Historian Jocelyn Olcott: Assessing the Value of Caregivers During a Pandemic

May 4, 2020

Olcott discusses the relevance of her work on global care workers during the era of COVID-19.


Professor Jocelyn Olcott discusses material with students during her Economies of Care class. Photo courtesy of the Gender, Sexuality and Feminist Studies program.

-By Duke Global staff

Jocelyn Olcott’s international, interdisciplinary research focuses on caregivers – those low-wage workers who are responsible for our children, our elderly, and as the phrase suggests, taking care of us.

Olcott is a professor of history and the director of the Gender, Sexuality and Feminist Studies program at Duke University. Her latest project is part of a broader collaboration between Duke and the University of Exeter. To advance this joint research, the project has received funding from the Office of Global Affairs.

Olcott answered a few of our questions about her work, in light of the rapidly changing global health demands caused by the coronavirus.

How has the recent pandemic highlighted the issues confronting caregivers? 

As the current pandemic has progressed, the failure to ascribe sufficient value to care — including not only health care and dependent care, but also broader social, cultural and ecological care — has tremendous consequences not only for global health but also for society more generally.  

I’ve been really fascinated by the emergence of the term “frontline workers,” including not only those more conventionally recognized as caregivers but also drivers, grocery store workers, custodial staff, distribution center workers, etc. Our lives literally depend on all of these people, and they work in sectors that feminist economists have long considered part of the economy of social reproduction.

One of the defining aspects of care labor is that it is commodified in various ways – it is sometimes, but not always, treated as a good that can be bought and sold. Often the same people perform care labor in uncommodified, semi-commodified or fully commodified ways. So, someone might take care of her own children, provide childcare as part of an exchange arrangement and perform childcare for a wage as a public or private employee. 

Many researchers in our network are interested in the effects of this particular aspect — the ways in which relationships are shaped by their connections to labor markets. These dynamics are really set in relief in the current moment, as people try to navigate their paid and unpaid caring commitments, and the failure to value all this effort makes evident the need to reconsider our personal and collective priorities.

What practical outcomes do you wish to achieve through your work?

This project has always involved tacking back and forth between broader conceptual issues that have animated the study of care and more grounded considerations about how these conversations might inform policies and practices.  

The feminist economist Marilyn Waring famously pointed out over three decades ago that our current system of measuring value — gross domestic product (GDP) and the System of National Accounts — doesn’t actually count anything that really matters to us. A methodology for recognizing the value of all of this care would need to center more on time and labor rather than on commodity values. This type of measurement would form the basis for developing laws and policies that foster socially, culturally and ecologically sustainable practices, rather than a single-minded focus on economic growth that’s measured by increased productivity and efficiency.

Your care project addresses a global issue and is also being carried out by a global network of collaborators. How are you carrying forward your work under current conditions?

I’ve been in conversations with my collaborators, including Felicity Thomas, a senior research fellow at Exeter, to reconceptualize how to continue this project remotely. To be honest, we had always wanted to move in this direction anyway, since it seemed a little bananas to have a project concerned with ecological care that is flying people all over the planet.

One important change we’re making is to find ways to link the research aspects of the collaboration more with two other important objectives: teaching and broader distribution. Right now, we’re talking about ways to incorporate some Zoom-based workshops into a class (such as “Care in the Age of COVID-19”) that students might take for credit and others, including practitioners, civil society advocates and others, might attend as they find particular topics relevant to their own interests.