From the Series: The Household

Photo by Kowit Phothisan.

Each contribution to this session pokes at a particular vision of the household that continues to dominate American politics and letters. That vision paints the household as a small, self-contained domestic group, one that serves as the foundation of any larger group worth its salt. That household is anchored by a head, ideally a man. Several figures orbit him in ways that support his presence within and beyond the household. First, there is his spouse, who does so much to make a refuge for the household, one that sustains and restores each member’s body and spirit; and that prepares them for yet another day “out” in the world. Then there are his children, who bear everything from his name to his genetic material into that world. Finally, there is the matter of the residence itself, within which household members dwell. As much as it shelters and locates them in place, this residence also concentrates the affection that cements these figures together. This vision is no less potent and compelling for being at best obsolete and, at worst, an ethnocentric or ahistorical occlusion of the very processes and developments that have rendered it so familiar to us as an aspiration, description, and prescription.

Consider, for instance, David Schneider’s (1980) classic study of American kinship. Schneider presents the home as the accretion of love, a primary symbol of the enduring, diffuse solidarity through which his interlocutors understand and police bonds and obligations to relations. His middle-American, middle-class interlocutors filled the pages of his account with musings concerning the relative closeness or distance of aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, and even friends. Yet, for them, relations feel most “loved,” that is, most intense, intuitive, and demanding within the one group understood to bridge conjugal and cognatic love: a nuclear household comprised of heterosexual parents and their legitimate children. The dwelling that they share becomes a home through their varied expressions of love: paying the rent or holding the job that pays that rent, cooking food or eating what has been cooked, sharing a kiss, holding a hand, tending to a baby. Absent those meaningful expressions of love, a house is not a home. It is simply a structure comprised of so many walls and boards.

It’s worth noting that Schneider’s interlocutors belonged to a society that spent several centuries routing full-fledged citizenship, its rights, and its duties through property ownership, and most of the last century doggedly promoting mortgaged homeownership as a primary vehicle through which its citizens could and should realize security, satisfaction, and well-being. In the wake of programs and policies to expand homeownership, a household’s respective home has become inseparable from expectations that its physical dimensions should double as an asset that will buoy its members at every stage of their lives. As long as it is carefully attended to, members expect to leverage that asset toward comfortable retirements for the household’s oldest members, sound educations for its younger ones, and a steady stream of consumer pleasures for all. For Schneider’s interlocutors, a home may well be built on love, but it is likely that the house, condo, or apartment that they either owned or aspired to own was what they would have staked the present and the future of their household. Whether or not it conforms to normative visions, every American household must contend with relations, policies, and narratives that figure the virtuous citizen as someone prepared to take on, service, and leverage substantial housing debt on behalf of themselves and their loved ones. Is it any wonder, then, that anthropologists writing within the United States, however much or little their research directly touches upon that trope of the “nation of homeowners,” must take pains to remind readers that a shared residence cemented only by love is one among many possible frameworks for imagining, organizing, locating, apprehending, and promoting a household?

What analytical strategies might prove adept at guarding against our tendencies, when faced with an object like the household, to collapse physical residence, obligation, and processes of biological and social reproduction into one another? The contributors to this session offer several. Each underscores the variety of household forms that exist within and beyond societies in the thrall of nucleated households. They point to the development, institutionalization, and reconfiguration of households in specific historical and political contexts. They trouble analyses that would reduce the study of households to the study of relations, reminding us that the concept operates in distinct social and political realms that span relations, knowledge production, even state formation. And they underscore that while the intimacies that bind household members may well be affectionate, affection, violence, and dispossession are not mutually exclusive. To these approaches I’d like to underline one suggestion that remains implicit but important within each of these pieces, as contributors follow everything from the circulation of paperwork that secures education for children to the circulation of children within networks raised in long shadows of servitude: that we suspend efforts to fix the boundaries of the household, and especially who or what it might include or exclude, in favor of examining practices that our interlocutors might consider consequential to householding, that is, efforts undertaken to satisfy basic wants, however they may be defined (see Weber 2013).

There is nothing new in this approach. Almost four decades ago Sylvia Yanagisako (1979) advised anthropologists concerned with “the household” and “the family” to start not with a given society’s domestic groups, but with the very activities its members considered central to their domestic relationships. Such redirected attention, she argued, would allow us to map out the full range of kinship or locality-based units that engage in such activities, without missing those that depart substantially from our conventional notions of domestic groups. In fact, this approach is older still. Consider, for instance, how Claude Lévi-Strauss (1979, 1987) wrestles with the circulation of material and immaterial wealth to arrive at his understanding of so-called house societies. Tracing presentations and transfers of everything from marriageable young people to privileges, honors, crests, and even furniture, he tackles political and legal orders that do not orbit familiar patterns of matrilineal or patrilineal descent, but rather physical and metaphoric houses that in a very real way bear rights and duties. Or, looking still further back, consider Lewis Henry Morgan’s (1868) examination of beavers and their works. Shaped in no small part by observations of the Ojibwa guides with whom he worked, Morgan’s study of dams and lodges imagines startlingly expansive domestic orders organized not simply around blood or marriage, but around the transformation of materials like water and wood (see Feeley-Harnik 1999).

I bring up a strategy that has served generations of anthropologists when faced with the formidable object of the household not because I want to feed more grist to the science of human variation. While my research has focused on the physical dimensions of housing systems, my aim is also not to thing-ify household studies. My interests lie, instead, in the conundrum posed by the context within which I work, a late-industrial urban America grappling with the social and material aftermaths of a subsidized housing system that spanned low-rent housing and mortgaged homeownership. This system, even in its low-rent guises, assumed and promoted nuclear households headed by men earning family wages. It has, however, become increasingly strained over the last four decades through processes that include privatization, disinvestment, a general backlash against what some call “entitlement programs,” and the financialization of the housing sector. These processes unfold even as Americans grapple with intensifying demands that the household to which they belong shoulder much of the work of householding, the work of meeting basic wants. These demands seem to become more strident and punishing, even as the nucleated household itself goes the way of the unicorn. In such a context, following the practices—traditional, experimental, counterintuitive, or otherwise—through which citizens household seems not so much to be the affirmation of variation, adaptation, or resilience. Rather, it seems a matter of urgency for the project of tracking and imagining the futures of collective life, obligation, and thriving.


Feeley-Harnik, Gillian. 1999. “‘Communities of Blood’: The Natural History of Kinship in Nineteenth-Century America.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 41, no. 2: 215–62.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. 1979. The Way of the Masks. Translated by Sylvia Modelski. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

____. 1987. Anthropology and Myth: Lectures 1951–1982. Translated by Roy Willis. New York: Basil Blackwell.

Morgan, Henry Lewis. 1868. The American Beaver and His Works. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott.

Schneider, David. 1980. American Kinship: A Cultural Account. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Weber, Max. 2013. Economy and Society. Berkeley: University of California Press. Originally published in 1922.

Yanagisako, Sylvia. 1979. “Family and Household: The Analysis of Domestic Groups.” Annual Review of Anthropology 8: 161–205.