‘Smells’ and Intimate labour : Domestic work in perspective

15:30, Sunday 9 May 2021 (30 minutes)

Ishita Dey, South Asian University, India

In this paper I want to demonstrate that senses are central to understand intimate labour – a theme that has remained unaddressed in meanings of work. Anthropological work on craftsmanship has hinted at the role of synesthetic reason which involves sight, smell, taste and touch. However, in mainstream anthropology of work, senses have been limited to descriptions of work rather than a form of work. Intimate labour, as I go on to argue centrally revolves around smell and touch however most theorisation around intimate labour has revolved around the blurred boundaries of productive and unproductive labour, and separation of home from work. This study is based on field work with a domestic workers’ union in Delhi in intermittent phases in 2014, 2015, 2018 and 2020. I show how smell and touch remains central to bodily forms of work such as domestic work. Drawing upon the narratives of domestic workers’ engagement with smells in their employers’ homes I demonstrate intimate labour involves working with smells, disaggregation of smells, sorting smells and removal of smell with smells thereby reproducing work hierarchy between those who can afford to produce smells and those who are left to clean smells because of gender, caste and class dispositions of domestic work in India.

South Asian University
Assistant Professor, Sociology