Talking about Care: Communicative Tensions That Make or Un-Make the Practice of Caring

Monday, 11 July 2016: 09:30
Location: Hörsaal BIG 2 (Main Building)
Oral Presentation
Jussara BARBOSA DOS SANTOS RAXLEN, The New School for Social Research, USA
Feminist thinkers have theorized “care” either as an ontological (Puig de la Bellacasa 2012) or as a normative ethical concept (Folbre 2014; Kittay 1999; Tronto 1993). Both conceptualizations argue that practices of care could remedy the social ills of late capitalist societies and the shortcomings of universalizing political projects that abstract political subjects from the social relations that constitute their own subjectivities. In the midst of such theorizing, in everyday life, “care” figures prominently and repeatedly as a hegemonic multi-purpose signifier to denote the provision of quotidian needs or to promote and legitimatize often un-caring practices. And, interestingly, right now, in New York City, two activist organizations of employers of care workers have started to use the concept of “care” as a central organizing principle. Evoking notions of mutual respect and interdependence between employer and worker, these organizations coordinate education programs that teach employers about how to be “caring bosses” inside their own homes. In coalition with workers’ organizations and with their efforts to transform home care work in ways that would mutually benefit workers, employers and care recipients, employers and workers jointly attend these programs, creating unique situations in which conversations about “care” occur. Considering New York’s global urban context, these joint sessions are remarkable and rare encounters in which middle class employers and minority/immigrant women talk about the meaning and work of “care.”

Using participant observation research, this paper examines the goals and contents of these programs and asks: What are the challenges and possibilities that such conversations about “care” hold? Analyzing the communicative tensions that emerge between universal-abstracted and specific-contextualized language in these exchanges, the paper argues that to talk about “care” without emptying it of meaning requires ongoing, attentive, responsive and time-consuming listening. That is, talking about care demands its constant application to its own enunciation.