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Tragedy of the CommonsI had the idea for Who Does the Dishes in 2011 while I was living in Brasilia, doing research for my dissertation on the politics of anti-hunger policy in Brazil. During my time there (October 2010 to July 2011) I lived in an apartment with three Brazilians. One of them, M, was horrible about doing his dishes and would leave his in the sink and on the counter for days at a time.

The other two roommates, R and J, worked full time for government ministries, but M and I worked from home a lot (he was going to school and teaching dance). The sink would fill up with dishes to the point where it became nearly impossible to do my own dishes without first doing some of the ones already in the sink. The photo at the top of this blog is a picture of that sink.

I tried avoiding the issue. I tried just doing all the dishes. I tried talking to R and J, who agreed with me but weren’t willing to push M hard, though J (the only female in the house) would give M a hard time about having to do his dishes.

It reached the point where I finally sent out a carefully worded email, which was even harder than normal to write because it was in my third language. I explained that the situation was causing me a lot of stress and asked if we could please just wash our dishes after we use them. M replied, apologizing for being forgetful. J replied with a joke about needing a special remediation program for M.

R’s girlfriend told me she was proud of me for having the courage to try to communicate my frustrations directly. She talked about having similar frustrations with her ex-husband but not communicating them to him.

And then not much changed.

Public art in Parque Olhos D'agua (my photo).

Unless I had something scheduled, I went for a daily walk in the late afternoon, enjoying a wonderful urban ecological park called Olhos D’Agua. These walks were a chance to process my thoughts, both about my research and about things like why M couldn’t just do his damn dishes.

Much of my anger stemmed from the unfairness of the situation, M’s violation of what I saw as a basic norm: if you make a mess, clean it up. M forcing others to do his work.

People often describe this situation as an example of the “free rider problem” (later I’ll break down how it does and doesn’t fit that concept). I attended Willamette University for my undergraduate studies. The politics and economics departments share a floor, and thus a faculty break room. Over the sink there was a message along the lines of “please help avoid the tragedy of the commons by washing your own dishes,” which seemed pretty appropriate given the two disciplines. So there were some useful concepts from economics for thinking about this problem.

I’d taken a graduate seminar in game theory, and had to pass an exam in it for my methodology minor, so it seemed natural to me to think in those terms. Indeed, M seemed to me acting a lot like Economic Man, rationally externalizing costs onto his roommates. So I thought about what kind of “game” we were playing and the payoffs and incentives involved. (If this language is unfamiliar, don’t worry: I’ll break it down in a future post).

But that’s just one way of looking at the problem, and it has its limitations. In conversations I had with Brazilian friends about this, some argued that part of the problem was men who’d grown up never having to do their own dishes because their mothers or maids always did their dishes for them. In other words, an argument about how they were socialized into particular habits, which cause problems when they live with roommates instead of at home.

I mean, we’re talking about domestic labor. Of course gender politics will be part of it. In the case of the maid, it’s also the politics of class, and, in Brazil, usually race. So we’ve already touched on three core concepts in social analysis: class, gender and race.

My most common response to the disaster that was our kitchen was to eat out. The greater cost, even with weak dollar and strong real, seemed worth it to maintain my sanity. This arrangement simply resolves the question a different way: part of paying for a meal in a restaurant is paying for someone to wash the dishes from the meal. So the question of who does the dishes extends to paid employment at businesses. In other words, we can ask the question about both the “domestic sphere” and the “public sphere.” This means we can use it to illustrate all sorts of concepts about the economics and politics of the division of labor.

And that is what I hope to do with this project.

Update 9/23/15: I recently had a meeting with a politics professor at Willamette, and took a photo of the picture in their break room to add to this post. I think this may be a nicer version than I saw about 15 years ago. I love it.