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So How’s the Family? and Other Essays, by Arlie Russell Hochschild

Stina Lyon on the personal and emotional costs of a global marketplace where everything’s for sale

In her many works on intimate life at home and at work, US sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild has made a major theoretical contribution to our understanding of the complexities of emotional relationships and their permanently shifting social contexts and definitions. This collection of 13 essays, which spans her career as a sociologist and a few of her collaborative projects, brings together many of Hochschild’s conceptual and analytical themes, such as “emotional labour”, “the outsourced self” and “the time bind”. These concepts, at the time of their introduction highly innovative, have gone on to become integral parts of sociological theorising. Via these brief, compassionate and often amusing summaries, the themes presented here add up to an attempt to predict what the future of commercialisation and globalisation holds for the development of our emotional lives.

Occasionally, Hochschild’s essays are blush-making, as one recognises one’s own moral blemishes in the sharply polished mirror she holds in front of us. Like Erving Goffman, she begins with the somewhat American premise that self-presentation is at the core of many of our emotional relationships, and she shares with C. Wright Mills the contention that one of the most important places to look for an understanding of “the social”, including emotional relationships, is at the intersection between “private troubles” and the ever-shifting “public issues” of the day. There are many moving examples here of the human stories to be found in a world where everything, including care for loved ones, can be bought or sold in a depersonalised marketplace in which love, affection, grief, anger and disappointment become interferences to be strategically managed when work pressures are high and money short. A well‑off, hard-working father feels less bad about his absence when he skypes his child every night. A poor female care worker employed overseas compensates for her absence from her own children with gifts and a monthly remittance for school fees. Both make efforts to recreate the right feeling in themselves and others. Both lose something in the process, as do the families they are part of. Not surprisingly, as Hochschild notes, it is Karl Marx who emerges as the most important theorist when it comes to offering explanations of why our self-presentations and the management of our emotional needs and performances are increasingly commodified as part of the very market whose pressures and exploitations we are trying to insulate ourselves against.

The ‘care chain’ is as destructive and exploitative of emotional geography as the global food chain is to environmental geography

The essays included here on the global migration of female care workers stand out as sociologically the most powerful, partly because they are also about the intended and unintended consequences of seemingly rational economic behaviour. Here we leave the Goffmanesque world of sad attempts at self-presentational enhancements in a commercially competitive world and enter the world of those whose only means of improving their meagre living, or escaping violence and political unrest, is to provide such care services. The fact that, in so doing, they pay their own personal emotional price by leaving their own children and families in the care of others makes this “care chain” as destructive and exploitative of emotional geography as the global food chain is to environmental geography.

The sheer size of this mass migration of care workers from poor areas to richer ones is staggering and well documented here. As Hochschild describes it, Marx’s iconic male, stationary industrial worker has been replaced by a new icon: the female mobile service worker, travelling in migratory streams from Eastern to Western Europe, Central and South America to the US, the Philippines to the rest of the world, Africa to Europe and South Asia to the Gulf region. On the economically positive side, much of what they earn is transferred back to their home countries (such transfers reach about 10 per cent of the world’s population), but on the negative side much of it is spent on immediate poverty reduction and school fees, rather than on investment conducive to job creation. In the absence of government-supported welfare measures for housing, childcare, education and old age – less likely than ever given a deregulated free market model in which taxes are viewed as impediments to growth – care work abroad becomes a stopgap measure only. It also comes at considerable cost, given the emotional labour involved in maintaining relationships with those the worker is paid to care for and with those she has left at home in the care of others.

Parallel to this migration of workers to richer locations is the trend in the opposite direction of medical and care “tourism” to countries offering cheaper private services (in India, this is second only to internet services as a source of national revenue). And, doubtless because of its sensitive personal and emotional complexity, the type of service to which Hochschild devotes most space in this collection is that of commercial surrogacy and other assisted reproductive techniques. These are not the baby-making “handmaids” of a top-down totalitarian regime, but individuals freely offering their services in a market in which babies have become desired objects, commodified and given a price in a virtual mall where we are all free to shop around for the cheapest goods. Everyone profits in this exchange – or so we think. The emotional cost is not shared equally by all, and as Hochschild concludes in her summary of recent cross-national evidence, such inequalities in themselves carry a cost to nations in search of both growth and social harmony, whether they are overall classified as rich or poor.

One does not have to share Hochschild’s rather idealised premise that the family, whatever form it may take – heterosexual or gay, married or unmarried, with or without children – is our most precious and mutually powerful form of emotional commitment, or her belief that it is through emotion and socially located “emotion maps” that we come to know the world, to grasp the tragedy of what happens to care when it gets detached from what it means to be human and turns into a poorly paid, low-status and time-stressed service job. The joys of babies, however conceived, may remain as an emotion guiding our care for them. Teenagers and young adults, a group that does not figure much in these essays, are less lovable, however, cost more money and have fewer jobs to go to, and they will have to invent new ways of creating an “emotional commons” of shared empathy and mutual care, both with each other and those they will have to care for. In a world rapidly starved of public services and parental time, they will face a Sisyphean struggle and a lot of damage on the way.

Both the title of this collection, taken from one of the essays inside, and the child’s drawing on the cover are rather misleading in that they make the book appear more gendered in favour of a female readership than it is. What happens to women, children and families also happens to men, and how and why it happens is largely dependent on them as corporate and hedge fund managers, bankers and politicians. For commercial reasons, one assumes, there is in social science, as in literature, a tendency to gender-stratify the readership to the detriment of the quality and evidence base of socially and economically important national debates. A future topic for a Hochschild analysis, perhaps?

The author

Author Arlie Russell Hochschild

“What’s really animated my recent research has been the triumph of the market over so much else in life,” says Arlie Russell Hochschild. “Whatever problem I’m trying to figure out, I try to keep a close eye on people’s emotions.”

Described by Barbara Ehrenreich as “one of the great, even iconic, social thinkers of our time”, Hochschild’s recent retirement from a chair in sociology at the University of California, Berkeley has not affected her work rate. “It’s just too much fun being in the field,” she recently told The Swarthmore Bulletin. She and her husband Adam Hochschild “both feel that. We get a kick out of it, and we’re just so lucky.”

Hochschild’s books The Second Shift, The Managed Heart, The Outsourced Self and The Time Bind bear the names of her own concepts, and their passing into common parlance attests to the profound impact of her work. She aims, she says, to take readers on an intellectual journey. “I say, ‘Look at this problem with me – figure out how you feel about it with me; turn it around from all sides with me on this journey. Let’s explore’…I say, look, ‘I’m outsourcing, too. I’m there with you.’ ”

The child of diplomats, she and her family spent two years in Israel starting when she was 12. Far taller than her schoolmates and speaking no Hebrew, she found it “the worst and the very best thing that ever happened to me, because I just had to realise that my road was a tiny one and this was a bigger world, and I didn’t fit into it. It was such a privilege to be exposed to so many different ways of living, and it really made you question your own.”

The Hochschilds now reside in Berkeley after many years in San Francisco. They met at a Quaker work camp in New York City when she was 17 and he was 20. Although they are not Quakers, Hochschild told the Bulletin that they are “Quakerish. We like the ethic, the spirit”.

Karen Shook

So How’s the Family? and Other Essays

By Arlie Russell Hochschild
University of California Press, 264pp, £44.95 and £19.95
ISBN 9780520272279, 72286 and 9780520956780 (e-book)
Published 30 September 2013

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