Outsourcing the Family

Many thanks to Angel and all the folks at Concurring Opinions for inviting me to blog this month.  My first several posts will focus on my current project, and I’ll also be talking some about teaching and pedagogy later in the month.

In an on-line article entitled “Family Culture,” Oliver Demille laments the “outsourcing of our families.”  He’s got a point. Cultural references to the “outsourcing” of families roles and functions now abound, including things like outsourcing childbirth, wombs, and wives.

It turns out that outsourcing is a pretty good metaphor for the ways in which contemporary Americans divvy up traditional family roles, work, and responsibilities.  Thomas Friedman describes outsourcing this way: “taking some specific, but limited, function that your company was doing in-house . . . and having another company perform that exact same function for you and then reintegrating that work back into your overall operation.” Substitute a few words, and you have a pretty compelling description of how we outsource the family:  We take specific, limited functions that a family member traditionally would do, have another person perform that function, and then reintegrate that work back into our overall lives.

Traditional outsourcing has been justified as a way to increase efficiencies of labor, energy, and other resources, and it can do the same thing for families, allowing family members to pursue their “core competencies” – the work that they do best and that is not easily duplicated. But like overseas outsourcing, this domestic variety is controversial, and pits family traditionalists against those who see “globalization” of the family as inevitable, and even desirable. One family’s “efficiency” is seen by another as a gross distortion of family life and values.

What sorts of family functions do we outsource? It’s a long list, but I’ll offer a few examples here. We outsource motherhood to the extent it has traditionally been understood as taking care of children. We enlist others to help us in this work – daycares, preschools, nannies, and babysitters. We also outsource much of the work that spouses (mostly women) historically have done in the home: housekeeping, cooking, and other domestic chores, as well as what’s now known as “personal lifestyle assistance” (someone to plan your social calendar, pick up your dry cleaning, run your errands, pay your bills . . . you get the picture). And we outsource sex and reproduction. In addition to outsourcing sexual intimacy, we can now look to others to provide eggs, sperm, gestation, and breast milk. (I could go on.)

The law has more to do with this family outsourcing than you might think. It regulates the activities of outsourced workers to varying degrees. We might think, for example, of the labor regulations applicable (or not) to institutional childcare centers and domestic workers, the legal regulation of things like sperm and egg donation, or tax treatment of income associated with outsourcing work. These regulations can make outsourcing more or less attractive from the perspective of those performing the outsourced labor, and also serve an expressive function about the legitimacy of this work. The law also provides incentives and disincentives for outsourcing the family, just as the federal government and states have sought to do in response to the outsourcing of American jobs overseas. The law might offer, for example, tax benefits or other preferences for keeping family work within the family. In some instances, it prohibits outsourcing. And in others, perhaps surprisingly, the law even requires family outsourcing.

The outsourcing phenomenon raises a number of questions, which are the focus of my current research: What are the positive and negative consequences of outsourcing family goods and services? How does family outsourcing impact how we define “family” and family relationships, and how we function as family members? What are the race, class, and gender implications of the outsourcing trend? How does the law regulate outsourced work and how does it influence our choices whether to outsource? How should the law interact with domestic outsourcing?

There’s a lot here to excavate. My next several posts will focus on this summer’s project – “Outsourcing Motherhood.”

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3 Responses

  1. A.J. Sutter says:

    Family functions have long been “outsourced” — think of the domestic servants, wetnurses, governesses, et al. whom we know about from literature and history from many centuries. What seems critical is to consider the good ways and bad ways that current wave of outsourcing differs from these more traditional ones — e.g. more anonymity in the relationships. Also, to consider if there might be better values to promote than economistic ones such as efficiency; e.g., rather than promoting efficiency and individual “core competencies” is there some way to structure “family outsourcing” so that it enhances community, reciprocity and similar “soft” or collective values.

  2. Matt says:

    I’d agree w/ AJ that at least some of this is about new ways of doing old things, and that, in thinking about the issue, that should be one of our main reference points. If we (wrongly) assume this is all a new phenomena, we’ll get the wrong answers. I’d add two more points. First, many of the things mentioned above are largely elite phenomena, at least when done by professionals. (This is true of AJ’s list, too, I think.) I’m pretty sure that the vast majority of people don’t have nannies or house-keepers, let alone personal lifestyle assistants, and couldn’t have them even if they wanted them. The more common thing among people not in the elites would be to have family members do some of these tasks, though comparatively cheap (compared to a nanny or an au pair, I guess) day care is common enough, and prepared food (another aspect) is all over. So, I’d think that any discussion of this phenomena should keep in mind not only AJ’s point, but also that lots of this is an elite phenomena, and that even when there’s overlap, the elites are much more likely, I suspect, to use professionals as opposed to extended family members, and that this has probably long been true, too.

  3. David S. Cohen says:

    Interesting topic Meredith! To me, the term “outsourcing” implies some kind of natural state of affairs that is being deviated from. Thus, the only way we can say that anything is being “outsourced” is if there’s some method, say “insourcing,” that is being disrupted. But, is there such a state of affairs for family life? Isn’t the natural state of what a family is always being contested, always shifting, and always variable even within a particular culture at a particular point of time (along the lines of the end of Matt’s comment)? I assume you’ll deal with this with your posts/article, so I look forward to reading more!