head of household

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head of household

traditionally the senior male of the household (i.e. ‘breadwinner’ in 19th-century terms), a tradition which has influenced social research definitions. In government surveys, the head of household has been defined as the man who is the owner or tenant of the house, or the man who lives with the woman who is the owner or tenant of the house. Therefore ‘female-headed households’ are confined to women living alone, or women-headed single-parent households, or women who are the tenant or owner living with older people.

This definition of head of household has consequences for the analysis of household situation: should members of a household be ascribed a social position according to the economic and social status of the, usually male, head of household? The debate on this overlaps with the debate on how social CLASS should be defined. In social surveys social class is measured by such variables as occupation (current job, job grade, responsibility in job), and/or education (highest qualification level achieved) and/or housing status. Should these variables be measured for the head of household and his social class then be assigned to all other members of the household? Can social class as measured in this way be assigned to other members of the family, e.g. the woman he lives with, ‘his’ children, etc? Alternatively, is social class an individual attribute measured for each adult's own occupational, educational and housing status? Or, should social class be measured for the household through considering these variables for both male and female adults in the household?

Such questions have important repercussions for policy. In the collection of poverty statistics in the UK, it is assumed that resources are shared equitably within the family. If the head of household earns sufficient then the entire household is above the poverty line. However, many researchers have challenged this assumption and argued that although in some families resources may be equitably distributed, in others they are not and women and children may be living below the poverty line in families that appear adequately resourced by government criteria. See also WOMEN-HEADED HOUSEHOLDS, CLASS DEALIGNMENT.

Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000