Academic journal article African Studies Review

Households and the Social Organization of Consumption in Southern Ghana

Academic journal article African Studies Review

Households and the Social Organization of Consumption in Southern Ghana

Article excerpt


This article replicates Guyer's finding in Marginal Gains (2004) of a social gradient in expenditure patterns of Ghanaian households using more flexible statistical techniques than those used in the book. We show that similar gradients are found in Côte d'Ivoire and in Kagera, Tanzania, suggesting that Guyer's finding in Ghana is a manifestation of a more general phenomenon. In addition, we examine patterns of measurement error in household expenditure data from Ghana. This reveals a worrying possibility that survey reports of expenditure may reflect respondents' beliefs about what expenditures should be, as well as actual expenditures within the household.


In the chapter of Marginal Gains titled "Balances: Household Budgets in a Ghanaian Study" (chapter 8), Jane Guyer rediscovers a remarkable fact, and draws from it important, wide-ranging, and surprising implications. The fact is this: in predominantly Akan areas of Ghana, households of a wide variety of types (headed by women and men, early and late in their life cycle, migrant and nonmigrant, even those consisting of only a single person) have astonishingly consistent patterns of expenditure. About 40 percent of all expenditures by households of all different types is spent on food, and this share declines only moderately with income. This finding provides the foundation for Guyer's conclusion that "the poor person lives a diminished, but otherwise similarly balanced, version of the good life to the better off" (146). This is a fascinating conclusion, because we are all familiar with the evident complexity of living arrangements in Akan households, and with the "multiplicity of criteria of worth" (148) that are expressed in interminable negotiations in multiple realms of social interaction. Thus we are perhaps surprised to find a social gradient in Ghana: a cardinal and one-dimensional scale of differentiation that underpinned the social organization of consumption at least at the historical moment of the Ghana Living Standards Surveys that provide her key raw material in this chapter.

In this note, we examine Guyer's finding in some more detail and in some other contexts, and we provide some suggestions for further interpretation.

Consumption Patterns: Ghana and Abroad

Guyer finds that the pattern of consumption expenditure is very consistent across many different types of households, over a wide range of levels of overall expenditure. This is surprising in that it contrasts so strikingly with some of the early studies of consumption in England in the 1930s. In those early studies, Engel's Law was found to be decisive: the proportion of total expenditure tthat is devoted to "necessities" such as food declines as income rises. In figure 1, we replicate Guyer's fundamental result, using the same subsample of the GLSS that she examined. Both she and we use the first three rounds of the GLSS, collected between 1987 and 1992; GLSS5 was collected in 2006. We use a slightly different statistical technique from the one she uses in order to facilitate comparisons across different samples of households and to be somewhat more flexible. The horizontal axis measures total household expenditure per person (in logarithms, so a move from 11 to 12 corresponds to somewhat more than a doubling of total per capita expenditure). The vertical axis measures the share of household expenditure that is devoted to food. The figure clearly shows Guyer's main point: huge increases in total household expenditure are associated with very minor changes in the share of expenditure that is devoted to food, at least until one reaches the very upper ranges of the distribution of expenditures. The lower half of figure 1 portrays the distribution of per capita expenditure, to give the reader a better idea of where in the distribution of expenditures most households fall.1

In table 1, we quantify the relationship between total expenditure and share devoted to food. …

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