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CHAPTER 5 Who Makes Household Economic Decisions? Anthropologists and economists analyzing decision-making situations in particular times and places need to specify who exactly has the power to make choices. Before around 1960 economists ordinarily assumed that decision-making units were either individuals or groups acting as a single entity. This assumption simplified their models of choice based on neoclassical economic theory. In the real world, however, many group decisions are the outcomes of discussions between people with conflicting goals. For example, the firms that are the subject of extensive economic theorizing have numerous decision makers who may disagree about what their companies should do in particular situations. Some of these individuals may exert great amounts of influence in certain types of choices but have little power to determine the outcome of other kinds of decisionmaking situations. Over the past fifty years anthropologists and economists have become increasingly aware that many important economic decisions are made within households whose members pool some of their resources. Although anthropologists have written extensively about problems in defining and delineating “households,” economists for the most part seem unconcerned about these issues. Both anthropologists and economists, however, have written extensively about the difficulties associated with regarding households as decision-making units. They understand that members of households negotiate and compromise over the use of shared resources. Anthropologists’ work on intrahousehold negotiations has mostly been descriptive; economists, in contrast, have developed game theory models of bargaining among household members. Feminist scholars in the two disciplines have been particularly concerned with how society-wide gender relations affect the relative influence of women and Who Makes Household Economic Decisions? 119 men in household decision making. They have also emphasized the considerable autonomy that women and men often have in different spheres of household economics. This chapter examines similarities and differences in the ways anthropologists and economists discuss household-level choices. My emphasis is on how scholars in the two fields define and delineate decision-making units. I begin with a discussion of problems I encountered in delineating “households” in the three places I have carried out extended fieldwork— Belize, the Peruvian Amazon, and Oaxaca. These case studies illustrate the difficulties that both anthropologists and economists face when attempting to specify who exactly is influencing important household-level decisions. Rural Belize in the Early 1970s When I went to the Stann Creek District in southern Belize in 1971, my primary goal was to find out how individuals made decisions about how to allocate their labor time among wage labor, cash cropping, and agricultural production for home consumption. I assumed (without much thought) that my fieldwork would focus on the choices men made because rural women in the area rarely participated in wage labor. Although my assumption about the activities of women turned out to be right, I quickly learned that the economic decisions of individual men could not be understood without an examination of what other people in their households were doing. Families supported themselves through a diverse mix of activities that included growing rice, corn, beans, plantains, cassava (manioc), and citrus crops, raising chickens and pigs, fishing, hunting, and doing migratory wage work in construction and on commercial estates. Men considering leaving home to do wage work relied on other members of their households to maintain their fields, tend to chickens, take care of children, prepare food, mend clothes, and do other domestic tasks. Furthermore, the total amount of time men spent on wage work and farming each year depended in part on how much food and income they needed to support their families at a culturally acceptable standard of living. Men with large families needed more income and food (whether grown or purchased) than men with smaller families. Men who were the only wage workers in their households needed higher incomes than those who had adult sons in their households who shared some of the money they earned. 120 Anthropology, Economics, and Choice It became clear to me that an exclusive focus on individual decision making was misguided. Because the economic activities of various members of a household were interrelated, analyzing the choices any one person made could not be done without looking at the choices of others. More fundamentally, I wondered about the extent to which the economic activities of rural Belizean households could be regarded as the outcomes of independent decisions made by individual members. There was clearly some group decision making in households that affected some activities of individual members. However, neither the household...


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