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Care: A New Way of Questioning our Societies

Par Joan Tronto
Publié par Clifford Armion le 15/03/2013
"In the United States, care became a focus of feminist research in the early 1980s. As “second wave” feminists realized that mere formal equality was insufficient, they began to think more deeply about what was required for the genuine inclusion of women."
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Joan Tronto, a professor of political theory at the University of Minnesota, is the author of numerous studies on care and gender, on women in American politics, and on feminist political theory. In Un monde vulnérable. Pour une politique du care (translated by H. Maury, La Découverte, 2009), she explores the devaluing of tasks that are essential but traditionally performed by women.
> Le Risque ou le care (traduit par F. Brugère, PUF, 2012)

In the United States, care became a focus of feminist research in the early 1980s. As “second wave” feminists realized that mere formal equality was insufficient, they began to think more deeply about what was required for the genuine inclusion of women. Feminist theorists noted that an elaborate structure for segregating public and private concerns served to keep care, activities often associated with women, servants, slaves, and others in the lower classes or castes, out of public concern. Care here refers to the actual work of care, to the values associated with caring well, and the fact that care relies upon the existence of ongoing relationships among people (and between humans and the non-human world). Even when care was part of, e.g., state-provided welfare provisions, it was not framed in terms of this actual, physical work and relationship of care. Instead, care was marked as “feminine,” but also as the concern of people from the lower-class, and from racial and ethnic minorities.

From the beginning, theorists of care began with the quotidian concerns of meeting daily human needs and insisted that such concerns were central to revaluing and reorganizing social life. Berenice Fisher and I described care originally as having four interrelated phases: caring about, (that is, noticing needs), caring for (that is, assigning or accepting responsibility for meeting those needs), care-giving (that is, the actual work of meeting needs), and care-receiving (that is, responding to how care has achieved its ends, and the ways in which every time caring needs are met, they begin the cycle anew). I further observed that the values associated with these phases are attentiveness (to needs), responsibility (in caring for), competence (in meeting needs, it is not a technical but a moral category), and responsiveness (to the caring process, all those involved in the process of care).

In this regard, care stands in stark contrast to other social and political theories, which presume the importance of economic concerns of creating resources, rather than starting from the endpoint of lived daily lives. Marxist theories of production allow for the obverse of reproduction, but continue to view these as separate spheres. Liberal and neo-liberal theories view household activity and care either as marketable commodities or as beneath the “public” sphere of the market. But the market and other economic institutions can either be in the center of social and political life, or they can be viewed as subordinate to other ends. Care theorists thus change our perspective when they ask, what happens when we put care, rather than economic production and the maintenance of its systems of power, at the center of social life?

At a deep level, I believe that one resulting change is to challenge types of “realist” social theories that follow the model of Max Weber’s sociology. For Weber, intentional human action has (often tragic) unintended consequences and the goal of the social theorist is to explicate and mitigate against these consequences. Responsibility is thus narrowed: actors have intentions and act to achieve their ends. Social problems devolve to others to address. 

In my recent short book, “Le risque ou le care,” I explore risk society as such a social theory. Risks, which are unintended consequences, are viewed as the great disrupter of contemporary life. In the case of “mad cow disease” as a great new risk, for example, there is no challenge to the conditions by which cows become diseased. Risk theorists never bother to note that there might be a connection between capitalist agricultural imperatives (which resulted in cows being fed parts of other cows’ nervous systems) and the greater threats of disease from processed food. But the danger of a social theory that concentrates on unintended consequences is that it never requires a return to a broader understanding of a problem’s context. It seems to close off any views of social forms of responsibility per se.

The starting point of care has a different ontology, a different epistemology, and a different account of social theory.

As an ontology, care posits that human vulnerability is as important to understanding who and what humans are. This is not to deny the importance of autonomous and willful activity, but such autonomy is an achievement, not a starting point. Humans are not only vulnerable and needy at some points in their lives, but throughout their lives, though with varying degrees of vulnerability over the lives and depending upon their abilities and social and economic status.

As an epistemology, care posits the centrality of starting from relationship, and looking at the ways in which needs are met in common. This epistemological starting point finds inadequate the assumption that individuals pursue social ends and produce external, unintended consequences. Instead, care consists of messy feedback loops, overlapping forms of responsibility, and requires the consideration of multiple perspectives (those of the cared-for and many care-givers at many levels). Care does not leave unintended consequences outside of its own process. Indeed, care theorists have identified two likely kinds of outcomes that must always be monitored: the dangers that care will become parochial (too local and concerned only with others in near proximity) and that care will become too paternalistic (i.e., that the views of caregivers will predominate over the views of those who need care).  Because these problems are considered within the framework itself, not unintended or remote consequences, the theory requires that participants within care processes, if they care well, consider them.

This more holistic form of social theorizing can be focused in on more narrow practices of care, or broadened out to include “everything we do to continue, maintain, and repair our world so that we may live in it as well as possible” (which is how Fisher and Tronto originally define care). Such a social theory may not provide immediate answers to the problems it uncovers, but it does help to clarify why feminist care theorists find their approach more generative of solutions than one that views the problem as one of “unintended consequences.”

Cette ressource a été publiée dans le cadre de la première saison du festival "Mode d'emploi", organisé par la Villa Gillet, qui s'est déroulé en novembre et décembre 2012.


Pour citer cette ressource :

Joan Tronto, "Care: A New Way of Questioning our Societies", La Clé des Langues [en ligne], Lyon, ENS de LYON/DGESCO (ISSN 2107-7029), mars 2013. Consulté le 29/10/2020. URL: http://cle.ens-lyon.fr/anglais/litterature/entretiens-et-textes-inedits/care-a-new-way-of-questioning-our-societies

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