which in turn is based on marriage, descent from a common ancestor, or social fiction (adoption or other forms of ‘fictive kinship’). Ryder (1987) has aptly termed these, respectively, the residential, the conjugal, and the consanguineal dimensions of intimate relationships among individuals (see also van Imhoff et al. 1995). This distinction is not always made in everyday language, however, and the concepts and reality overlap: a household consisting of persons related by kinship is also a family, but such a household seldom contains all of an individual’s close kin, the so-called ‘extended family.’ Modern census practice often used the term family to refer to a group of related persons living together (more properly called a census family), a usage encouraged by and reinforcing a Western cultural tendency to view the small, nuclear family group as ‘the family’—other kin are ‘relatives.’ Historical and comparative studies of household and family have forced a clarification and refinement of census concepts to take into account the greater complexity of household and family patterns, as have more recent developments such as cohabitation or the joint custody (and split coresidence) of children following divorce. In general, the single word family is ambiguous, and should always be related to context, and qualified as necessary with such terms as nuclear, extended, census, economic, etc.

1.2 Large Households

The majority of households are relatively small, consisting of groups such as a couple and their children, a small group of students sharing an apartment, or an individual living alone. Such households often are referred to as private households in contrast to institutional households such as boarding schools, prisons, chronic-care hospitals, mental institutions, convents, or seminaries. There is no inherent limit to the size of private households, but their average size seldom exceeds six, and in urban-industrial societies is closer to three.

In modern census practice, private households can contain boarders, lodgers, or servants, but an arbitrary numerical limit on such members is set, beyond which the household is considered institutional.

1.3 Limitations And Criticisms

The modern household concept does not deal easily with social realities such as residential compounds, clusterings of separate but closely related (in terms of kinship or economic activity) households, often physically distinct, occupying a separate farm or walled or fenced space. An example from a polygamous society would be the compound containing a man and his several wives and children, the latter occupying separate huts and eating separately. Laslett (1982) has suggested the term houseful for European cases where several smaller nuclear families (some related, some agricultural workers or servants) occupied a well-defined farmstead.

In contemporary urban societies, census practice reveals virtually nothing about relationships among separate households even when such relationships are frequent and close. For example, an older couple and two grown children, all occupying separate apartments in the same neighborhood, or even the same building, would be reckoned simply as three households, with no census item even hinting at their close ties. Relationships are counted within but not across households. It is of interest that this census practice was codified around the middle of the twentieth century, at a time when social scientists, especially family sociologists, were emphasizing (in retrospect exaggerating) the isolation of the nuclear family in modern urban societies. These limitations of the census have been rectified in part by large social surveys including information on numbers and types of kin, on kin location, and on kin interaction.

A related problem has been noted with use of the phrase li ing alone to refer to one-person households. Accurate enough in terms of census housing-unit concepts, its connotations can be misleading with respect to the degree of social integration or isolation of the occupants.

These and other concerns have led some to more or less reject the household concept as ethnocentric or culture-bound, and too limited, artificial, and abstract. But an increasingly popular view of scientific methodology (see, e.g., Giere 1999) reminds us that all scientific concepts (models, theories) are abstract— therefore, limited and artificial—and are better judged in terms of their analytic usefulness for the study of particular problems. The household clearly is the relevant unit for much consumer behavior (from buying a house or renting an apartment to routine purchases of food or clothing), demographic decision making (e.g., migration), and much of our day-to-day intimate social interaction and support, including the intimacy of couples and the continuing care of infants and young children. Thus, housing analysts and planners still are major users of household projections, as opposed to ordinary population projections. And the household remains a major focus for family sociology and for microeconomics (notably the Chicago school of the ‘new household economics’), even as they have broadened their view to encompass such economic realities as intergenerational transfers and such psychological realities as ‘altruism.’

Even so, the household concept needs refinement and extension to take more account of the fluidity of household membership and its ‘fuzziness,’ as more persons can realistically claim membership in two households: children in joint custody arrangements, ‘commuter marriages,’ Caribbean-style ‘visiting relationships,’ and ownership of second homes. Residence will increasingly be seen as a multidimensional concept, with different households fulfilling different household functions for the same individual. The census convention of a one-to-one correspondence between individuals and households will not be abandoned entirely, but formal and behavioral demographic analysis will of necessity go beyond it.

2. Late Twentieth-Century Trends And Their Demographic Determinants

The generalization is sometimes advanced that twentieth-century households have tended to become smaller and less complex. The generalization regarding size almost certainly is valid, that regarding complexity less clearly so. Households have tended to become smaller in large measure because on average they contain fewer minor children, consequent to widespread fertility decline. If the total fertility rate is two or below, the typical nuclear family household (husband, wife and own children) will contain three or four members or fewer. Only populations that retain traditional high fertility levels, and perhaps other features of traditional family structure, still report average household sizes of five or six persons and above.

Other factors are at work. In highly urban-industrial populations, smaller average households also have resulted from such factors as the rise of independent living of women (lone mothers, earlier home leaving of women) and the elderly (widows and widowers), and the splitting of households following divorce. Also relevant in some societies has been the decline of live-in servants and of boarders or roomers. But these latter trends, unlike fertility decline, differ considerably across societies, depending on cultural traditions relating to coresidence with nonnuclear kin. In Japan, for example, the norm requiring taking in elderly parents remains strong. In Italy, adult children tend to remain in the parental home until marriage. Paradoxically, these familistic patterns are facilitated by low fertility, with a small nuclear family leaving space for young adults and elderly who might otherwise be crowded out. Mitchell et al. (1989), for example, show that in Canada number of siblings is an important determinant of age at leaving the parental home. These examples underline the point that household-formation behaviors feed back on one another.

In many western societies, rising rates of divorce and of nonmarital cohabitation have led to considerable fluidity in household formation, particularly among young adults and among older persons following divorce or widow(er)hood. Looking to the future, one might anticipate even greater flexibility in household arrangements, including among the elderly, as individuals develop broader repertoires of behavior based on early experience as children and young adults.

The older stereotype identifying large households with complex households of extended kin must give way to the view that smaller households can also be more rather than less complex, given greater degrees of freedom to add members due to reduced domestic demands of smaller numbers of minor children. Like many other demographic behaviors, household formation and dissolution now show more heterogeneity in most dimensions except size.

In most societies, coresidence of kin has been lessened by high rates of migration, and the consequent location of kin in different, sometimes distant, communities. In urban-industrial societies, this includes urban-to-urban labor migration as well as retirement-related migration of the elderly. In developing societies, a major factor is rural-urban migration and, in some cases, high rates of overseas migration. Kinship contacts persist, but they are attenuated by distance.

3. Behavioral Theories Of Household Dynamics

As with other demographic behaviors, explanation of household dynamics must be partly formal, partly behavioral. But unlike other demographic behaviors, accession to or relinquishment of a household status is not a unitary behavior. In traditional terms, an individual may become a household ‘head’ by setting up his or her own household, by being widowed or divorced, by the departure of one’s last child (if already widowed or divorced), and so forth. It is this fact that has made the fitting of so-called ‘household headship’ curves relatively intractable: they are the resultant of too many different behaviours (Corner1987). A theory of household formation must, therefore, in some sense be a theory of marriage, divorce, fertility, mortality, home-leaving, etc.—all combined in some meaningful way.

3.1 Microeconomic Theories Of Household Formation

In this field, as in demography generally, economics has had considerable theoretical influence, notably from the works of the ‘Chicago School’ and from empirical studies of household formation, especially the rise of one-person households. Becker (1981) viewed marriage and household formation in terms of a traditional sexual division of labor, with husband and wife coming together for practical economic advantage in a ‘household economy.’ Women tended to remain in the home performing domestic tasks, while men entered the labor market for wages, both pursuing comparative advantages associated with differential earning potential. Davis (1984) called this arrangement the ‘breadwinner’ system, and associates it with the Victorian era. Prior to that, on family farms or in small enterprises, both husband and wife worked to support the family economically.

Clearly, such a system no longer prevails in Western urban-industrial societies, as women have entered the labor market in force, pursuing careers throughout their adult lifetimes. In some contexts and especially among young adults, women often appear to have the advantage in terms of employment and income, as work requiring physical strength has declined in importance. Women are not as dependent as formerly on men for their economic well-being, and are more able to establish their own households. At the same time, the costs of maintaining desired levels of consumption have risen, so that having more than one wage-earner per household is advantageous. Thus, both members of a couple are apt to work, bringing in more income but foregoing the real economic advantages of Becker’s household division of labor, even if not along traditional lines. There still are economic rationales for marriage and coresidence, but they are somewhat different than in earlier times.

A central notion in economic analysis of the household is that there are economics of scale to be gained by coresidence—in the provision of housing, utilities (heat, lighting, etc.), food and meal preparation, and consumer durables such as stoves, refrigerators, or automobiles. A leitmoti in the economic literature on households is that rising levels of living have led to the purchase of greater privacy and independence, with a sacrifice of economies of scale associated with the sharing of living quarters.

In their influential article (Pri acy, POverty and Old Age, Beresford & Rivlin (1966)) began a research tradition of empirical research on ‘living alone’ in oneperson households. The aim was to explain the rise in the ‘propensity’ to live alone, that is, the rise in agesex-marital status specific rates of living alone, notably among older women and young adults of both sexes. The central explanatory idea was that high real income was being used to purchase more household ‘privacy,’ viewed as a luxury in the technical economic sense, but a luxury that had always been desired. In keeping with the tenor of economic thinking of the times, any possible shift in ‘tastes’ or values relating to household arrangements was played down.

Further research tended to qualify a pure ‘income’ explanation. Clearly, individuals would not live alone if they literally couldn’t afford it. But older women, for example, lived alone in greater numbers partly due to new social programs (social security, government pensions, old-age assistance), created in response to demand/or felt need, based in turn on new ideas about individual independence. The larger explanation was social and political as well as economic. Similarly, among young adults, the pursuit of independence from parents often has been intense, with youth leaving affluent homes to live in relative squalor, a pattern documented in path-breaking research based on the Survey of Labor and Income Dynamics (SLID), one of the first major longitudinal surveys (Hill & Hill 1976).

Many of these household dynamics can be related to a general breakdown of traditional patterns of age-sex stratification (the ‘decline of the patriarchy’), in the family as well as society at large. Women, older persons, children, and young adults have sought and been accorded rights and perquisites formerly reserved to the middle-aged male. This has led to greater competition within households for scarce household goods such as personal space, quiet, privacy, and freedom of movement (Burch 1985).

In the West, these developments clearly are bound up with a strong cultural strain towards individualism and with its full expression in situations of affluence. Whether others societies will follow is unclear (McDonald 1992). Similarly, in the absence of affluence individualism may be sacrificed, as coresidence is sought for economic reasons—the estrategias de sobrevivencia emphasised by the Latin American social demographic school.

In addition to economic and cultural factors, early research by Sweet (1977) and by Kobrin (1976) focused attention on a demographic supply factor in the choice of household statuses: to the extent that coresidence continued to be seen as a family matter, even an act of relative intimacy, one’s options for coresidence were limited by the number and availability of suitable kin. Sweet succinctly noted that an older widow cannot live with a child if she has no living children.

3.2 Demographic Theories Of Household Formation

Ermisch (1988) has developed and empirically tested what might be called a two-part model of household formation, one in which ‘demographic influences on household formation and composition can be separated from their economic influences …’.(p. 24). In this approach, demographic events of marriage, birth, death, and home-leaving lead to the formation of ‘minimal household units’ (childless unmarried adults, lone parents with children, childless married couples, married couples with children). These ‘minimal household units’ then distribute themselves into distinct household arrangements in response to socioeconomic factors. The model is not meant to imply that household formation literally occurs in two temporally ordered stages, but is seen only as an analytic convenience.

Burch & Matthews (1987) have proposed a decision-making model that is nearly the opposite of Ermisch’s —with couples or individuals giving priority to a choice of household living arrangement, and then deciding on demographic behaviors (marriage, fertility, etc.) accordingly.

Only detailed descriptions of decision-making processes over individual life courses would clarify the order of demographic and household decision-making in reality. Until now, adequate survey data are limited to events, not the decision processes that underlie them. And, of course, some changes in household status are not chosen by the individual: spouses or partners die or separate; grown-up children leave home; circumstances dictate taking in an elderly parent. The question then is one of inertia v. choice of a different arrangement.

Whether an integrated theory of household dynamics is possible is a moot question. But some contemporary philosophers of science (Giere 1999) would urge us not to worry on that score. Theory is seen as consisting of a large collection of theoretical models pertaining to the household, some useful for some analyses, others useful for others—theory as a toolkit, rather than as ‘truth.’ And the household dynamics literature is now rich with such tools.

3.3 Household Formation And ‘Social Capital’

Since the 1960s, theories of demographic behavior have been subject to strong—some would say excessive—influences from neoclassical microeconomics, with various demographic choices viewed as resulting from rational and forward-looking individual assessments of costs and benefits (‘lifetime utilities’). Sociologists and psychologists, among others, have objected that the economic perspective provides a narrow and unbalanced view of human behavior and social structure, and have tried to extend the core microeconomic model to deal with human realities such as emotions, social norms, and social and cultural systems (leading economists of demographic behavior also attempted such broadening, as in Becker’s concern with altruism, or Easterlin’s with ‘psychic costs’ of fertility control). A recent attempt has been the introduction into the study of fertility of concepts of ‘social interaction,’ ‘social influence,’ and ‘diffusion’ (Bongaarts & Watkins 1996, Montgomery & Casterline 1996).

But there have been few efforts (and no successes) at constructing a theoretical scheme that does not retain microeconomic ideas at its core—perhaps a reflection that when all is said and done, a good deal of human behavior and social structure is at base purposive and rational. Clearly this is the case with households, which serve a number of purely utilitarian functions: provision of shelter, heat, physical security, sleep; storage of personal property; and the purchase, preparation, and consumption of food. But households also meet nonmaterial needs, as the locus of various forms of companionship and intimacy, social support, and the formation of ‘social capital.’

A programmatic article on this concept by Astone et al. (1999) seems destined to shape behavioral research in household demography for some time to come. These authors call for a reorientation of family and household demography around the concept of social capital—defined as resources of an individual that derive from his or her social ties (p. 2)—with that concept reinserted into the context of social exchange theory, from which it emerged. ‘The formation of sexual partnerships, the birth and rearing of children, and both intra-generational and inter-generational transfers constitute major forms of investment in social capital in virtually all societies’ (Astone et al. 1999, p. 203). Clearly, their concern is with both households and families (including extended kinship networks) as these have been defined earlier.

This perspective raises a number of interesting questions regarding contemporary household patterns in urban-industrial societies’ in general whether they have moved too far in the direction of solitary living— what Kuznets (1978) referred to as ‘the apartness of adults,’ with associated sacrifices of both economic and social-psychological benefits of coresidence. More specific questions might include the following: Do persons in one-person households suffer from a lack of enduring social ties, or are the four walls of a house or apartment relatively unimportant as social boundaries? Do children suffer from growing up in households with only two adults, as compared with those containing aunts or uncles, or grandparents—do they grow up with a more limited repertoire of behaviors; or, are the limitations of the household offset by increased social interaction with adults at ‘daycare.’ Are households in which one member of a couple (whether a woman or a man) remains at home performing ‘domestic’ tasks better off in terms of ‘social capital’ formation even if household income is lower?

The study of these and other questions pertaining to household and family structure might be strengthened by focus on issues widely viewed as ‘social problems.’ That is, the development of household and family demography might benefit not just from theoretical reorientation as suggested by Astone et al. (1999) but also by greater attention to real-world social problems.


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