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The dynamics of household formation and composition in the rural Eastern Cape.

Year: 2008
Working paper number: 228
Author: Neves, David
Unit: SSU

Focusing on a specific impoverished region of rural Eastern Cape, this paper examines the dynamics of household formation and composition within post-apartheid migratory networks. While the fluidity, contingency and spatially extended nature of African households is generally understood, the paper the focuses on the social relationships that both buttress and flow from these qualities. In conceptualising the notion of the household, the paper also suggests the rubric of the 'household' can be a powerful, cultural narrative for constituting practices of domesticity. Five detailed case studies are presented and the dynamics of household-making explicated in terms of three distinct levels of analysis. The first is the overarching macro-structural context which includes kinship practices, cultural mores, rural governance and the changing political economy of South Africa's former homelands. The paper argues that the altered material base of rural livelihoods in the last two decades has seen traditional patterns of male circular migration and trajectories of household formation eclipsed by large numbers of economically marginalised workseekers who precariously churn between both urban-rural and within rural areas.  These changes have undercut the prospects for traditional forms of household formation and reconfigured the nature of the contemporary conjugal contract.  The second level of analysis includes various intermediate household-level relational factors.  Impoverished African households are constituted in webs of intra and inter household reciprocity, however the paper argues that this reciprocity (sometimes characterised as 'social capital'), is seldom symmetrical distributed or uniformly positive. Other intermediate-level factors that effectively mediate the prospects for, and patterns of, household-making considered include a household's urban linkages, internal labour capacity and place relative to the generational-cohort cycle of household renewal.  The third and final level of analysis is the micro-social realm of decision making and individual agency. It is argued that understanding rural households requires attention to goals to which they are teleologically orientated. Even the relatively limited number of households presented as case studies are demonstrably organised around an extremely wide and disparate range of objectives. In addition understanding individual decision making requires understanding the parameters and affordances for the exercise of agency by individual household members - processes that are seldom entirely free of resistance and contestation.  The paper concludes by offering up a schematic, yet heuristically useful, three part typology of the options hypothetically open to rural households namely: building urban linkages, consolidating at the rural site (either following urban provisioning or in urban disconnection) or finally dissolve altogether (typically following insurmountable adversity).

Publication file: WP228.pdf