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Social networks

Urban-rural lifestyles

The global food crisis has put informal exchange between groups from urban and rural areas into the foreground of development research. Cooperation between urbanites and their relatives in the country is often spoken of as ”multilocal households”. Studies in Namibia show the strengths and weaknesses of the concept.

[ By Clemens Greiner and Michael Schnegg ]

In Namibia, a lot of people resort to circular migration and intensive exchange between urban and rural areas to protect their livelihoods. One such area is the sparsely populated southern Kunene region, where the authors conducted ethnographic research for many years. Most of the people who live there are farmers who combine their livestock production with other economic strategies. Most of those over the age of 50 live on rural farms, while most of their children live – at least temporarily – in cities 200 kilometers or more far away.

The elderly and the young divide up tasks. The elderly take care of the livestock, which is owned by individuals, on farming settlements in the arid northwest of the country, where they often live with their grandchildren and great-grandchildren; usually, children grow up in this environment, the ill are taken care of here rather than in the cities – and thus those in the cities are disburdened. The only ones who live in the cities are those who work or go to school, and they usually have cramped conditions. Part of the money earned in the cities is transferred to the countryside or brought home as food, such as noodles or rice. In return, the rural family members set aside meat and dairy products for their urban relatives, who would have to pay much higher prices for such items in the city.

Local specialties, lower prices

Large extended families resort to such exchange in order to benefit from local specialties and lower prices for urban and rural resources. Often, families cover more than two locations, for instance the capital city of Windhoek and the port city Walvis Bay, which in a way are satellites around the symbolic, social, and economic centre of the country.

This spatial diversification provides not only better access to various resources, it also spreads risks. One of the biggest risks for city dwellers is the imponderable labour market, while livestock production is exposed to regular periods of drought (Greiner 2008).

Often, the survival strategies used by urban and rural households in developing countries can only be explained in terms of multilocal relations of exchange and cooperative strategies mapped along specific constellations and networks. A number of keywords have been coined to describe this phenomenon: split households, multiple-home households, dual households, and multilocal households. German scholars seem to have settled for “multilocal households” in order to define the phenomenon.

Logical survival strategies

As defined by Schmidt-Kallert and Kreibich (2004), members of multilocal households lead both urban and rural lives. Schmidt-Kallert and Kreibich argued this aspect was crucial to an understanding of survival strategies in megacities. As they put it, the concept is as fundamental to understand the realities of these people as the informal sector is to our understanding of the economy at large.

The comparison with discussions about the informal sector and its role in development research from the 1980s and 1990s is indeed illustrative. Nonetheless, we should also attempt to learn from the additional questions that this term raised. For instance, all economic activities not recorded by the state were initially considered part of the informal sector. The concept then often concealed more social facts that it described, categorised and provided for comparison. One should therefore specify the definition of a multilocal household and determine when a particular type of urban/rural cooperation should go by another name.

In most societies, households are the focal point of economic and social activities; they are therefore a commonly analysed unit. They can be used to compare economic strategies and the distribution of capital within a society or across societies. Households are defined as a fix set group of persons who:
– are generally relatives,
– work together productively,
– consume together,
– see themselves as a household, and
– live under one roof.
In addition, they often raise children together.

An individual can only belong to one household. A multilocal household is therefore a group of people that fulfills the first four of these criteria; they do not, however, have to live under one roof as described in point five. Nonetheless, to be considered a single household, the group has to consist of a determinable number of people living in various locations who still make joint decisions about – or at least coordinate – production and consumption. Furthermore, members of this group should be relatives. An individual can also only belong to one multilocal household.

Usually, family relations serve as the basis for urban/rural cooperation. Matters become difficult when decisions about production and consumption have to be coordinated.

When migration crosses long distances, communication becomes difficult and expensive; in such cases, connections between urban and rural areas are often not strong enough to allow us to speak of a single social unit operating in coordination. It is then questionable whether one can still speak of a household at all. After all, we do not speak of a single household when two families that live and work separately within a village regularly exchange goods or help each other work. In such cases, we have another concept: social networks (Schnegg 2008).

If exchange takes place between otherwise relatively independently acting economic units, then we are dealing with social networks and security through social relations. They can, in turn, be of varying nature: long term or instrumental and non-binding. Often, they are based on family connections in urban/rural relations and create flexible groups with open membership. These networks differ signi­ficantly in form and substance from households and other categorical units with specific definitions and restricted membership. In many situations, such open forms of cooperation between households are a more flexible way of providing social security – including between urban and rural areas.

Households spread across multiple locations are found worldwide, but a multilocal household does not come to be every time relatives exchange goods. In our opinion, it is thus best to speak of a multilocal household when the group sees itself as one and jointly consumes and purchases. Other constellations are best understood as networks and should be studied with network analysis. We would then have two different concepts to describe specific living situations – and not run the risk of giving the same name to different phenomena.