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Remittance networks and stratified reproduction

Remittance networks and stratified reproduction

Ryan Schram

Mills 169 (A26)


September 3, 2018

Available at http://anthro.rschram.org/1002/6.1


Colen, Shellee. 1995. “‘Like a Mother to Them’: Stratified Reproduction and West Indian Childcare Workers and Employers in New York.” In Conceiving the New World Order: The Global Politics of Reproduction, edited by Faye D. Ginsburg and Rayna Rapp, 78–102. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press.

Informal economic activity is often "women's work"

Informal economies exist all over the world: It is the rule, not the exception.

Informal enterprise makes more sense when we apply gender as a lens.

  • Informal enterprises are often “women's work,” done alongside or part of women's roles in families.
  • Both labor markets and gift systems are male dominated.
  • Women fill in the gaps and make the whole system hang together, but don't get recognized for this.
  • Example: betel nut sales in Alotau, Papua New Guinea

Gender and the contradictions of capitalism

Western, capitalist economies also tend to define the basic social institution of the family as a nuclear household, with the male “father/husband” status also connected to the status of being a worker and economic actor, the “breadwinner” of the family. In this respect there is a gender dimension to Western capitalist social structure.

Surprise!! The capitalist nuclear family contains contradictions. For one, only very few households are organized in this way. It is rare to find an actual family in which the father is the sole breadwinner and the mother is only involved in childcare. The shift to post-Fordist production is associated with the decline of the male-breadwinner model of the household.

The breakdown of the Fordist social contract

  • Fordism is a method of organizing production, but Fordism also sustained a social contract between the ruling class and society: High wages and general affluence in exchange for private profits through mass production.
  • When Fordism fades, women must work a “second shift” - first wage labor then housework and child care (Hochschild 1989).
  • Hence, informal economies matter more for making ends meet.
  • Poor single mothers have to find work and care for children, so they exchange labor with each other (Stack 1974).
  • Welfare activism has often argued that women's informal exchanges of care are unpaid labor and should be supported (e.g. Mazelis 2017).

Reproduction in post-Fordist capitalism

For many people, especially poor people, one of the only ways out of this contradiction of late capitalism is to rely on an informal economy of care, e.g. neighborhood childcare networks and unpaid care work among extended kin.

For wealthier people, one of the ways out of this contradiction of late capitalism is to rely on the commodification of care, or what Colen calls “reproductive labor.”

The effect is the stratification of reproduction. It's reproduction because it is all the things involved with raising children so that they can move out, get jobs, and form their own households. It's stratified because who does what depends on who can pay–poor people work for rich people.

The domestic domain as a labor market

If you think about it, this violates a very widely held view of how labor relates to livelihood. Most people think about the family as a bubble. Economic activity is what you do outside that bubble. When you're home in your bubble with your family, the role you play is different. You work because you get paid. You help people in your family because you love them.

But in contemporary societies–like Kabre, Maimafu, Mount Hagen, Trinidad, and New York–that idea no longer applies, if it ever did.

Today, in New York and certainly in many parts of Sydney, the home is also a space where employers and employees interact. Employers are wealthy nonnuclear families and employees are poor nonnuclear families. There is simply no distinction between the inside of the bubble and the outside. The dichotomous opposition of between domestic and public is a false one.

Question: What might be the domestic worker's version of “thiefing” in an affluent employer's home?

Migration is an informal economy of labor

On Wednesday we will apply this perspective to another key topic for this week: migration.

We are familiar with hearing that advanced, post-Fordist capitalist societies now depend on a global movement of labor from poor countries.

What you may not realize is that the system which supports this movement–and our lives in Sydney–is not simply a global labor market. Global migration takes place in an informal economy.

Global migration is made possible by both 457 visas and want ads, and it would family ties, gifts, friendships, trust.


Hochschild, Arlie Russell, and Anne Machung. 1989. The Second Shift. New York: Penguin Books.

Mazelis, Joan Maya. 2017. Surviving Poverty: Creating Sustainable Ties among the Poor. New York: New York University Press.

Stack, Carol B. 2008 [1974]. All Our Kin: Strategies For Survival In A Black Community. New York: Basic Books.

A guide to the unit

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