Thursday, February 09, 2006

Secondary Dependency and the Nuclear Family

In my ethics class we are reading Love's Labor, by Eva Feder Kittay. Her central claim is that liberal notions of equality have not taken into account the importance of care for dependents in human society. At any time, a large portion of any society consists of children, the elderly, and the infirm, who cannot really be thought of as autonomous, rational, self interested individuals. They are entirely physically dependent on others and are often not competent decision makers. Not only does every society contain many dependents, but each individual at some point in her life is a dependent. Thus Kittay talks of “inevitable dependency”: dependency is truly something no theory of human society can ignore.

But the existence of dependency is not the core of Kittay's critique. She is really interested in a phenomenon she labels secondary dependency. The dependents require full time caregivers, whom Kittay calls “dependency workers,” to emphasize that what they do is labor. Dependency workers must themselves depend on third parties to meet their needs, since they are too occupied caring for the needs of another. The dependency worker thus acquires what Kittay calls “secondary dependency” on a person labeled “the provider.” Dependency workers are typically women and their work is typically unpaid, lying entirely outside of the monetary economy. This much is feminism 101. Kittay uses it, though, to mount a critique of Rawls and present what I would call a caring relationship theory of moral status.

Right now, though, I’m trying to evaluate her presuppositions. Her paradigm of a dependent, dependency worker, and provider is a child, stay at home mom and working father. She of course acknowledges that there are many other sorts of dependents and dependency workers. Another prominent trio these days is the elderly person, the paid, immigrant nursing home staff person, and the giant HMO who runs the home. But Kittay wants to see these as variations on the primary theme of child, unpaid mom, and paid dad.

I’m happy enough other current dependency relations as variations on the family theme, but I’m wondering how this applies to families over time. Kittay’s family is very much a nuclear family, which she describes as the “favored ‘social technology’” in societies where “economic productivity is concentrated outside the home” (43). Something is amiss here. The locus of economic productivity moved outside the home in the West over the course of the 19th century. For instance, around 1810 most stockings in England were still produced on small looms in cottages by families working together under a patriarch. By the end of the 1800s, all clothing was made in giant textile mills featuring enormous power looms. The Luddite movement was an attempt by the small family patriarchs to resist this industrial take-over.

But the nuclear family is of more recent vintage than the workplace that is separate from the home. The nuclear family was a product of the post war economic boom in the US, which for the first time meant that families could survive with a single outside breadwinner (Dad), and could afford to live in suburbs isolated from their extended family.

So I’m having trouble fitting Kittay’s model of dependency labor to any pre-fifties family. She doesn’t pretend to model early 19th century families who worked cottage industries, so that’s fine. But how do you understand the pre-Fifties extended family on this model? The family contains more than parents and children—it includes grandparents, uncles and aunts and cousins all in the immediate mutual support network. Both men and women are working outside the home, although men have more earning power and authority. It doesn’t seem as easy to talk about full time dependency workers and the secondary dependency they exhibit. This is important, because the pre-WWII situation is really the situation we are in now. Despite iconic status of the nuclear family, no one has the affluence to live that way. Economic necessity both requires women to work and requires deep reliance on the extended family.

So I’m wondering if Kittay’s starting place isn’t too rooted in fifties fantasies. Although she recognizes the injustices in those fantasies, she doesn’t seem to recognize how historically anomalous they are.

My question to you, the internet hivemind: do I have my history right, and am I right to think that this undermines Kittay’s model of dependency labor?

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