Processes of ‘othering’ and strategies of boundary work

In document Au pairing in Norway – the production of a (non) worker (Page 152-158)

5. The site of au pairing and mixed and messy methods

7.5. Processes of ‘othering’ and strategies of boundary work

With the stories above I have tried to show some of the affective work done by au pairs. What becomes clear is that the au pair scheme provides au pairs and host families with little clue as to what role au pairs should or could play in the family.

As outsiders on the inside they could become family members, domestic workers, strangers, friends, or keep moving between these categories. This lack of clarity creates a need for au pairs to continually negotiate positions, and affective boundary work is a consequence of as well as a strategy for this. Determining what are acceptable and desirable degrees of affective investment in the family unit might be a way of negotiating their role in the family. However, whilst au pairs come from the outside and go into the intimate sphere of the private home, the family – who might also do affective (boundary) work – is still on home turf.

Thus there is a certain precariousness in the position of arriving in the family as a stranger from the outside.

Given the diverging expectations of au pairs and host families, and the various and unforeseeable interpersonal dynamics between them, it is no wonder that the au pair arrangement sometimes goes wrong. In the stories above, Evelyn, Inez


and Gabriela experienced different kinds of ‘othering’ within their host families, doubly hurtful in the cases where the au pairs had expectations of being equal to, or part of, the family. In all three cases it is made clear to the au pairs that they are not similar enough to the host families; not Norwegian enough, not atheist enough, not hard working enough. Yet, the stories indicate that these are relatively superficial ways of othering. What appears to be the thread running through the stories is that the process of othering happens in the framing of the au pair scheme, where real similarities play little role in producing the relations between au pairs and their hosts compared to the imagined differences that come with being an au pair. In short, the stories about discomfort connected to household chores suggest that the au pair scheme rests on socio-economic differences where different work has different value, and household chores are low on the hierarchy of tasks. It is difficult for someone to be an equal within a family when she is given only the most denigrated work to do.

For my informants, a way of coping with the process of othering is thus to internalise the notion of a hierarchy of tasks. Annie Chan has argued that the inherent contradictions in the relationship between domestic workers and their employees in Hong Kong meant that demarcating between ‘important’ and

‘unimportant’ tasks became a way of maintaining an employer-employee relationship instead of one resembling family (Chan, 2005, pp. 519-20). In the stories above, doing household chores for money implies a degrading form of servitude, given some of the au pairs' pre-existing class affiliation. Childcare on the other hand requires pedagogical skill and affective investment – implying that the au pair is a trusted part of the family. When explaining to themselves and others why they become outcasts of the families or never enter on the inside, feel bad about their situation, fail in their tasks, and get fired or quit, au pairs can blame it on the nature of the tasks they were given. Thus they create a boundary between themselves and the work that makes their situation bearable, a boundary where the host family can fit on either side. This is different to Chan's


informants in the sense that the au pairs in my material did the labour of domestic workers, but did not necessarily identify as domestic workers. In the process of doing affective boundary work to maintain a distinction between themselves and the work – and the possibility of becoming a domestic worker – the work itself becomes the boundary object: the object which ‘exists at junctures where carried social worlds meet in an arena of mutual concern’ (Clarke, 2005, p.

50). In the analysis of Evelyn's story we saw how domestic work is also racialised, and how reinforcing and re-enacting this racialisation might become part of the affective boundary work to explain failing as au pairs/domestic workers (see also Durin, 2015, on how au pairs in France use racialisation to differentiate themselves from domestic workers).

Another way of doing affective boundary work is for the au pair to draw the boundary between herself and the host family. In this case the work can be done without dealing with identity issues connected to class or race. Inez did not think of herself as a member of the family, nor did she expect to become one. This explicit distancing from the family where the au pair herself is contributing in the process of othering might be seen as an attempt to professionalise the au pair scheme. A consequence of this boundary work, however, is that the au pair might be ‘erasing’ her own personality in order to become less vulnerable to the affective investments and inevitable partings involved in au pairing, perhaps risking estrangement from the work, but also from herself.


‘It's not much’ as affective boundary work?

I want to stay with the concept of estrangement as I return to the title of this chapter, namely ‘it's not much’. Given that au pairs do affective boundary work where hierarchies of class and race are being negotiated, what does ‘it's not much’

mean? I believe that it can be seen as a negation of the extent of the work, but also as a strategy of distancing due to estrangement from the work. As noted in the introduction, host families hire au pairs primarily out of a want or need for a


domestic worker. Au pairs are more available and substantially cheaper than other domestic workers, partly because their labour is not counted as such – thus host families undoubtedly benefit from the au pair scheme. Au pairs might of course also benefit, but the fact that they are not paid properly means that those who arrive as work migrants have to affectively negotiate the low price (and value) of their labour, and that those who arrive motivated by cultural exchange have to affectively negotiate that they are not desired as family members but rather as 'workers'.

If host families are the ones primarily benefitting from the scheme, it might be the case that au pairs are estranged from the work they do, and 'it's not much' might be an attempt at expressing minimal affective and physical investment in the work. Au pairing is not framed as domestic work, and the statement could be read as a way of signalling that even though the labour looks similar to that which is done by domestic workers, au pairs do not identify as such. Thus, the affective boundary work involves distancing themselves from the work and thus also from domestic workers and so reproducing the racialisation of domestic- and care work. In a similar vein, au pairs who affectively distance themselves from the host family in an attempt to professionalise au pair work, nevertheless state that

‘it’s not much’ and may still be imagining au pair work as something separate from low-status domestic work.

The material conditions set the scene for what and how affective work is done in the au pair scheme: the way it is being practiced suggests that it is a result of global economic inequalities. Regardless of who the au pair is, the role she enters in the private home requires affective labour. Living in a precarious and subordinate position doing low-status work within someone else's home, while negotiating the muddled yet restricted boundaries of the au pair scheme, means that au pairs do a significant amount of affective boundary work to deal with their situation. This labour, it seems, is the price of 'cultural exchange'.

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8. From intimate relations to citizenship? Au pairing

In document Au pairing in Norway – the production of a (non) worker (Page 152-158)

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