Digital mediation of reproductive and care work in India: research reflexivity and challenges

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Photo by Parijtha GP. A group of domestic workers unionist in India.

Over the course of the last year, we, at the Centre for Internet and Society, India, have been implementing a research project that unpacks the politics of digital platforms providing domestic services in India.1 This work is a part of, and supported by, the Feminist Internet Research Network led by the Association for Progressive Communications (APC), funded by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC).

Centering a feminist praxis, the project was designed on the foundation of principles of feminist epistemology and research. Three key principles were identified: intersectionality, reflexivity, and participation. Among other strategies, these aspects were incorporated in the methodology by working directly with Domestic Workers’ Rights Union (DWRU), a domestic workers’ union based in Karnataka, to undertake the research. We recognised that this not only allowed us to make the study design more participatory, but also leveraged the knowledge of grassroots actors with decades of experience in organising the domestic work sector. We had spoken about our performance of the methodology in an earlier blog entry.2

Three key principles were identified: intersectionality, reflexivity, and participation.

The pieces in this edition have each been authored by the four researchers we worked with: Parijatha G.P., Radha, Sumathi and Zeenathunnisa. They were participating in a formal research project for the first time, and have had no prior training in research. Their work, on the other hand, has been around organising domestic workers and advocating for labour protections. They are native speakers of Kannada, a language spoken most popularly in Karnataka. Despite that, Parijatha, Radha and Zeenathunnisa wrote their accounts in English, and we played an editorial role in finalising these pieces for the GenderIT audience. Sumathi’s account was originally written in Kannada, which was translated to English and then edited to form the piece in this edition; the original Kannada piece is included as well.

Following in the tradition of reflexively pondering over methodological questions, each article is an autobiographical account of their experience with the data collection phase of the research. The accounts especially surface difficulties in conducting research with informal labour in the platform economy, and discuss strategies they employed to deal with these challenges. The articles reflect on the complexities of the digital economy, which holds the potential to offer a more transparent pathway to domestic work with better conditions of work, while also reinforcing the inequality produced by the sector. The authors also raise questions about what it means to bridge the gap between activism and research, as knowledge production seems to only benefit the producers of knowledge without leading to social change.

Sumathi, in her article, writes about her hesitance with the proposed work and stepping out of her comfort zone to take the project on. She talks about the personal cost incurred in securing and conducting interviews, and how her interactions with domestic workers for the project varied significantly from her interactions with them through the course of her work with the DWRU.

Zeenathunnisa’s account raises compelling questions around navigating competing dynamics while undertaking research that caters to a range of stakeholders, in this case between platforms and the workers securing work through them. These questions have important implications for the ethics of research, especially when she talks about feeling like a detective at work. Her account further goes into detail about the process of devising strategies that convinced workers to speak to her, and how her work as a social worker came handy.

Radha’s account goes over strategies she employed to uncover various intersections of exploitation in her research, and the as well as how she grappled with thinking about the impact of digital platforms on conditions of work for domestic workers.

Parijatha’s piece largely talks about her struggle with trying to locate domestic workers on online platforms within her own network - given the small percentage of domestic workers that have digital access. She also discussed ways in which the digital economy reinforces unequal power dynamics between workers, intermediaries, and employers.

The articles reflect on the complexities of the digital economy, which holds the potential to offer a more transparent pathway to domestic work with better conditions of work, while also reinforcing the inequality produced by the sector.