Interviewing spouses: Separately or together?


by Carmen Diana Deere | December 22, 2014

There is an emerging literature about the importance of interviewing both a man and a woman within each household in household surveys.  Yet little attention has been given to the question of whether spouses should be interviewed separately or together.

The traditional survey protocol of interviewing only one person—usually the self-reported household head—assumes perfect information within the household and that the head knows about all of the economic activities of other household members. But recent studies show that self-reporting provides better information than using a proxy. For example, husbands may underestimate wives’ incomes and thus total household income. Given gender roles, spouses may also have different perceptions about each other’s contributions.

In a household assets inventory, husbands and wives may have diverse perspectives on who owns the assets and their valuation. Thus, in designing the survey instrument and protocol for the Gender Asset Gap project[1], we considered who to interview and whether to interview couples separately or together.

Prior to fielding the 2010 Ecuador Household Assets Survey, we engaged in six months of qualitative research -- carrying out focus groups, in-depth interviews with key informants, and studying the functioning of asset markets. Based on this field work, we concluded that in Ecuador asset markets are generally well developed and private property rights over assets are relatively well defined, so men and women within households can usually differentiate between what belongs to each of them separately or jointly together. Also, given the gender division of labor, men and women often have different links to and experience with asset markets. Asset owners tend to have a better understanding of that particular asset market, including prices, than non-owners. Moreover, men and women oftentimes have different networks and access to information.

These results confirmed our expectations regarding the importance of interviewing both the principal man and woman of the household to enhance the likelihood of capturing reasonable estimates of the potential value of their assets.  But there are arguments for and against interviewing the couple separately or together.

One advantage of interviewing a couple together is that if one spouse does not have knowledge of the market for a particular owned asset, the other might, thus reducing the incidence of potential missing observations.  In our pre-testing of the questionnaire, we observed that often a man deferred to his wife on the value of certain assets and she deferred to her husband for others.

Another potential benefit of interviewing a couple together is that they can discuss their answer to a question, coming to a consensus on their response.  Such a process might lead to more accurate responses if, for example, men tend provide a valuation estimate whether or not they actually know the potential market value of their asset, or if women on their own are less likely to provide an estimate if they are unsure about the potential value.

Whether a consensual response to valuation questions is feasible, however, depends upon gender relations and the extent of female subordination.  If women always defer to their husbands or do not speak to outsiders in his presence, a joint interview will not yield the desired results.  Generating a consensual response depends on women having the confidence to disagree with their spouse.  The advantage of interviewing a couple separately is that in the intimacy of a one-on-one interview they may be more forthcoming in discussing what assets they own and their potential value.  This would be particularly the case if there are ‘hidden’ assets, such as financial assets or other property that the spouse might not know about.

Interviewing a couple separately could also involve greater costs (since it involves more time and/or more enumerators) and could result in conflicting information regarding the ownership and valuation of an asset which then complicates the final analysis of wealth.  On the other hand, it may be difficult to arrange a joint interview.

In the case of Ecuador, we finally concluded that since gender relations within the household are relatively equitable and women seem to speak their minds, interviewing a couple together would enhance the quality of the information gathered, particularly the valuation measures.  However, the joint interviews did not yield fewer missing observations.  Subsequent data triangulation on housing and land values revealed that both male and female respondents are more likely to provide an answer to a valuation question when interviewed separately than when interviewed together as a couple, perhaps because the presence of the other spouse makes them less likely to guess. Thus, rather than reducing the percentage of missing observations, one of the advantages of interviewing a couple together may be to improve the reliability of the estimates by reducing the tendency to guess when there are missing markets or neither one knows the answer.

Further reading:

Deere, C. D. and Z. Catanzarite (2014).  “Measuring the Intra-Household Distribution of Wealth in Ecuador:  Qualitative Insights and Quantitative Outcomes.”  In F. Lee and B. Conin, eds., Handbook of Research Methods and Applications in Heterodox Economics (Edward Elgar), forthcoming.

Doss, C., W. Baah-Boatang, L. Boakye-Yiadom, Z. Catanzarite, C. D. Deere, H. S., R. Lahoti, and S. JY.  (2013). “Measuring Personal Wealth in Developing Countries:  Interviewing Men and Women about Asset Values.” Gender Asset Gap Project Working Paper #15, available at

Fisher, M., J. Reimer and E. Carr (2010). “Who Should be Interviewed in Surveys of Household Income?” World Development 38 (7), 966-73.


deereDr. Carmen Diana Deere is Distinguished Professor of Latin American Studies and Food & Resource Economics at the University of Florida. She holds a Ph.D. in Agricultural Economics from the University of California, Berkeley, and a M.A. in Development Studies from The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.

Deere was Director of the UF Center for Latin American Studies from 2004 to 2009. She is a Past President of the Latin American Studies Association (LASA) and of the New England Council of Latin American Studies (NECLAS). She serves on numerous editorial boards, including World Development and Journal of Agrarian Change and is an Associate Editor of Feminist EconomicsSee more here>>


[1] The Gender Asset Gap project is a collective endeavor which involved nationally representative household asset surveys in Ecuador and Ghana and at the state level in Karnataka, India.  See

This post is part of EnGendering Data, a blog on collecting and analyzing sex-disaggregated data to improve the knowledge base on the role of gender in agriculture and food security,  maintained by the CGIAR Research Program on Policies, Institutions, and Markets (PIM).