Home and Hegemony: Domestic Service and Identity Politics in South and Southeast Asia

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In the intimate context of domestic service, power relations take on one of their most personalized forms. Domestic servants and their employers must formulate their political identities in relationship to each other, sometimes reinforcing and sometimes challenging broader social hierarchies such as those based on class, caste or rank, gender, race and ethnicity, nationality, sexual orientation, and kinship relations.

This pathbreaking collection builds on recent examinations of identity in the postcolonial states of South and Southeast Asia by investigating the ways in which domestic workers and their employers come to know and depict one another and themselves through their interactions inside and outside of the home. This setting provides a particularly apt arena for examining the daily negotiations of power and hegemony.

Contributors to the volume, all anthropologists, provide rich ethnographic analyses that avoid a narrow focus on either workers or employers. Rather, they examine systems of power through specific topics that range from the notion of "nurture for sale" to the roles of morality and humor in the negotiation of hierarchy and the dilemmas faced by foreign employers who find themselves in life-and-death dependence on their servants.

With its provocative theoretical and ethnographic contributions to current debates, this collection will be of interest to scholars in Asian studies, women's studies, anthropology, sociology, and cultural studies.

Kathleen M. Adams is Associate Professor of Anthropology, Loyola University of Chicago. Sara Dickey is Associate Professor of Anthropology, Bowdoin College.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780472111060
  • Publisher: University of Michigan Press
  • Publication date: 3/20/2000
  • Pages: 320
  • Product dimensions: 6.38 (w) x 9.39 (h) x 1.23 (d)

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Home and Hegemony: Domestic Service and Identity Politics in South and Southeast Asia


By Sara Dickey

University of Michigan Press

Copyright © 2000 Sara Dickey
All right reserved.

ISBN: 047211106X

Sara Dickey and Kathleen M. Adams

INTRODUCTION

Negotiating Homes, Hegemonies, Identities, and Politics

This is the difference between rich and poor people. Only if we work can we have kanji [rice water]. But they could eat meat and rice even if they stay at home for two to ten days. .. . If we don't have work, we couldn't have even kanji to drink. That's the difference between rich and poor people. (Vasanthi, a domestic worker in Tamil Nadu, India; cited in Dickey, this volume)

If we still have the . . . feelings of a true Filipino, let us join hands to prove to the whole world that Filipino maids still have moral values though how lowly we are in this foreign land. (Oly Rueda 1992, 16, Filipina domestic worker in Hong Kong; cited in Constable, this volume)

These days you can't depend on helpers. Food and a roof are no longer enough for them. They are all taking off to go to school or demanding more wages . . . things were different in the old days. We had lots of slaves around the house-whole families who were loyal and understood their place. Back then they wouldn't dare sit on chairs to watch TV- they knew their place was on the floor. Today they are so brazen. (Indo Rura, an employer in the highlands of Sulawesi, Indonesia; cited in Adams, this volume) [My maid] said to me, "The same blood runs through my veins as yours." I said to her, "If I said the same blood runs through my veins as [the Prime Minister's] everyone would just laugh at me." My idea of socialism is to feed the workers so they will work well. Their idea is to live like us. .. . They want to live like us but they can't. It's . . . something about a person. (Sita, an employer in Tamil Nadu, India; cited in Tolen, this volume)

These commentaries invite us to recognize the efforts of both domestic workers and employers to create opposing identities out of their experiences with one another. Here, a south Indian domestic worker critiques the class basis of difference that creates hardship for her and privilege for her employers. A Filipina domestic worker in Hong Kong struggles to prove her morality to a skeptical audience, deploying native and adopted images of femininity to demonstrate Filipina workers' righteousness. For their parts, Sulawesi and south Indian householders argue that they are exploited by their servants. Perceiving workers' claims to status as diminishing their own standing, these employers reinforce their superiority by making claims of inherent difference. These commentaries produce relational images of identity-notions of self and other that are constructed in relation and opposition to one another within hegemonic social systems. Such identities are necessarily fluid, positioned, and contingent (cf. Alonso 1994; Butler 1995). Like the relationships that give rise to them, they are also continuously negotiated and constructed in tandem through "we-they" contrasts. Systems of power cannot be understood as systems, we argue, unless we include multiple and simultaneous points of view.

Given such a perspective, examining the interactive processes of identity requires spotlighting multiple hegemonic positions, something few ethnographic studies have endeavored. Domestic service provides a particularly apt arena for this enterprise. Unlike most other types of labor, the work takes place in the employer's home, and relationships between domestic workers and employers are developed at close range, creating a more intense dynamic of self-other contrast than is found in most work settings. As a form of labor, domestic service is household work carried out by someone who is remunerated by wages or in-kind payment; the most common tasks include cooking, washing dishes, doing laundry, cleaning and dusting household surfaces, caring for children, and tending to animals. As a social setting, domestic service is a highly personalized and often contested arena in which many inequalities are brought to bear, including nationality, race, ethnicity, class, gender, and/or sexuality, among others. Unfortunately, the majority of previous work on domestic service has focused separately on either workers or employers. In contrast, most of the authors here take advantage of the possibilities afforded by the close contact of domestic service, and they address the experiences and interactions of both workers and employers. We have found that examining domestic service relationships allows a focus on the mutual constructions of identity, and especially their reliance on the process of differentiating self and other.

Literature about domestic service in societies around the world suggests that similar tensions appear widely because of the combination of an intimacy based on the worker's closeness to the family and a distance based on class and other hierarchies, hierarchies that are reproduced through the work and must be maintained in the home (e.g., Gill 1994; Hansen 1989; Rollins 1985; Romero 1992). It is important to note the power of domestic service in constructing such hierarchies and the identities associated with them. Domestic service not only reproduces preexisting inequalities; it may also contribute directly to the creation of inequalities, due to the stigma frequently associated with paid household work. Rollins makes this point powerfully:

An employer passing on her dirty work to a woman who is also lower class, often of a subordinate racial/ethnic group, a woman who is asked to demonstrate various kinds of inferiority, further allows the employer to devalue the person of the worker. This overall "inferiority" of the household worker (an inferiority which is, in fact, created by the employer) not only justifies paying her low wages. More important, it suggests to the employer and her family that entire categories of people (the lower classes, people of color, etc.) may indeed be inferior. And if that is true, a social structure that maintains such people at a disadvantage may be a justifiable and legitimate structure. (Rollins 1990, 85)


Domestic service exhibits similar structural and logistical features across a wide variety of cultures. Nonetheless, the intricate details of power and inequality remain rooted in local circumstances, as the particularities of hierarchy are always culturally constructed (Colen and Sanjek 1990b, 177). Recent studies by anthropologists, sociologists, and historians have begun to suggest ways in which identities are influenced by locally determined hierarchies in combination with the intensely personal interactions of domestic service. Cooke (1990), for example, argues that Nyishang employers in Nepal use the knowledge they gain of their Tibetan and other non-Nyishang servants to help produce their own ethnic identities; while Colen and Sanjek (1990a, 8) point out that the associations of African-American women and of Chinese-American and Japanese-American men with domestic service in popular media have helped "to build racist stereotypes" in the United States. (For other work on race and ethnicity in domestic service, see, e.g., Cock 1980; Colen 1990; Gill 1994; Glenn 1986; Rollins 1985; Romero 1992; Tucker 1988.) Similar points have been made about domestic service and the construction of gender (Bujra 1992; Bunster and Chaney 1985; Chaney and García Castro 1989; Cock 1980; Gill 1994; Hansen 1989, 1990; Tucker 1988; Watson 1991), caste (Tellis-Nayak 1983), and class (Dickey forthcoming). Other ways in which domestic service contributes to hierarchies and identities have been noted as well. Constable, for example, argues that Hong Kong residents' nostalgic glorification of Cantonese amahs, when contrasted with stereotypes of Filipina workers "as loud, aggressive, boisterous, and brash," helps to address fears about reunification with China by invoking "a time and place-well away from Communist China-where there was no guilt about wealth, power, or class differences" (1997, 58). In a different vein, numerous authors have pointed out the crucial symbolic roles that domestic workers play in signaling the class standing of employers (e.g., Constable 1997, 96; Dickey forthcoming; Gill 1994). We build on this work by taking the interactive construction of identity and hegemony as our primary focus.

As these and other studies demonstrate, domestic service is hardly a new phenomenon. In Asia, James L. Watson's (1980) landmark exploration of systems of slavery shows us that markets in slaves and servants predate global capitalist economies. Others have documented colonialists' common practices of hiring local servants (Hansen 1989, 1990; Stoler 1985, 1995, 1996). However, as Louise Tilly (1978) and others have observed, industrialization, transnational capitalism, and the global economy have dramatically accelerated the expansion of the domestic worker phenomenon. Specific figures are difficult to obtain, given the frequently "casual" and unorganized nature of this private sector work, as well as the often undocumented status of migrant domestic workers. The numbers, however, are large and ever growing. There are, for example, more than a million and a half overseas Filipino contract workers (Constable 1997, 20), many of whom are employed as domestic workers. And, at this writing, as the Indonesian rupia spirals downward and unemployment soars, thousands of Indonesians are desperately seeking jobs in households in Singapore, Malaysia, Australia, and elsewhere. In short, domestic work is part and parcel of the global political economy. Like Colen and Sanjek (1990b), Hansen(1990), Constable (1997), and others, we wish to underscore the importance of viewing household work "historically, locally, and contextually within a capitalist world system" (Colen and Sanjek 1990b, 177). As many of the essays in this volume demonstrate, flows of capital, economic and political shifts, and transformations in the global economy spark migration and emigration and have multiple reverberations on the conditions of domestic work.

The authors of this volume are part of this transnational flow, taking part in both the colonial legacy of anthropology and in contemporary political and economic relations within and between nations. In addition to observing the processes of identity negotiation in domestic service, we have also participated in them directly. While some of us set out to conduct field research on domestic service, others became interested when we entered or formed field-site households that employed domestic workers. For all of us, this experience of negotiating unfamiliar household hierarchies has prompted troubling questions about our own identities and uneven relations with those whose worlds we step into and attempt to chronicle. As outsiders in local households we shared a liminal status with the domestic workers whose toil made our fieldwork lives so much more comfortable. And yet, as comparatively wealthy, educated, and privileged guests or heads of households, we were forced continually to recognize our own undeniably powerful positions in the hierarchies of these households. For a number of us reared to embrace the feminist or humanitarian rhetoric of equality (a rhetoric that is at the core of our disciplines), our daily interactions with domestic workers in our temporary fieldwork homes raised troubling awarenesses of the ways in which intersecting hierarchies of class, race, age, and gender color our own attempts at cultural understanding. As researchers and as individuals we were intimately and undeniably complicit in these hierarchies of the home, and our complex positions within them are apparent in our writing.

Most fieldworkers, in anthropology and other disciplines, have viewed the so-called public world outside their domestic space as the "real" research arena, and their private home space as a neutral, and intellectually uninteresting, launching pad for the rest. By contrast, we take the domestic as our focus and examine private and personal space as not only our own but others' workspace. As Colen and Sanjek point out, studies of domestic service "force us to acknowledge . . . that, worldwide, millions of homes are workplaces, and millions of workplaces are homes" (1990b, 179). The public/ private distinction may not be relevant in all the societies we work in; and it is problematic in domestic service in any case since, as Gill similarly notes, "the private sphere of the employer is the public sphere of the employee" (1994, 9). Yet it is certainly embraced in most of our home societies and has been reproduced in most ethnographic work. In devoting attention to our own fieldwork homes, we problematize this classic dichotomy.

THE SOUTH AND SOUTHEAST ASIAN CONTEXT

This volume provides the first extensive documentation of domestic service in South and Southeast Asia. Although much material has been published on domestic service elsewhere in the world (particularly regarding Europe and the Americas, with a significant concentration on southern Africa as well), such studies on Asia are almost nonexistent (Colen and Sanjek 1990b, 194). With some notable exceptions (including Armstrong 1990, 1996; Brandewie 1973; Constable 1997; Cooke 1990; Dias and Weerakoon-Gunawardene 1991; Margold 1995; Robinson 1991; Tellis-Nayak 1983), domestic work has been a largely overlooked topic of inquiry in South and Southeast Asia.

Examining these two regions together may initially strike some readers as perplexing, given the classic Euramerican academic categorization of and division between the two regions. There is, however, a long and richly documented history of ties and movements of peoples between South and Southeast Asia, including expressive traditions, internal colonizations and migrations, shared experiences of European colonialism, and parallels in social and economic developmental projects (cf. Flueckiger and Sears 1991; Hall and Whitmore 1976). Moreover, the historic linkages between these two regions have intensified in the contemporary era of globalized economies. These on-the-ground linkages across "regional" boundaries often make such boundaries appear contrived at best, and we have found it more illuminating to view this area as a whole.

While it is not our intention to conflate the experiences of rural Torajans with urban Filipinos or migrant Sri Lankans, the postcolonial world has fostered new intersections of different "locales" with one another. In the nations of Asia, satellite dish television, films, international religious organizations, political alliances such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and transnational worker agencies offer new, broader frameworks for reflecting on home and work and for imagining new possibilities and new identities elsewhere (cf. Appadurai 1991). Today's rural Torajan domestic "helpers" watch Brady Bunch reruns and imagine migrating to urban areas so that they too can enjoy the ease with which the servant Alice whips through her tasks, thanks to dishwashers and vacuum cleaners. Large numbers of Muslim Indonesian domestic workers are drawn to Malaysia and the Middle East, in part as a result of the growing emphasis on their shared identities as Malays or as Muslims. Indian professionals move to Singapore and Malaysia for career opportunities and find they must deal with new markets, kitchens, and domestic service practices. In short, the postcolonial world has greatly transformed the nature and meaning of domestic work in South and Southeast Asia. We hope that the questions raised by this volume will prompt further research in this neglected area.

HEGEMONIES AND HOMES

The concept of hegemony is a useful starting point for unraveling the complex negotiations of identity and power that take place in domestic service. We approach hegemony, which Roseberry describes as "a problematic, contested political process of domination and struggle" (1994, 358), both holistically and processually. Our view is holistic in that we see hegemony as constructed by all who take part, rather than imposed by the holders of a dominant ideology that accounts either entirely or in part for the ideologies of other social groupings in any straightforward way. Furthermore, we see hegemony as inhering in everyday, informal, and often relatively inchoate aspects of living, as well as in formal and articulable ideological systems (Williams 1977, 109-110). The "relations of domination and submission" that comprise hegemony are, to use Williams's evocative phrase, "a saturation of the whole process of living" (Williams 1977, 110). In addition, our approach emphasizes process by recognizing hegemony as continuously remade through interaction and negotiation. As Gramsci (1957) maintained, hegemony entails both coercion and consent and requires frequent rejuvenation, fortification, and modification.

Just as our approach implies avoidance of simplistic and unilateral notions of domination and subordination, it also lacks frequent reference to subaltern resistance or accommodation, especially the reactive, unambivalent, romanticized, or "thin" senses of these terms (cf. Abu-Lughod 1990; Brown 1996; Ortner 1995). Rather, we examine hegemonies and their multiple hierarchies as constantly negotiated (a process we discuss in the following), and originating from multiple sides. Similarly, we see multiple vulnerabilities and dependencies, axes of opposition, and contestations of representations on all sides. The cases presented in this collection convey a sense of the fragility of hegemonies, and, as Karen Tranberg Hansen notes so aptly in her concluding essay, of their ambiguities.

Where does the construction of hegemony occur? If it requires frequent remaking and alteration, where do these processes take place? Of the many social, cultural, and political sites in which hegemony is reproduced, we focus on one site that has received relatively little attention in this vein, the household. Having stated this, we must note two complications immediately. Because the household-or "home" more broadly constituted-that we examine is usually the employer's, the overall picture we produce is not symmetrical in its representation of sites. This is of course a reflection of the economic structures we are examining. And yet the picture is not quite so simple, nor so skewed. Although most of these essays examine employers' households, many of them also include other arenas. Several consider the impact of the practices and ideologies inculcated by domestic service on the homes of workers. Others examine arenas that are "public" but nonetheless part of, or directed to, the home. Thus the home as we understand it is not narrowly defined. It is rather a fairly problematic area, one that is often made more so by the fact of domestic service, and which often results in a kind of "borderzone" (Lavie and Swedenburg 1996). It is a symbolic and ideological sphere at least as much as a physical one.



Continues...

Excerpted from Home and Hegemony: Domestic Service and Identity Politics in South and Southeast Asia by Sara Dickey Copyright © 2000 by Sara Dickey. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Introduction: Negotiating Homes, Hegemonies, Identities, and Politics 1
Mutual Exclusions: Domestic Workers and Employers on Labor, Class, and Character in South India 31
Transfers of Knowledge and Privileged Spheres of Practice: Servants and Employers in a Madras Railway Colony 63
Service or Servitude? The Domestication of Household Labor in Nepal 87
Always Home, Never Home: Visayan "Helpers" and Identities 119
Inside the Home and Outside the Family: The Domestic Estrangement of Javanese Servants 137
Negotiated Identities: Humor, Kinship Rhetoric, and Mythologies of Servitude in South Sulawesi, Indonesia 157
Nurture for Sale: Sri Lankan Housemaids and the Work of Mothering 179
Dependents in the Master's House: When Rock Dulls Scissors 207
Dolls, T-Birds, and Ideal Workers: The Negotiation of Filipino Identity in Hong Kong 221
Gender, Islam, and Nationality: Indonesian Domestic Servants in the Middle East 249
Ambiguous Hegemonies: Identity Politics and Domestic Service 283
Contributors 293
Index 295
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