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The Value of Reproductive Labor

David Griffith, Kerry Preibisch, and Ricardo Contreras

that they are being exploited and otherwise experiencing

poor conditions while working. Specifically, we examine
Two rivers. Hadn’t two rivers sprung the relationship between reproductive labor and the wage
from the Garden of Eden? No, that was four,
and they’d diverged. Here only two labor of guest workers from Guatemala and Mexico who
and coming together. Even if one were tempted work in low-wage, difficult jobs in Canada and the United
to literary interpretations States. We argue that, contrary to many characterizations of
such as: life/death, right/wrong, male/female reproductive labor, reproductive and productive labor add
—such notions would have been resolved, dissolved, straight off
in that watery, dazzling dialectic. value to one another and, in the process, serve as sources
–Elizabeth Bishop, Santarem (2008, 176–77)
of happiness, dignity, and social legitimacy to women and
men working in jobs that many consider onerous, dirty,

I n the 1920s, the Russian agricultural economist A.

V. Chayanov (1966) developed the “drudgery curve,”
demonstrating that the subjective value that Russian peas-
smelly, undignified, and poorly remunerated. Briefly, we
consider happiness a constellation of positive feelings and
mental states associated with contentment and joy; dignity
ants attached to their labor varied with the changing com- deriving from an individual’s inalienable right to respect,
position of the household. As the ratio of consumers to self-worth, and self-esteem that is conferred on them by
workers in their households rose, peasants produced more. others and recognized by themselves; and social legitimacy
Having children seemed to make them work harder, sug- as the collective endorsement, by one’s family and commu-
gesting that their attitude toward their labor seemed to nity members, of a specific activity or behavior as proper
improve along with the change in the ratio, reflecting the or appropriate (Johnston et al. 2012). We explored each of
satisfaction that many parents derive from feeding their these concepts thoroughly with the people we interviewed,
children. both guest workers and others living in the same commu-
Influenced by Chayanov, Marshall Sahlins (1972) in- nities, not only asking them directly about their sources of
troduced the idea of negative reciprocity—a concept, like happiness, dignity, and social legitimacy but also paying at-
drudgery, connoting subjectively ill feelings toward eco- tention to the contexts of the interviews where the three
nomic relations. Similarly, many scholars, following Marx concepts were introduced voluntarily.
and other critics of capitalism, have portrayed wage labor As a form of affective labor (Hardt 1999; Muehlebach
in a negative light, considering capital’s methods of mobi- 2011), producing feelings of love, warmth, caring, happi-
lizing labor as inherently exploitative and fraught with the ness, and other positive emotions, reproductive labor gen-
problems of surplus extraction, power imbalances between erates value by itself while also drawing on and contributing
labor and capital, and other conditions. Anthropologists like to productive labor in ways that provide workers with the
Kingsolver (2007), Benson (2012), Durrenberger (2012), means to tolerate, circumvent, and alter exploitative rela-
and Steusse (2016) have written about how wage workers tions that emanate from advanced capitalism. Following a
have been demeaned through manipulations of gender, na- discussion of anthropological and social scientific theories
tionality, legal status, and ethnicity. Historians Hahamovitch of value and reproductive labor, we present a typology of
(2014), Ngai (2004), and Rockman (2009) have made simi- forms of labor found in six communities in Guatemala and
lar observations. Mexico before focusing on the relationships between repro-
In this article, we examine labor from a different di- ductive labor and foreign contract labor in the context of
rection to consider how people value their labor and their guest worker programs between Guatemala and Canada and
economic activities positively, even when they acknowledge between Mexico and the United States.

AMERICAN ANTHROPOLOGIST, Vol. 120, No. 2, pp. 224–236, ISSN 0002-7294, online ISSN 1548-1433. 
C 2018 by the American Anthropological

Association. All rights reserved. DOI: 10.1111/aman.12973

Griffith, Preibisch, and Contreras • The Value of Reproductive Labor 225

VALUE, REPRODUCTIVE LABOR, Of course, commoditized reproductive and affective

AND THE DAZZLING DIALECTIC labor—domestics, nurses, teachers, prostitutes, etc.—
Any discussion of either value or reproductive labor is sure would fall within those productive activities that Turner
to raise theoretical questions that have been of interest to an- would consider game for analysis, yet many feminist anthro-
thropologists and other social scientists at least since the writ- pologists and others have pointed out just how arbitrary are
ings of scholars like Adam Smith, Thomas Malthus, David distinctions between commoditized and noncommoditized
Ricardo, and Karl Marx (Heilbroner 1980). David Graeber reproductive and affective labor (Browner 2000; Constable
(2001), in one of the most comprehensive discussions of 2009; Muehlebach 2011). Although we discuss this in more
value, reminds us how value’s several meanings dovetail with detail in the section on reproductive labor below, here we
symbolic anthropology, linguistics, and political economy, point out that these distinctions have contributed to others
simultaneously reckoned in terms of culturally conditioned concerning gendered labor. For example, Carla Freeman’s
desires and needs, semiotics, and with reference to produc- (2001) deeply insightful analysis of Barbadian transnational
tion, exchange, and consumption. Despite the suggestion higglers (women traders) critiques the dichotomy between
that value comes from a dialectical relationship among all global and local, pointing out that the former is often char-
these sources, unfortunately, Graeber ultimately narrows its acterized as masculine and the latter as feminine. From this
source to the cultural meaning attending exchange. Drawing dichotomy, she argues, comes others: for example, between
on Nancy Munn’s (1986, 11–12) work in Gawa, and production and consumption, between formal and informal
especially her argument that “certain broad types of Gawan economic activity, and, I would add, between external and
acts are fundamental symbolic operators of positive value internal (Roseberry 1989). With her analysis of transna-
transformation and its negation,” Graeber reinforces Munn’s tional higglers, however, Freeman demonstrates how these
claim that value originates in gifting or exchange rather than women are influential agents of change who move between
production or consumption. “Producing food is not simply global and local contexts in ways that engage both produc-
a value in itself. The most prestigious act in Baining society tion and consumption. Instead of restricting her observations
is giving food” (Graeber 2001, 70; emphasis in original). and analysis to either the local or the global or to production
Similarly, in his exposition of Marx’s ideas about value, or consumption, she elucidates the relationships between
Terence Turner (2008) considers its relationship to produc- them. The women she profiles are at once wage workers
tive activities, exchange, and, above all, the individual and in transnational informatics companies, processing airline
“meta-needs” that derive from the social totality—that is, tickets, and at the same time entrepreneurs who travel
the cultural meanings assigned to objects of value. He ar- abroad to purchase goods for resale back home, influenc-
gues, “‘Value’ is this internal relation of the quantitatively ing their clients’ tastes in clothing, shoes, toys, and other
contrasting forms of appearance among entities sharing a goods:
qualitatively identical essence, where the essence (content)
is socially necessary labor time and the form consists of con- As a third-world female producer/consumer, the informatics
trasts among different proportions of that content embodied worker/higgler represents an intriguing dimension of globaliza-
tion in which participants within the informal sector and in global
by different products of the same social system or social to- factories are themselves enacting new modes of globalization; they
tality” (2008, 46). In other words, the raw material of value are not merely its effects. It is precisely their agency in doing so,
derives from labor, yet its expression as a cultural good or as well as their mutually reinforcing engagements across formal
service depends on shared meanings about its relationship to and informal economies and across transitional spaces in which
they produce and consume, that both the macro-models as well as
needs and desires. many of the feminist ethnographic local accounts fail to illuminate.
Like Graeber, Turner narrows the source of value to (Freeman 2001, 1030)
the cultural meaning attending exchange and, in the pro-
cess, advises a similar narrowing of analysis of economic Freeman also makes it clear that their work as entrepreneurs
formations. Focusing on the social totality of capitalism, he helps moderate the difficulties of work in a global factory
argues that value is accorded primarily to commodities— while adding to their self-esteem, dignity, happiness, and
objects explicitly of exchange—and that analyzing a capital- identity. Many social scientists have shown that people often
ist system depends on examining in detail those productive work hard at tasks that pay little or involve excessive personal
activities oriented toward producing commodities for mar- costs because they are part of one’s identity or heritage or
kets. Where does this leave reproductive labor? Although they yield social and environmental benefits (Griffith 2009;
Turner recognizes that value can derive from reproductive Moberg 2014). In Mexico, for example, maize production
activities, in characterizing capitalism as a social totality, he persists despite an adverse political economic context. This
recommends ignoring noncommoditized reproductive labor is due, in part, to the value that small farmers—particularly
for its failure to enter spheres of exchange: “Domestic work women—attach to it as a safety net against a volatile labor
of the kind traditionally done by women in the context of market, as a less fungible form of income than cash, as a
families and households, for example, is not performed for a safe and high-quality source of food, and as a cultural as-
wage and thus does not assume the character of a commodity set (Fitting 2011; Preibisch, Rivera Herrejón, and Wiggins
with an exchange value” (2008, 46). 2002). Further, like Barbadian higglers, these behaviors
226 American Anthropologist • Vol. 120, No. 2 • June 2018

allow participation in multiple formal and informal emigrants, supplementing in-depth interviews with obser-
economies involving reproductive, affective, wage, and vations, background research, focus groups, local research
other forms of labor. From these accounts, it is clear that assistance, and the distribution and collection of cameras.
reproductive labor is not always considered a curse on those As noted earlier, due to our theoretical focus on the value
who spend much of their lives engaged in caring for chil- of labor, we asked questions about happiness, dignity, and
dren and households without pay. Instead, as we see in more social legitimacy directly, and we paid close attention in
detail below, reproductive labor often produces happiness, the analysis to where these concepts emerged in relation
dignity, and social legitimacy. to other themes like work, job satisfaction, family life, and
The forms of labor that people experience can vary so forth. While the table identifies some of the dominant
widely from place to place, with local systems of produc- economic activities, in all the communities a wide variety
tion, exchange, and consumption involving a variety of social of economic activities absorbed residents’ labor. Indeed,
relations, interactions with natural resources and markets, multiple livelihoods, particularly at a household level, were
seasonal considerations, and so forth. Yet, with the global more the rule than the exception, consistent with previous
expansion of capitalism, one form of labor that most people research in these regions (Fischer and Benson 2006; Golding
have become familiar with is wage labor: capitalism’s central 2005; Preibisch et al. 2002). Most households generated
social relation of production, under which capitalists extract income from more than one economic activity, although
surplus value from the proletariat and alienate workers from the opportunities for self-employment, including peasant
the products of their labor (Marx 1939; Wolf 1982, 354). agriculture, were unevenly distributed across the commu-
It’s likely, then, that many people might compare various nities. Migration opportunities also varied across commu-
social relations of production they engage in locally (in their nities and between Mexico and Guatemala, although mi-
households and communities) to wage labor, evaluating their gration was a major source of employment and income in
disappointments and rewards in light of one another. This each community, usually responsible for social differentia-
was the assumption guiding our research in Guatemala and tion, which was in turn expressed by differences in material
Mexico among families that send guest workers to seasonal wealth and access to natural resources financed by remit-
jobs in Canada and the United States. Managed migration— tances and migration earnings. At the same time, due to
or the legal employment of foreign nationals—involves the need, moral and economic attachments to traditional liveli-
complete separation of productive and reproductive labor hoods, and other reasons, people remained loyal to local
and the close coordination of the workers’ time to the em- production systems, resulting in many different forms of
ployer’s demands. It is, therefore, one of the more extreme labor. Below, we describe the different forms of labor that
forms of wage labor.1 we encountered in the communities, developing a typology
that allows for comparisons across different livelihoods in
METHODS the communities in terms of happiness, dignity, and social
This work is based on approximately eight months of legitimacy.
fieldwork conducted in six communities in Guatemala and
Mexico, from 2009 to the present. Working from our FORMS OF LABOR: A TYPOLOGY
contacts in guest workers’ workplaces in Canada and the In all six communities, we observed different economic ac-
United States, these communities were initially selected tivities with an eye toward creating an inventory of the
based on two criteria: that they sent guest workers abroad different types or forms of labor people practiced, assessing
and that they included a mix of economic activities. Workers how people valued them relative to one another, and focus-
from families we have become familiar with worked in ing, in particular, on how they valued them relative to wage
agriculture in Canada and in agriculture and seafood labor in the context of managed migration. We are not, we
processing, laundries, and the hospitality industry in the emphasize, attempting to assign quantitative values to each
United States (Binford 2013; Griffith 2006; Hahamovitch form of labor, but are considering them qualitatively and
2014; Sharma 2006). In their home communities, residents dialectically. Although space limitations prevent us from
engaged in multiple livelihoods, which varied across the discussing all these forms of labor in terms of their rela-
communities where we have been working. We were tionships with wage labor, ultimately we hope to determine
deliberate in selecting communities that combined different how each of them borrows and adds value to wage labor and,
mixes of domestic production,2 managed migration, as with Freeman’s (2001) work, elucidate relations among
undocumented migration, and other forms of labor. Space local and global economic phenomena.
considerations preclude detailed ethnography; instead, we We present a typology of forms of labor below, em-
provide capsule descriptions in Table 1. phasizing that it does not encompass all economic activ-
In each community, we interviewed between thirty-five ities. In Sinaloa, for example, narcotrafficking was com-
and forty individuals, around half with experience with for- mon, but we chose not to delve into its dynamics. As
eign contract labor and the rest without such experience. others who work across Latin American will confirm,
We conducted open-ended interviews with guest workers many very small-scale operations were hidden away in peo-
and people in the communities from households with no ples’ homes. Nevertheless, the communities represented
Griffith, Preibisch, and Contreras • The Value of Reproductive Labor 227

TABLE 1. Characteristics of Study Communities*

Approximate Guestworker
Name Location size destinations Other features
Mantiox de Dios Chimaltenango, Guatemala. 2,000 Canadian greenhouses. Kaqchikel. Peasant and
commercial agriculture.
Pozo Profundo Santa Rosa, Guatemala. 1,750 Canadian greenhouses, Landless Mestizo
fields, and poultry. proletariat. Coffee.
Las Brisas Sinaloa, Mexico. 3,000 Virginia seafood. Moyos and Mestizos.
Artisanal fishing, seafood
Emilano Zarzuela Sinaloa, Mexico. 7,500 North Carolina and Virginia Landless Mestizo
seafood. proletariat. Industrial
agriculture. Services.
San Isidro Sinaloa, Mexico. 2,750 North Carolina and Virginia Mostly landless Mestizo
seafood. proletariat. Industrial and
peasant agriculture.
Services. Brickmaking.
Lago Cocomiche Michoacán, Mexico. 3,000 US agriculture and Canadian Landless Mestizo
greenhouses. proletariat. Artisanal lake
fishing. Services.

*Community names are pseudonyms.

markedly different economic profiles, from nearly fully pro- to foreign contract labor, examining the interpenetration
letarianized to those more aligned with peasant production of the two forms at opposite ends of our continuum. The
systems.3 Wage labor was common, however, across all typology is presented in Table 2.
the communities, regardless of access to other economic While each form of labor has the potential to produce
opportunities. happiness, dignity, and social legitimacy, nearly all seem
Although here we focus primarily on reproductive la- equally capable of compromising these three dimensions of
bor and its relationship to foreign contract labor, it is our human experience in some way. This compels us to tease
eventual intent to investigate how each form of labor ex- out the circumstances within these contexts that work for
presses value in terms of happiness, dignity, and social le- or against happiness, dignity, and social legitimacy. Already,
gitimacy. The typology, too, could be considered as a con- in the table, we have identified several conditions that un-
tinuum from labor that deeply engages the family and the dermine or enhance that form of labor’s ability along these
community to labor that is largely separate (in space if not lines—pointing out, for example, that the same form of
in sentiment) from the reproductive economy. Viewed an- labor can produce happiness in one setting and despair
other way, we consider this a rough continuum from a moral in another. Working through such contradictions has be-
economy of economic activities embedded deeply in cultural come a principal challenge facing workers of the twenty-first
understandings of proper behavior to the political economy century.
of labor separated from local norms, social relationships,
and institutions, and guided instead by core principles of REPRODUCTIVE LABOR
capitalism. Most reproductive labor occurs within households, usually
We developed this typology and described the different engaging the labor of women, yet drawing on all household
forms of labor and their characteristics based on observed labor (Browner 2000; Clark 1993; Constable 2009). In
economic activities and interviews with their practitioners. the wider community, it depends on people in health care,
Although they derived from our field sites, these forms of education, religion, and similar fields. It consumes large
labor and their characteristics are represented in communi- amounts of people’s time, daily activities, and routines,
ties in low-income countries around the world. Following although much reproductive labor is taken for granted by
the typology, we focus on reproductive labor’s relationship family members and even the people engaged in its tasks
228 American Anthropologist • Vol. 120, No. 2 • June 2018

TABLE 2. Forms of Labor

Typical geographical and

Labor form social locations Characteristics
Reproductive Home, with family. Labor involved in the maintenance and reproduction of human
beings. A source of extreme happiness and dignity, but often
unrecognized, undervalued, and unrewarded socially. Highly
socially legitimate.
Of the heart Church, civic spaces, home, Voluntary work for church, community, etc. Usually satisfying,
with friends and family. confers dignity and social legitimacy.
Subsistence Home, fields, with family. Family labor employed for subsistence purposes. Physically
demanding but satisfying and socially legitimate, its dignity
deriving from producing quality food, fuel, and income.
Local day Fields, workshops, etc., Labor hired on a daily basis, often poorly remunerated and not
with neighbors or local terribly satisfying or dignified, if socially legitimate.
Local wage Fields, workshops, Labor hired on a longer-term basis than local day labor,
factories, etc., with local remunerated at different levels but generally providing just
employers. enough to survive, conferring little happiness or dignity, if
socially legitimate.
Commercial Fields, with family, hired, Labor employed in the production of agricultural commodities.
agricultural and exchange labor. Potentially a source of happiness and dignity, market exposure
can frustrate it and, at times, rob it of its dignity, satisfaction,
and social legitimacy.
Commercial Households, workshops, Labor involved in entrepreneurial, independently owned and
non- factory settings, etc. operated activities (e.g., recycling plastic, baking bread). Often
agricultural involving self-exploitation and the exploitation of one’s family
members, it is capable of producing happiness when sufficient
for survival. Usually highly dignified. Socially legitimate if it
does not involve behavior considered morally reprehensible,
such as narcotrafficking.
Foreign undoc- Work sites abroad, often in Labor performed in high-income foreign countries without legal
umented total or partial absence of documentation, often paying low wages abroad but high relative
the nuclear family. to wages at home. Contradictions surround its ability to
produce happiness and dignity, although most at home consider
it socially legitimate, despite its illegal status abroad. The
happiness and dignity it produces derive less from the work
itself (although this is not always the case) than what the
earnings from the work bring at home.
Foreign Work sites abroad, in Labor performed within managed migration programs or with
contract employer-provided legal work visas, usually for one employer. Excessive labor
housing, without family. control undermines feelings of dignity, and happiness is
compromised by long separation from home and family, but
both at home and abroad it is considered socially legitimate.
The sacrifice involved can produce a strong sense of dignity, and
converting earnings into necessities, luxuries, and gifts at home
can produce satisfaction and happiness.
Griffith, Preibisch, and Contreras • The Value of Reproductive Labor 229

(e.g., selecting a shirt for a child for school, sweeping Parreñas adds that this often becomes a three-tiered
the porch, opening a tin of corned beef). Non-nurturant “global care chain” organized along lines of class, ethnicity,
reproductive labor addresses daily needs (e.g., cleaning, gender, and nationality, which involves Filipino women “es-
household provisioning, food processing, fuel management, caping their gender roles in the Philippines, easing the gen-
cooking, mental and physical health care, providing unpaid der constraints of women who employ them in industrialized
labor to domestic productive enterprises) and nurturant countries, and finally relegating their gender roles to women
reproductive labor (often called affective labor) involves left behind in the Philippines” (2000, 570). In our own work
reproducing the next generation (e.g., reproductive in Mexico and Guatemala, the most common thing we have
decisions, child care and protection, enculturation, and seen is women who work outside the home delegating house-
socialization) (Browner 2000; Constable 2009; Duffy 2007; hold tasks to their daughters, mothers, and other female
Elson 1999; Hardt 1999; Paciulan and Preibisch 2013). All relatives, although, in some cases, men boasted of being able
forms of reproductive and affective labor have been com- to cook, clean, and care for their children as well as their
moditized, and when they are they tend to be less gendered wives.
than when they are not commoditized, but are still largely These multiple ways of accomplishing reproductive la-
performed by women (Constable 2009; Duffy 2007). bor suggest that the view of reproductive labor as a curse
Reproductive labor’s yield is human beings. upon women around the world does not account for the
many cases where reproductive labor improves the well-
In much of the social scientific literature, particularly being of the women who perform it. As we flesh out the
from feminist perspectives, reproductive labor has been cast voices of guest workers and others below, reproductive la-
as a curse upon women and the basis of unequal relations be- bor is often a source of happiness and dignity that generates
tween women and men. Especially as increasing numbers of significant social legitimacy in the communities where we
women enter the formal labor force as wage workers (often worked. This is reinforced in cases where reproductive and
performing reproductive labor as domestics, washerwomen, productive labor enhance one another, as they do in the
or in food services), many scholars argue that their workloads transnational experiences of many of the workers in our
rise as they continue to be responsible for child care, house- study. For example, many women have learned how to uti-
work, shopping, and cooking at home—in other words, that lize the space of the home to earn additional income alongside
the gendered division of labor in the reproductive economy their reproductive labor, engaging in activities such as baking
does not change sufficiently to offset rising female and falling bread, cutting hair, or making tamales for sale. Others have
male participation in the productive economy (Arizpe 1989; opened convenience stores or other businesses that become,
Elson 1999; Moser 1995; Parreñas 2000). Drawing on data in part, extensions of their homes—places their children
from around the world, Elson (1999) argues that the in- can complete their homework after school or where they
crease in women in the productive economy has not been can breastfeed an infant while engaging in productive labor.
matched by an increase in men in the reproductive economy, In San Isidro, one of these businesses, run by a woman who
and more recent studies show that increased female labor- has been a guest worker for many years, also served as a
market participation does not necessarily result in increased place where children in the community gathered after and
power for women (Becerril 2011; Hughes 2014). The “dou- before school. While she or one of her children sold snacks
ble day” faced by women working outside the home also and drinks to the children, she took the opportunity to offer
reflects poor state responses to the participation of women them moral instruction against narcotrafficking and other
in the paid labor force. violent behaviors.
While this is certainly the case among many women who Each of these arrangements involves a set of social rela-
have entered the labor force, it is equally certain that dozens tionships that link reproductive and productive economies,
of other arrangements occur in which combining reproduc- reinforce or alter gender roles, empower women relative
tive labor with work in the formal economy alters, in positive to other women and to men, and influence the way people
ways, a woman’s contribution to the maintenance of family value labor from both emic and etic perspectives. Migration
and home, her relationships with her spouse and children, scholars have long understood that reproductive labor in
and her sense of who she is and what her role is (Contreras communities that send migrants abroad subsidizes those
and Griffith 2012; Freeman 2001, 2012; Griffith and Con- economies where migrants work, absorbing the costs of
treras 2014; Hughes 2014). Although men taking on some raising children and maintaining homes so that receiving
reproductive responsibilities may not be common, it does economies need not make such investments (Griffith 1985;
occur, and Rhacel Salazar Parreñas (2000) focuses on cases Pessar 1982; Ong 2006). Diane Elson (1999) observes
of women hiring others, usually other women, to absorb that much of the economic literature on reproductive
much of the burden. Indeed, the gendered organization of labor views it in terms of disruptions in workplace
the household into male and female spheres in the Philippines schedules—when women have to take time off to tend
is so rigid that even when women migrate internationally for to a sick child, for example—rather than acknowledging
work, transnational families reconstitute their households so the contributions of the reproductive economy to the
as to enforce gender boundaries (Parreñas 2000). productive economy. These contributions include, most
230 American Anthropologist • Vol. 120, No. 2 • June 2018

notably, the people who bend sheet metal into ventilation nieces and aunts. Among most of those we interviewed—
systems, tally figures in cubicles, pick tomatoes under men and women alike—reproductive labor was the most
the Florida sun, and so on—in short, the workers of the likely form of labor to produce happiness, yet also the most
world. likely to produce suffering and despair. In response to a
Clearly, productive and reproductive activities are question about happiness, Guadalupe, a woman from Pozo
highly articulated. At the most basic level, unpaid reproduc- Profundo, Santa Rosa, Guatemala, said, “For me, happiness
tive activities are critical to the functioning of the productive is that my children do well, that my family is healthy, and
economy by reproducing labor (Arizpe 1989; Elson 1999). that my husband has a good job so that we can provide for
Others would argue that the myth of women entering the our children.” Yet, she added that it was often the case that,
workforce merely to supplement their husbands’ earnings “we don’t have enough money to give them what they need,”
benefits the productive economy by helping to justify pay- and this caused her and her husband distress. At times, sim-
ing women less than men for the same work, or keeping ilar sentiments were expressed with ambivalence, as when
minimum wages at levels insufficient to support families, Rosa of Mantiox de Dios, Chimaltenango, Guatemala, said
even when many women are the principal breadwinners in that she experienced two feelings when her husband left for
their families. Devaluing domestic work also legitimizes the Canada: happiness and sadness. “I’m a little sad and a little
failure of capitalist classes to finance the costs of reproducing happy,” she said. “Happy because he’s working for the family
the labor force and creates divisions in the workforce that but sad because he is gone.”
are advantageous to capitalism (Benerı́a 1979; Fernandez- These references to family life were quite common.
Kelly 1989). As noted in our earlier discussion of value, Typically, informants expressed economic achievement and
here we consider this dialectically, suggesting not only that economic advancement directly in relation to the well-being
the productive economy engages the reproductive economy of their families, whether talking about economic activity at
for part of its value but also that the reproductive economy home or abroad. For example, when we asked Efrain, a
endows the productive economy with part of its value. In Kaqchikel man with eight children, whether he preferred
the lives of many of the guest workers we have been working working in Guatemala to working in Canada, he expressed
with over the past several years, this was precisely the case. his separation from family in terms of their welfare:
Two salient characteristics distinguish reproductive la-
The difference between work here and there is that there you
bor from other forms of labor. First, in the formal economy, have to work extremely hard to stay in good graces with the boss,
reproductive labor has been gendered, often racialized, and because the work is very hard. In Guatemala, you can rest any
devalued (Thomas 2008). Second, in informal settings like time you want. . . . If you want to work half a day, you work half a
the family, reproductive labor is highly valued, as when day, but there isn’t any money. But in Canada the experience that
you have, thank God, is that you earn double or triple but also
manifested in the mutual love between parents and chil- you do double or triple the work. . . . Because I have my family I
dren, and is emotionally charged, often a source of deep have to spend some time there and some time here. Because I’m
satisfaction yet just as often a source of searing pain, as after alone there, apart from my family, the family can thrive.
the death of a child (Constable 2009; Freeman 2012; Hardt
1999; Muehlebach 2011). These contradictory character- Such sentiments were so common among guest workers and
istics make assigning value to reproductive labor difficult, others in our study that, rather than being the main point
particularly if we insist that economic phenomena require of one’s comments, references to family welfare were often
measurement in order to be objects of scientific analysis or sprinkled into reflections on one’s economic circumstances.
included in predictive models. A day laborer we interviewed in Mantiox de Dios, while
Of all the forms of labor listed in Table 2, the products expressing dismay over his subsistence-level earnings, dis-
of reproductive labor are the least predictable because the cussed his desire to become a guest worker with several
labor inputs come from a variety of directions and back- references to family:
grounds, including from clergy, school teachers, relatives We work in the fields with the hoe until we have blisters, earning
you might wish had less (rather than more) influence on just enough for a tortilla, a little beans for the children, just to eat.
your children, and random others in the community and in . . . Here in Guatemala, the poverty doesn’t allow us to reach
for our dreams. There are many who have gone to Canada, but
the media. In much of the social scientific literature, repro- the first time you go you have to be at least twenty-five to forty
ductive labor overlaps with and corresponds to household years old, and married, and I’m still just a boyfriend [not legally
labor, where gender serves as the fundamental principal married]. But I need and want to go now. I have a family, I have
dividing labor. At the same time, it is a joint enterprise, a wife, I have two little children, and all I have to give is enough for
deeply intertwined with the development of the family—its them to eat. I want to give something to my children, to the future.
(emphasis added)
life cycle and growth—and today, in many cases, more gen-
dered normatively than in practice. In households we visited, As Rosa indicated, another powerful indication of the
reproductive labor involved at least three generations— high value placed on reproductive labor is the emotional
usually (grand)mothers and (grand)children—along with response of workers and workers’ family members to being
lateral kinship ties, such as a child sharing among sisters, separated from one another, whether because of migration,
and significant ties among cousins, uncles and nephews, and estrangement, illness, death, or other reasons. This includes
Griffith, Preibisch, and Contreras • The Value of Reproductive Labor 231

separation not only from their children and other family it poetically: “We leave [for the United States] with bro-
members but also from the physical spaces of renewal and ken souls, crying all the way to Hermosillo [where they are
reproduction: homes, yards, churches, and communities. issued their visas], but when we return, we arrive happy to
Bonacio, a young guest worker from Mantiox de Dios, con- have obtained so much.”
fessed to feeling his spirituality seeping slowly away during Others spoke of missing significant events in children’s
the months of the year he worked in Canada, saying, “Hon- lives. For example, Tanya, a woman who began working
estly, imagine being outside of your spiritual life for nine abroad coincidentally with her son entering kindergarten,
months. One cools down. It’s like a bonfire. If no one is said: “It was bad because on my son’s first day of kinder-
there to throw in the firewood and push the ends into the garten, I wasn’t there. When he graduated, I wasn’t there.
fire, the fire goes out.” For his first day of first grade, I wasn’t there. When he grad-
Women and men experienced separation from fam- uated that time, I wasn’t there either. And now I’ve been
ily in many different ways, with some generally missing gone two years without seeing my son graduate.”
their children, spouses, and other family members with- These comments suggest that life-cycle considerations
out identifying any special times or conditions that made it influence how people value their reproductive labor and
particularly difficult. Yet others focused on specific conse- that, like Chayanov’s peasants, it changes over the life cycle
quences of separation—resentment from birthdays missed, of the household. Yet household life cycles do not progress
children experimenting with sex and drugs, poor treatment according to predictable phases, but skip and glide based on
of children by surrogate parents, and other consequences of internal developments, changes in state support for families
absence. Several of the guest workers we interviewed had and local economies, and multiple circumstances—illness,
close family members who ere sick, debilitated, or otherwise divorce, the availability of work, and, of course, death.
physically or mentally challenged, and leaving them could Coming up with a ratio or other metric to trace the happiness
be especially difficult. or despair that people experience from reproductive labor,
During our interviews with guest workers or their family while possible, would divest it of its true character.5
members, it wasn’t uncommon that a simple question about Another illustration of the value of reproductive labor
what it was like being separated from family elicited tears. comes from an elder guest worker, Carmen, in her late
“I suffered a great deal [when I first] separated from my sixties, who experienced both the deep trauma of losing a
children to come to work here,” said a Mexican woman son and grandson and the comforting reassurance of still
who had been a guest worker for thirteen years, initially having children and grandchildren to support her through
leaving her daughter and son when they were thirteen and her grief. During the height of the 2011 crab-picking season,
ten, respectively. “Now my children are older. But yes, in on September 11, Carmen learned of the death of her son in
truth I believe that it’s very bad for us to be apart. I am like the vegetable fields of California, which also happened to be
a mother and father who abandoned the children when we the one-year anniversary of the death of her grandson in a
had a great need for one another.” motorcycle accident. Her employers allowed her to fly from
During a group interview with five Mexican women North Carolina to California to retrieve the body and carry
working in a Virginia seafood plant, the question about leav- it to Sinaloa for the funeral. After the funeral, she returned
ing family caused all five women, at once, to weep. Veronica, to North Carolina to finish the crab-picking season, working
a mother of two children under the age of ten, said, “It’s a until early November.
very bad experience because they forget us. It damages the Although she finished the season, while Carmen was
love of your children, the love of your husband, the love of flying home a second time, she suffered extreme high blood
your whole family. When we return it isn’t the same. Noth- pressure on the airplane, forcing an emergency landing;
ing is the same. They resent us for being away.” Because they two of her daughters, also crab pickers, were with her.
were all weeping by this time, one said, “Now you have to While the two deaths and her sudden illness were sources
wait for us to stop crying.”4 of despair, Carmen undoubtedly derived deep comfort and
While the other four women agreed with this state- support immediately from the two daughters who were
ment, another woman with elder children, Aurelia, offered with her and, later, from a daughter-in-law, the dead son’s
a slightly different perspective, saying, “In my case, my chil- wife, and several grandchildren. All of these individuals
dren have forgiven me. They’re older now and I can explain lived either with her or with her daughters close to her.
to them that this is my career. . . . I tell them that the The house of one of her daughters adjoined hers, creating a
sacrifice is to improve their lives. And we have improved vast, open compound of two yards and several shared fruit
our lives, although in the past [when she was gone] my son trees, gardens, and animals. Daily, these spaces were sites of
had problems with drugs and alcohol.” At this, several of multiple reproductive labor activities that, within a year, had
the other women chimed in that their children had also had healed much of the pain that Carmen experienced through
drug and alcohol problems and echoed the theme of (neces- the loss of her son and grandson.
sary) sacrifice. Lilliana, a guest worker and mother of two When we visited her in January 2012, just four months
from Las Brisas in Sinaloa, Mexico, associated her sacrifice after her son’s death, she and her family were still in mourn-
with suffering, happiness, and accomplishment, expressing ing. Yet, in January of the following year, when we visited
232 American Anthropologist • Vol. 120, No. 2 • June 2018

them again, they had quit wearing black and were vibrant another’s value in terms of happiness, dignity, and social
and animated. At one point, the first author asked Carmen legitimacy. Rather than comparing the two, we show how
whether or not women who returned from a season of crab these different forms of labor interpenetrate one another.
picking were weary and ready to rest, and she laughed and Our analysis suggests that their relationships result in an am-
said, “No. Stronger!” and everyone laughed with her. In bivalent and contradictory cluster of outcomes, including
this case, her reproductive setting, bolstered by her work happiness and despair, suffering and satisfaction, frustration
abroad, enabled Carmen to recover from the devastating and celebration.
loss of a grandson and son. Consider Marielba, who worked as a guest worker in
North Carolina and Virginia seafood plants for eighteen
RELATIONSHIPS BETWEEN REPRODUCTIVE years. She started before her children were born but took
AND FOREIGN CONTRACT LABOR time off while they were young and her husband was in-
We noted earlier that with the spread of capitalism, nearly carcerated in the United States, only to begin working in
all people in the world have become familiar with wage la- seafood plants again when her children were older, in their
bor, suggesting the possibility of people valuing other forms teens, two years before her husband was released. Marielba
of labor relative to wage labor. In the communities where typically characterized her work abroad as extremely hard
we worked, the most extreme form of wage labor was for- and taxing, often fraught with humiliation and exploitation
eign contract labor, which nearly completely separates pro- and made more difficult because of separation from fam-
ductive from nurturant reproductive labor, ties workers’ ily. Such characterizations constituted evidence that foreign
schedules closely to employers’ demands, involves exces- contract labor often created the conditions for despair, suf-
sive labor control, and allows unscrupulous employers to fering, and frustration in workers’ lives. Yet, despite these
engage in wage theft, sexual harassment, and other forms difficulties, Marielba, like all guest workers, acknowledged
of abuse. In both Canada and the United States, employer- that the jobs she held abroad paid far more than she could
specific visas, which restrict each guest worker to a single earn performing the same work in Mexico.6 Because of this,
employer, constitute the most significant power imbalance most guest workers preferred these jobs and this form of
in the employment relationship. In addition, employers pro- labor to similar work at home, and even to other forms of
vide guest workers with housing (usually on or close to the labor that may be innately satisfying.
farms, seafood factories, laundries, hotels, or other places Yet the value of foreign contract labor was not simply
where they work) and control transportation to and from a matter of pay. During an interview with Marielba, she
job sites as well as to shopping centers and other venues. initially characterized her work as “very hard” (muy duro),
Combined with the threat of not calling workers back the “very heavy” (muy pesado), and “very tiring—extremely tir-
following season (blacklisting), these measures deeply en- ing!” (muy cansado—¡cansadı́simo!). Later, however, after re-
hance the control that employers have over guest workers, peated interviews with her in the United States and in her
which at times results in up to twenty-hour workdays. home in Mexico, she told us that she liked it.
When working abroad, both female and male guest “You like it?” we asked. “Why?”
workers are often entirely responsible for the non-nurturant “Because now it’s easy. At first it was very difficult and
reproductive labor required to maintain themselves as pro- I had a hard time, because I didn’t know how to do it, but
ductive workers. This includes cooking their own meals, gradually I worked enough to improve and now it’s easy for
washing their own clothes, and cleaning personal and com- me. And I earn a lot!” she added, laughing. Her satisfaction
munal living spaces. Employers expect guest workers to with work derived from acquiring the skill she needed to
engage in regular non-nurturant reproductive work, con- make the job easier to accomplish, on the one hand, and to
sidering those who do to be “good workers.” In Canada, earn more, on the other, given that, with piecework, the
women migrants often carry out reproductive tasks for their faster and more efficiently you work, the more money you
male intimate partners or cook meals for other migrants as earn.
a side business to their agricultural jobs. Although guest- Yet, these two sources of satisfaction, we learned later
worker programs are designed to separate productive from in the interview, were parts of a grander satisfaction—steps,
nurturant reproductive labor, today, most if not all guest as it were, in a cumulative process that, taken as a whole,
workers have cellular phones with which they can commu- constituted Marielba’s happiness. For what followed was a
nicate with family members back home and thereby partic- detailed account of what she has been able to do with those
ipate, remotely, in nurturant reproductive labor decisions earnings—accomplishments, such as adding rooms to her
and activities. house and acquiring appliances, that we have been witness
Yet most characteristics of guest-worker jobs present to over multiple visits to her home. But it wasn’t only
stark contrasts to reproductive labor, the latter of which is adding rooms and buying stoves that gave her satisfaction:
deeply embedded in local community values, norms, ide- it was what that space meant to her and her family and her
als, and social relationships. We conclude our discussion dreams.
by considering the relationships between reproductive and “First, I built a bathroom, so my children didn’t have to
foreign contract labor, focusing on how they influence one go outside to use the toilet or wash in the middle of the night.
Griffith, Preibisch, and Contreras • The Value of Reproductive Labor 233

We had a new bathroom, and then [security] bars, a fence, Clearly, the reproductive labor of being a mother and
we painted all the rooms, we painted the floors.” She also grandmother took precedence over her work in the crab
spoke of fitting her kitchen with sinks and buying appliances. plant, yet her work in the plant has been critical to her stan-
Woven in and out of this portion of the interview were dard of living and, by extension, to her daughter’s and sons’
references to meeting household and educational expenses, as well. Once, during a conversation with her about working
paying the light bill, buying food and books, and paying for in the crab plant, she said that with every twist of the knife in
clothing. By 2014, she had a new car and was having two the body of the crab, with every ounce of meat, she thinks,
rooms added just behind her house, separated by a space of “A new skirt for Rafaela. New pants for Manuel. New shoes
a few feet, for her daughter and her daughter’s son, giving for Pedro.” Thus, thoughts of reproductive responsibilities
them their own space, yet keeping them inside the same motivated her productive labor.
fenced-in family compound.
In this way, the extreme wage-labor relationship pene- CONCLUSION: QUESTIONS OF VALUE
trated and became intertwined with reproductive labor. A IN REPRODUCTIVE AND PRODUCTIVE LABOR
cynical interpretation might posit that Marielba was playing While highlighting individual experiences is important,
directly into the hands of capital, working hard and produc- more important is how these processes of interpenetra-
ing surplus values for her employers while talking herself into tion have been expressed abstractly, generally, and his-
believing God’s grace was shining on her while, in reality, she torically. Our focus on the relationships between repro-
was subsidizing the reproduction of labor available to capi- ductive labor and wage labor—especially wage labor in
tal. Two observations undermine this interpretation. First, one of its extreme forms—derives from recognizing that
neither of her children was working in seafood processing among the many forms of labor, reproductive labor is pan-
or similar economic activities, nor did they plan to. Second, human and wage labor is becoming panhuman. That re-
she was not unaware of all the difficulties that come from productive labor emerges from biology and culture and
working in crab processing, including the exploitation, hu- wage labor from history adds another compelling dimen-
miliation, and suffering, characterizing it as “very hard, very sion to the relations between them. The reproductive-
heavy,” and in other negative terms. As Katherine Newman labor relationships we have identified occur principally in
(1999, 2006) has shown in her work on low-wage workers, families and manifest primarily in feelings and exchanges
workers like Marielba know far better than those of us who between parents and children, yet these relationships are
have never worked such jobs the extent to which this is so. also deeply embedded in cultural traditions. In our study
Yet, as Marielba said, she likes it, just as many of the workers alone, in Guatemala and Mexico, we encountered subtle
Newman describes like their work. and overt differences in reproductive labor among Kaqchikel
Aurelia offered a slightly different illustration of the peasant families, Moyos and Mestizos in Sinaloa, and non-
relationships between reproductive and foreign contract la- Indigenous rural proletariat in Michoacán and Santa Rosa.
bor. When we initially met her, in 2009, she was working In each of these cases, reproductive-labor relationships are
in a North Carolina seafood-processing plant with twenty- creative and unique, ranging from whole families pitch-
six other women, including Rafaela, her twenty-year-old ing in to bring in crops or fish to the multiple livelihoods,
daughter. Aurelia was forty-one and had worked in the crab at home and abroad, in families with no access to natural
industry for thirteen years, missing many of the childhood resources.
years of her daughter and two sons, Manuel and Pedro. Yet, By contrast, the wage-labor relationships were remark-
like Marielba, she used her earnings to upgrade and expand ably similar across cultural and economic contexts, demon-
her housing, pay for educating her children, purchase inven- strating very little creativity or originality. Essentially, the
tory for a small store run out of her home, and buy small same techniques of labor recruitment, supervision, control,
houses for her children and a few acres of land to rent to local and other aspects of the labor process show up over and
farmers. In 2010, she arrived at the crab plant in the spring over, and this has been the case not only around the world
without Rafaela, who was two months pregnant. Rafaela but through time. Consider Robert Castel’s (2003, 102)
stayed home both to protect her reproductive health and description of royal manufacturing during fifteenth-century
to finish her college classes before she became preoccupied England:
with a newborn.
As Rafaela’s due date neared, Aurelia, still working We should notice that this [state-controlled manufacturing] is a
in North Carolina, began worrying that the crab season hierarchical and closed structure. Discipline there is unforgiving;
work is often preceded by prayers. The employees include a small
wouldn’t end before the child was born. Jeopardizing her elite of qualified artisans, many of them foreign-born, who have
future in the industry, she chose to return to Mexico before been courted in order to monopolize their know-how, and what
the end of her contract to witness the birth of her first amounts to an underqualified staff, generally rebellious against
grandchild. For that, she was blacklisted from the North this kind of structure, and whose recruitment conjures up images
of the kind of conscription practiced by the army. Some galley
Carolina plant; two years later, she was able to connect with slaves are taken from the shipyards, while one seeks to enlist some
another labor contractor (contratista) at a Virginia seafood poor and to form a workforce of women and children, reputed to
plant and return to picking crab. be more docile and less demanding.
234 American Anthropologist • Vol. 120, No. 2 • June 2018

With the exception of galley slaves, a similar passage funded the research underlying this work (grant #0722468) under
could have been written about the greenhouses, farms, the project title “Managed Migration and the Value of Labor.” Of
seafood-processing plants, and industrial laundries where course, any errors, omissions, or other problems with the article are
guest workers work. As locations of extreme wage labor, not due any of these individuals or organizations but to the authors’
they seem unlikely to be valuable from the perspective of alone.
producing happiness, yet many acquire such value from what
they contribute to reproductive labor. This returns us to the 1. In the United States, managed migration programs consist of
question of whether reproductive labor endows productive importing foreign nationals on a temporary basis for work in eco-
labor with value, or vice versa. The answer to this, as in nomic sectors that have been certified by the US Department of
much social science, is that this is not the correct question Labor as suffering from labor shortages. Most US programs are
to ask. Instead, we should consider how the interpenetra- not based on intergovernmental agreements but are known by the
tion of reproductive and productive labor lend and borrow visas that are issued to workers, with H-2A visas issued primarily
value to and from one another. Examining the relationships to agricultural workers, H-2B visas issued to seasonal nonagri-
between productive and reproductive labor dialectically, in- cultural workers (people in seafood processing, the hospitality
stead of as separate spheres of economic activity, is similar industry, fishing, and other occupations), and H-1 visas issued to
to Freeman’s (2001) call for rethinking the common false technical workers. Canada’s programs are based on intergovern-
dichotomies of local/global, masculine/feminine, and for- mental agreements with Mexico, Guatemala, Jamaica, and other
mal/informal economic activities. It is, moreover, firmly in countries, but also contain the provision that workers are certified
line with Roseberry’s (1989) theoretical recommendation to work for one employer and do not have free access to the entire
to critically examine the internalization of the external in labor market. Other dimensions of the Canadian program, such
ethnographic settings. as housing and labor control, are similar to the United States’
Examined in this way, reproductive labor adds value guest worker visa programs.
to productive labor through the various ways that workers 2. Domestic production refers to production based in households
convert and subvert wage labor’s goals to the greater goals and extended families that is largely oriented toward subsistence
of working families. Qualitatively, the social relationships of but can also be utilized for sale; it depends on household labor
reproductive labor are nearly infinitely creative and unique; almost exclusively.
by contrast, wage-labor relations are nearly everywhere, 3. We are not suggesting that the forms of labor we identified
and across time, similar. It is said that without knowledge of represent all forms of labor in these communities, but are distinct
history we are doomed to repeat it, yet the historical knowl- enough to provide a basis for comparison.
edge that capitalism has accumulated in its principal social 4. This statement was uttered more or less tongue-in-cheek, and
relation of production—wage labor—is nothing less than followed by the other women laughing, despite their weeping.
the doom of repetition. It has spun out the same schemes Their frankness with us reflects the deep relationships we have
and machinations through the centuries. It is only through its been able to forge with those in our study through multiple visits
association with reproductive labor that it acquires distinc- in multiple contexts.
tion, producing happiness and dignity, cradled in culture’s 5. Scholars (e.g., Sen 2011) have measured phenomena like well-
womb. being, but does, say, creating an index from data on levels of
education, health, earnings, and other indicators truly reflect
what we experience as well-being? It seems rather to privilege
David Griffith Department of Anthropology, East Carolina
measurement itself and devalue qualitative appreciations of human
University, Greenville, NC 27858 USA; griffithd@ecu.edu
Kerry Preibisch (1973–2015) Formerly with the Department of
6. Guest workers earn around ten times abroad what they could
Sociology, Guelph University, Ontario, Canada
earn for the same work at home.
Ricardo Contreras Atlas.ti, Corvalis, OR 97331 USA; rcontr-
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