Ambiguous Affection: An Ethnography of the Relationship Between Domestic Workers and Employers in Brasília
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This study explores the relationship between domestic workers and their employers in Brasília. Based on qualitative data derived from participant observation and open and semi-structured interviews, I demonstrate how this relationship is a complex mixture of affection and inequality. As the body of anthropological literature on domestic work shows, the relationship between domestic workers and employers is embedded in social inequalities. In this thesis, I discuss how Brazilian domestic work reflects social inequalities existing in Brazilian society. Further, I demonstrate how these social inequalities become apparent in the interactions between domestics and employers and how they can lead to forms of discrimination and domination. Moreover, I show that the relationships in Brazilian domestic work are not merely unequal, but also highly affectionate. I demonstrate how affection becomes apparent and how it can bend the rules within the household. Finally, I argue that affection is highly ambiguous: even though affection can improve the lives and working conditions of domestic workers, it also contributes to the maintenance of inequalities in domestic work. By telling their domestics that they are “like part of the family”, employers emphasize the affectionate aspects of their relationship and, as a result, the unequal aspects are disguised. Second, by telling domestics that their situation is the best they can aim for in life—as lower-class women—and at the same time showing their affection for the domestics, employers downplay the unequal aspects of their relationship.