1.1. Why au pair research?
In this thesis, I study au pairs and the au pair scheme. As suggested above, these objects of study are less clear-cut than they may seem. The connecting point, ‘au pair’, is, in a sense, a fictitious term. It is not a category of women or workers that is clearly identifiable. It is partly a visa category and partly a label that the people
involved put on themselves, their employment relation or their migration, travel or living arrangement. Furthermore, au pairing is imagined as something temporary – a form of life-cycle service. The label, then, provides a peculiar structure to something that is sometimes a gap year, sometimes employment, sometimes a migration strategy but always some degree of domestic work. And although au pairing generally refers back to the 1969 agreement (Liarou, 2015), its meanings constantly shift. The au pair scheme appears, in other words, simultaneously self-explanatory and vague, and it is an interesting object of study for this reason.
This thesis sprang out of a larger umbrella project, ‘Buying and selling (gender) equality: Feminized migration and gender equality in contemporary Norway’
(BSGE Research Group, 2015). I described, above, the dilemma of foreign women performing paid domestic work and carework in a society that prides itself on gender equality, and the name of the project points directly towards this contradiction. The project investigates the relation between gender equality as a value, policy and practice in Norway and what looks like an increasing dependence on the feminised migration of domestic workers and au pairs, and questions whether this contradicts the welfare state’s objectives of equality. The umbrella project looks at three different sites: Norwegian couples who employ or choose not to employ domestic workers (Kristensen, 2015), public discourses on buying and selling domestic services (Gullikstad & Annfelt, forthcoming) and, finally, the women offering domestic services.
The project description for the PhD project focuses on the latter – namely, those selling domestic services – and it was pre-given that this project would involve qualitative, in-depth interviews with au pairs and/or domestic workers to gain insight into their role in host families and their work in Norway. I decided early on to focus on au pairs, and there are several reasons for this. As prior au pair research indicates, au pairing may, in many cases, be quite different to other kinds of domestic work (see part three, ‘Au pairing and live-in migrant domestic
work’, for greater discussion of this). Furthermore, the formal framing of au pairing as something inherently different to domestic work – not as a reality but as a construction, wherein the idea (l) of cultural exchange is important – raises specific issues and apparent contradictions between the two forms of paid domestic labour. The fact that au pairs live in their workplace while other kinds of domestic workers in Norway do not, and that au pairs may or may not self-identify as domestic workers, raises important questions about the meanings and identities associated with this form of domestic work. As I was interested in questions about work from the beginning, this inherent contradiction regarding work in the au pair scheme was fascinating to explore, in itself. The contradiction would not have been present in the same way amongst people employed explicitly as cleaners. For these reasons, I chose not to interview other kinds of domestic workers, despite facing recruitment challenges with au pairs, as I discuss later (see part five, ‘The site of au pairing and mixed and messy methods’).
Some of the core questions of the umbrella project are particularly relevant to issues connected to au pairing, and I list some of these core questions below to make explicit the starting point and premise this thesis was built on.
x What understandings of gender, gender equality, class, race and ethnicity lie at the core of the practice of buying and selling domestic services?
x Does the national preoccupation with gender mainstreaming produce new social inequalities at the expense of reducing others?
x Who is gender equality for?
x Could middle-class families’ purchase of domestic services also imply the legitimisation of class divisions in Norwegian society in the name of gender equality? If so, is this division by class made invisible by the fact that it is primarily women from ethnic minorities who sell these services?
x Is domestic work still a core activity of doing gender?
Behind these questions lie a set of presumptions: that national discourses and practices of gender equality do not exist in a vacuum but should be seen in relation to other social categories, such as race, ethnicity and class; and that these categories are not stable, but are rather performed. I return to these questions in the conclusion (see part six, ‘Conclusion’). The questions from the umbrella project partly informed my own research questions, but the questions I ask specifically in this thesis were also informed by existing research on au pairing and other kinds of domestic work and carework, and partly informed by my interest in the meanings of domestic work and carework in contemporary Norway. In the following, I outline these research questions.