Care Work between Defamilialization and Commodification

By Di Nicola, Paola | Italian Sociological Review, May 1, 2015 | Go to article overview

Care Work between Defamilialization and Commodification


Di Nicola, Paola, Italian Sociological Review


1. Defamilialize the Family?

Levels of uncertainty, insecurity and vulnerability have increased in individual lives as a result of profound changes affecting the three cornerstone institutions of modern society: the labour market, the welfare state and the family. At the birth of the modern industrial society, work was transformed from a 'biblical' punishment reserved for non-citizens to a right and condition for the practice of individual liberty; the greatest social risks2 were socialized by the creation of public social protection systems, while the wide dissemination of the stable married family guaranteed a satisfactory turnover of the population and rising levels of the quality of life of the workforce, who replaced those leaving the labour market through retirement. At the beginning of the 21st century, the three pillars of modernity have completely different profiles: as a result of the globalization of markets and the increase in international competition, work has lost its central role as a producer of wealth and has become a cost that Western economies regularly try to reduce in a systematic way by deregulating the labour market and introducing increasingly high levels of flexibility, whose social costs are mainly offloaded onto the worker (Gallino 2009). Welfare systems find it increasingly difficult to protect citizens against old and new risks because of the financial crisis, the reduction in contributory revenue and changes in the demographic foundation of the population. As a result of population ageing processes, the reduction in fertility and the rise in marital conflict, the family spectrum has changed significantly. There are now more families with elderly people and new family types (cohabitees, single-parent families, blended families), while families with small children are in the minority. The network of interfamily solidarity has narrowed, generating new systems of obligation whose nature and durability cannot be assessed for the time being (Di Nicola 2008). From the perspective of families, aspects such as the reduction in the purchasing power of wages and salaries, the demographic crisis, the drop in the marriage rate, the decrease in average family size, the increase in the poverty risk among families with a single income earner - of which there are many, also with a female head of family - and the fall in self-sufficiency show that the family is now more of a risk factor than a protective factor in the life trajectories of social actors. It is therefore necessary to implement social policies aimed not so much at remedial action as identifying new strategies for re-establishing an adequate trade-off between state, market and family3.

The aim of this article is to assess whether the hypotheses of defamilialization - socializing and transferring the production of goods and services that the family still incorporates outside the family - can constitute a strategy to stem family poverty and the demographic crisis. While aware of the complexity of a radical redefinition of the relationship between state, market and family, attention will be focused on the single aspect of defamilialization, because in addition to its apparent simplicity and linear nature, it touches the very heart of the family: the fact that it is still the centre of reproduction (Di Nicola 2011) and, above all, the subject that dispenses 'care'. Care is meant not only in the physical sense, but also in terms of the attention, consideration and concern that form the basis of the processes of individualization and the formation of self-confidence in modern times.

The article aims to assess to what extent it is possible to defamilialize the family, or how far and under what conditions care work4 can be socialized without transforming the family into cohabiting adults who have nothing in common apart from sharing the payment of bills and rent.

In order to achieve this objective, a presentation of the ideas and arguments of Esping-Andersen - who can be considered the theorist of defamilialization - will be followed by in-depth analysis of the concept of care in the light of the broader category of 'recognition'. …

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