Dependency, Gender, and Labor in the Household

Research Group Leader: Dr. Hanne Østhus2

PhD Researchers: Malik Ade

Over the last thirty years, historians and economists have demonstrated the value of employing the household as a starting point when investigating social and economic relations of the past and present. The household is used as a basic analytic unit and understood as a basic societal organizational unit, consequently not excluding work performed outside the confines of the house itself.

The Research Group utilizes such insights to explore labor relations and particularly labor-related dependencies within historical households. These include different types of work and workers with different types and degrees of autonomy such as house slaves, domestic servants and indentured servants, but also encompass individuals on less (or no) formal work contracts, such as children and kin. As workers who lived with their employers they challenge the dichotomies encompassed in modernization theory of home and work, and of subsistence labour and commodified labor as separate.

Central Aim

As feminist and gender historians have shown, power and authority in the household was (and is) structured around gender and race/ethnicity, often with intersections between the two and with other categories such as age, status and kinship. The aim of the Research Group is to combine this acuity with recent developments within global labor history that have explored the practices and composition of free and unfree labor relations in order to produce novel insights into both labor and gender history.

By taking the household and the workers within it as starting point, we investigate if and how the household produced particular kind of labor dependency/dependencies. For example, did living with the employer/master mean that the worker/servant/slave was more easily surveyed and thus controlled than other workers? How did such dependencies connect with organization of labor outside the household of the master, and what role did gender and race play here?

Research on chattel slavery in eighteenth and nineteenth century-America, for instance, has shown how lighter-skinned slaves were recruited to work in the house instead of in the field. The household will thus be understand and studied as a contact zone of

  1. gender, race/ethnicity, age, and class/status, and
  2. different (at times co-existing) labor relations (slavery, wage labor, informal labor etc.),
  3. and, subsistence and commodified labor.

Research Projects

Hanne Østhus' research is particularly focused on domestic service and slavery in pre-industrial Denmark-Norway.

The PhD researchers attached to the Research Group investigate the domestic and public roles of Yoruba men and women (ca. 17th to ca. 19th centuries) and interactions between indigenous communities, European conquistadors and African slaves in the early colonization period in the Caribbean and Central American region respectively.

Other types of research of interest to the Research Group include, for example, explorations of domestic servants in early modern Japan, house slaves in ancient Greece, or house serfs in medieval Europe. The inclusion of a variety of periods and geographical areas is meant to facilitate comparisons. In addition, the Research Group seeks to contribute to the Cluster's theoretical exploration of the term dependency by comparing it to and utilizing insights from gender history research on related terms, in particular power and authority.


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