Care, Gender, Justice: Alternative Care Arrangements in Formal and Informal Sectors

Photo: Vinoth Chandar, CC BY 2.0

The majority of welfare regimes in EU-Countries are organized in such a way that most care-work is managed unpaid in families, mainly by women within the traditional housewife arrangement or, if it´s affordable, outside of the family in nursing homes. However, nursing homes, as an alternative, are often rejected by families because the care often has the reputation of being unbearable and ´unemotional´ care and working conditions. The organization of welfare systems in EU-Countries relies on traditional divisions of labor between the genders and relieves the public sector of demands for care. This kind of care arrangement is increasingly unsustainable because of fundamental societal changes, such as: the decline of family networks and the transformation of the traditional nuclear family, as well as the demographic changes and the emergence of new social risks. These profound societal transformations are increasing the pressure on welfare states to develop viable policies for the regulation of care and care work. Especially for ´conservative welfare state regimes´ like Germany or Austria, a political reorientation is needed and new care arrangements must arise to meet growing demands. The search for a sustainable and gender-equitable organization of care arrangements is socio-political and for families urgent, especially if long-term care reaches a level where only temporary nursing is available for families needing ’24 hour care’, for example, families caring for someone with dementia.

In EU-Countries like Germany roughly two different care arrangements in paid care are recognizable: In a first arrangement the majority of support comes from domestic helpers, often illegal and mostly casually employed. These activities are partially taken over by temporary and short-term immigrants entering, mainly female, but also German workers, such as housewives, female pensioners or nationalized migrants. The second arrangement is created in the context of 24 hour care. This work is done almost exclusively by female migrants who often come into the country for this kind of care work and mostly live with the family as ´live–ins´, often poorly paid and -with little or no legal protection. But even if this care work is done by Germans, it remains predominantly in female hands. Both types of arrangements are found mainly in middle-class households.

Since the 1990s alternative care arrangements are emerging at the interface of ´state´, ´market´, ´civil society´ and ´family´. These care arrangements were originally initiated and organized by middle class families with a family member with dementia needing 24-hour care. For various reasons the families were unable to comply with the increasing care requirements. For example, locally administered share housing and care communities have developed ´bottom up´, seeking to offer alternatives to both family care and nursing homes. This new proposal aims to meet society’s rising care needs while offering adequate organization of care work. It takes into account the particular demands of those who are in need of care. In these alternative care arrangements inadequacies of the market economy organized care need to be processed by receiving familial patterns, which in turn places new demands on workers residents and relatives. Residential care communities are an example of how at present new care arrangements at the interface between ‘state’ , ‘market’ , ‘civil society’ and ‘family’ develop, in which the boundaries between the ´private´ and ´public´ spheres move and superimpose. Political parties are interested in these alternative care arrangements.

In capitalistic societies the idea of the family builds a sharp contrast to the idea of the public sphere: The family is regarded as a place of emotions, affection and selflessness It is the only place in society that defies the societal logic of profit maximization and rationalization. While the provision of care work and services in the family domain remains invisible in the societal context and is taken for granted, this work forms the basis for the capitalist economy. Moreover, in the demarcation between the two spheres, the boundary of gender differences and gender hierarchy is embedded. For this reason the boundary shifts between the spheres in care and care work which is interrelated with changes in gender relations.

At the level of self-descriptions of the residential care communities, the self-image of members, vulnerable people and caregivers blurs the boundaries between the so-called private and public spheres. Presentation of emotionality, attention and selfless care, that were previously displaced socially in the area of the families and which form a contrast and counterpoint to the rational market-mediated ´public´ spheres, can now be found explicitly in the ´public´ area, and thus outside the ‘private’ sphere and on the professional level of care work.

By residential care communities building their self-description more or less explicitly on the model of the family, the separation between the spheres is at least relativized and leveled. The reference to the social pattern ´family´ thus fulfills the function that care work can be delegated from the ´private´ sector into the ´public´, without negating and abandoning the specific needs of care and care work. This simultaneously demonstrates that the growing requirements are complying with professional performance. Whether and how the care giving responsibilities between the genders and between women of different origins are distributed depends on national and international policies, such as the migration, social, family, gender equality and labor market policies as well as on the proportions of informal, formal, professional and semi-professional care which are transported through them. A gender-neutral and fair organization of care and care work depends on whether care work outside the home or in private households happens in the future and also whether this confirms the formula that the more professional care work is organized the more often there will be male employees therein.


Birgit Riegraf is a professor of Sociology at the Faculty of Cultural Sciences, University of Paderborn in Germany. Her fields of research are feminist theories, methodology and methods of gender studies; theories of social justice and social inequalities; work and organizational sociology; theory of sciences and higher education. Email:

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