Ryan Schram's Anthrocyclopaedia

Anthropology presentations and learning resources

User Tools

Site Tools

View page as slide show

Informal economies of care

Informal economies of care

Week 7: Care as capital after the Fordist social contract

Ryan Schram
ANTH 1002: Anthropology in the world
Wednesday, September 14, 2022

Slides available at https://anthro.rschram.org/1002/2022/7.2

Main reading: Mazelis (2015); Nelson (2000)

Social capital in The Flats

Being a neighbor involves a habitus of neighborliness, and in some neighborhoods, this is a particular kind of skill you must learn through practice.

  • Neighbors in The Flats (a pseudonym for a neighborhood in Chicago) “swap” or “trade” what they need, but this isn’t barter (Stack [1974] 2008).
    • This is not balanced reciprocity, or an even, tit-for-tat exchange between two people.
    • This is generalized reciprocity among multiple people. Neighbors in the Flats give when asked, and ask when they need (see especially Stack [1974] 2008, 41n1, 156; also Reyes-Foster and Carter 2017).

Generalized reciprocity is part of the habitus of neighbor in The Flats. Because people acquire this habitus and play this game on this field, people accumulate social capital.

Becoming kin in The Flats

Essentially for people in The Flats, kinship is swapping (sharing, borrowing) and swapping is kinship. You ask for things from people because they are your kin; they are your kin because they give to you, and you to them (Stack [1974] 2008, 58).

  • Children can be borrowed (Stack [1974] 2008, 66).

Stack says that people of The Flats have “fictive kinship” with those whom they share (Stack [1974] 2008, 58–59).

  • What would Carsten say about this? Most anthropologists would say that kinship is whatever a society recognizes as kinship, and that people are not more or less truly kin.
  • In Stack’s defense, the distinction between real and not-real kin is one made by her informants in The Flats, and is an important difference from their point of view (Stack [1974] 2008, 58).
  • As outside observers, I think we should not be so quick to accept the idea of fictive kin as a type of kinship. What people of The Flats do is very similar to what Leinaweaver (2010) and De Matos Viegas (2003) describe, for instance. Everyone’s kinship is fictive!

Kinship in The Flats entails adopting a habitus of swapping and sharing with a wide range of people. Hence, kinship relationships are sites for the accumulation of social capital.

Social capital in a migrant community in Boston

Miraflores, a small town in the Dominican Republic (DR) has substantial ties to Jamaica Plain, a neighborhood in Boston, via the flow of migrants between them (Levitt 2001).

Levitt notes that migrants from Miraflores to Boston are somewhere between two extremes in the practices of migration.

  • Replicators: People who arrive in Boston, seek out and live among fellow Mirafloreños, and tend to repeat the same kinds of everyday patterns among this tight circle as they would in DR (Levitt 2001, 57).
  • Innovators: People who pursue opportunities to acquire new social roles, and hence new skills associated with each new habitus, e.g. via education, new jobs, advancement at work (Levitt 2001, 58).

(Levitt’s study proposes several types of migrant practice; this is a simplified version of her model.)

Mirafloreño migrants send so much more than remittances: They also send symbolic capital

Levitt argues that Boston Mirafloreños send home both money and “social remittances”—new habituses which can generate new kinds of symbolic capital (Levitt 2001, 54).

  • Residents of Boston and Miraflores created the Miraflores Development Committee (MDC) as a way to pool remittances for community projects.
    • MDC is based in part on previous examples of community activism in Miraflores (Levitt 2001, 183).
    • Every successful project enhanced its credibility in the eyes of the transnational community, and attracted more and more support (Levitt 2001, 188).

No innovator is an island: Miraflores exports social capital to Boston, too

Innovators are not better or more sophisticated than replicators or other ways of being a migrant. In fact they all depend on each other.

  • Replicators import the social capital of the Miraflores community by applying their Miraflores-resident habitus to life in Boston. They create a tight circle of social support, a village in the city.
  • All migrants, including the innovators, draw upon this imported social capital when they rely on ties to previous migrants to gain a foothold in Boston.

Poverty is more than just a lack of money

Poor people benefit materially when they can tap into social capital, but poverty in capitalist societies tends to be concentrated, and poor communities are often deprived of social capital.

  • So what makes the difference? What makes it possible for poor people in a specific context to make use of social capital?

Stack, drawing on Sahlins (1972, 193–94), distinguishes between balanced and generalized reciprocity.

  • Generalized reciprocity is a system of exchanges among many in which everyone is equally able to ask from everyone, and equally obligated to give.
  • Balanced reciprocity is a system involving two sides who each reciprocate exactly what they receive from the other.

Comparing mothers in Philadelphia and Vermont

Philadelphia: The Kensington Welfare Rights Union (Mazelis 2015)

  • Urban milieu
  • Mazelis talks to members of KWRU, mostly poor women with children, but include a variety of others of different backgrounds.
  • Members perform a variety of roles in the organization, including forms of volunteer work and activism.
  • Members of KWRU are expected to participate in generalized reciprocity with the organization and its other members.

Vermont: Single mothers (Nelson 2000)

  • Rural milieu
  • Nelson talks to a sample of poor women with children, who are mostly white.
  • Nelson’s informants had a variety of sources of social support, but with a relatively limited set of people they knew or with whom they had an existing relationship.
  • Nelson’s informants tended to rely on balanced reciprocity among people they considered to be similar to them, e.g. other poor single mothers. Generalized reciprocity was the exception.

What’s the difference?

There are several differences, but one that appears to be crucial is in the kind of habitus associated with each community.

  • KWRU members have specific, designated roles in an organization, and a strong sense of collective purpose. Generalized reciprocity is a skill by which members demonstrate their solidarity with the organization and its members.
  • Vermonter mothers mostly apply the habitus of the individual community member, linked to an ideal of equality and mutual respect. Balanced reciprocity is the practice by which they maintain this status.

Each habitus is an opportunity to accumulate social capital, but KWRU is a more fertile field for creating social capital that can turn into meaningful material support.

“Leveraging teenagers” at Stanford during a pandemic

When Stanford University administrators sent out some advice to their staff about the plans for resumption of on-campus teaching in 2020, they suggested that instructors could consider “leveraging teenagers that might not be engaged” in part-time jobs (Flaherty 2020).

The page has since been deleted from the Stanford University web site, but has been archived:

Drell, Persis, and Elizabeth Zacharias. 2020. “Supporting Families during the COVID-19 Pandemic.” Cardinal at Work (Stanford University). July 27, 2020. Accessed Septmeber 7, 2022. http://web.archive.org/web/20201012170506/https://cardinalatwork.stanford.edu/engage/news/supporting-families-during-covid-19-pandemic.

Even before the pandemic, I would argue that the informal economy of care was increasingly necessary to more and more of the middle class in wealthy capitalist societies. It’s not just poor, deprived, or marginalized people who exploit social capital for material support.

References and further reading

De Matos Viegas, Susana. 2003. “Eating With Your Favourite Mother: Time And Sociality In A Brazilian Amerindian Community.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 9 (1): 21–37. https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-9655.t01-2-00002.

Flaherty, Colleen. 2020. “‘Babar in the Room’.” Inside Higher Ed. August 11, 2020. https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2020/08/11/faculty-parents-are-once-again-being-asked-perform-miracle.

Leinaweaver, Jessaca B. 2010. “Outsourcing Care: How Peruvian Migrants Meet Transnational Family Obligations.” Latin American Perspectives 37 (5): 67–87. https://doi.org/10.1177/0094582X10380222.

Levitt, Peggy. 2001. The Transnational Villagers. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press.

Mazelis, Joan Maya. 2015. “‘I Got to Try to Give Back’: How Reciprocity Norms in a Poor People’s Organization Influence Members’ Social Capital.” Journal of Poverty 19 (1): 109–31. https://doi.org/10.1080/10875549.2014.979458.

Nelson, Margaret K. 2000. “Single Mothers and Social Support: The Commitment to, and Retreat from, Reciprocity.” Qualitative Sociology 23 (3): 291–317. https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1005567910606.

Reyes-Foster, Beatriz M., and Shannon K. Carter. 2017. “Mothers, Milk, and Morals: Peer Milk Sharing as Moral Motherwork in Central Florida.” In Breastfeeding: New Anthropological Approaches, edited by Cecília Tomori, Aunchalee E. L. Palmquist, and E. A. Quinn. London: Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315145129-7.

Sahlins, Marshall David. 1972. Stone Age Economics. Chicago: Aldine.

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

1002/2022/7.2.txt · Last modified: 2022/09/11 18:13 by Ryan Schram (admin)