Veblenian Insights into the Feminist Contentions and Potential of Unpaid Domestic Work

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The paper explores how Thorstein Veblen's analysis can help articulate the problem that domestic arts have been associated with promoting gendered domesticity while at the same time have the potential to provide venues for cultivating non-commodified and non-invidious social relations.

The paper draws on Veblen 's articles "The Instinct of Workmanship and the Irksomeness of Labor" (1898); " The Beginnings of Ownership" (1998); ''The Barbarian Status of Women" (l 899), as well as his books: "The Theory of the Leisure Class" (1899) and "The Instinct of Workmanship and the State of Industrial Arts" (1914 ). All of these deal directly with the tension between commodification and preservation of non-invidious social relations. Veblen sees what has been constructed as "women's work" and " drudgery" as the basis of "workmanship" and the continuation of the life process. The problem is that these activities are not only associated with low status but also can be incorporated in "conspicuous leisure," "conspicuous consumption, " and "conspicuous waste" - processes based on invidious distinction.

Consequently, the issue of class as a necessary category of analysis emerges since domestic work is a complex category referring to chores of the mundane, enjoyable domestic crafts, and the hardships of paid domestic work. This means that there is a need to acknowledge that experiences of domestic work vary across women from different socio-economic positions. And specifically unpaid domestic work is not a neat category - both its invidious and transformative potentials ought to be acknowledged. The transformational potential of domestic arts then depends on the ways that these are cultivated - for the purpose of invidious distinction; or for the purpose of non-invidious recreation of community.

A major problem is that unpaid domestic work itself is based on commodity inputs, since it is part of the capitalist economy that is constantly engaged in expansion and seeks to enclose matters and relations that are outside of the market. Consequently, the transformative potential of domestic work is possible to the extent that non-invidious domestic arts are cultivated widely and in various sectors so that ever increasing non-commodity inputs for other non-market domestic work are provided. This necessitates the expansion of collective action around non-invidious means of organizing life. The question that the paper ends up opening is: does the ever prominent Post-Fordist precarization of labor, inhibit or help this process; does it enable or restrain such non-invidious collective action?


This paper was presented at the 8th Biennial International Interdisciplinary Conference Keele University, England, 24–26th June 2014.