Household as Commons

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David Bollier:

"our individual households, as systems for managing shared everyday resources, function as a commons. They interact with the law and with the marketplace, but have their own social and economic dynamics. Ellickson’s recent book, The Household: Informal Order Around the Hearth (Princeton University Press, 2008), is a short but thoughtful exploration about how and why households function as the do.

The book is an outgrowth of a 2006 essay in the Yale Law Journal, which can be viewed here.


The story gets interesting when it considers the historical forms of householding that have endured and why. Most people in liberal societies choose to live as “small, kin-based clusters” in households, usually as co-occupants, co-owners or as tenants. It turns out that there are good reasons for this: the economics tend to favor smaller groups because the transaction costs are lower.

The costs of interacting with other households to get things done, he argues, “powerfully influence all features of household institutions, in particular the structuring of ownership, the numbers of participants and participants’ systems of internal governance.”

While there have been any number of utopian household designs over the centuries, most of these have failed to endure for very long. Assigned housing in Russia, back-to-nature communes, co-housing projects and Israeli kibbutzim have all had marginal or declining roles over the decades. Ellickson believes that “the conventional kinship-based household persists not because individuals lack imagination or spurn interfamily solidarity, but rather because this traditional form has inherent advantages.”

Much of Ellickson’s book gives analytic clarity to things that we take for granted. For example, he points out that “One of the great advantages of a small and intimate relationship [in a household] is that it enables participants to economize on transaction costs by using informal procedures. Debate around a dinner table need not proceed according to Robert’s Rules or Order.”

Theoretically, a household of different members could operate according to majority rule, consensus or a rule of unanimity. But consensus seems to be the default rule in most households, Ellickson notes. Why? Because consensus offers a way for the intensity of people’s feelings to be learned and for accommodations to be made that can save relationships.


He writes: “Intimates have many reasons for preferring to create their homeways by means of spontaneous gift exchanges as opposed to express contracts.” Reciprocated acts of cooperation tend to generate pleasure, and the outcomes are generally regarded as fairer than negotiated exchanges (even in instances when the measurable result is identical). Also, gift exchange tends to have lower transaction costs than a contract. There is less haggling, less need to interpret the agreement and none of the monitoring and enforcement costs that come with a contract.

Householders who cooperate are likely to generate a “shareable surplus” – of meals cooked, of a clean house, or money more efficiently spent.

There is another advantage to operating a household as a gift economy rather than as a market. Paying people can erode the intrinsic desire to perform the task well and to please one’s housemates. And the gift exchange (“I’ll clean the bathroom if you vacuum the living room”) helps reinforce feelings of trust and mutual commitment. This helps explain why there is a preference in households to use in-kind gifts rather than money to compensate each other.

Contracts seem to be used among householders when they distrust each other or they haven’t faced a specific challenge before. But even in those instances, the householders are likely to enter into an oral contract, not a written one: a signal that social conviviality is as important as legal righteousness.

Ellickson also identifies different sources of household rules. He calls the internalized norms and personal ethics that cohabiters bring to the house “first-party rules.” These are complemented by second-party rules, which are the ones that participants generate themselves, many of which tend to be relationship-specific, and by third-party rules, which are produced by outsiders, and include laws made by governments and prevailing social norms and customs.

Taken together, the homeways that a given household creates constitute a kind of commons, which Ellickson explicitly links to the medieval commons: “The particularized ‘customs of the household’ that emerge from its history of cooperative practices are somewhat analogous to the varying ‘customs of the manor’ that evolved in medieval English villages,” he writes.

Thinking about households as commons is interesting because it helps showcase the zone in which market needs and social needs intersect, coexist and get resolved. A household has many bills to pay – yet it also wishes to govern itself as a happy, civil mini-community. Economic value is not the sole purpose of a household, yet clearly it is influential and must be dealt with responsibly. It’s a pleasure to see the household’s role as a commons explored with such rigor and clarity by a scholar who knows the great value of property rights and economics, but also their limits." (

More Information

Essay: Unpacking the Household: Informal Property Rights Around the Hearth

Key Book to Read

  1. Robert Ellickson. The Household: Informal Order Around the Hearth. Princeton University Press, 2008