Intersubjectivities of Care

Intersubjectivities of Care

By Timothy Carroll


The ‘Subjects and Subjectivities of Care’ conference was held on 14 October at UCL Anthropology. Co-organised by Jo Cook (UCL) and Catherine Trundle (Victoria, NZ), the one-day conference was an exciting, thoroughly enjoyable, and critically engaging opportunity to think through the dynamics of care. The intimate setting, with 8 presenters and 4 NPPs (Non-Presenting Participants), allowed for a friendly, informal environment. Here I offer a very brief summary of the key points of the papers given, and highlight some of the discussion that developed throughout the day.


The conference was, in my opinion, one of the best I have ever had the pleasure to attend. This was in large due to the open, amicable and collaborative nature of the participants, where no one had an axe to grind or a theoretical dogma to soliloquise. Instead, seven papers, each of which addressed the subjects and subjectivities of care in unique perspective, formed the structure for an emerging conversation. The papers were ethnographically driven, working with fresh – and in some cases ongoing – ethnography. The analysis was, at times, tentative and that aspect gave us rich data to sink our teeth into. The result was intellectually stimulating, and there was real growth in the development of the conversation through this process.


The day opened with the co-conveners, Jo Cook and Catherine Trundle, giving an opening paper that set the stage for what they propose as a shift from the givers of care to the receivers of care. Highlighting aspects of their own rich, and radically different, research environments, Cook and Trundle asked us to unsettle the notion of caregiving, in order to focus ethnographic and analytic energies at the recipients of care and their relationships to and through care provision. These opening remarks provided an important framework, and opened a long discussion about giving and receiving; a dichotomy that, it was highlighted, is problematic in its clean division, yet proved helpful analytically. Next, Anita Hardon (Amsterdam) presented a paper (coauthored with Helena Hansen of NYU) comparing three case studies from ongoing research on movements within illicit drug contexts that work to minimise harm and care for users’ wellbeing. Dynamics of trust and the impact of local legal framework comes to the fore in Hardon and Hansen’s paper, as in situ means of harm prevention rely on official attitudes toward drug usage and local customs of pursuing a hassle free high. Patrick McKearney (Cambridge) then gave a paper looking at the specific dynamics of care provision within adult residential care facilities, where care is not a project of self-cessation, as it is usually seen to be. The ethics of care comes to the fore in McKearney’s work, as the balance between coercion and care, and decision making which weigh long-term against short-term goals, put the caregivers and care receivers in awkward situations. Next Felicity Aulino (Amherst & Stanford) presented the group with a series of case studies and insights into Tai linguistic and cultural practices which expanded the ethical framework and subject-orientation to consider how local epistemologies impact what techniques of care can operate in medical contexts, and how these are impacted by larger patterns of quotidian practices of social care and respect. Jason Danely (Oxford Brooks) then spoke about the important role of gratitude in the changing family dynamics within a Japanese context where aging parents must shift from giving to receiving care from their children. Perveez Mody continued the focus on familial relations of care, examining the intergenerational and long term aspect of care and obligation that play out in forced marriages in the UK, highlighted the importance of temporality in care, and the entangled nature of coercion, family pressure, and love. In the final paper of the day, Emily Yates-Doerr (Amsterdam) examined medical interventions in Guatemala, highlighting the complex local, national, and global dynamics of care, reciprocation and the enduring legacy of health and nutrition research in highland Guatemala.

(From “The ChemicalYouth Project” at the University of Amsterdam” Organised by Anita Hardon)


(Fieldwork Photo from Jason Danely: Making Care Meaningful: Coherence, Worldview, and Burnout among Family Caregivers of Older Adults in Contemporary Urban Japan)

As the day progressed, and the dynamism of giving and receiving care was tested, complexified, and deconstructed, a number of important aspects came to the fore. The day’s schedule allowed for periods of discussion after each pair of papers, and then a final discussion session gave way to further discussion over wine and dinner. This allowed us to return to the developing group-think in intervals, each time with another excellent set of case studies to think through. In the end, a few important themes took precedence (at least in my reading of the conversation). The first was time, and different modes of time. This is both in the context of how different cosmological views of time shape the anticipated experience of care, but also how the in situ performance of care may radically differ from post hoc interpretation of care. The issue of trust also became a recurrent aspect, as care is more easily received from those one trusts, and the same action may be seen as care from one person but not from another, depending on how trust (and other similar affective dispositions) are engendered between people and toward institutions. Another important aspect was that of language, as different languages offer different, and often very useful, terms that fill in some gaps that arise in the English (and broadly Western European) analytical models. Closely related to language and temporality was also the issue of narration. Not only is there the issue of how an account is relayed, and who is able to recount personal narratives in what contexts, but there is also the fact that care provision follows anticipated narrative arcs. When these narratives are not fulfilled, it may give rise to further anxiety and be detrimental to people’s wellbeing.

(Photo from Emily Yates-Doerr – From her interview in

Toward the end of the day, we returned to the title of the conference, and after Cook and Trundle summarised their choice in ‘subjects and subjectivities’, I suggested that what they were after was ‘intersubjectivities’, as this word allows for the dynamic exchange between different players and participants within the context of care provision. It is important and exciting work, and Cook and Trundle are in the process of moving the collection of papers into a special issue. Weather this special issue will be called ‘subjects and subjectivities of care’ or ‘intersubjectivities of care’, or ‘placentas of care’ (another noteworthy suggestion, though the analytical model may need some explanation before it gains traction), it is a special issue well worth keeping your eye out for.


Along with the named contributors, the NPPs included Aaron Parkhurst, Rebecca Williams, Shivani Joshi, and the author. The event was sponsored by the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, Victoria University of Wellington, and the Anthropology Department, University College London.

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