The Work at Hand
Building on the earlier analyses of coupling and caring, this chapter therefore addresses four main questions:
1. How does shared participation in households affect people’s management of economic activity, of intimacy, and of their intersection?
2. What sorts of rights and obligations does household membership entail, and how do those rights and obligations impinge on intersections of economic activity and intimacy?
3. How does the presence of third parties to intimate relationships—for example, children, parents, and live-in care workers—affect coupling and caring?
4. When disputes originating in households reach the legal arena, how does the law treat such disputes?
Rather than addressing these questions separately one by one, this chapter pursues them across a wide variety of household activities. Considering these questions across contemporary American settings will of course reveal substantial differences in household organization by class and ethnicity. Yet we will also continue to see Americans of different classes and ethnicities investing great effort in distinguishing different kinds of relationships from each other; marking their boundaries; negotiating their meanings, rights, and obligations; creating appropriate media for their economic reckoning; and matching economic transactions to intimate relationships. Every sort of household engages in extensive relational work.
Households teem with economic activity: production, distribution, consumption, and transfers of assets. No household survives for long without renewing its resources and sustaining its members. Households differ from other sites of economic activity, however, in four crucial regards. First, continuous cohabitation creates more extensive mutual knowledge, influence, rights, and obligations than usually develop in other economic settings. Second, negotiations within households take place in a longer time perspective and with greater consequences for long-term reciprocity than characteristically occur within other economic settings. Third, in American law, economic transactions within households occupy a substantially different position from those that take place among households, between households and other economic units, or entirely outside of households. Fourth, transfers of assets among households—for example, parents’ contributions to their children’s college expenses or to newlyweds’ acquisition and furnishing of their new home— continue to loom large from practical, sentimental, economic, and legal standpoints.
This chapter first examines the intersection of economic activity and intimacy in routine practices of household members. It groups those practices under three main headings: (1) control and transfer of assets, (2) consumption and distribution, (3) production. How, for instance, do members ofhouseholds negotiate the reallocation of money that individual members earn outside the household? What happens when grandparents or other kin contribute to household income with gifts or loans? Who decides which household members do what kinds of housework? And in what ways do parents and children collaborate or compete in the spending of household monies? The disruption or breakdown of households raises an entirely new set of economic issues: how, for instance, do people renegotiate their economic rights and obligations when the household goes bankrupt? After reviewing household practices of control and transfer of assets, production, consumption, and distribution, the chapter therefore looks more closely at economic practices in shattered households.
Having reviewed a range of household practices, I then consider what happens when the same sort of issues become matters of legal dispute. Who, for instance, is responsible for paying taxes or honoring debts? Does household work establish legal claims to compensation in divorce cases? Legally speaking, how do agreements clearly established within households differ from commercial contracts?
What happens when the separate spheres doctrines still built into American law confront the nothing-but arguments of law’s economic reductionists? In court, households provide a marvelous site for observation of intimacy’s purchase.
Before taking this inquiry into American courtrooms, however, we need to organize our knowledge about household practices bearing on the intersection of intimacy and economic activity. I will do so by moving from an analysis of the control and transfer of household assets to household involvement in production to consumption and distribution within households. Earlier chapters on the law, coupling, and caring unsurprisingly gave little attention to intimate relations involving children. As a moment’s thought about parent-child relations will indicate, however, children loom large in the world of intimacy. This chapter therefore gives more than perfunctory attention to children’s places in household economic activity and intimacy. Discussion of disruptions in all these processes provides a transition to legal disputes over household intimacy and economic activity. As in earlier chapters, close study of household economic transactions and disputes will show that the interplay of intimacy and economic activity follows neither the laws of the market nor the requirements of tradition or sentiment, but a demanding logic of interpersonal negotiation over the meaning of household relations.