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

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.

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).

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

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.

(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).

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.

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.

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

Comparing mothers in Philadelphia and Vermont

Philadelphia: The Kensington Welfare Rights Union (Mazelis 2015)

Vermont: Single mothers (Nelson 2000)

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.

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.

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.

Flaherty, Colleen. 2020. “‘Babar in the Room’.” Inside Higher Ed. August 11, 2020.

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

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.

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

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.

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.