House, Home, and Consumer Decision Making in Two Cultures

Richard R. Wilk, New Mexico State University
ABSTRACT - This paper reviews some anthropological approaches to the household that are useful in understanding decision making as a social process rather than a sequence of discrete events or stages. These concepts are applied to understanding decisions about investment in housing in two very different cultural contexts: Northern California and Southern Belize (Central America). In both situations investment and consumption decisions are best understood as attempts to reconcile monetary and non-monetary claims to household resources.
[ to cite ]:
Richard R. Wilk (1987) ,"House, Home, and Consumer Decision Making in Two Cultures", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 14, eds. Melanie Wallendorf and Paul Anderson, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 303-307.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 14, 1987      Pages 303-307


Richard R. Wilk, New Mexico State University

[I would like to thank Jeff Bentley, Anne Pyburn, Susan gent, Steadman Upham, Et Staski, Robert Netting, and Henry Rutz for their advice and comments on previous versions of this paper.]


This paper reviews some anthropological approaches to the household that are useful in understanding decision making as a social process rather than a sequence of discrete events or stages. These concepts are applied to understanding decisions about investment in housing in two very different cultural contexts: Northern California and Southern Belize (Central America). In both situations investment and consumption decisions are best understood as attempts to reconcile monetary and non-monetary claims to household resources.


" . . . the structure of power in a family is not determined by a single set of external circumstances such as the existence of capitalism, market forces, or male solidarity, Rather, it comes into being through a changing process of negotiation in which the members call upon features of the relationship itself in addition to conditions in the environment. To understand differences between families, we must increase our understanding of negotiation according to non-economic rules of exchange within an environment dominated by economic rules." (Curtis 1986, p. 175)

A number of fields that have focussed their attention on household and family have begun to move in the direction of studying issues of power and inequality within the domestic arena. Researchers in economics (Becker 1981, Folbre 1984), sociology (Curtis 1986, Safilios-Rothchild 1972), history (Hareven 1982, Segalen 1985), and political economy (Smith et al. 1984), have contributed to a growing awareness of the active role that households play in social and economic change, and their status as an important unit for collective decision making.

The picture of the household that emerges is quite complex when historical and cross-cultural variation is taken into account. Households vary widely in membership, in the kinds of functions they perform, in the cultural values they represent, and in the ways they are tied to larger social units like extended families and communities. Even the psychological orientations of household members to one another, their roles and expectations, vary between cultural groups.

This complexity can be taunting, partially because each discipline uses different analytical concepts to focus on different aspects of the household. One person's dependent variable is another one's cause. One study works with a population of millions while another uses a sample of 25. In this respect the household is a microcosm of the problems that beset social science in general.

Unlike the other disciplines mentioned above, anthropology and consumer research bring to household studies a history of interest in what goes on within the family, in the interchanges between members. In a previous paper I told anthropologists that consumer research has important insights to offer them in understanding the inner workings of households (Wilk 1986). Here I want to turn the tables and argue that anthropology has both concepts and methods that can be of use in consumer research.


In their efforts to conceptualize household behavior in terms of purchasing and decision making, consumer research has depended on the core concepts of value hierarchies, socialization, and stage motels of the decision process. Value or goal hierarchies (beginning at Maslow 1943) are means of ranking the different kinds of influence (e.g. psychological, physical, cultural) that motivate action. Socialization is the process by which individuals are inculcated with these values through identification with a 'reference group.' In stage models, individuals go through a sequence of actions, thoughts, or processes, each influenced by different combinations of values, goals and circumstances. Sirgy tabulates eleven different stage models that involve goal hierarchies (1984, p. 144) These models are based on individual cognitive processes and do not seem well suited to group decision making like that seen in households.

Nevertheless, the concepts of socialization, goal hierarchies, and stage models have been the basis of many studies of household behavior. A decision is typically seen as a stepwise process, during which different roles are taken by different household members, with the outcome affected by resources, personalities, and outside influences (e.g. Sheth 1974, Davis and Rigaux 1974, Park 1982, Wortzel 1980). These motels typically prompt studies of the heuristics of negotiation or conflict resolution during the stages of decision making (Spiro 1983), and the relative influence of husbands and wives on the outcome (see critique in Davis 1976, papers in Roberts and Wortzel 1984). Decisions are often treated as isolated events within a limited time frame, and changes in roles and sower result from external cultural processes.

Anthropologists have a different and complementary perspective to offer, rooted in their interest in the ways that rules, values, and norms of behavior are generated and reproduced as part of the social process. In this view, the rules of decision making are not simply something learned through socialization, they are constantly negotiated, established, and changed during all kinds of social behavior, especially decision making. Every social event uses rules and norms as ground rules, but also questions, modifies, and renegotiates those rules through action and outcome (Bailey 1969). Thus the purchase of a first new car after a child is born may lead husband and wife not only to buy a different kind of car from what they had previously bought, but also to renegotiate the very roles and rules that had guided previous decisions. Participants in household decisions are usually aware that they are always setting precedents, and they may be more concerned with that consequence than with the actual item being decided upon ("I don't really care what kind of sofa we get, but if I let her decide by herself she'll think she can boss me around."). The chain of decisions and precedents never ends as long as the household staYs together, so nothing is ever settled "once and for all."

This perspective puts emphasis on conflict, negotiation, and the symbolic processes by which objects and situations are invested with meanings, meanings which are in turn used in social situations. Decisions about purchasing items involve issues of meaning and definition, so the struggle is often over terms and symbols, and the outcome is often a new meaning entirely. A decision about what furniture to buy for the living room resolves into a disagreement about what the living room is supposed to "be for", what it means and symbolizes. Is it an unused display space for expensive symbols of success, or is it a common space where all the family comes together to share the warmth of a fire and conversation in the evening? The outcome of such disagreement may be an entirely new set of meanings.

Purchasing decisions look very different from this point of view. They are not simple outcomes of values and roles but are part of the process by which values and roles are negotiated and transacted. In studying decisions to purchase wood-burning stoves in California households, I found that the decision-making process never ended with the purchase of the stove. The actual purchase of the item was mere punctuation in a years-long chain of negotiations, accommodations, and changes, which included many other items beside the stove. The wood-stove was simultaneously a catalyst for long-simmering conflicts ("He's always so tight when it comes to the house."), a subject of the negotiation of meanings and values ("I think anything efficient is beautiful, but she wants something where you can see the fire, even if it means wasting heat up the chimney."), and a counter in a social process of marriage and family ("I thought it would bring the whole family together in the ten in the winter. He wants us all to help gather wood in the mountains."), that often have long-term ramifications ("Our whole life style had to change after we bought it."). Often I fount that these processes interwove the purchase and use of very different and seemingly unrelated kinds of goods; he gets to buy the ugly but efficient woodstove, but only after she gets to buy a new carpet and drapes. And of course the story toes not end when the new clean carpet is placed in front of the ash-breathing stove.


These kinds of qualitative interactions are amenable to quantitative study, but only after relevant problems, issues and variables have been identified through ethnographic research. This is true even in a culture where the researcher is a native, and it is more emphatically true when the households are of another culture entirely. For cross-cultural differences in household decision making cannot be reduced to simple dimensions like "patriarchal" vs "equalitarian" (Green et al. 1983) or even to differences in gender or marital roles and decision making heuristics (Hempel 1974, Imperia et al. 1983).

Rather, in each cultural and economic setting households will speak different symbolic languages, negotiate or conflict in different ways about different issues using different rules. This does not even consider the large differences in household membership between cultures. Imagine the decision making processes in a household where married brothers live together with their nuclear families, and all resources are ultimately controlled by the eldest brother (Carter 1984, Hawkesworth 1981). In West Africa it is dangerous to even speak of husbands and wives as making household decisions together, as it is common for them to have separate incomes, separate budgets, and no common property (Guyer 1981).

Does this mean that we should give up hope of finding regularities in household behavior between cultures? Certainly not. Ethnographic cross-cultural study of household decision making has the potential to help us place understand our own culture as well as that of others we study. In the rest of this paper I will give an example of how this can happen, based on research among middle class Anglo-American homeowners in Santa Cruz County, California (Wilk and Wilhite 1984,1985), and Kekchi Mayan small farmers in southern Belize, Central America (Wilk 1983. 1984. 1986).


In both cases, one of the goals of research was to understand how and why households decided to allocate resources to housing, including home purchase, construction, and improvement. The contrasts were great. Our suburban Californian homeowners often seemed obsessed with their houses; devoting a majority of their leisure time to home projects, and spending a majority of their income on housing expenses.

Most of the Kekchi farmers lived in pole-and-thatch houses built by groups of friends and relatives from materials gathered in the forest, with no cash investment at all. Furnishings were also home-mate, and almost all cash income was spent on tools, basic supplies like kerosene and sugar, and personal consumables and clothing. Interestingly though, a few Kekchi households that had a bit more money from part-time farm-work, from selling cash crops like cocoa, rice and marijuana, or from petty shop-keeping, were setting off on a radically new course of consumption. Rather than buying farm equipment, jewelry or fancy clothing, they spent their money on uncomfortable concrete block houses with corrugated iron roofs, and assortments of poorly-made but expensive furniture.

Californian and Kekchi households could not be more different in social and economic circumstances, but like all households that exist in a modern cash economy, they share in a basic dilemma, and sometimes they hit on common solutions. This is especially clear in the Kekchi case where households are emerging from a non-cash subsistence economy into the capitalist commodity and wage economy, and it is possible to examine the resulting changes in consumption behavior.

In California, the main dynamic of decision making about the house was dyadic between husband and wife (or cohabiting couples), though children often played important non-speaking parts in the drama. Patterns of expenditure on housing corresponded closely with stages in the household life course. Transitions between stages as a result of the birth or departure of children, or changes in the degree of involvement in jobs and careers were often market by alterations to the house.

These patterns were ideologically reflected in many ways. Couples often spoke of 'the marriage' as a concrete thing. In many ways they expressed the idea that marriage and home were synonyms, and both terms represented values opposite to those of the working world. The house was more than a physical structure -- it was the shell for a family (family + house - home), a 'haven in a heartless world.' The home was the place where the harsh economic reality of the workplace tit not penetrate, a bastion of emotional values given sanctity with the label of 'tradition.'

This cultural conception of house and home in California can be traced historically back to the rise of the middle classes in the later phases of the industrial revolution. Historians have fount that it was during that period that the house was tagged as 'private' space, the domestic realm of shelter for wife, children, and family values. The rising middle class adopted the home as a paramount symbol of respectability at the same time that they were formulating the ideal of a strict sexual division of labor within a nuclear and independent family unit. These ideals reached their apex of popularity only in this century, perhaps more so in the United States than anywhere else. They have been linked to the exclusion of women from labor markets and their redefinition as 'homemakers' (Lofgren 1984, Rapp 1978). So the modern pattern of high spending on the house is clearly related to the male single-earner family (Dunton 1983).

I suggest, following Curtis (1986), that the major problem for middle-class American households in their consumption decisions, is how to distribute the measurable resources of the household fairly, when the contributions of all the members cannot be measured. Curtis calls this non-economic exchange in an economic environment. In other words wage workers bring a measurable product into the household, but this money must then be weighed against other products that are not readily measured. How many dollars an hour is housework worth? Love? Mowing the lawn? Caring for a tying father? Marital sex? Most of our informants resisted the very idea of putting monetary values on what they to for the family, on the things they to for love. They tent to deny the possibility that replacement costs (e.g. the price of day care) were real measures of the value of domestic labor.

The crisis of allocation that embroils California households is common to all cultures where households depend on a mixture of wage or cash income, and domestic labor. The household pool includes tangible money, measurable labor, and immeasureables like love, security, and promises of continued support and love in the future. The crisis comes from the meet to portion out the household pool to members for their own uses. Who should get money? Who should control it? In some cultural and economic settings the issue is very clear; Ashanti men in Ghana must provide a certain amount of cash to their wives, or they will not get the dinner they want when they want it (Clark 1986). If women's work has little value on the wage market, and their household labor can be cheaply replaced, they have little bargaining power in the household and we should expect to see the balance skewed in the husband's favor. But the situation in California today is anything but clear for household members.

I suggest that when households have difficulty bargaining or negotiating because the balances of inputs and outputs are unclear or obscured, they find solutions that avoid the problem of setting values in the first place. Rather than spending household resources (the rights to which are unclear and in dispute) on one individual or the other, spending that requires explicit d vision, they spent it on what belongs to both. Instead of fighting over who gets what, if he gets to buy a new sports car or she gets to spent on expensive clothes, they agree to spent on the house, on a com on good. Home improvement allows the family to avoid the issue of determining who gets what, because ostensibly everyone gets to share.

Instead of arguing over fundamental and dangerous issues like the value of housework or the amount of resources either spouse brought into the marriage, the dispute now becomes a choice between different kinds of home improvement. Do we spend on landscaping, or a new kitchen? An extra room for the expected child, or a new roof?

As a solution to a crisis of allocation, spending on the home can easily lead into a process of cultural 'involution'; intensification of the cultural pattern through feedback. Home improvement is often time and labor intensive people spend more tim-e at home (tenting to describe themselves as 'homebodies'), which in turn justifies further spending on home improvement. The home becomes a theater set, a stage on which the family's internal dramas are acted out, to which friends, neighbors, and relatives are an invited audience.

The households that escape this involution, in our small sample,were those in which both husband and wife had strong career or recreational interests outside the home, and these tended to be two-worker households or worker/student households. In these cases the dangers of imbalance in the flow of resources was much lower, and allocation of resources to individual household members was not as threatening. When both husband and wife had cash incomes we fount a greater willingness to discuss the values of housework, long term security, and child care, though this tit not mean that real equality was ever achieved (Hartmann 1981).

Kekchi households entering the cash economy facet a very different crisis of allocation. Custom and tradition provide ready guidelines for the allocation of food, clothing, and small amounts of cash within farming households that produce their own foot and basic goods. The major issues within these households revolve around how to allocate productive labor. These decisions involve many people in the com unity besides household members, because households cooperate closely with each other on a daily basis in cultivating fields. feeding domestic animals, child care, home maintenance, and home construction. Negotiations between household members mostly concern work; will the husband work with the wife's father today, or will he go hunting with his brother? Will a son go help his grandfather plant corn, or will he stay home and help his elder brother fix the chicken-coop? Is the wife going to go to the field to harvest cassava, or go to her mother's house to help dry and process their coffee crop? Conflicts are generally over the quantity and quality of work, not the distribution of the products that result (though this could be very different in years of shortage or famine). The constant exchange of labor, food, and household items between individuals and households tend to obscure the short-term balances between household members.

When larger amounts of cash income enter this household subsistence economy, it causes a drastic change in patterns of allocation and in the kinds of decisions that must be mate. The structure of the local economy is such that only men have commanding positions in procuring cash income (as casual farm workers or by selling cash crops), so a new imbalance enters the domestic economy at the same time that standards of living are rising. Who has the right to decide how to spend the money that came from selling rice? The husband who took it to market and did the heaviest work on the farm? The sons who provided crucial labor in getting the harvest tone, even though they could have gone to town to make money on their own? The wife who kept them all fed while working, and who dried the rice in the sun for a week?

Young unmarried men are the most active in finding wage labor outside the village. How much of their wages should they be allowed to keep, now that they no longer help to provide foot for the family by working in the fields? How much of a say should they have in deciding how their contributed earnings are spent? The increase in divorce and family instability observed in the richer villages seems to have a lot to do with these allocation problems. Older brothers who stay at home and help their fathers farm end up resenting their younger brothers who work in town and come home with boom boxes. Husbands and wives make demands of each other that seem unprecedented; parents argue about how much money to spent in educating children; relatives arrive right after the harvest and need cash to send a sick baby to the hospital.

At the same time that the earnings from farming and wages are becoming more important, the network of co = nit labor cooperation and the help network between households begin to weaken, posing a danger to the farm economy. Unable to depend on their neighbors and kin for extra farm labor and material assistance, parents must depend more heavily on their children for farm and household labor. Given all these pressures, keeping the household together is a major challenge, and keeping it an optimal farming or business enterprise at the same time is even harder.

The solution that many households adopt is not to try to divide cash income evenly or equitably at all. Instead heytspend it on the construction and furnishing of a house, spending that is ostensibly for the entire household. Once sunk in concrete and steel, income is outside the grasp of relatives in need, and is no longer a constant source of contention. The issue is no longer what to spent the money on, but how best to use the house and maintain it. Houses have other special advantages as classes of goods for investment in this particular social setting.

Remember that parents have a vital interest in keeping children attached to the household as long as possible -- extending even after marriage, when they want their married children to live next door and maintain close economic ties. When the income produced by children before marriage is invested in the house, rather than in foot, beer, or clothing for individuals, it creates a long-lasting tie of investment. Children now have prospects of sharing in the use of that house for substantial parts of their lives, and if they remain on good terms with their parents they may someday get a portion of their investment back through inheritance. Because a large and elaborate house is something of a status symbol within the community, children can also partake of their parents' prestige by continuing to reside in or close to their natal household after marriage. So in the long term, money invested in the house serves manifold social aims, even though the Kekchi lack the elaborate ideology of the house and home that is so firmly entrenched in American culture.

As time goes on and the household becomes the paramount unit of economic decision making and consumption in Kekchi society, it is likely that an ideology that places new symbolic meanings on house and home will develop as well. The material shell of the home, the house, is not just a passive actor in this process. The house has proved to be a crucial artifact in understanding cultural change and modernization in a number of places in the world (e.g. Rodman 1985), not because it is a unique artifact, but because it is an artifact that is readily identified with the corporate social unit that inhabits it. In this sense the house is almost a 'natural' symbol of the household, and it is not surprising that so many cultures make the connection.


These brief and incomplete case studies both describe household decision making in situations of cultural change. In both cases household members seek to adapt their culturally received notions of proper behavior and their ideals of family roles to the immediate realities of work, returns from work, and allocation of those returns. In the peculiar fashion of all social institutions, the household is both a goal, and a vehicle for achieving more goals. Perpetuating the institution is a baseline requirement of each day's decisions and activities, the constant overheat of the decision process.

Both Belizean Kekchi and Californian household members approach purchasing decisions as a challenge to the basis of the institution itself, that basis being the willing participation of all adult members. Social goals therefore enter into every major allocation decision the household must face. This is more than just a procedure for conflict-avoidance (Park 1982). It is the actual construction, maintenance, and reproduction of the household as a viable entity. It is perhaps a measure of the difficulty of allocation decisions during times of rapid social and economic change, that so many households fail to stay together in both Belize and California.


Research in Belize was supported by the National Science Foundation and the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research. Fieldwork was conducted between 1978 and 1981 in three communities totalling about 500 persons. Household decision making was not the main focus of research, which was concerned primarily with changes in household organization that result from changes in motes of production. Ethnographic interviews and questionnaires were the major means of gathering information.

In Northern California, research was supported by the Universitywide Energy Research Group of the University of California. and the University of California Appropriate Technology Grant program. Interviews were conducted with over 100 couples between 1982 and 1984, with the primary intent being the discovery of reasons for decisions for and against investment in energy-Conserving technologies in the home.


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