An Activity-Resource Analysis of Homemaker Communication


Frances M. Magrabi, Nancy Fraser Williams, Grace Von Toebel, and Jacqueline Wood (1971) ,"An Activity-Resource Analysis of Homemaker Communication", in SV - Proceedings of the Second Annual Conference of the Association for Consumer Research, eds. David M. Gardner, College Park, MD : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 119-129.

Proceedings of the Second Annual Conference of the Association for Consumer Research, 1971     Pages 119-129


Frances M. Magrabi, U.S. Department of Agriculture

Nancy Fraser Williams, Michigan State University

Grace Von Toebel, Michigan State University

Jacqueline Wood, Michigan State University

[The study was supported by Agricultural Research Service, U. S. Dept. of Agriculture, Grant No. 12-14-100-9153(62) administered by the Consumer and Food Economics Research Division, Federal Center Building, Hyattsville, Maryland, and is published with the approval of the Director of the Michigan Agricultural Experiment Station as Journal Paper No. 5528.]

[Dr. Magrabi, now with the Consumer and Food Economics Research Division, Agricultural Research Service, USDA, was a Professor in the College of Human Ecology, Michigan State University when the study was conducted. Mrs. Williams, Miss Von Toebel, and Mrs. Wood were research graduate assistants in the Department of Family and Child Sciences, College of Human Ecology, Michigan State University.]

One explanation of differences in choices made by consumers and home managers is that individuals have differing decision making styles or ways of integrating information. For example, time orientation -whether past, present, or future -- would logically determine which pieces of information were salient in the decision maker's reasoning. The individual who was highly future oriented might be expected to give careful consideration to future results of his choices, while the present oriented person might consider only present satisfaction. A past oriented decision maker might be expected to perpetuate the past or repeat past behavior. Similarly, the degree of control which the decision maker feels over his environment would influence his choices. The person who does not feel himself in control might logically seek or accept facts about the existing situation and choose on that basis, while one who does feel in control would be more likely to give salience to preferences and to consider ways of changing or redefining the situation.

In this paper, an approach to the study of decision making style is described and applied to the analysis of data collected from a small sample of rural homemakers. Tentative conclusions about the style of these homemakers are presented.


Communication has been described as one of the master processes in the action of a social system (Loomis, 1960). By extension, it is also a master process in the household as an ecosystem, directing and facilitating not only the interaction of family members, but also their interaction with their environment. A subset of communication, social exchange, has been given attention by several researchers as an explanation for interpersonal behavior. While most of the studies in this area have been of small groups or of mother-child dyads rather than of the family as a group, many of the concepts have relevance for the study of the household as a setting for decision making behavior.

A category system developed by Longabaugh (1963) for the study of social exchange appears to be especially applicable to the family situation. His classification of social exchange takes into account two behavioral dimensions: the resource which is salient in the act, which he defines as that which is of value to the interactors; and the mode by which resources become salient and are transmitted. In his study of mother-child dyads, Longabaugh identified three categories of resources -information, support, and control. His categories of modes correspond to steps in a given interaction sequence: Step 1 -- Person A seeks resource; Step 2 -- Person B offers or deprives resource; Step 3 -- Person A accepts, rejects, or ignores the offer or deprivation of the resource. Longabaugh concluded, on the basis of a pilot study, that interaction could be coded satisfactorily using these categories.

The analysis reported in this paper was based on the premise that a modification of Longabaugh's categories might be fruitful as a basis for studying communication among family members in relation to decision processes. Resources being transmitted in the exchange were identified with components of the decision situation, specifically, with those inputs which enable a choice to be made and implemented. Modes of transmission place these resources in a processual framework.

As a result of a pilot study (Magrabi, 1968) in which observations and audio recordings were made of interaction of ten mother-preschool child dyads sharing some household activity in the home, the Longabaugh categories were modified to be more applicable to the study of family activities (Magrabi, Heifner and Eigsti, 1968; Magrabi, Paolucci and Heifner, 1967). The modified resource categories were (a) fact, (b) preference, and (c) command or direction of the speaker's own activity. A fourth category, motivation or encouragement, (e.g. "Good girl'") was found to include so few messages that it was dropped from this analysis and messages in this category were not tabulated. The modes were: (a) offers, (b) seeks, (c) accepts, and (d) rejects or does not accept. The two additional categories used by Longabaugh, deprives and ignores, were dropped because coding of these was not reliable without visual clues. The modified categories were designed to display aspects of decision making behavior, i.e., transmission of facts about the decision situation and alternative courses of action, preferences concerning elements of alternative actions or outcomes, and commands concerning actions to be performed in implementing the decision. The categories were also appropriate for coding written transcripts of spoken communication. This latter adaptation made it feasible to gather communication data with an audio tape recorder in the home while the family performed normal activities. Later tapes could be transcribed and coded by persons other than the observer. By this means it was possible to collect and analyze large volumes of data using a research team approach. A video tape recorder, experimented with in the pilot study, did not prove to be satisfactory for recording normal activities in the home, partly because of the limited field which could be recorded, and partly because conditions of home recording resulted in very poor quality sound and picture.

Activities were defined within a framework depicting the household as an ecosystem (Magrabi, Elgidaily, and Braden, 1971). Household activities -- broadly categorized as (a) service or labor to other units in society, (b) acquisition of goods or services for use in the household, (c) production of goods or services within the household, (d) conservation of goods or services. and (e) disposal of waste or surplus -- were conceptualized as linking household members to the goods and services in the near environment which give them life support, and with other subsystems of society. The focus of decisions made within the household was thought of as the control and direction of activities. Although most activities occur routinely without being preceded by conscious or explicit decisions, those decisions which can be distinguished as such pertain to (for example) acquisitions of goods and services, whether or not a given productive activity is to be carried on, or the performance or nonperformance of activities to conserve goods and services. Specific activity categories used in coding and analysis were:

Production of goods or services -- preparation or construction moving from storage conditioning for use service to self or others control of persons or materials

Conservation -- wrapping or applying a protective material conditioning for storage moving to storage

Disposal of waste or surplus -- cleaning or waste removal

Other activities, e.g., recreation, shopping, etc., were not coded.

One limitation in the interpretation of communication data from the present study is that no attempt was made to focus the communication on decisions. Some of the messages did pertain to decisions, but in most instances messages in which a decision was under consideration were indistinguishable from those pertaining to routine activities or other topics.

It is plausible to assume that the communication which articulates a decision-in-process has the same content as flow of communication at other times. Communication at the time of decision making would contain a high frequency of messages relating to the specific activities and elements under consideration in the decision, but the import of the set of messages would not differ from messages pertaining to the same activities and elements abstracted from the normal flow of communication. If this assumption is correct, analysis of unfocussed communication would lead to the same conclusions as analysis of communication focussed on a decision, provided that the analysis was based on a sufficiently large sample of messages in the unfocussed situation. This assumption is the basis for using data from the present study to draw tentative conclusions about decision making style of these homemakers


In the present study, casual undirected conversations between 30 homemakers and members of their families or other persons present were recorded mechanically during periods when the homemakers were performing normal daily activities in their own homes. Each family was observed for a total of about four hours, with observations scheduled at the homemaker's convenience, but including food preparation, laundry, and cleaning activities. The observers were graduate students in the Department of Family and Child Sciences, Michigan State University, and were trained to observe and record under home conditions (Elgidaily, 1971). A total of approximately 100 hours of recorded conversations (approximately 42,000 messages) were transcribed and coded. Additional data were collected concerning the family, including education, economic status, usual pattern of activity, and inventory of household items.

The families were selected nonrandomly from a four-county area adjacent to Lansing, Michigan. Each family included both a husband and wife and one or more children 10 to 18 years old living at home. All were rural nonfarm families and reported incomes considered to be within the poverty range five years previous to the data collection. Average income at the time of data collection was approximately $8200. Average number of children under 18 was approximately 4.5. Four of the homemakers had only an eighth grade level of education, and only one had formal education beyond high school in a business or technical school.

Only the spoken communication of the wife-mother during time periods in which observations were being made is included in the analysis reported here. Persons spoken to included other family members or any other persons present.

Each message unit which could be transcribed from the tapes was coded with respect to speaker; person spoken to; household activity (if any) referred to; household material (if any) referred to; time orientation of the message (past, presentS or future); resource transmitted -- i.e., whether the message was stated as fact, preference, or as a command or direction of self; and mode of transmitting the fact, preference or command -- i.e., whether the speaker was offering, seeking, accepting, or not accepting the resource.


Each message spoken by the homemakers was classified according to tense (actual or intended), as an indication of the time orientation of these homemakers. Loomis (1960) speaks of decision making as oriented toward the future. If relative frequency of future oriented messages can be taken as indicating disposition to decision making, then the activities of conditioning materials for storage or use, cleaning, and service appear to have been considered more frequently from a decision making stance than the activities of control (which might often pertain to and be concurrent with the implementation stage of decision), or of storage or removal from storage or preparation or construction of household materials (all of which activities may have been performed routinely and hence required less frequent decisions). The majority of messages -- about two-thirds -- were expressed in present tense. The chi square test for independence indicated that time orientation was related to activity referred to. (See Table 1.)

Each codable message was classified as fact (e.g., "Lunch is ready"), preference (e.g., "I hope lunch is ready"), or command or direction of others or self (e.g., "Please get lunch ready" or "I will get the lunch ready"). The chi square test indicated that resource content and time orientation of messages were related. Messages of fact were about evenly distributed between past and present, with only 10 percent in future tense, while messages pertaining to preference or command were predominately (over 80 percent) in present tense. Of the 1281 messages with future orientation, only four percent expressed preference and over half expressed commands. This distribution is logical. Facts are likely to refer to either past or present; individuals less frequently express expectations or speculations about the future as facts. Preference is likely to be present oriented, partly because future preferences, like facts, are not known with certainty, and partly because future preferences are likely to be thought of as projections of present preferences. A larger percentage of command messages than of either of the other two categories were future oriented, consistent with an interpretation of this category as being closely related to decision making.





While activity categories were intended to be applicable to any of the various materials, furnishings,and equipment in households, it does not necessarily follow that messages should be distributed among activities with equal frequency for each type of material. One reason is the interest or preoccupation of the homemaker, which might lead her to talk more frequently about some activities than others. Another possible reason for variation in message frequency is that the activity categories are not equally limited and specific. For example, service and control are inclusive categories which cover a broad range of activities frequently performed, and hence total frequency of homemaker messages in these two categories should be and was high. At the other extreme, the categories removal to storage or removal from storage are quite limited and specific and contain the smallest total frequencies of messages. Another possible factor is that materials are not used with equal frequency. Food is the object of homemaker activities at least three times a day; equipment, clothing, and household textiles are focal objects of activity less frequently and hence would be expected to evoke communication less frequently, as was in fact the case. A chi square test indicated that household material referred to (food, clothing or textiles, equipment or other material) was not independent of the activity being referred to (significant at the .05 level). Therefore, further analysis of messages was performed separately for each of the three categories of materials.



In one sense the content categories may be conceived as being on a continuum from the expression of complete control over the activity (command or direction), to tentative or partial control (preference), to no expressed control (fact). Under this interpretation, differences were evidenced in expression of control over food, clothing and textiles, and equipment. Only 37 percent of the food messages took the form of command, compared with 49 percent of the equipment messages. On the other hand, aside from messages referring to the activity of control, the highest proportions of command messages pertaining to equipment had to do with storing or moving from storage, while the highest proportion of food messages pertained to preparation or service. (See Table 3.) Messages about preparation or construction activities appear intrinsically to express a higher level of control than storage activities. The kind of control expressed by homemakers over food (which they prepare) differs from control over equipment (which they merely store). For clothing and textiles messages, the largest proportion of command messages pertained to service activities. For each of the three categories of materials, the chi square test indicated that the activity referred to in the message was not independent of the resource content of the message -fact, preference, or command.

Closely related to the idea of control as expressed by the fact, preference or command content of the message is the degree of active control expressed by mode. Each message was classified according to the mode of message transmission, whether offering, seeking, accepting, or not accepting. For example, "Lunch is ready" is in the offering mode; "Is lunch ready?" is seeking; "Yes" or "It is" (in response to the message, "Lunch is ready") is in the accepting mode, while "No, it is not" is in the not accepting mode. Two of these modes, offering and not accepting, actively control the import of messages exchanged in the sense that an idea of the speaker is injected into the exchange or an idea of the other person is rejected. These two modes were classified as active. The seeking or accepting modes were classified as passive, since they indicate that the ideas of another person are being sought or accepted. For two categories of materials, food and equipment, the chi square test indicated that active or passive mode is not independent of activity referred to, but the calculated chi square was not significant for messages pertaining to clothing and textiles. (See Table 4.)

The homemakers in the study used active mode predominantly, but there were differences in proportions for activity categories. For equipment 7 cleaning activity accounted for the highest proportion of messages in active mode (aside from the activity of control). For both food and clothing and textiles, service activities accounted for a large proportion of those messages which were in passive mode, which seems plausible since most service was to other persons and their cooperation or coordinated behavior had to be sought. Mode of preparation-construction activities was predominately active, but the proportion was lower for messages related to equipment. Homemakers, although actively involved in most preparation construction activity in the home, may identify more strongly with food preparation than with comparable activities pertaining to equipment. Other activities relating to food -- cleaning, wrapping, storing, serving, etc. -may be more frequently delegated than comparable activities with equipment, and this may be reflected in the homemakers' communication.




The data on which findings were based included a large number of messages (over 10,000), but these were spoken by a small, nonrandom sample of homemakers. Because the communication occurred in the home setting, was undirected by the observer, and was incidental to the main focus of the occasions when it was recorded, it is probably representative of the communication pattern of these homemakers. The extent to which findings can be generalized to other homemakers is indeterminate; however, the conversations appear to the author to be typical of high school educated homemakers living in rural areas of the midwest

Most messages about these household activities had present time orientation. Apparently this group of homemakers thought of activities in the household as predominately present and current. The homemakers' stance toward household activities was one of active participation and control, though this seemed to vary with the specific activity and materials involved. Ideas were most often expressed as fact even though content would indicate that preference entered in. Of those messages which were future oriented, the majority were commands, almost none expressed preference. Almost all messages concerning preference were present oriented.

The predominance of factual messages would not necessarily indicate that these homemakers made less use of preferences in reasoning through decisions. Since many of the messages stated as facts were obviously based on value judgments, the homemakers were undoubtedly more strongly influenced by preferences than their overtly factual orientation indicated. Presumably the homemakers expressed themselves in an active, directive mode in discussing household activities because these activities were usually performed by themselves or under their direction.

In simple task environments the decision maker is likely to utilize a simple style of expressing and integrating information (Schroeder, et. al, 1967). Studies of decision making style have indicated that many family decision makers utilize a style which is factual and present time oriented (Magrabi and Paolucci, 1970). From the present study one might conclude that this basically simple orientation holds for most household activities, though in varying degrees.

If the assumption that unfocussed communication is similar to communication pertaining to decisions, it would appear that decisions of these homemakers would usually be made with reference to the present rather than the future or the past and with information presented as fact rather than preference. This orientation in the decision making process might restrict the range of information considered and perhaps the relative influence of present versus future satisfactions. The varying degrees of personal involvement in and control over household activities and materials might also influence selection and consideration of information in making decisions, as well as decision making power within the family.


Elgidaily, D.A. Time orientation and activity pattern of selected homemakers. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Michigan State University, East Lansing, 1971.

Longabaugh, R. A category system for coding interpersonal behavior as social exchange. Sociometry, 1963, 26, 319-344.

Loomis, Charles P. Social systems. Princeton, N.J. : D. Van Nostrand Company, Inc., 1960.

Magrabi, F.M. Patterns of mother-child communication related to socioeconomic class. Collected Papers, The 14th Inter-Institutional Seminar in Human Development and Learning, Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village, Detroit, 1968.

Magrabi, F.M., Elgidaily, D.A. and Braden, B.L. Resource use in household activity patterns. Journal of Consumer Affairs, Summer 1972, in press.

Magrabi, F.M., Heifner, M.E. and Eigsti, M.H. Communication and family activities: concepts and applications. Quarterly Bulletin, 1968, 50, 384-391.

Magrabi, F.M. and Paolucci, B. Decision-making styles of family managers. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Psychological Association, Miami, Florida, September 1970.

Magrabi, F.M., Paolucci, B. and Heifner, M.E. Framework for studying family activity patterns. Journal of Home Economics, 1967, 59, 714-719.

Schroeder, H.M., Driver, M.J. and Streufert, S. Human information processing. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston. 1967



Frances M. Magrabi, U.S. Department of Agriculture
Nancy Fraser Williams, Michigan State University
Grace Von Toebel, Michigan State University
Jacqueline Wood, Michigan State University,


SV - Proceedings of the Second Annual Conference of the Association for Consumer Research | 1971

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