by Robert C. Ellickson. Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2008. 272pp. Cloth $24.95/£17.95. ISBN: 9780691134420.

Reviewed by Patricia McGee Crotty, Department of Political Science, East Stroudsburg University. Email pcrotty [at]


This is a brief work that makes innovative contributions to a topic that political scientists rarely investigate. Robert C. Ellickson, a professor of property law at Yale University, dissects the household for us. This is an important topic because we all live in households which serve as the basic building blocks of political life. However, relationships within the household rarely receive academic scrutiny. Ellickson unpacks the household by using legal, economic, and sociological analysis. This approach reveals how much the use of a mixed methodology can enrich the understanding of political phenomena. Another strength of this work is its meticulous documentation. Although it contains some explanatory footnotes, the major references are contained in its endnotes. This makes it much easier to read than most legal works whose footnotes often take up more page space than their text.

Ellickson notes that his analysis pertains primarily to households in liberal societies that allow freedom of entry and exit as well as private property in capital, land and labor. A major criticism of this work is that it does not pay sufficient attention to the writings of feminists who claim that it is exactly these conditions that have helped foster patriarchy, create norms that are beyond the reach of the law, mask violence in the home, diminish the rights of children, and increase the subjugation of women. Although Ellickson acknowledges these criticisms, he spends little time explaining how these situations can be remedied within liberal societies.

The first two chapters clarify how households differ from marital and familial arrangements and enumerate the possible combinations of owners and occupants that can exist within individual households. Ellickson creates a model household containing five individuals and uses this model throughout the text to illustrate his major points. This makes his analysis much broader than economists’ game theoretic models that usually focus on two-person games. He also goes beyond traditional economic analysis to account for the influence of love and altruism in determining relationships within the household.

This theme is the focus of Chapter 3 which analyzes the calculations that govern the freely chosen relationships that usually exist in households. It is here that more attention should be paid to the physical safety and financial concerns of women and children in households where intimacy does not lead to altruism or peaceful bargaining. By using examples of households across time and space, the following two chapters review the challenges that large, [*125] voluntary communal societies face and explain why the size of most households has declined over time.

The analysis in Chapters 6 and 7 gives a new meaning to the term, ‘home economics.’ Here, Ellickson builds on Ronald Coase’s theory of the firm and uses transaction cost analysis to examine the challenges of household ownership and the interactions that occur among household occupants. He illustrates how ownership offers decisive transaction cost advantages and how transaction costs rise as the number of household members increase.

In Chapter 8, Ellickson coins the term, ‘homeways,’ to encompass the household-specific norms that serve as the basis of internal household governance. However, his discussion of midgame and endgame strategies that household members adopt and their concomitant transaction costs rarely focuses on household situations that involve dependent children and vulnerable adults who do not have the option to exit the arrangement. The paterfamilias model this chapter portrays has been particularly offensive to feminists.

This section of the text also investigates the interaction between homeways and government policy as well as the extent of privatization that exists in household spaces. Ellickson believes that the norms established by household members through the medium of gift exchange and oral contracts are preferable to norms government imposes. Legal rules usually do not affect the development of homeways until households dissolve. Although Ellickson reviews how government programs can shape the household, future studies could also focus on explaining how households can help shape the government policies that affect them.

In his concluding chapter, Ellickson reiterates the importance of saving on transaction costs in governing the household and argues that a more complete understanding of household relationships would exist if the theory of the firm were better understood. Through its methodological synthesis of economic with legal and sociological analysis, this text serves as an important primer on household structures in liberal societies.

Coase, Ronald H. 1937. “Nature of the Firm.” 4 ECONOMICA 386-405.

© Copyright 2009 by the author, Patricia McGee Crotty.