‘I don’t clean up after myself’: epistemic ignorance, responsibility and the politics of the outsourcing of domestic cleaning

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In this article, I propose to look at the organisation of reproductive labour in the ‘global North’ through a lens of epistemic ignorance. Focusing on the process of outsourcing, I argue that it creates forms of irresponsibility, and with it, epistemic ignorance. The devaluation of domestic work and the degradation of domestic workers is shaped by gendered and colonial ideologies, and Western epistemologies. These epistemologies underpin a strong subject/object split and buffer the denial of existing interdependencies. I problematise those epistemologies by drawing on feminist care ethics, accounts of relational selves and relational responsibility, and alternative epistemologies. Grounding that discussion on vignettes from an in-depth study of heterosexual couples in Austrian households who outsource domestic work, I argue that the systematic failure to see what and who we are connected to in the domestic realm is shaped by gendered and racialised privilege, and driven by an epistemology of separation. My argument will unfold in two steps. First, I use the concept of the skin as an example of how the beliefs in an independent, autonomous self and a strong subject/object split disguise connectedness and relationality. This leads me to the second step, in which I explicate my notion of semipermeable membranes – a thinking together of ontological permeability and ethical responsiveness. I argue that active forms of ‘unknowing’ at work in ‘mundane,’ everyday, domestic performances have far-reaching consequences.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)25-45
Number of pages21
JournalFeminist Theory
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2020
Externally publishedYes


  • Domestic work
  • epistemic ignorance
  • gendered division of labour
  • international division of reproductive labour
  • outsourcing
  • permeability
  • privileged irresponsibility
  • relational self
  • responsibility
  • responsiveness

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