When a Commodity is Not Exactly a Commodity

Nancy Folbre
4 April 2008

Every week, the journal Science complements its published articles with one or more “Perspectives” offering a brief and informal summary of research on an important topic. I was thrilled to be invited to submit one of these recently, and chose to focus on the impact of personal interactions and emotional connections on the economics of care services.

Forced to boil down the soup I have been studying for years to a scant page and a half, I was nonetheless pleased with the resulting concentrate, entitled “When a Commodity is Not a Commodity.”

I particularly liked a phrase that came to me late at night while I was responding to an editor’s query–one that offers a kind of funky analogy to the Heisenberg principle that efforts to measure the location of something can change its location. Care work typically involves a kind of exchange that changes the exchangers.

I did not have the time or space to fully develop links to ongoing research in behavioral or experimental economics, and am hoping that my friends, including UMass Economics graduate students Phil Mellizo and Wesley Pech, might be willing to offer some comments on these…

The graphic here is based on a cheap knockoff of a sign I bought from a tourist kiosk at Covent Garden while at a conference in London last weekend. I added the red letters, which effectively convey the main point of the article. Care work motivated by love as well as money, and the interactions between these two are complicated.

I began work on a manuscript now entitled Economies of Care while visiting at the Russell Sage Foundation in 2005-2006. Slow going, but I’m now up to Chapter 6. I gave a presentation based on this at the GeNet conference I attended in London and will soon post a description of that event along with the bare bones of my powerpoint presentation.

One comment on "When a Commodity is Not Exactly a Commodity"

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    Karyn Walsh

    I am the mother of an adult child who because of her developmental challenges receives residential services. I am also the daughter of a mother who because of her age related challenges receives skilled nursing home services. So on both levels I’ve had experiences with caregivers…direct care professionals, and know too well the effect of the tug of war between love of job and reality of low wages. I’ve watched really committed direct care workers leave this field because their need for a sustainable living wage has finally outweighed their commitment to their work. It affects the receivers of that care as well in continuity and quality of care. Reading your article, being really unknowledgeable about the economics of the subject, I look forward to your paper on Economies of Care, hoping it will help me articulate the problems both my mother and daughter face as the direct care sector faces the challenges mentioned during this economic disaster, as I continue to advocate for the much needed funding of the direct care force.

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