Care and Caring. Can There Be a Theory and Research Agenda?

I’ve just returned from the University of Vienna, where some of the leading European researchers and postgraduate students from a variety of disciplines participated in a fascinating three day ‘ethnographic laboratory’, or research workshop, on ‘Practices of Care’. The workshop was an initiative of Prof Tatjana Thelen and a number of her Vienna colleagues. It was an exciting experience and a great honour to be invited as one of the international experts, along with Professor Joan Tronto from the USA, clearly one of the landmark thinkers in this field.

Photo: Syrian Refugees in Vienna, Josh Zakary. CC BY-NC 2.0

The presentations and discussions included a number of papers on aged care – but extended well beyond that to consider care in its various manifestations: from care of young children and people with disabilities, to care as a communal concern in the villages of Eastern Europe, on the streets of Paris and in the refugee camps along the Thai-Burma border. A range of disciplines were involved, from gender studies, anthropology and sociology to political science, legal studies and the health and paramedical professions.

Care is now recognised as an important topic in each of these fields, and many more. Yet it belongs to none of them. More seriously, I contend, with the exception of feminist theory, it remains absent from the conceptualisation and theory of major social theories, including economic discourses.

Care and caring are understood in the social sciences internationally as increasingly important. They are a fundamental and essential building block of human life. It is not surprising that social scientists are interested in it – what is surprising is that it was taken for granted for so long, and few questions were asked about its significance. Like women in history, care was hidden away and its importance ignored.

What should be the focus of care research? Like many of the studies in this field, much of the work discussed at the research workshop concerned specific types of care. But is care more than that? As Joan Tronto argued powerfully, care may be thought of more broadly. At the ‘most general level’, as she has famously proposed, it involves the concern for the wellbeing of ourselves, of others and for the world around us.

The basic axioms that underlie care theory are simple and yet profound in their implications. Without care, none of us would be here – there would be no society, no civilisation or human life as we think of it. Learning to pay attention to the way in which we organise to look after others and ourselves is finally being understood as important too – it is like a window of truth for looking into the way any society operates.

Similarly, the evidence – historic and contemporary, although varying somewhat in different social and cultural contexts, is that most of the work involved in providing hands-on care has long been assigned to women who, as mothers, sisters, maiden aunts, servants or domestic workers, have been assigned responsibility for care. Men have provided support to enable the women to care, and have also given direct care in many cases when necessary. In this, and in many other ways, care is fungible – a variety of different sources need to understood as potential substitutes. They often work together in complementary ways.

While research can’t yet promise all the answers, the questions we need to ask are themselves revealing. Who is responsible for giving assistance to those including young children who need help, supervision or guidance? Family and if so who? Paid services? Others? Why is it organised like that? How does that change as we attempt to meet exceptional needs, say for expert medical care, or ongoing care due to disability, old age, mental health or other problems?

But is it changing and if so, how? As we move away from industrial society in which employment for men has often involved heavy manual or industrial work, what are the opportunities for a new division of labour? How will changes in the balance between the family, market and state affect the way care is understood and provided in coming years?

The economics of care matter here, and these are part of the economics of everything else. Will the expanding market reshape and replace the personal aspects of care, so that the concern for making money dominates? Will unpaid carers continue? Or is care deeper and stronger than that? In a world in which keeping costs low matters, how can we look after careworkers and other care staff? How can we best look after the interests of unpaid carers?

On another level, we need to ask about the broader meaning of caring for strangers. As responsibilities for care have widened beyond concern for just the immediate family, can we develop a concern for the wellbeing of others that can guide us through the perils of the modern world?

This was a very real concern in Vienna, as unprecedented numbers of refugees from Syria and the Middle East arrived at Vienna station – many after quite horrific journeys, including fearful treatment in neighbouring Hungary. Should they be welcomed in Vienna? Or just helped on their way to Germany or somewhere else? Would a caring response be a welcoming one? Or should care be seen as temporary phase while the emphasis is placed on finding a pathway back to peace in Syria? These bigger questions were no longer just theoretical – they confronted Vienna in the week of the workshop.

So too do these bigger questions confront us in sociology and social theory. Just what is the significance of care and how should its acknowledgement change the broader understanding of social life? Developing a research agenda on this level is one of the core challenges. Any research agenda should not just focus on providing particular types of care, nor even on how we might use an understanding of care to liberate those who are currently exploited, neglected. A research agenda on care must also address the issue of how the need for care and how its organisation and provision reflects and in turns shapes social, economic and political life. This is not just an empirical and descriptive task. It is at once both imaginative, theoretical and urgent.

Fine_profileMichael Fine is an adjunct professor in the Department of Sociology at Macquarie University, Sydney. He has researched, published and taught on the sociology of ageing, social policy, care and human services for over three decades. His publications include A Caring Society? Care and the Dilemmas of Human Service in the Twenty-First Century, Palgrave/MacMillan, Houndmills and N.Y., 2007.


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