Domestic Service and Mobility

CLARA workshop in Trivandrum

Domestic Service and Mobility: Labour, Livelihoods and Lifestyles
Trivandrum, India, 26–28 October 2000
Call for Papers

Over the last two decades our understanding of domestic service, its changes throughout history and its links to larger political and economical transformations, has been enriched by feminist and historical scholarship. It has been argued that one of the root causes of women’s subordination was the separation of ‘the domestic’ and ‘the public’ which occurred with the emergence of capitalism. This separation resulted in a situation where anything associated with the domestic became hidden, undervalued and perceived as unimportant. However others have also argued that the boundaries separating domestic and public spheres may shift in content and form; that it may be associated not only with conduct within the home, but also with the type of work (domestic) and the type of people (women) considered as belonging there. Although the implications of the public-private dichotomy at the ideological level are considered to be more or less clear, namely the devaluation of women’s work and women’s identity, in practice the boundaries separating the domestic and public spheres, are less so.

Recent research is also more critical of explanations regarding stereotypes and universalities of domestic service which essentially look towards ideological or cultural factors only, perceiving them as manifestations of or determining economic exigencies. These studies show that many features which we take to be central and common, such as what constitutes the domestic; the ‘feminine’ nature of domestic service or the sharp division of labour between men’s tasks and women’s in the household, are products of history and therefore are not impervious to contestation and contingency which may be cultural and economic at the same time.

These debates are particularly relevant to consider when discussing general trends occurring in present day phenomena. The last decennia domestic service has become part of a new international division of labour, with women from some countries and regions (e.g. the Phillipines, Sri Lanka) working in other Asian countries, in the Middle East, and in Europe. This increased internationalisation of domestic service has come about as a result of transformations in class relations and the developments of new life styles in an era in which there is an unprecedented mobility of people, goods and images.

The new middle classes have developed a life style which has increased the demand for domestic service. The strata which previously had been a source of supply of domestic workers have gained access to better work, whereas for other disadvantaged groups employment in domestic service appears as a promising option within a field of limited opportunities.

Such developments bring us to reflect on questions regarding the interplay between the past and present; between macro and micro-level phenomena, and between universalities and specificities. How has history played a role in defining the situation of women in the domestic service today? How have globalized life styles and work relations generalized the situation of domestic workers? How can questions that we pose for the contemporary period help us to pose questions that need to be asked about the history of domestic service and vice versa?

This workshops intends to take a closer look at transformations in domestic service within a longer historical and trans-generational time-span. The aim is to discover the connections between the past and present, between the global and local expressions of of domestic service; between the intergenerational life stories of individual servants and their employers on the one hand, and the developments in the domestic service market on the other.

This demands analyses at different levels:

Firstly, what sorts of people engage in domestic service relations? What is the background of employers and what is that of the domestic servants? How does this compare to the generation before and after them? 'Background' here refers to social, ethnic, geographic and cultural positioning, and also includes the crucial question how domestic service is gendered. In linking individuals to families and households, to class and ethnic positions, and to regional backgrounds, it draws in questions about the nature of the households involved, how they are structured, the relations between the various strata of society, and regional inequalities. Domestic service brings people from very different backgrounds together in an often intimate and therefore threatening relation affecting racial, gender and class identities.

Secondly, how has the nature of domestic service relations evolved? Domestic service is a relation, which is both a wage relation, and at the same time a highly personal one, the content of which is both historically and culturally specific. It undermines the notion of a division between the domestic sphere as private, separate from the public sphere. The ways in which domestic service has evolved is implicated by, and has implications for, the ways in which a division between 'the domestic' and 'the public' is perceived.

Thirdly, domestic service implies some special sort of mobility. In terms of spatial mobility the question is how various uses of space are related. At present, domestic service often implies a great distance between place of origin and location of employment, and a highly circumscribed use of space at the site of employment, with implications for the forms of protection available for domestic workers. At the same time, domestic service calls to the fore questions about social mobility. Does domestic service indeed imply some form of social mobility, even if only for the next generation? Or is it first and foremost a poverty trap, with the absence of mothers leading to lesser chances for their children? How are these various forms of access to and use of space related, and what are the implications for the forms of protection available to domestic workers.

Fourthly, the relation of the state to domestic service is highly variant. Often one of the least regulated sectors (both because of the nature of the labor relation and the gender of those involved), at times state intervention has taken place, and labor unions and other forms of organization by domestic workers, have intervened. As in other sectors, protective measures have often had ambiguous effects.

  • Workshop Date: 26–28 October 2000
  • Workshop Venue: Centre for Development Studies, Trivandrum, Kerala, India
  • Number of participants: maximum 20
  • Work schedule: 15 June, submission of abstracts; 15 September, submission of papers
  • Convenors: Dr. Ratna Saptari (CLARA) [MAILTO][/MAILTO]; Dr. Annelies Moors (Dept of Anthropology, University of Amsterdam)

Posted: 22 May 2000