Defining the Household

We can begin our general consideration of the problems of the cross-cultural treatment of the household by considering how it is conceptualized in the United States, specifically from the perspective of census compilation. The Census has been periodically faced with the basic issues of how to define, identify, and describe the domestic units in American society. It treats the terms "household" and "family" as closely related.
A household includes all the people who occupy a housing unit. A housing unit is a house, an apartment, a mobile home, a group of rooms, or a single room that is occupied (or if vacant, is intended for occupancy) as separate living quarters. Separate living quarters are those in which the occupants live separately from any other people in the building and which have direct access from the outside of the building or through a common hall. The occupants may be a single family, one person living alone, two or more families living together, or any other group of related or unrelated people who share living arrangements.
A family consists of a householder and one or more other people living in the same household who are related to the householder by birth, marriage, or adoption. All people in a household who are related to the householder are regarded as members of his or her family. A household can contain only one family for purposes of tabulations. Not all households contain families since a household may comprise a group of unrelated people or one person living alone (US Census 2003).
Two assumptions are reflected in these definitions. Firstly, the household is considered as residing in a “housing unit”, essentially a single, spatially delimited physical structure. Secondly, families and households are partially equated. Although not all households contain families, all families must be located within a single housing unit.

Although it tries for objectivity, the Census text reflects the influence of several cultural premises and values that sometimes create problems for the understanding of our own society. They are even more questionable when applied to other cultures. Three major interrelated problems are evident:

  1. The household can be conceptualized from both spatial and social perspectives, which may define separate rather than coincident networks of interaction.
  2. Household organized responds to two sets of forces each of which must be given due consideration before an acceptable typology and description is possible. On one plane, its structure is based on the application of culture values about family life. On another, its composition must accomodate ecological, demographic, economic realities that sometimes hinder people from setting up living arrangements according to their ideals.
  3. Household organization at any one time must be understood as a point in a more complex domestic cycle, which reflects the basic patterns in which domestic units add members and grow.

© Brian Schwimmer, All rights reserved
Department of Anthropology
University of Manitoba
Created: October 2003