The Household As a Consuming Unit

Joel Rudd, University of Arizona [Associate Professor, School of Family and Consumer Resources.]
ABSTRACT - This paper offers a few brief comments on the three papers presented in the session titled "The Household as a Consuming Unit."
[ to cite ]:
Joel Rudd (1987) ,"The Household As a Consuming Unit", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 14, eds. Melanie Wallendorf and Paul Anderson, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 451-452.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 14, 1987      Pages 451-452


Joel Rudd, University of Arizona [Associate Professor, School of Family and Consumer Resources.]


This paper offers a few brief comments on the three papers presented in the session titled "The Household as a Consuming Unit."


The increasing diversity of scholarly work within the field of household consumption is evidenced in the three papers presented in this session. All three papers make contributions that may spur researchers (including the authors of these papers) in household consumption on to bigger and better things.


Heisley and Holmes (1987) do a nice job of reviewing a number of theoretical/research approaches to the household that have been or should be (they argue) used by consumer behavior researchers. Following an analysis of all articles published in the Journal of Consumer Research concerning the family, Heisley and Holmes conclude that sociological approaches (particularly the Interactionist approach) dominate this literature. Heisley and Holmes also argue that a number of underutilized anthropological approaches have great potential in the study of household consumer behavior.

There is little to argue with in the main thrust of the paper: almost without a doubt anthropological approaches are underrepresented in the consumer behavior literature. Only time will tell if anthropological approaches become more commonly used and, if so, whether their contribution will be a major one. The fact that Heisley and Holmes developed this paper increases the chances of these events coming to pass. In the meantime, there are a few minor points in the paper to be addressed.

Part of one of Heisley and Holmes' stated conclusions is that the Interactionist approach is the most purely sociological one. Technically, this is an opinion, not a conclusion based on their analysis. Those trained in Interactionism would certainly be glad to read this assessment of their approach. However, there are numerous schools of thought within sociology vying for the title of "most purely sociological."

On another matter, it is almost certainly the case, as Heisley and Holmes seem to imply, that articles in the Journal of Consumer Research are the best single indicator of the state of consumer behavior research in general. Perhaps the paper would be strengthened if a greater breadth of family consumer behavior-related articles were tapped. For example, articles in Advances in (Consumer Research, the Journal of Consumer Affairs, and even occasional article in Journal of Marriage and the Family might fruitfully be analyzed.

One final suggestion: A greater emphasis on strengthening family consumer behavior research through the use of historical and feminist approaches might be appropriate. The consumer behavior field suffers from a marked ahistorical bias. Almost everything we know about consumer behavior has been learned during (and quite possible applies only to) the last 25 years. Similarly, the consumer behavior field has a marketing, and thus, a masculine bias. Feminist approaches are clearly needed to complete our understanding of family consumer behavior.

Foxman and Burns

Foxman and Burns (1987) contribute to the relatively new literature on role load within households. Until their work, researchers in this area hat measured only wife role load. In addition to wife role load, Foxman and Burns add a measure of husband role load. There are numerous advantages to gathering data on both husband and wife role load, especially if these data are gathered from both husbands and wives.

Unfortunately, but undoubtedly for many good pragmatic reasons, Foxman and Burns gathered their data on wife and husband role load only from wives. Foxman and Burns recognize that such a procedure is subject to criticism. Indeed, it may be even more problematic than they seem to realize. Role load, especially in an era of increased labor force participation among wives, is probably a sensitive, emotion-laden issue in many households. Witness the recently coined term "superwoman" and all that it connotes.

Add to this the apparent tendency of persons to perceive their own workloads and role loads to be heavier than those of persons amount them, and the data in Foxman and Burns' Table 3 may be reinterpreted . Table 3 clearly shows that the respondents in the study (wives) report that they (wives) are overloaded to a greater extent than are husbands. This finding may be largely a function of the fact that wives are the respondents. This would make an interesting future research project.

Foxman and Burns are to be congratulated for attempting to develop some propositions to guide future research. Such a procedure is essential if this area of study is to continue to be a fruitful one. There is room to quibble with their set of propositions. For example, it may be that the proposition that the underloaded partner will take on consumption activities could just as readily be reversed. This might especially be the case since consumer activities are already embedded in the role activities of both husbands and wives.

The paper mentions nothing about scale validation. If Reilley's scale has not yet been validated, work toward that end should receive a high priority.

Future researchers of family role load might also wish to consider whether or not it might be more productive to measure role behaviors rather than role perceptions, as this study tit. It is plausible to expect some systematic inconsistencies between the amount of role load that persons perceive and the amount (by some "objective," perhaps observational. standard) they actually experience/perform.

Finally, it may be important (for policy reasons, at least) to distinguish between role overload resulting from multiple role demands (e.g., parent, spouse, employee) and role overload resulting from high demand emanating from just one role. We might distinguish tentatively between these two by calling the former true "role load" and the latter "workload."


Mayo and Qualls (1987) present the first longitudinal study of household durable goods acquisition. As such, their study represents a real methodological step forward. Dynamic, cross-temporal studies may go a long way in helping us understand what are, in fact, dynamic, crosstemporal processes. The data in this study are subjected to analysis techniques (latent structure analysis and partial least squares) that are sophisticated and certainly not widely known.

The major problem with the paper seems to be that the importance of the findings may not match the apparent rigor and sophistication of the analysis. Was it resource effective to perform this rather complicated analysis simply to learn that consumers are not likely to purchase durables they already own, and that consumers become increasingly likely to purchase those durables that they have previously said they are likely to purchase? Granted that the latter finding may have marketing research implications, overall these findings are of little interest, especially when measured against the effort required to develop them. It should be noted that this criticism, to some extent, smacks of "blaming the victim," since researchers often to not know going in what their findings will be.

The product categories used also are problematic. For example, on what basis is a second car categorized as "luxury entertainment?" Clearly for many (most?) of the households in this study, a second car is more or less a necessity, i.e., part of "primary transportation." Similarly, on what basis is a freezer categorized as "luxury comfort?" For many (most?) of these households, g freezer is surely considered a highly utilitarian durable. i.e.. part of a "basic household."

Continued longitudinal work on household consumption processes is to be encouraged. Such research and analysis almost certainly will uncover intriguing and exciting findings in the future.


Foxman, Ellen and Alvin C. Burns (1987), "Role Load in the Household," in Advances in Consumer Research, Vol. XIV, eds., Melanie Wallendorf and Paul F. Anderson, Provo, UT: Association for Consumer Research.

Heisley, Deborah D. and Paula S. Holmes (1987), "A Review of Family Consumption Research: The Need for a More Anthropological Perspective," in Advances in Consumer Research, Vol. XIV, eds., Melanie Wallendorf and Paul F. Anderson, Provo. UT: Association for Consumer Research.

Mayo, Michael C. and William J. Qualls (1987), "Household Durable Goods Acquisition Behavior: A Longitudinal Study," in Advances in Consumer Research, Vol. XIV, eds., Melanie Wallendorf and Paul F. Anderson, Provo, UT: Association for Consumer Research.