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The paper builds on various heterodox approaches to economics to explore a direction towards analyzing households within heterodox economic theory of social provisioning. The first section delineates five main theoretical foundations of households within heterodox economic perspectives. The second section discusses the analytical categories of the household as a going concern, the household as an institution, and the household as an actor-participant within a system of provisioning processes. Finally, the paper offers three specific suggestions for future developments.
Households in Heterodox Economic Theory
Zdravka Todorova
Wright State University
This is a pre-publication version of ch. 13 In The Routledge Handbook of Heterodox Economics, edited by T-H. Jo, L.
Chester, and C. D’lppoliti. New York: Routledge, 2018 (188-198).
Within heterodox economics, the household has been conceptualized as an expenditure and
financial unit; as a part of production and monetary circuits; as the relations of the reproduction
of labor power; as a source of macroeconomic growth, stability, and instability; as a site of
exploitation; as a through-time producer; as an entity understood and formed through colonial
relations; as the site of and an actor in global production and financial remittances, and a
combination of these scopes (O’Hara 1995; Elson 1998; Hanmer & Akram-Lodhi 1998; Peterson
2003; Charushela & Danby 2006; Fraad et al. 2009; Todorova 2009; Safri & Graham 2010;
Hewitson 2013). Both inter- and intra-household relations have received attention at the
empirical and conceptual levels, especially within feminist and Marxian-feminist economics
(Robeyns 2005; Fraad et al. 2009).
The present chapter builds on various heterodox approaches to economics to explore a
direction towards analyzing households within a broader heterodox economic theory of social
provisioning. The first section delineates the theoretical foundations of households within
heterodox economic perspectives. The second section discusses the analytical categories of the
household as a going concern, the household as an institution, and the household as an actor-
participant within a system of provisioning processes. Finally, the chapter offers suggestions for
future developments.
Theoretical foundations of households within heterodox economic perspectives
There have been considerable attempts to meld together heterodox economic approaches (Lee
2012: 123). This is a development in the right direction if heterodox economists are concerned
with a systemic understanding of economic problems. Various heterodox approaches have
focused on different aspects or levels of economic reality. Conceptualizing households within
heterodox economics will thus mean bringing together developments and insights from various
approaches. In this section I delineate theoretical elements that to my understanding represent the
most fundamental developments of heterodox economic thought that will enrich heterodox
theorizing of households.
Below the surface of exchange and beyond monetary production: social provisioning
A fundamental distinctive element of any heterodox economic approach is a theoretical
framework that is able to see below the surface of exchange. Heterodox frameworks in general
analyze production as a money-making activity and the distribution of income and resources as
socially governed and determined. In heterodox economics these two key aspects of the capitalist
economy are not conflated with market exchange. Instead, socially produced and distributed
surpluses, the creation of resources, together with the agency and structure of classes play a
central role in analyzing the capitalist economy (Lee & Jo 2011; Philp & Trigg 2015). This
premise is evident in Marxian-radical, original institutionalist, Post Keynesian (including
Kaleckian and Sraffian), structuralist, circuitist, Social Structures of Accumulation, Régulation,
some feminist approaches, and various combinations of these (see Lee 2012: 116). Diving below
the surface of exchange has brought into question the market mechanism as an explanation of
production and distribution, and has led heterodox economists to explore their social and
historical organizations.
However, in this endeavor some heterodox economists, particularly feminists, argue that
production is broader than the monetary production of commodities for market exchange (see,
for example, Elson 1998; Peterson 2003; Charushela & Danby 2006; Todorova 2009; Safri &
Graham 2010). In this respect, the analysis of households from a heterodox economics
perspective should be based on distinguishing the production of commodities from the
production of non-commodities, and on the articulation of the distinct logics, motives, and
valuations that govern market and non-market oriented activities that are nonetheless part of a
system of provisioning (Todorova 2015a). Consequently, the concept of social provisioning
provides a broader meaning of the economy, as wells as a starting point for theorizing
households within heterodox economics (Dugger 1996; Power 2004; Todorova 2015b; Jo &
Todorova in this volume).
Multi-faceted humans with living bodies and social provisioning within ecosystems
An understanding of the economy as a social provisioning process is empowered by a notion of
multi-faceted humans and their multi-faceted interactions, motives, and values. This means
conceiving of humans as living beings, with social lives and identities beyond their economic
positions as consumers and material providers. Continuation of life should thus be paramount in
the conceptualization of households, given that the processes of social provisioning are part of
ecosystems and have ecological bases and consequences. People and households ought to be
theorized from the outset as both biological and social beings. Heterodox economics is well-
suited to the conceptualization of this sociality outside of market interactions.
Multi-faceted and living humans are important for heterodox theorizing of households.
First, such a conception of human beings helps develop a broader formulation of household
economic activities including care and recreation (Todorova 2015c). Second, it supports a more
comprehensive understanding of vulnerabilities as well as capabilities of people within
households. Third, it enables an evolutionary (as opposed to static and non-living) and context-
specific (as opposed to universalizing) analysis of households and their relations, motivations,
and agencies that impacts and is impacted by social and natural processes. Finally, the
conception of multi-faceted and living humans is an understanding that humans have various
experiences, goals, and identities resulting in diverse households. Such analyses are strengthened
by the conception of a system of processes as described below.
Individuality and diversity
Having diversity within theoretical foundations enables the evolutionary analysis of the
household organizations, such as the emergence of the single parent, global migrant worker, and
dual-career commuter households, which are connected theoretically to changes in social
provisioning and more generally to the evolution of culture-nature processes (Hardill 2002;
Peterson 2003). The evolution of the household organization is a subset of institutional change
and the evolution of the economic system. The diversity of household arrangements is connected
to various positions, experiences, and historical developments in terms of social class, gender,
race/ethnicity, citizenship/residency processes, as well as to the evolution of social provisioning
within geopolitical and environmental contexts. Consequently, households should not be an
analytical category that subsumes the existence of individuals and their diverse experiences.
These are essential, rather than tangential, for the heterodox economic analysis of social
Classes, power, and capabilities
Within heterodox economics, diversity among and within households cannot be conceived
without engaging in explicit analyses of power, hierarchical relations, and social and economic
classes; and without connecting these analyses to agency and social structures (Power 2004; Lee
2011). Household choice, decision-making, perceptions, identities, and agency cannot be
understood outside of social and economic classes, hierarchical relations, and collective power to
create and pursue vested interests and capabilities. That hierarchies within households and
among households’ socio-economic positions need to be conceived together with desires and
actions to change those positions and social arrangements of distribution means that heterodox
analyses should allow for the multi-dimensionality of power. This further means that in addition
to oppression and invidious distinction, the analysis of power needs to capture the creation of
capabilities (Robeyns 2005), and the differences among households in developing and exercising
Households and their agencies
In conceiving of households’ agency, it is important to connect the differences among and within
households to a notion of levels and types of agency. That is, questions about agency are linked
to classes, power, and hierarchies. However, individuals and going concerns cannot be subsumed
into aggregate categories, if agency is to be taken into account (Jo 2015). The notion of agency
presumes a developed and socialized individuality (Davis 2003: 11). Social structures are not
mere outcomes of an aggregate individual’s will, and the socialization of the individual does not
mean a complete determination of the self (for an elaborate exposition see Archer 2000: 253-
282). Consequently, with respect to intra-household relations there must be a conceptualization
of diverse selves that are not entirely explained by social norms and the structure of the
household as a going concern. Analytically, this allows for the emergence of various forms of
household going concerns, as well as for actions towards altering household positions and
structural arrangements.
Based on the above theoretical points, below I discuss three fundamental categories that
are necessary for theorizing households—going concerns, institutions, and processes, and that
are consistent with developments in heterodox economics. I will explain the importance of
distinguishing between the household as an institution and as a going concern that participates
and contributes to the emergence of an evolving system of nature-culture-provisioning processes.
Households as going concerns
Social activities are organized and carried out by going concerns. Going concerns engage in
continuous, relatively stable social activities through which they exercise certain agencies.
Households are going concerns that take various forms of organization. Place(s) and spaces of
residence are part of the household going concern. Analyses of kinship and familial ties may be
part of the household as a going concern, but do not necessarily overlap with them.
If we understand the household as a going concern, rather than a static unit, the focus of
inquiry shifts to how people live over time. The concept of a going concern enables evolutionary
analyses that allow complexities over time and space, and transcend unitary, fixed, and
universalizing notions of ‘the household,’ and captures the diversity among households with
respect to their geographical characteristics, methods of obtaining a livelihood, and marriage and
co-habitation arrangements. For example, migrant workers are engaged in maintaining a
household of members who do not reside together continuously. This is done through financial
remittances as well as emotional relations and support. Those households may also be part of
another household, as in the case of domestic work and care or the co-habitation of workers.
Similarly, dual-career households with members holding jobs in different regions and living in
separate dwellings are engaged in maintaining a household as a going concern. Furthermore, a
household as a going concern is a broader concept than a financial unit of cash (out)flows and
financial obligations.
In heterodox economics, particularly grounded in institutional economics, the concept of
the going concern has been developed with respect to the business enterprise (see Veblen [1904]
2005; Commons [1924] 1995; Jo & Henry 2015). What distinguishes households as going
concerns from other forms of going concerns needs further articulation. For example, the going
concern of the business enterprise continues as the expectation for future profits continues. A
liquidated or near bankrupt business enterprise ceases to be a going concern. However, a
household continues to be a going concern after the depletion of assets and income flows
(although as a result of that it could disintegrate through death, or transform through divorce,
migration, etc.).
Identifying activities are not sufficient to distinguish households from other institutions
(Hendon 1996: 46), given that consumption, recreation, even care activities take place within
other going concerns too, such as the business enterprise; and, moreover, that production takes
place within households. Motivation and valuation are also not exclusively designated to a
particular going concern. For example, care as paid employment can be motivated by both
money and caring (Zelizer 2010; England et al. 2013); and predatory and invidious motivation
could in fact underline some household activities (Todorova 2015a).
An application of the concept of the going concern to the household should reflect the
conceptualization of the economy as a social provisioning process beyond production for market
exchange. As stressed by feminist economists, households engage in paid and unpaid activities
that are central to social provisioning and communities (Power 2004). Unpaid activities include
household work, care, recreational, and consumption activities. Such unpaid activities are part of
the reproduction and maintenance of the labor force through birthing, bringing-up children,
caring, socializing, and other daily support care activities. These activities support capital
accumulation and, generally, the social provisioning process. Informal employment blurs the
lines between paid and unpaid work (Charusheela & Danby 2006). Households and home-based
paid work, as well as unpaid work and care are part of global commodity chains and economies
(Peterson 2003; Collins 2014; Ramamurthy 2014). The growth of commodity production means
that households are part of debtor-creditor relations and vulnerable to entrepreneurial
expectations and to neoliberal policies such as privatization (see, for example, LeBaron 2010;
LeBaron & Roberts 2013). Unpaid household work and care can only partially offset a worsened
household’s financial position and livelihood, because households must obtain money through
participation in the market process to purchase goods and services, and to service debts and pay
taxes. Structural changes such as precarious employment, rising medical debts and the costs of
education cannot be fully circumvented by engaging in non-market oriented production and more
generally non-market household and community activities. Yet, financial responsibility and costs
are shifted onto households (Resnick & Wolff 2006).
This is amplified by distinctions among households based on income and wealth (Wolff
& Zacharias 2013). Such distinctions can be understood not only as individual household
characteristics, but also as social-class relations embedded in the ways that household incomes
are earned and spent, and established and perpetuated via institutions, such as the educational
system. Household going concerns interact with institutions differently based on those
differentiated social-class relations (Lareau & Cox 2012; Miller & Sperry 2012; Stephens et al.
The household as an institution
Households as going concerns, together with particular emergent working rules, procedures,
social beliefs, symbols, discourse, and conventional wisdom regarding their organization and
operation, as well as related emerging personal attitudes, constitute the institution of the
household. All of these are analytical categories or elements of social processes.
A particular evolution of those elements results in specific habits of thought, such as the
‘breadwinner household.’ The term ‘habits of thought’ refers to the institutionalized patterns of
practices and ideas that can serve as an ideal for aspiration, and as a criterion for value judgment.
As in the case of the breadwinner model of the household, for example, a particular idea or habit
can have a normative effect on policy and influences judgments of success and worthiness, even
if the model is dwindling or unachievable by most (Peterson & Peterson 1994; Rose 2000).
The analytical distinction between the household as a going concern and the household as
an institution enables us to conceptualize not only the variations of households, but also their
common institutional position in the economic structure. The household as an institution
occupies a passive position within the hierarchy of money, and with respect to the determination
of effective demand, output, and employment (Bell 2000; Todorova 2009). In a capitalist
economy the overall monetary wealth and income of households is determined by the activities
of business enterprises and the state, both of which determine the level and composition of
income, employment, and effective demand, and thus the ability of households to repay their
debt obligations. Those are limitations of the household as an institution. However, there are
different household going concerns, including capitalist and working class households, which
engage in the social provisioning process in different manners. That is to say, while all
households must navigate surrounding environment and address problems that arise outside their
realm of influence in order for them to remain as going concerns, but household going concerns
located in different social strata encounter different types or degrees of limitations. Thus, there
are variations in agency among households with respect to their interactions with institutions,
their ability to engage in social provisioning activities in order to support their lives and
lifestyles; and with respect to their ability to direct other households’ lives.
Cardwell & Todorova (2016) note that it is useful to think of some household going
concerns as operating through the institution of the household; and others operating also through
other institutions. They argue, for example, that under money manager capitalism a concentrated
financial sector inhibits the agency of household going concerns who act only through the
institution of the household, while providing opportunities for political and economic agency of
household going concerns that transcend their institution and/or that are able to exercise agency
as going concerns through financial institutions.1 They also argue that differences in agency
among household going concerns (due to economic class and the ability to operate as agents
outside the household institution) are indeed amplified by the limitations of the household
institution in the capitalist economy.
The implication of such variations in household agency for heterodox economic theory is
that households cannot be theorized as merely passive or choice-making individual entities.
Understanding specificities and variations of households and their experiences is enhanced by an
understanding of the structural positions of households as institutions. That some households are
able to take advantage of particular institutions in their own interests indicates distinctions and
hierarchies among household going concerns, which are consistent with different patterns of
household behavior. To better explain such variations in household agency in the social context,
economic analyses ought to be able to conceptualize social processes and to investigate
developments in their elements—symbols, discourse, social beliefs, conventional wisdom,
personal attitudes and perceptions, working rules, procedures, and rituals (Todorova 2014,
2015a, b).
Households and processes
‘Processes’ is a term used in different theoretical frameworks. For example, building and
broadening Marxian theory Fraad et al. (2009) and Resnick & Wolff (2009) look at the internal
household structure by conceptualizing ‘class processes’ within the household. They see the
appropriation and distribution of a surplus as a fundamental class process, and argue for
envisioning the class process also within the household. First, their notion of the class process is
specific to an analysis based on the labor theory of value, and, second, this analysis is extended
to households to argue that exploitation as conceptualized by Marx also occurs within the
household. Some feminist economists have also pointed out the usefulness of refocusing
analyses on processes (Nelson 1993; Power 2004).
Elsewhere I have suggested a way to develop the notion of a process. A process pertains
to structures that precede individual and collective actions through going concerns that contribute
to the evolution of structural arrangements. The emergence and transformation of the elements of
social processes (such as conventions and discourse) is the result of the agency of all sorts of
going concerns. Thus, the concept of a process encompasses the analysis of agency and structure
and hence micro-macro theory in an integrative manner. The appendix shows a suggested
typology of interconnected evolving processes of nature, culture, and provisioning, discussed by
Todorova (2014, 2015a, b, c).
The offered typology has the following implications with respect to household theory.
First, a process need not be analytically confined to a realm of the household or to any other
single institution. For example, the emergence and representation of femininity and masculinity
can be defined as a ‘gender process’ that can emerge and interact with any other process, and be
a part of the activities and practices of any going concern. The particular context and
investigation will determine the actual relations. Therefore households are not designated as
separate units in respective social and cultural realms.
Second, rather than just focusing on households’ demographic characteristics, the
suggested system of processes enables the investigation of systemic relations of race/ethnicity,
gender, etc. This is the point of column 3 in the appendix. Those are not just personal
characteristics or variables, but social processes as defined above. There is value in making a
distinction between processes that are directly governed by or associated with a particular going
concern (citizenship and residency via the state), and those that are not (but nonetheless affected
by going concerns, such as language).
Household going concerns are part of the whole system of processes. For example, while
the state governs the social process of citizenship and residency, households are very much part
of that process, as evidenced by global chains of migrant care workers (see Safri & Graham
2010; Collins 2014). In this example, it is easy to see that households participating in labor and
care processes of social provisioning are also part of supervision, surveillance, and direction
processes. Again, specific connections between these processes will be determined by specific
investigations. To do so one needs further details in the specification of the analytical categories
of social process. Thus, what are the conventions (procedures and working rules) for state
surveillance of migrant care providers, and how do they evolve? How do they intersect with
social beliefs about household organization, gender roles, work, care, race and ethnicity, and
citizenship, for example? What are emerging habits of thought? An example is a global
household of a migrant care-giver who relies on somebody’s unpaid family labor to care for her
own household (see Safri & Graham 2010; Yeates 2014).
Finally, theorizing of households should not be secondary to the main narrative of a
heterodox economic approach. For example, if we look at commodity chains, we can see a
myriad of social provisioning processes. The feminist literature on world systems and
commodity chains has shown how global production is built on decentralized home-based
production intertwined with reproductive activities and gender norms (Collins 2014; Dunaway
2014). Home-based production and the putting-out system have been a part of the early
development of capitalism and continue to be central in the modern global commodity chain and
capital accumulation (Kessler-Harris [1982] 2003; Ross 2014). That is, the blurring of the
boundaries between home and work (Hardill 2002) is not just an aspect of the early stage of
capitalism; it is in fact central to contemporary business cost-cutting techniques, as well as the
neoliberal discourse and practices of ‘entrepreneurial self’ (Mirowski 2013) addressing
household ‘strategies’ for survival. Of course, theorizing households is important for a better
understanding of commodity chains. Moreover, it is important since human life is maintained
through the organizing and sustaining of household going concerns—this should be central in
developing heterodox economics. The system of processes is useful in opening the vast fields of
inquiry in this direction.
Conclusions and future directions
My concern in this chapter has been the development of a theory of the household beyond a
particular stream of heterodox economics. While useful for specific purposes, a Post Keynesian
theory of the household, for example, is a limited project; so is a Marxian or feminist approach.
A project of building bridges among heterodox streams may eventually lead to a broader
heterodox theory (see, for example, Todorova 2009). Here I have delineated a set of starting
points for such a theory with respect to households in the social provisioning process.
There is no doubt that each heterodox tradition has its own contribution to the analysis of
households under capitalism. Post Keynesians, for example, specify and emphasize the limited
financial position of households in the monetary production economy. Post Keynesian analyses
are in general at the level of households as institutions as explained above. Feminist economists
point to the centrality of non-commodity production, gendered capabilities, and intra-household
relations. Marxian-feminists point to the role of households in capital accumulation. Those
approaches go deeper into the household going concern and explore its connections to the
elements of social processes and structures. Ecological economists and institutionalists have
pointed out the centrality of living human beings within ecosystems and complex social
provisioning systems. The Social Structure of Accumulation approach provides an analysis of
the changes in institutional arrangements and accumulation regimes with particular regard to
their systemic effects.
Individual heterodox approaches have paid attention to different aspects (with different
scopes) of social provisioning. Given that more heterodox economists cross boundaries, it would
be a worthwhile effort if each tradition engages in theory development within heterodox
economics as broadly defined. This is my hope in delineating the theoretical entry points and
basic analytical categories. Following are some general directions for future development in the
heterodox theory of the household.
First, I have argued for the usefulness of the notion of the going concern applied to
households. This concept should be further developed specifically regarding households, since
application has been primarily with respect to the business enterprise. Particularly, how are
households distinguished from other going concerns? How and why do household going
concerns differ in terms of their organization, operation, background, and agency?
Second, given the recognition of institutional commonality among households, what are
the mechanisms through which some households transcend their limitations as institutions, and
how do they operate through other institutions to exercise a different type of agency than other
household going concerns who remain more limited in their action?
Third, how are collective actions of households enabled and restrained within social
provisioning, and how do households contribute to the evolution of social and natural processes?
Within given contexts, what are the specific connections among household going concerns, other
going concerns, and processes? What are the roles of households in the emergence of specific
habits of thought? The proposed system of processes opens ways to bring in the centrality of
households into social provisioning and heterodox economics. In combination with developed
heterodox methods, it offers a way to think about and to research households within a broadly
heterodox economic theory.
Appendix: A system of processes
(1) Biological and
(2) Processes formulated
on the basis of a
social provisioning
(3) Processes not formulated
on the basis of a social
provisioning activity
(3a) Affected
by, but not
specific going
(3b) Identified
with going
Biospheric processes
Production of biomass
Information sourcing
Cognition and emotions
Information sourcing
Physical space
Mobility and residence
Communication, expression, and
Cultivation and transmission of
knowledge, memories, tools
Undertaking (investing; organizing;
Resource creation and usage
Machine process (production;
mechanization of activities)
Supervision, surveillance, and
Threat and punishment
Exchange, trade, speculation/ gift
Social class
Race and ethnicity
Citizenship and legal
(state, international
Economic class
(business enterprise,
state, international
(business enterprise,
state, international
institutions, courts,
Contracts and justice
(courts, state,
(temples, religious
(households, tribes)
Source: This is an updated and modified version of tables published in Todorova (2014, 2015b).
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1 Undertaking political actions and creating other going concerns, such as unions and consumer
cooperatives, and mobilization, are also important for theorizing, especially considering the
discussed multi-faceted agent. These also represent the possibility to act through other
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We suggest ways to explore household agency over stages of capitalism as delineated by Hyman Minsky. We make a distinction between households as institutions and going concerns. Furthermore, we delineate two levels of household agency: (i) household going concerns operating through the institution of the household, and (ii) household going concerns operating through other institutions, such as the state and the business enterprise. Those layers of household agency are especially salient in money manager capitalism, where there is an illusionary agency for most households, and where actual agency increases mostly for those households that are able to operate as agents outside of the household institution.
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John F. Henry is an eminent economist who has made important contributions to heterodox economics drawing on Adam Smith, Karl Marx, Thorstein Veblen, and John Maynard Keynes. His historical approach offers radical insights into the evolution of ideas (ideologies and theories) giving rise to and/or induced by the changes in capitalist society. Essays collected in this festschrift not only evaluate John Henry’s contributions in connection to Marx’s and Veblen’s theories, but also apply them to the socio-economic issues in the 21st century. In Part I leading heterodox economists in the traditions of Marxism, Post Keynesianism, and Institutionalism critically examine Marx’s and Veblen’s theoretical frameworks (and their connections to each other) that have become the foundations of heterodox economics. Chapters in Part II showcase alternative theoretical explanations inspired by Marx, Veblen, and Henry. Topics in this Part include financial crisis, financialization, capital accumulation, economics teaching, and the historical relationship between money and class society. Part III is devoted to John Henry’s heterodox economics encapsulated in his "farewell" lecture, interview, and bibliography. Essays in this book, individually and collectively, make an important point that the history of economic thought (or historical analysis of economic theory and policy) is an integral part of developing heterodox economics as an alternative theoretical framework. Anyone who is troubled by the recurring failure of capitalism as well as mainstream economics will find this book well worth reading.
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Post Keynesian analyses of monetary production have not given much attention to households as institutions, while a good deal of the literature in feminist economics discusses households in a strictly microeconomic context, with little consideration of monetary phenomena. This book, a unique study of the capitalist economy, utilizes a distinctive combination of Post Keynesian, institutional, and gender analysis to examine household economics in capitalist society in order to flesh out the gaps in each. SEE:
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