ILR Press

Domestic Work in Ecuador

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Ahead of #ASA2020, We asked author Erynn Masi de Casanova three questions about her new book Dust and Dignity: Domestic Employment in Contemporary Ecuador, and her research on the exploitation of domestic work in Ecuador.

1. What’s your favorite anecdote from your research for this book?

The most memorable part of the research was the training for my partners in Ecuador. To design the study and collect the data, I worked together with members from Ecuador’s pioneer domestic worker organization. We decided to begin with a crash course in social science research methods, including discussions of data collection techniques and ethics. The women, nearly all of whom were current or former domestic workers, connected immediately to the ethical demands of research. They understood in a deep way the power that a researcher holds in interactions with research participants, and the responsibilities that they assumed when collecting data from socially marginalized people. Whereas I sometimes have to explain this unequal power dynamic to my students in the U.S., these activist-researchers just got it right away.

There was a moment when we were designing survey questions to collect demographic information on the participants, and a debate erupted about race and ethnicity. Ecuador has a complicated racial stratification system, and there are incentives for Ecuadorians to identify as mestizo (racially mixed) or white rather than Black or Indigenous, for example. Asking someone about their racial identification can be perceived as insulting, as some members of our research team argued. Others pointed out that the census now collects information on race, so if we just used the same categories as the census, no one could be offended. In the end, we decided to leave out the question. But in a later study, we did include a race question, and not surprisingly, received responses that were confused, comical, or hostile. In thinking through this question together, I gained valuable insight into how ideas about race and ethnicity matter in domestic workers’ daily lives.

When it came time to practice verbally administering to each other the survey we had all designed together, it was very difficult to convince the organization members not to correct survey respondents or start talking about the organization or domestic workers’ rights in the middle of the survey. Collect your data first, I told them, and then after the interview you can give the participant a brochure and tell them about their rights. They are used to raising awareness and providing information, so they went into that mode during the survey and had to train themselves to wait and do that at the end.

I loved working with members of the community I studied to create research projects whose findings they could use to advocate for domestic workers’ rights. I learned about reciprocity and the value of participatory action research with vulnerable groups of workers.

2. What do you wish you had known when you started writing your book, that you know now?

I wish I had had the chance to read an amazing book by two brilliant Argentinian sociologists on domestic work in that country. The book was published after my book was already finished. It’s called ¿Cada Una en Su Lugar? Trabajo, género, y clase en el servicio doméstico [Each one in her place? Work, Gender, and Class in Domestic Service], by Débora Gorban and Ania Tizziani. Their findings overlap with mine in many ways, despite the vast social, political, and economic differences between Argentina and Ecuador. But it’s all good, because I see my book as the beginning of a conversation about domestic work in Latin America, not the last word… and I look forward to having that conversation with these and other scholars going forward.

3. How do you wish you could change your field?

I wish that there were more translations of academic publications by Latin American scholars available in English. For example, in studies of domestic work, there is one set of discussions happening in English and another in Spanish and Portuguese. Latin American scholars are expected to read and cite the books and articles that were originally published in English, but there is no reciprocal assumption that scholars working in English will consult texts in other languages. This is a problem, because the research coming out of Latin America is theoretically and empirically rich and has the potential to challenge some of the theories of domestic labor developed in the Global North. If we are serious about decolonizing the academy, people either need to learn more languages (I’m looking at you, US-based scholars), or we as an academic community need to get busy translating more works into English.

Erynn Masi de Casanova is Professor of Sociology at the University of Cincinnati. She is author of Making Up the Difference (available in Spanish as Vendiendo Belleza) and Buttoned Up. With Afshan Jafar, she co-edited the books Bodies without Borders and Global Beauty, Local Bodies. Follow her on Twitter @Prof_Casanova.

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