Care is not a tally sheet: rethinking the field of gender divisions of domestic labour with care-centric conceptual narratives

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Andrea Doucet Brock University, Canada

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This article addresses two puzzles that are at the heart of the field of gender divisions of domestic labour. How is it that care concepts seldom appear in a field that is focused on unpaid care work? Why does the field focus on divisions rather than on relationships and relationalities? To address these puzzles, I interrogate some of the conceptual underpinnings in the field’s dominant theories: social exchange and ‘doing gender’. Through a weaving of Margaret Somers’ historical sociology of concept formation and Nancy Fraser’s historical mapping of capitalism, care and social reproduction, I aim to rethink and remake the field of gender divisions of domestic labour through care theories, especially feminist care ethics and care economies research. I argue that care concepts – which highlight relationalities, responsiveness and responsibilities – can radically re-orient how we approach the ‘who’ and ‘what’ questions of this field’s long-standing central focus on ‘who does what?’

Abstract

This article addresses two puzzles that are at the heart of the field of gender divisions of domestic labour. How is it that care concepts seldom appear in a field that is focused on unpaid care work? Why does the field focus on divisions rather than on relationships and relationalities? To address these puzzles, I interrogate some of the conceptual underpinnings in the field’s dominant theories: social exchange and ‘doing gender’. Through a weaving of Margaret Somers’ historical sociology of concept formation and Nancy Fraser’s historical mapping of capitalism, care and social reproduction, I aim to rethink and remake the field of gender divisions of domestic labour through care theories, especially feminist care ethics and care economies research. I argue that care concepts – which highlight relationalities, responsiveness and responsibilities – can radically re-orient how we approach the ‘who’ and ‘what’ questions of this field’s long-standing central focus on ‘who does what?’

Introduction

How families divide unpaid work became a hot topic at the beginning of the 2020s. Across the globe, COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns, work-from-home orders and intermittent closures of schools and childcare centres spurred researchers to launch studies focused on ‘who does what?’ within households. Conducted especially in Global North countries, most of these studies are quantitative (that is, online panel surveys or analyses of national time-use studies or surveys) (for example, Shafer et al, 2020; Craig and Churchill, 2021; Carlson et al, 2022) and form part of a cross-disciplinary and international research field that has burgeoned over the past half century. This field has had many names that usually include the terms gender(ed) divisions, domestic labour, unpaid domestic work, household labour, or household labour and care (for example, Bianchi et al, 2000; Sullivan, 2000; 2018; Warren, 2011). In this article, I refer to this research area by one of its most commonly used names: gender divisions of domestic labour.

Although the field of gender divisions of domestic labour has widened and deepened over time, giving greater attention to diverse populations and varied theoretical and methodological approaches, its initial and enduring focus has been on ‘trying to understand what goes on inside the home and why the distribution of housework among heterosexual couples (has) remained so unequal’ (Sullivan, 2018: 379). The ‘who’ and ‘what’ in this empirical ‘who does what?’ (Berk, 1985: 15) approach, however, are not straightforward matters; rather they are connected to particular – and largely unexamined – concepts of human subjectivity, unpaid work and care.

In thinking about the ‘who’ in ‘who does what?’, it is important to ask: ‘what people, relationships and social networks are being considered?’ Is the focus on parents or does it recognise caregivers and caregiving across multiple households and extended networks? What theoretical and ontological concepts of subjectivity are being employed? Are subjects seen as autonomous, independent and competitively engaged in exchange and bargaining power relations, and/or are they viewed as relational, occasionally, or intermittently vulnerable subjects who move between dependence, independence and interdependence? Are human subjects conceived as embodied or disembodied? Are disabled or differently abled subjects considered? Is gender the only or main marker of differences and if so, what does this mean for non-binary persons? Is this a human ‘who’ or one embedded in human and non-human entanglements?

In terms of the ‘what’ in ‘who does what?’ research, what is actually being studied? Is the focus solely on housework, or on both housework and childcare? Are there conceptual justifications for making distinctions between these categories, tasks, and responsibilities? What categories of household work and care work are being studied and what do these categories include? Is elder care or community-based volunteer work considered, for example? Are researchers only studying domestic work practices or also the identities that are connected to those practices? What concepts of unpaid work, care work, and care responsibilities are being used, and how and why do different conceptualizations matter?

I begin this article by calling attention to two puzzles that are at the heart of the field of gender divisions of domestic labour. First, in a field that is focused on unpaid care work, care tasks, care time and sometimes care responsibilities, it is perplexing how seldom care theories and care concepts are engaged. Second, if domestic life, household work and unpaid care work are about relationships, why is the field focused so heavily on divisions rather than on relationships and relationalities?

To address these puzzles, I advance three arguments in this article. First, I interrogate some conceptual underpinnings of the field of gender divisions of domestic labour through my reading and adaptation of Margaret Somers’ historical sociology of concept formation. She approaches theories and concepts as ‘cultural and historical objects’ that do not have ‘natures or essences’, but rather ‘have histories, networks, and narratives’ (Somers, 2008: 268). I posit that the field of gender divisions of domestic labour is a configuration of concepts relationally and historically constituted in a particular time and space. Its central ‘who does what?’ question is informed by particular understandings of subjectivity, unpaid work and care. I argue that greater attention needs to be given to the conceptual foundations of the field’s long-standing dominant theories, especially varied forms of social exchange theory and diverse iterations of ‘doing gender’.

Second, I propose that researchers begin to rethink the field of gender divisions of domestic labour through care theories, especially feminist care ethics and care economies research. I advocate a ‘different starting point’ (Tronto, 2013: 49) and a ‘care-centric narrative’ (Lynch, 2022: 3) approach for studying unpaid care work, and I map out a few implications of what this means.

Finally, I aim in this article to contribute to the rethinking and remaking of the field of gender divisions of domestic labour at this historical moment of multiple care, socioeconomic and socioecological crises. I argue that in addition to the question that has been overwhelmingly asked during and beyond the COVID-19 pandemic: ‘how have gender divisions of domestic labour changed?’ we should ask: ‘how do care-centric narratives, which have been highlighted by this pandemic and other 21st-century socioecological crises, offer ways of rethinking how we conceptualise and study unpaid care work now and in the future?’ These questions open up new possibilities for researching care, with care.

I have organised the article into four parts. In the first section, I briefly lay out my reading and use of Somers’ historical sociology of concept formation. The second section, ‘Histories, narratives and networks’, is a selective historical mapping guided by my reading of feminist political economist Nancy Fraser’s (2016; 2022) description of two centuries and three regimes (with an emerging fourth regime) of capitalism, care and social reproduction, as well as my brief analysis of how research on gender divisions of domestic labour is connected to these socioeconomic histories. In the third section, I undertake a partial ‘genealogical accounting of conceptual configurations’ (Somers, 2008: 209) of the field of gender division of domestic labour, attending mainly to the ‘who’ (concepts of subjectivity) and ‘what’ (unpaid work) of the ‘who does what?’ approach in this field. Fourth, I lay out how care theories, although largely excluded from the development or current state of the field of gender divisions of domestic labour, have much to offer this field. Specifically, I take a brief look at theories of care economies and the 3Rs of care work (recognise, reduce and redistribute unpaid work) and then at an additional 3Rs in feminist care ethics: relationalities, responsiveness, responsibilities. I also reflect on the potential of care theories for studying unpaid work in this historical moment.

Method: genealogies of concepts

In broad terms, Somers’ genealogical approach – a historical sociology of concept formation – excavates the relationalities and historicities of concepts. It aims to gain a sense of ‘how we think and why we seem obliged to think in certain ways [emphasis added]’ (Hacking, 1990: 362, cited in Somers, 2008: 254) and ‘how to begin the process of unthinking’ (p. 265). She lays out a three-part approach that entwines reflexivity, relationality and a ‘recognition of social science concepts as cultural and historical objects’ (p. 209).

Reflexivity

Somers’ (2008: 172) approach begins with reflexivity, which entails a process of ‘turning social science back on itself to examine often taken-for-granted conceptual tools of research’ and, more broadly, epistemic reflexivity, which attends to the ‘“epistemological unconscious” and social organization of the discipline and field’ (Bourdieu and Wacquant, 1992: 41). As a genealogical approach, Somers’ (2008: 9) historical sociology of concept formation recognises that all methodologies and knowledge making practices are selective and partial because ‘our questions are always the product of our situated selves’ and ‘are driven by [our] place and concerns in the world’. In this vein, I write this article as a researcher who – immersed in separate but gradually intersecting research programmes on gender and paid and unpaid work, care theories, and the development of a feminist, relational, ecological approach to knowledge making (for example, Doucet, 2000; 2015; 2018; 2021) – has grappled for years with the perceived incompatibilities of working with relational approaches while doing research in a field focused on divisions, separations and binaries. It is this struggle that motivates my writing here.

Relationalities of concepts

The second part of Somers’ (2008: 205) genealogical approach focuses on ‘the structured configuration of relationships among concepts’. Building on Hacking’s (2002: 24) insight that ‘concepts are “words in their sites”’, Somers (2008: 206) writes that ‘concepts cannot be defined on their own as single entities, but only deciphered in terms of their “place” in relation to the other concepts in the web’ because ‘all concepts are located and embedded in conceptual networks’ (p. 257). In this article, I thus attend to the relationality of concepts of subjectivity and unpaid work in the dominant theories of gender divisions of domestic labour.

Histories of concepts

Somers’ (2008: 267) historical sociology of concept formation, rooted in wider discussions about historical epistemologies, asserts that ‘successful truth claims are historically contingent rather than confirmations of absolute and unchanging reality’ and that ‘things we take as self-evident and necessary … simply take on the appearance of being the only possible reality’ (p. 10). This means that we must look at the philosophical and epistemological historicity of concepts, recognise how they came into being and what keeps them in place, and think about other conceptual possibilities. The field of gender divisions of domestic labour is dominated by certain concepts that were developed in specific contexts and with particular purposes. As I detail below, care offers a different conceptual configuration and a different set of histories, narratives and networks.

Care and capitalism: histories, narratives and networks

There are many ways to map a field and the historical, sociocultural and geopolitical histories within which it is lodged. To sketch the field of gender divisions of domestic labour, I draw on Nancy Fraser’s (2016; 2022) description of how the last two centuries of capitalism are woven with care, social reproduction, gender and racialised hierarchies in three historical phases, with a fourth stage now emerging. The first three phases are: (1) ‘colonization and housewifization’ (2022: 59): the mercantile, colonial and imperial capitalist regime of the 16th through 18th centuries followed by 19th-century liberal colonial capitalism; (2) ‘Fordism and the family wage’ (2022: 64): the heteronormative male-breadwinner, female-homemaker family and ‘state-managed capitalism of the 20th century’ (2016: 104); and (3) ‘two-earner households’ (2022: 67): dual-earner family ideals, ‘crises of care’ (2022: 148), and ‘care deficits’ and ‘globalizing financialised capitalism’ (2016: 100, 104). As evidenced by the ongoing pandemic and rising numbers and severity of ecological disasters, Fraser (2022: 92) recently argued that we are moving into a fourth historical phase, socioecological regimes of accumulation, characterised by intersecting ecological and care crises. I consider the implications of this fourth phase toward the conclusion of this article.

My genealogical approach intersects with this historical mapping. Like all narratives, the one I sketch here is selective, situated, partial, and ‘inherently ontological [because it contains] a priori decisions about how we understand the social world to be constituted [emphasis added]’ (Somers, 1996: 71). It is important to note that Fraser (2022) recently modified her discussion of these regimes to attend to some dimensions of colonisation and racialised history. She also clarified that although she added a new phase that coincides with the ‘historical career of capitalism’s ecological contradiction’ (Fraser, 2022: 10), these issues have always been present in the other regimes of accumulation (see Foster, K., 2016; Foster, J., 2020). In the next section of this article, I focus only on Fraser’s third phase as the terrain for the rise of the field of gender divisions of domestic labour, especially in the Global North, before turning briefly, in the final section, to Fraser’s mapping of socioecological capitalism and care.

Two-earner households, ‘care crises’ and ‘care deficits’: historical and conceptual narratives

Fraser (2016: 104) defines her third stage of ‘regimes of social reproduction-cum-economic production in capitalism’s history’, from roughly the 1980s, as one characterised by the deepening effects of neoliberalism, along with rising employment levels for mothers; recurring recessions with effects on male employment; inadequate state support for the care of children, elders and people with disabilities; accelerated levels of care work falling to mainly women, families, communities and transnational ‘care chains’; and a ‘dualized organization of social reproduction, commodified for those who can pay for it, privatized for those who cannot’ (2016: 104). An urgent ‘care crunch’ that is ‘an acute expression of a social-reproductive contradiction inherent in capitalism’, Fraser (2022: 54) argues, is a defining feature of this phase.

These contexts of growing dual-earner families, weak state support for care work and slowly shifting gender ideologies spurred researchers to ask questions about how women and men divide paid work and unpaid work. This historical period, in broad terms, forms the backdrop for the rise of the field of gender divisions of domestic labour.

In the 1980s, there was a rich array of qualitative research studies on gender and paid and unpaid work, mainly about White mother/father families from varied social class locations in the UK and the US. Some studies explored how male redundancy and/or rising female employment affected paid and unpaid work patterns, household life and gender divisions of domestic labour (for example, Pahl, R., 1984; Berk, 1985; Hochschild with Machung, 1989; Morris, 1990; Brannen and Moss, 1991) while others shone a light on specific forms of gendered unpaid work such as cooking (DeVault, 1991), elder care responsibilities (Finch and Mason, 1993), or managing household finances (Pahl, J., 1989). On my reading, these qualitative studies recognised unequal gendered access to and control of household resources; viewed families and households as units with both mutually advantageous and conflicting relationships; attempted to conceptualise the complex meanings, processes and experiences of domestic labour for different household members; explored the shifting boundaries and overlaps of paid and unpaid work; and paid attention to different kinds of work, including self-provisioning, participation in the informal economy, and community and kin volunteer work. Relationships and relationalities within and beyond the household were a strong focus of these studies’ theoretical explanations for gender divisions, including arguments about how people’s social networks inform and reinforce gender norms, ideologies and gendered ‘moral identities’ (Finch and Mason, 1993). In short, these qualitative studies emphasised both divisions and relationalities within and between households and within and between communities and social institutions.

Qualitative studies on gender divisions of domestic labour have continued to flourish through the ensuing decades, but quantitative studies, especially time-use studies (for example, time budgets, time-use diaries and time-use surveys) have arguably dominated the field. Their rise through the 1980s and 1990s was partly in response to various socioeconomic, technological and political forces including the rise of large national and international data sets; the interest of national statistics agencies in how populations spend their time; and the 1995 United Nations Fourth World Women’s Conference, where the Beijing Platform for Action (BPfa) called for all national governments to conduct time-use studies to make visible women’s unpaid domestic contributions to national economies.

The critical importance of time-use studies for making visible continuing gendered inequalities and disadvantages in unpaid work and between paid and unpaid work cannot be overstated. Time-use studies are widely regarded as the ‘gold standard’ for measuring unpaid work (Altintas and Sullivan, 2016: 456); they have ‘been invaluable in estimating the labor time contributed by household members and in measuring all forms of work’ (Beneria, 2015: 200) and are central research and political tools for feminist care economies research around the world. At the same time, on my reading, their dominance has solidified the focus on divisions, rather than relations, in the field of gender division of labour. This has, in turn, shaped the now largely taken-for-granted ontological and epistemological parameters of how unpaid work is typically defined, conceptualised, measured and theorised.

Gender divisions of domestic labour and dominant conceptual narratives: social exchange and doing gender

About 20 years ago, Bittman and colleagues (2003: 186–7) argued that ‘Two perspectives dominate past sociological studies about how couples allocate time to household work’: exchange theories and gender theories (see also Sayer, 2005; Sullivan, 2018).2 Although the field of gender divisions of domestic labour is much wider than time-use studies, these two highly diverse, inter-disciplinary and internally heterogeneous theoretical frameworks still dominate research on household work and care and reinforce particular conceptual, ontological and normative assumptions about the ‘who’ and ‘what’ in ‘who does what?’.

Social exchange theories

Exchange (or social exchange) theories are a broad group of theories underpinned by a wide range of philosophical, psychological, economic and sociological theories, especially utilitarianism and behaviourism (for example, reinforcement principles, payoffs and rewards), ‘the vestiges of which remain evident in the versions of exchange theory current today’ (Cook et al, 2013: 61). Many trace the most significant works about exchange theory back to the late 1950s and 1960s (see, for example, Homans, 1958; Emerson, 1962; Blau, 1964), although its applications to domestic and family life developed gradually. As Richard Emerson (1962: 32–33) succinctly explained in his oft-cited article ‘Power-Dependence Relations,’ all social relations – whether dyadic (such as between marital partners or a parent and child) or in social networks – are imbued with power, control, influence and mutual dependency, so that one person’s ‘power resides implicitly in the other’s dependency’.

In the field of gender divisions of household labour, social exchange theory often gets hidden within other theoretical approaches, such as game theories, bargaining theories, rational choice, relative resources and time availability theories (for example, Blood and Wolfe, 1960; Bianchi and Milkie, 2010; Davis and Greenstein, 2013). Both the relative resources and time availability theories, for example, hypothesise that decision-making processes and practices of breadwinning and domestic work in families rely on spouses using resources – initially relative earnings or time availability, and then education and occupational status – as bargaining chips that involve power and cost-benefit analyses. In sociological research studies on gender divisions of domestic labour, these exchanges and relationships are theorised as simultaneously personal, familial, structural, cultural and structured (for example, Bianchi et al, 2012; Sullivan and Gershuny, 2016).

As social exchange theories did not address the gendered conditions within and beyond the household, researchers have thus used various gender theories to understand the slow pace of gendered change. The main theory taken up in the field of gendered division of labour is the ‘doing gender’ approach.

Doing gender

Like social exchange theory, doing gender appears to cast a wide net, with researchers often lumping together ‘gender deviance neutralization’ (Brines, 1994; Arrighi and Maume, 2000; Greenstein, 2000; see critique by Sullivan, 2011), gender display (Brines 1994; Greenstein, 2000; see also Finch 2007), West and Zimmerman’s (1987) approach to doing gender and Judith Butler’s (2006) performative approach under its heading.3 Here, I draw on the most well-cited resources in the field of gender division of labour: West and Zimmerman’s doing gender approach and Deutsch’s doing and undoing gender approach. Both of these are rooted partly in ethnomethodology, especially Goffman’s (1969) and Garfinkel’s (1967) work, and both seek to challenge earlier conceptualisations of gender as sex roles or a set of attributes acquired through socialisation.

The doing gender approach maintains four key assertions. First, gender is an active process of ‘doing’; gender is ‘not something we are, but something we do’ (Deutsch, 2007: 106). Second, it is ‘constituted through interaction’ – as a dynamic process whereby men and women create gender within social relationships throughout their lives (West and Zimmerman, 1987: 129). Third, gender differences are continuously accomplished in routine social interactions, making gender ‘an ongoing emergent aspect of social interaction’ (Deutsch, 2007: 107). Finally, the performance of gender is managed by the need to be publicly accountable to social gender norms and expectations. This often forgotten fourth point is informed by Goffman and Garfinkel’s arguments that people are constantly negotiating performances of gender for others and within shared ‘communities of understanding’ about what gender means (Garfinkel, 1967: 181–2). Later work by Fenstermaker and West (2002) further asserted that doing gender is so constrained by normative social conceptions that people are held accountable for their failure to ‘do’ gender appropriately.

Social exchange theories and doing gender theories have very different conceptual underpinnings. However, their approaches to ‘who’ and ‘what’ in the ‘who does what?’ question that dominates the field of gender divisions of domestic labour do have similarities.

Who: concepts of subjectivity

A social exchange approach presumes that individuals ‘engage in self-interested behavior’ (Bittman et al, 2003: 189) using a myriad of resources – mainly economic, educational and time resources – to assert their individual bargaining power and compete for resources, power, advantage and reciprocity. This is a view of human subjects as autonomous, atomistic, individual, independent and self-reliant. Although these approaches do acknowledge human interaction and relationships, individuals are not viewed as relational beings, but rather like separate pieces moving and competing on a game board of life. Indeed, one iteration of exchange theory, game theory, ‘makes explicit the interdependency of the players in negotiating the division of labour. Each player has a set of possible strategies, the payoffs to which depend on the actions taken by all players’ (Breen and Cooke, 2005: 44).

The ‘who’ in doing gender theories is conceptualised largely as a disembodied gendered being (see critique by Messerschmidt, 2009), with little attention to processes and effects of pregnancy, birthing and breast-feeding, to disability and varied forms of potential mental and physical illness across the lifecourse. This is still generally an individual subject uncomplicated by possible intersectional positionalities, spatial and temporal localities, non-binary gendered identities, and multiple versions of masculinities and femininities (but see Deutsch, 2007; Schep, 2012; Goldberg, 2013).

Neither social exchange nor doing gender theories accord much attention to the potentially relational inter-actions and, indeed, intra-actions (both positive and negative) between caregiving and care-receiving relations, to how these matter in ‘moral’ caring identities and subjectivities, or to how these identities are reinforced or stifled within gendered social networks (but see Finch and Mason 1993; Doucet, 2015; 2018). In the case of childcare, the uniqueness of different children is largely overlooked, as are their effects on parenting work, identities and wellbeing throughout the lifecourse and how these experienced effects may differ for diverse populations and different household members (but see Nomaguchi and Milkie, 2020; Milkie et al, 2021).

What: unpaid work

The application of social exchange theory and doing gender theories in the field of gender divisions of domestic labour is underpinned by particular definitions of unpaid work guided by the key words ‘divisions’ and ‘labour’. This field and its studies are permeated with theoretical, ontological and conceptual binaries and divisions, including ones between paid and unpaid work, care and breadwinning/provisioning, housework and childcare, the domestic and other institutions, parents and children, parents and other caregivers, and between partners. This obscures not only the significant ways that households rely on each other and on social institutions and the wider community, but how boundaries between paid and unpaid work, as well as domestic work and community volunteer work overlap and blur, and how paid household support can affect and reproduce gender divisions of care work (for example, Eldén and Anving, 2019).

Unpaid work is treated mainly as labour and is typically measured in terms of individuals’ accounting of time spent doing domestic tasks. In most studies, housework and childcare tasks are assumed to have static, singular meanings. How a task’s meanings can change over time and among different populations, the specific contexts of its enactment, policy and community supports, and the possible positive dimensions domestic work and care work can have for particular individuals and families is typically ignored. In many studies, tasks and responsibilities are often lapsed, with little consideration for the cognitive, processual, emotional, spatial and community-based dimensions of care work and responsibilities.

There are unique methodological issues that arise when applying doing gender and social exchange theories. The conceptual roots of a doing gender approach call attention to dynamic and interactive processes, to how gender is managed in relation to public accountability and to how gender performances are negotiated. Yet these aspects are rarely addressed when quantitative studies apply doing gender theories as an explanation for gender inequalities in divisions of domestic labour. Ticking a box in a quantitative ‘who does what?’ survey or recording one’s time in a time-use diary to indicate that someone is doing most of the cooking, for example, does not clearly signal that they are ‘doing gender’. On my reading, there is a theory-method gap: quantitative methods do not often attend to ‘how interaction operates to sustain relations of inequality’ (West and Zimmerman, 2009: 75) nor are they well-equipped to study ‘interaction as the site of change’ (Deutsch, 2007: 106). Meanwhile, qualitative studies that rely only on individual interviews and not on couple interviews may be limited in their ability to access these dynamic, interactive processes.

Regarding social exchange theories, many researchers have made the point that these are less applicable to childcare than housework (Bittman et al, 2003; Lachance-Grzela and Bouchard, 2010; Sullivan, 2013), mainly because childcare and housework encompass activities and investments that have different subjective experiences, levels of urgency and affective dimensions. At the same time, social exchange theory, especially bargaining and game theories, are increasingly used to understand gender divisions in both childcare and housework and this tendency has accelerated considerably in research (especially online surveys and analyses of time-use data) conducted during the COVID-19 pandemic.4 Recognising that there is a growing reliance on these two broad theories to explain continuing gender divisions in housework and childcare, I argue for greater attention to how concepts of subjectivity and unpaid work are present and active in how both data collection and data analysis are conducted.

In contrast to approaches that centre autonomous individuals and multiple kinds of divisions, care concepts highlight diverse forms of relationalities that can expand how we think about and study ‘who does what?’.

Care-centric conceptual narratives

Care is difficult to define as it is a ‘complex and slippery word with such remarkably broad meanings and does not easily translate into other languages’ (Tronto, 2013: 6). As a concept, care overlaps with sister concepts of care work, unpaid work, domestic labour, reproductive labour, social care, care economies and social reproduction. I focus mainly on two approaches here: care economies and feminist care ethics, which, I argue, can contribute significantly to our understanding of what care is and how to measure it. The field of gender divisions of domestic labour, however, has yet to fully take up key contributions from care theories.

Feminist care economies: 3Rs

Parallel to the rise of the field of gender divisions of domestic labour, the wide and rich field of feminist international studies (and feminist development studies), which counts and accounts for women’s unpaid work (for example, Beneria, 1992; Waring, 1999), took hold during the third phase of care and capitalism (‘two-earner households’) and especially after the 1995 UN Women’s Conference. Research and advocacy in this field strongly focused on the Global South and with key contributions from feminist economists, has persistently urged countries to make women’s unpaid work visible through time-use studies and to include unpaid work in their gross domestic product or within the ‘production boundary’ of their System of National Accounts. Feminist conceptualisations of care as simultaneously political and economic have formed the foundations for what can broadly be called care economies approaches. Partly guided by the now well-touted view that ‘to achieve equality in paid work, women also need to achieve equality in unpaid work’, multi-disciplinary feminist scholars and activists have advanced a 3Rs research and policy strategy to ‘recognize, reduce and redistribute women’s unpaid work’ (Elson, 2017: 54; see also Elson, 2008).

In terms of the 3Rs, recognition relates to an enduring call to revalue unpaid care work, to make it visible, to view care as an economic force that ‘produces public goods’ with ‘benefits for society as a whole’ (Folbre, 2021a: 18), and to recognise an ‘unpaid care work–paid work–paid care work circle’ that reflects the tight connections between varied forms of care and work (Addati et al, 2018: 10).

A second part of the 3Rs framework is to reduce unpaid care work and the care-work burdens placed on family members (especially mothers), through childcare services, eldercare supports, financially supported leaves for new parents, and employment and social protection policies that support people of all genders to engage in both paid work and unpaid care work. Care theories address unpaid care work reduction with concepts like ‘social care’ (Daly and Lewis, 2000), which underlines how responding to people’s care needs and the financial responsibilities to support that care should be central to welfare state policies. In a similar way Tronto’s (2013: 23, 29) concept of ‘caring with’ connects caregiving and care receiving to ‘democratic commitments to justice, equality, and freedom for all’.

Finally, the 3Rs framework places a massive emphasis on redistributing unpaid care work, not only from families to the state but from women to men or among partners. This focus on redistribution overlaps with the field of gender divisions of domestic labour, and both fields are linked to a sub-field of time-use studies that spans many academic disciplines, scholarly societies and international organisations. Feminist care economies differ, however, in their emphasis on the relationalities between recognition, production and redistribution. It also shares some conceptual underpinnings with feminist care ethics in relation to questions of subjectivity (‘who’) and definitions of unpaid work and care (‘what’).

Feminist care ethics: a further 3Rs

Carol Gilligan’s book In a Different Voice (1982/1993) is credited with sparking research in the field of feminist ethics of care (or feminist care ethics, which is the term I use in this article) because it ‘revolutionized discussion of moral theory, feminism [and] theories of the subject’ (Hekman, 1995: 1). It illuminated human ethical choices, relationships with others, responsibilities for the care of others, and ‘connection as primary and fundamental in human life’ (Gilligan, 1995: 120). It also contested dominant liberal political and economic theories found in highly influential work on moral and human development (for example, Kohlberg, 1981) and abstract, generalised and individualised ideals of justice (for example, Rawls, 1971). Along with other well-known and related works (for example, Tronto, 1993; Held, 1995; Ruddick, 1995; Sevenhuijsen, 1998), Gilligan’s book led to a massive cross-disciplinary field of feminist care ethics that was already characterised in the 1990s as ‘a small industry within academia and outside the academy’ (Jaggar, 1991: 83).

This early wave of research and writing in this field included at least four important dimensions: (1) a view of human subjectivity as relational and interdependent; (2) a micro-focus on areas of social life that had been largely neglected by scholars, namely domestic life, mothering and everyday care practices; (3) an emphasis on contextuality and specificity rather than universalistic principles; and (4) the belief that the ethic of care and the ethic of justice (which emphasises individuality, independence, autonomy and rationality) should hold equal social, economic, philosophical and ideological weight (for an overview, see Gilligan, 1982/1993; Tronto, 1993; Held, 1995).

This fourth point about the ethics of care and justice, paired with critiques of Gilligan’s work, may partly explain why feminist care ethics has not been integrated into the growing field of gender divisions of domestic labour. Despite Gilligan’s repeated clarification (for example, 1986; 1995) that her work was not meant to highlight or validate women’s ‘different voice’ – where women are assumed to be more attached to care and men more connected to the ethic of justice – her work was read and critiqued this way. Care ethics was seen as too maternal, as inadvertently valorising women’s domestic and care roles, as potentially reinforcing long-standing theoretical dichotomies between the public and private (for example, Dietz, 1985), and lacking sufficient attention to racialised and Global South experiences (for example, Narayan, 1995). With time, however, these critiques have been addressed and the importance of care as practices, ethics, politics, economics, theories, ontologies and epistemologies has been explored in cross-disciplinary research with diverse populations and taken up in multiple institutional sites (for an overview, see Tronto, 2013; Lynch, 2022).

Feminist care ethics connects with the 3Rs from the field of care economies (recognise, reduce and redistribute women’s unpaid work), and, on my reading, signal an additional 3Rs: relationalities, responsiveness and responsibilities. To weave feminist care ethics and its own 3Rs into the field of gender divisions of domestic labour, we can start by rethinking the ‘who’ part of the ‘who does what?’ approach.

Who: concepts of subjectivity

Countering prevailing Euro-Western liberal theories and assumptions about the independent, autonomous, rational self (see critiques by Gilligan, 1982; Held, 2006), feminist care scholars reframe human subjectivities as relational, vulnerable, embodied, interconnected, interdependent and intra-dependent. Human beings are understood to be intermittently vulnerable and dependent at the beginning, end and at various points throughout the lifecourse. This is a fundamental point in all care theories and has also long been present in feminist economic and political economy approaches to care and social reproduction (for example, England, 1993; Folbre, 1995).

At the same time, feminist care ethics has always included a focus on the care of oneself and the care of others, responsibilities for oneself and responsibilities for others (Gilligan, 1982/1993) and, indeed, on ‘relational autonomy’, which highlights how ‘conceptions of autonomy can combine relational and individualistic aspects’ (Friedman, 2014: 42; see also Friedman, 2003). Relational autonomy suggests that ‘persons can be independent in some ways while being (more) dependent in other ways’ (p. 59), and, critically, that there are ‘reasons why members of subordinated or dominated groups might want to retain independence as an aim of action’ (p. 43). This is a crucial point to consider when applying relational subjectivities to the field of gender divisions of domestic labour because it recognises that people simultaneously respond relationally and autonomously to specific conditions, demands and contexts. Care theorists recognise that spouses can indeed engage in bargaining, competition and power struggles, but they approach these matters from within a relational ontological and conceptual frame. As Tronto (2013: 49) puts it:

While individuals, and their liberty, can still matter greatly, it makes little sense to think of individuals as if they were Robinson Crusoe, all alone, making decisions. Instead, all individuals constantly work in, through, or away from, relationships with others, who, in turn, are in differing states of providing or needing care from them.

What: unpaid work (and unpaid care work)

Historically, care scholars have approached unpaid care work not only as labour, but in terms of the moral qualities associated with care work, as ‘what it means to care for someone and what it entails are closely related’ (Graham, 1983: 13). At the same time, although part of any care task ‘is to make someone feel cared for’, there can still be a ‘distinction between motives and effects’ (Folbre, 1995: 75). This attention to caring labour, its emotional and cognitive qualities, and its potential effects has been a central focus across much care writing, including the work of Joan Tronto. In the early 1990s, Tronto and Bernice Fisher (Fisher and Tronto, 1990) developed the idea of care as four complex processes or interconnected phases with Tronto (2013) later identifying a fifth stage. Taken together, these steps and their related moral elements and dispositions are: (1) Caring about someone’s unmet needs (attentiveness), (2) Caring for these needs (responsibility), (3) Caregiving and making sure the work is done (competence), (4) Care-receiving or assessing the effectiveness of care acts (responsiveness), and (5) Caring with, which is about collective responsibilities for care (plurality, communication, trust and respect) (2013: 23, 35).

Tronto’s approach to care and care labour entangles relationalities, responsiveness, and responsibilities. These 3Rs also play out in several ways across care economies and feminist care ethics approaches. Relationalities and responsiveness are present when recognising that any divisions between paid and unpaid work and within and between different kinds of unpaid work are contextual, with porous and constantly shifting boundaries. For example, in contrast to tendencies in many studies of gender division of domestic labour to divide household work and care, a relational and responsive approach views these conceptual decisions as contextual ones (see also Coltrane, 2010). That is, in families with caregiving responsibilities, care work can be seen as a form of ‘direct care’, which ‘involves a process of personal and emotional engagement’, whereas household work and other forms of unpaid work can be viewed as ‘indirect care activities’, which ‘provide support for direct care’ (Folbre, 2006: 187). Although there can be urgent temporal or affective dimensions involved in the care of others that do not apply to household work, the ‘line between direct and indirect care is often blurry, since even seemingly impersonal tasks have personal valence’ (Folbre, 2021b: 16).

Feminist care ethics also provides a unique conceptualisation of the responsibilities for unpaid care work, centring on response-abilities as responsiveness in relationships that are potentially generative as well as oppressive. Overlapping with approaches to ‘cognitive labour’ (Daminger, 2019) and the ‘mental load’ (Dean et al, 2021), a care-centric approach to care responsibilities (for example, Ruddick, 1995; Mason, 1996; Doucet, 2015; 2018) focuses on the emotional and cognitive dimensions of unpaid work, viewing care as both labour and love, and as embodied, temporal, sentient, moral and spatial (intra-household, inter-household, community-based and inter-institutional). Ontologically, care-centric approaches acknowledge but do not ‘start from the premise of competing separate parties’ (Tronto, 2013: 184). Rather, care theories, particularly feminist care ethics, begin with relationality, vulnerability, fragility and interdependence – a view that ‘all humans are extremely vulnerable at some points in their lives, especially when they are young, elderly, or ill’ and that ‘all humans are at once both recipients and givers of care’ (Tronto, 2013: 31). These points can also be extended to non-human worlds and human and socioecological relationalities.

Care and ‘socioecological regimes of accumulation’

Fraser (2022: 159) argues that the world is now facing ‘a societal order that is structurally primed to cannibalize the very bases of its own existence: to guzzle carework and scarf up nature, to eviscerate public power and devour the wealth of racialized populations’. She sketches a fourth stage of care and capitalism, ‘socioecological regimes of accumulation’, that highlights intersecting ecological and care crises and human and non-human world entanglements. These crises affect every part of our lives, including how domestic work and care work – the ‘who does what?’ – are defined and expanded to include domestic responses to ecological and community damage, decay, disease, loss and repair.

This historical phase demands that we shift how we think about gender divisions of domestic labour and find some possible conceptual responses. I maintain that with some widening of concepts, feminist care theories (especially feminist care ethics and care economies approaches) are well placed to provide conceptual scaffolding for studying and understanding these abiding and emerging contexts. The initial 3Rs – recognition, reduction and redistribution of unpaid care work – remain central while also reorienting to socioecological and care crises (for example, Nelson and Power, 2018; Dengler and Lang, 2022). The 3Rs of feminist care ethics – relationalities, responsiveness and responsibilities – provide conceptual and practical resources to study and intervene in these crises, drawing attention to the interdependence, indeed the intra-dependence, of human and nonhuman beings and worlds. Notably, interest in theorising relational human and more-than-human intra-actions with care theories and concepts (see Haraway, 2016; Puig de la Bellacasa, 2017; Karjevsky et al, 2020) is growing, as is attention to Indigenous and decolonial articulations of care relations (for example, Doucet, Jewell and Watts, in press).

Conclusion

This article addresses two puzzles at the heart of the wide interdisciplinary field of gender divisions of domestic labour. How is it that care concepts and theories seldom appear in a field that is heavily focused on unpaid work and care work? Why is the field centred on divisions rather than relationships and relationalities?

I tackle these puzzles by engaging in a brief genealogical accounting of the conceptual configurations of the current field of gender divisions of domestic labour. This means not only exploring ‘who does what?’ questions but also interrogating the ‘cognitive tools by which we analyze this world’ (Somers, 2008: 254). I weave together Margaret Somers’ (2008) historical sociology of concept formation and Nancy Fraser’s (2016; 2022) historical mapping of intersections between varied phases of capitalism, care and social reproduction. I trace how the two dominant theoretical approaches – varied iterations of social exchange and doing gender theories – shape the field of gender divisions of domestic labour in specific ways and with particular conceptual configurations of human subjectivities, unpaid work and care. I then offer a different conceptual scaffolding, intertwining the 3Rs of feminist care economies (recognition, reduction, and redistribution) with my reading of the 3Rs of feminist care ethics: relationalities, responsiveness, and responsibilities.

Informed by ‘care-centric thinking’ (Lynch, 2022: 9), my overarching argument about how to study gender divisions of domestic labour is that care is more than tasks or units of time. It is a deeply relational, affective, responsive, sentient, moral, cross-temporal, and spatial set of practices, processes, identities, and responsibilities. Care cannot be captured on a tally sheet. I am aware that this is a provocative argument that can be read and heard in multiple ways. I therefore want to clarify what I am arguing – and not arguing.

First, I am not arguing that the dominant theories of the field, especially social exchange and doing gender, are wrong or should be replaced. Guided by insights from historical epistemologies, I am, rather, making the point that all concepts ‘have histories, networks, and narratives that can be subjected to historical and empirical investigation’ (Somers, 2008: 268) and that all truth claims are ‘historically contingent’ (p. 267). Within any study, multiple stories and analyses are possible. I am drawing attention to how the histories and relationalities of concepts matter in determining what scholarly narratives we make and tell. My argument is that the field of gender divisions of domestic labour, which focuses partly on unpaid care work, requires more care-centric concepts and narratives. In terms of what this would look like in research practice – that is, in time use, quantitative, qualitative, and mixed methods studies, for example – this article acts as an invitation to take up the challenge and opportunity of re-thinking how we research unpaid care work (see, for example, Doucet, 2022; Folbre, 2021b; 2022; Milkie, in press).

Second, I am not challenging the overwhelming and still accumulating findings that the COVID-19 pandemic has had significant gendered consequences, particularly during global lockdowns and stay-at-home orders. There is now ample evidence that increased unpaid care work fell disproportionately on the shoulders of women, resulting in related losses in women’s employment and physical and mental wellbeing (see Kabeer et al, 2021). My plea is that we ask new questions from ‘a different starting point’ (Tronto, 2013: 48) – one that centres care and relationalities, care and justice, and that moves beyond divisions and binaries, including care/work, domestic/community, home/work, dependence/independence, and gender binaries. I invite researchers to shift some of the attention away from how gender divisions of labour changed because of the COVID-19 pandemic and to look, instead, at how, care concepts offer ways of rethinking how we explore divisions and relations of care and unpaid work as well as relationalities between unpaid work, paid work, and paid care work in our current contexts of socioecological crises.

Notes

1

Canada Research Chair and Professor, www.andreadoucet.com, ORCID: 0000-0002-6000-9029.

2

Bianchi and colleagues (2000: 193) argued over 20 years ago that ‘three theoretical perspectives on the process of domestic labor allocation dominate the literature: (1) the time availability perspective, (2) the relative resources perspective, and (3) the gender perspective’. On my reading, time availability and relative resources can both be viewed as forms of social exchange theory.

3

There are, however, conceptual, epistemological, and ontological complexities within and between these approaches that bear consideration, especially between West and Zimmerman’s social constructionist approach to performativity and Judith Butler’s poststructuralist approach (see Siltanen and Doucet, 2017). There are also significant differences between the early work on gender display, informed by social exchange theory and based on the analysis of quantitative surveys, and Janet Finch’s (2007) gender display, which is rooted in a broad range of relational theories and calls for qualitative approaches (see Dermott and Seymour, 2011).

4

I do not want to single out any particular studies, but on my reading, many quantitative studies on gender divisions of domestic labour conducted since the first lockdowns of the COVID-19 pandemic have relied on these two broad theories.

Funding

This work was supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada through the Canada Research Chairs Program [grant number 231901–2018] and the Partnership Program [grant number 895-2020-1011, Reimagining Care/Work Policies]: https://rcwproject.ca.

Acknowledgements

Thank you to Harriet Churchill and three anonymous referees; my generous colleagues Kim de Laat, Nancy Folbre, Karen Foster, Sylvia Fuller, Meg Gibson, Umay Kader, Janna Klostermann, and Melissa Milkie for critical input on this article; Elizabeth Paradis and Jennifer Turner for copy editing and bibliographic assistance; and to Carol Gilligan, Natasha Mauthner, Eva Jewell, and Vanessa Watts for old and new conversations that shape my thinking about care and relationalities.

Conflict of interest

The author declares that there is no conflict of interest.

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    • Export Citation
  • Schep, D. (2012) The limits of performativity: a critique of hegemony in gender theory, Hypatia, 27(4): 86480. doi: 10.1111/j.1527-2001.2011.01230.x

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    • Export Citation
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    • Export Citation
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    • Export Citation
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    • Export Citation
  • Somers, M.R. (2008) Genealogies of Citizenship: Markets, Statelessness and the Right to Have Rights, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Sullivan, O. (2000) The division of domestic labour: twenty years of change?, Sociology, 34(3): 43756. doi: 10.1177/S0038038500000286

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Sullivan, O. (2011) An end to gender display through the performance of housework? A review and reassessment of the quantitative literature using insights from the qualitative literature, Journal of Family Theory & Review, 3(1): 113. doi: 10.1111/j.1756-2589.2010.00074.x

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Sullivan, O. (2013) What do we learn about gender by analyzing housework separately From child care? Some considerations from Time-use evidence, Journal of Family Theory & Review, 5(2): 7264. doi: 10.1111/jftr.12007

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Sullivan, O. (2018) The gendered division of household labour, in B.J. Risman, C. Froyum and W. Scarborough (eds) Handbook of the Sociology of Gender and Social Research, New York, NY: Springer.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Sullivan, O. and Gershuny, J. (2016) Change in spousal human capital and housework: a longitudinal analysis, European Sociological Review, 32(6): 86480. doi: 10.1093/esr/jcw043

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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  • Tronto, J.C. (2013) Caring Democracy: Markets, Equality, and Justice, New York: New York University Press.

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  • Warren, T. (2011) Researching the gender division of unpaid domestic work: practices, relationships, negotiations, and meanings, The Sociological Review, 59(1): 12948. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-954X.2010.01993.x

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • West, C. and Zimmerman, D.H. (1987) Doing gender, Gender & Society, 1: 12551. doi: 10.1177/0891243287001002002

  • West, C. and Zimmerman, D.H. (2009) Accounting for doing gender, Gender & Society, 23(1): 11222. doi: 10.1177/0891243208326529

Andrea Doucet Brock University, Canada

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