Jan Newberry: Restating the case: The social reproduction of care labor

Ever felt like the best conversation at the party is happening in the next room? When I did my field research in an urban neighborhood in Java some twenty years ago, it was at a time when we were “bringing the state back in” (Evans et al. 1985). I was deeply influenced by Philip Abrams’s “Notes on the Difficulty of Studying the State” ([1977] 1988) Corrigan and Sayer’s The Great Arch: English State Formation as Cultural Revolution (1985), and Everyday Forms of State Formation: Revolution and the Negotiation of Rule in Rural Mexico (Joseph and Nugent 1994) through my supervisor, the late Daniel Nugent. In my own work, I found “everyday forms of state formation” to be more than a great title; it provided a perspective on understanding how relations of production (and crucially reproduction) were entangled with culture, community, and forms of rule.

My conceptual toolkit included not only theories of the state but also revolution, the peasantry, gender, and the everyday. It was the ’80s, and Eric Wolf’s Europe and the People without History (1985) and Geertz’s The Interpretation of Cultures (1973) seemed to offer competing pathways forward. Foucauldian analysis was just making its way through anthropology, but for those of us influenced by work on peasants and the mode of production literature, attention to culture dovetailed with a reworking of ideology as a theoretical project (Roseberry 1989). More than Althusser or Gramsci, Raymond Williams’s structure of feeling (1961) provided a way to understand the slow emergence through practical engagement of cultural forms of consensus, dissent, collaboration, and refusal among poor people in the lower-class neighborhood where I was working. At the time, historical sociology and social history were being combined with popular culture and subaltern studies to highlight the role of culture as a process of making common sense—something that made good sense to me!

My own work focused on the gendered dimensions of reproductive work reinforced both by a local culture of community exchange and by state forms that harnessed women’s unpaid and volunteered labor to support an army of reserved labor. Using Polanyi (1944) and Halperin (1990), my early work explored the role of the domestic community in supporting Indonesia’s comparative advantage in low-waged labor and the delivery of social welfare for little or no cost. Householding, Polanyi’s frequently overlooked form of exchange, proved tremendously useful when expanded to the community form as the basis for social reproduction (Newberry 2006, 2007, 2008).

The strength of this approach was that it connected the scale of family and household life with global accumulation. Yet the conversation ended, or at least it shifted to another room. I remember that like-minded Marxist-inspired scholars scratched our heads about what happened to our favorite argument. In hindsight, of course, there were signs. First, the overly typological approach of some of the articulation literature seemed to deny the messy practices of everyday making do. A certain deafness about forms of social difference and, frankly, the masculinist devotion to competing over whose theory was more muscular encouraged many anthropologists to look in the other direction. Some blame Geertz’s hermeneutics or the rise of scholarship on identity as modernity itself became subject to inquiry. But why should we see this as subtracting from theoretical possibilities? Certainly, work on everyday cultures informed by social history welcomed attention to interpretation and social inequality beyond class, perhaps especially gender.

No, for me, the real suspect here was the wave of Foucault-inspired work on governmentality beginning in the 1990s that focused so strongly on modes of disciplinary knowledge at the expense of modes of production. For me, the move away from the state as a relation of production and a point of articulation between local community and global capital was a problem. It also signaled the end of a productive line of reasoning.

So I welcomed the American Anthropological Association (AAA) panel organized by Patrick Neveling and Joe Trapido as a way to pick up the conversation. Its appearance marks again several shifts in the world and scholarship. The attempt to understand global care labor has led many scholars back to unresolved questions of domestic labor and social reproduction. With this preface then, here is a shortened version of my own AAA paper offered to a different panel and drawn from a piece that appeared in TRaNS: Trans-Regional and -National Studies of Southeast Asia (2014).

More than a decade after my initial fieldwork in a Javanese kampung neighborhood in the city of Yogyakarta in 1992 and 1993, I sat on the deep tiled porch of my old neighbor’s house with Ibu Sita. I had known her for many years. She had long been an active kader (the Indonesian term for cadre) in the national housewives’ association, Pembinaan Kesejahateraan Keluarga (often translated as the Family Welfare Movement) known by its acronym, PKK. As Ibu Sita lounged in the late afternoon heat, stretching her long legs to seek the coolness of the tiles, I asked her about the new programs appearing for early childhood education—pendidikan anak usia dini, or PAUD as it was called locally. I wondered whether one of these government-mandated programs for children before formal school age would be started in this lower-class neighborhood. She replied that they were negotiating with the government about that at the moment.

Negotiations between these woman-centered neighborhood organizations and the government marked an astonishing turn for Indonesia. In earlier fieldwork, I had observed how local women were organized to deliver community welfare under President Suharto’s New Order (1966–98), and under that authoritarian regime, negotiation had not been part of that process. Rather, women’s labor was assumed to be “volunteered” based on a state-sponsored model of domesticity and community organization. But Ibu Sita was speaking about negotiation in 2006, nearly a decade after the end of Suharto’s regime and the beginning of democratic reforms or Reformasi. Indonesia had decentralized toward regional autonomy, not least because of the heavy impact of the 1997 Asian financial crisis. Yet the structure for offering these public early childhood programs was the same one used by Suharto for national development.

A Suharto era billboard in PLACE depicting a “good woman,” who looks very much like Suharto’s wife, Siti Hartinah Suharto (Photo: Jan Newberry, 1992, Yogyakarta)

A Suharto era billboard in PLACE depicting a “good woman,” who looks very much like Suharto’s wife, Siti Hartinah Suharto (Photo: Jan Newberry, 1992, Yogyakarta)

How does one explain the stability and continuity in the use of women’s “volunteered” labor in their own communities to provide social welfare, now in aid of programs for the young child? Certainly, this continuity was susceptible to analysis as a form of governmentality, as local women took up the management of the welfare of the local population, thereby rendering the problem as a technical rather than a political one. Such forms of embodied self-rule have been subject to prolonged scholarly scrutiny in recent years, and they accord nicely with the Foucauldian analysis of modernity as rule distributed through the self-management of the population itself. And yet, as early childhood became a now focus for development in Indonesia and women’s community welfare labor was called upon once again in the age of neoliberal democratization, this analysis seems increasingly inadequate for capturing the historical continuities and discontinuities.

Instead, an older scholarship on the domestic community, its role in social reproduction, and its shaping by global accumulation seems remarkably powerful again, even as it dovetails with more recent work on networks of global care labor (Parreñas 2001). Ultimately, naturalizing women’s care labor for early childhood programming provokes questions about the awkward relationship between children and women in development. By foregrounding social reproduction here, this awkward relationship becomes a productive way to consider the limits of governmentality as a paradigm and to reconsider the value of the domestic community to understand the reorganization of development and social welfare in the early twenty-first century.

A brief reprise of the argument regarding the domestic community and its role in the social reproduction of labor is helpful. In early work (Newberry 2006, 2007), I had looked to Claude Meillassoux’s 1975 analysis of how African communities provided for the reproduction of migrant labor to France through long-distance articulation with the rural community form. Cheap labor was subsidized in the “modern” core while the “traditional” community form was simultaneously reproduced. Mamdani (1996) describes the “community,” understood as having traditional social relations, as a feature of postcolonial development. Here, I argue that these approaches are relevant again because they help us to understand how “community” as a traditional social form, used to endorse and conscript women’s domestic labor for nationalist development, is used again to “volunteer” their labor for early childhood programs now in the era of democratic reform.

A Suharto era manual for women issued by the Pembinaan Kesejahateraan Keluarga—Indonesian with English translation (Mimeograph: PKK TIM Penggeerak Pusat, 1987)

A Suharto era manual for women issued by the Pembinaan Kesejahateraan Keluarga—Indonesian with English translation (Mimeograph: PKK TIM Penggeerak Pusat, 1987)

My argument about domestic community draws on Karl Polanyi and Rhoda Halperin to understand household-based production as mediating between the market and the informal sector to subsidize labor that is informal and precarious. Using feminist scholarship on social reproduction, I identified how lower-class, urban communities in Indonesia serve as this point of mediation (Newberry 2006). That is to say, it is the stability of the community understood as a community that underwrites the precarity of flexible labor. Here I consider the effects of this labor for early childhood programs in Yogyakarta.

Beginning since the turn of this century, there has been tremendous growth in programming aimed at early childhood in Indonesia, fueled by intergovernmental priorities like the UNESCO Dakar Framework Education for All in 2000. This attention has been framed by the 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and rising global awareness of child soldiers, child labor, and child sex trafficking. In Indonesia, the push for early childhood education initiatives intensified after the transition to democratization and deepening neoliberalization of the economy. This push was reinforced by shrinking family size in Java, a growing middle class interested in Western-style educational achievement, and local educational and democracy activists. All these processes were strengthened by disaster capitalism when, not two years after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami devastated Sumatra, Central Java suffered the effects of a massive earthquake. The rapid networking of aid through global and local nongovernmental organizations demonstrated new networked forms of development moving in and around decentralized state structures. All of these elements were evident in the public roll-out of PAUD programs for lower-income communities in Yogya as a result of a World Bank push for programing aimed at the young child from 0 to 8 years of age.

Woman teaching arts and crafts in a PAUD program in Bantul (Photo: Jan Newberry, 2007)

Woman teaching arts and crafts in a PAUD program in Bantul (Photo: Jan Newberry, 2007)

These early childhood programs have produced a paradox, as the child is figured as an individual to be empowered—as against the women whose community care labor is required to provide the capabilities for that empowerment. As Molyneux (2006) notes for Peru, this has meant a kind of doubling down on women’s invisible care labor: “While much is said about the ‘individuation of the social’ in regards to neo-liberal policies, this does not apply to the women in these programmes who are per contra bound ever more securely to the family” (2006: 439). This paradox is illustrated in three recent shifts in development programming.

Razavi (2007) describes the idea of the social investment state as a reaction to the high neoliberalism of the 1980s and the move toward the Third Way neoliberalisms of the Clinton/Blair era. “Post-neoliberal” social investment is “centered on productive (or active) social welfare, which is understood to mean investments in human capital and in lifelong learning (especially in the capabilities and opportunities of children) and in employability programs” (2007: 29). In Indonesia, early childhood programs that include attention to brain development and infant care also emphasize informal learning beyond the classroom, including parent education.

This emphasis on human capital is also clear in empowerment approaches that are keyed to viewing women as liberal subjects rather than as passive victims. Sharma (2006) notes the curious dovetailing of women’s empowerment, democratization, and NGO-ization with the relieving of state responsibility for development, as this work is off-loaded to an unregulated, nonprofit sector. Empowerment, like the social investment state, reinforces what was already the case in Indonesia: unpaid local women are “empowered” to redistribute aid along with modes of governance into the lives of their neighbors, reproducing communities and surplus labor.

The final shift is evident in the creation of what Agrawal (2010) calls regulatory communities through community-based forestry management in India. Geographically closer to the Javanese case, Tania Li has described the Kecamatan (subdistrict) Development Program (KDP) in Sulawesi as a neoliberal approach to empowering communities and increasing social capital. The community form as development modality in Indonesia is inflected with all of the shifts described above. That is to say, it is explicitly meant to provide for social investment, to empower women and now children, and to decentralize power to regulatory communities. What continues to be so striking is that much of this is a perfectly fitting description of the housewives of PKK produced by the mid-twentieth-century bureaucratic authoritarian and modernizing Suharto regime and seemingly needed again now in the twenty-first century of flexible, democratic, and decentralized Indonesia for the needs of early childhood. And what remains as true now as it was in the 1990s: this is accomplished through everyday cultures of community.

I find myself in agreement with much of the governmentality work, but as I returned to thinking about the domestic community and the gendered dimensions of social reproduction, the missing elements of this analysis became more obvious. That this analysis worked for the high modernist developmentalism of Suharto’s New Order but also for the networked and flexible adaptations to neoliberal globalization more than a half century later should give us pause. The world has clearly changed; why does PKK continue to work as it does? One might argue that this is the genius of modern governmentality and the adaptability of its forms of self-regulation, but capital’s need for reproduction is consistently overlooked by this approach. Recent attention to regulatory communities neglects older work on the domestic community, which provides a compelling explanation for the continuity in this phenomenon and its gendered dimensions. In other words, it helps to explain how the empowerment of the child as an individual agent requires the tethering of women more tightly to the social form of the community.

By framing this issue as one of labor rather than of governmentality, our perspective shifts. And the role of precarity, particularly as regards care labor, comes to the fore. Perhaps paradoxically, this care labor, which I analyzed as householding, has been the stability that underwrites and produces precarity. While the benefits of precarity include the low cost wages that are produced when labor is informal, highly flexible, and, in some cases, extra-legal, its organization seems to depend on a process of rooting, institutionalizing, and deepening women’s community-based care labor, which is not divorced from their own work in the precarious informal sector.

Jan Newberry is Associate Professor of Anthropology and Director of the Institute for Child and Youth Studies at the University of Lethbridge.


Abrams, Philip. (1977) 1988. Notes on the difficulty of studying the state. Journal of Historical Sociology 1(1): 58–88.

Agrawal, Arun. 2010. Environment, community, government. In Ilana Feldman and Miriam Ticktin, eds., In the name of humanity: The government of threat and care, pp. 190–217. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Corrigan, Philip, and Derek Sayer. 1985. The great arch: English state formation as cultural revolution. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Evans, Peter B., Dietrich Rueschemeyer, and Theda Skocpol, eds. 1985. Bringing the state back in. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Geertz, Clifford. 1973. The interpretation of cultures. New York: Basic Books.

Halperin, Rhoda H. 1990. The livelihood of kin: Making ends meet “the Kentucky way.” Austin: University of Texas Press.

Joseph, Gilbert M., and Daniel Nugent, eds. 1994. Everyday forms of state formation: Revolution and the negotiation of rule in modern Mexico. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Li, Tania Murray. 2007. The will to improve: Governmentality, development, and the practice of politics. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Mamdani, Mahmood. 1996. Citizen and subject: Contemporary Africa and the legacy of late colonialism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Meillassoux, Claude. 1981. Maidens, meal and money: Capitalism and the domestic community. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. French edition published 1975.

Molyneux, Maxine. 2006. Mothers at the service of the new poverty agenda: Progresa/Oportunidades, Mexico’s conditional transfer programme. Social Policy & Administration 40(4): 425–449.

Newberry, Jan. 2006. Back door Java: State formation and the domestic in working class Java. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Newberry, Jan. 2007. Rituals of rule in the administered community: The Javanese slametan reconsidered. Modern Asian Studies 11(6): 1295–1330.

Newberry, Jan. 2008. Double spaced: Abstract labour in urban kampung. Anthropologica 50(2): 241–254.

Newberry, Jan. 2014. Women and children first: Networked care and the re-emergence of the domestic community. TRaNS: Trans-Regional and -National Studies of Southeast Asia 2(2): 271–291.

Parreñas, Rhacel Salazar. 2001. Servants of globalization: Women, migration and domestic work. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

PKK TIM Penggeerak Pusat. 1987. Peranan Ibu Rumah Tangga dalam Penyehatan Lingkungan. Mimeograph. Jakarta: Pembinnaan Kesejahateraan Keluarga.

Polanyi, Karl. 1944. The great transformation: The political and economic origins of our time. New York: Rinehart.

Razavi, Shahra. 2007. The political and social economy of care in a development context: Conceptual issues, research questions and policy options. Gender and Development Programme Paper No. 3. Geneva: United Nations Research Institute for Social Development.

Roseberry, William. 1989. Anthropologies and histories: Essays in culture, history and political economy. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.

Sharma, Aradhana. 2006. Crossbreeding institutions, breeding struggle: Women’s empowerment, neoliberal governmentality, and state (re)formation in India. Cultural Anthropology 21: 60–95.

Williams, Raymond. 1961. The long revolution: An analysis of the democratic, industrial, and cultural changes transforming our society. New York: Columbia University Press.

Wolf, Eric R. 1982. Europe and the people without history. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Cite as: Newberry, Jan. 2015. “Restating the case: The social reproduction of care labor.” FocaalBlog, 25 November. www.focaalblog.com/2015/11/25/jan-newberry-restating-the-case-the-social-reproduction-of-care-labor.