On Thursday September 21, 2017 visiting scholar Parvati Raghuram of the Open University in the UK presented on Intersectionality as a method and Feminist Care Ethics. Hosted by York University’s Geography program and organized by Jolin Joseph through the Gender, Migration, and Contemporary (Im)Mobilities in Asia lecture series, the talk drew a wide range of scholars from varying disciplines, including a large group of graduate students, myself included (the promise of post-lecture food may or may not have also been a drawing point).
She historicized the topic of Feminist Care Ethics, relaying the ways colonialism has ordered care and the flows of “those who do the caring” and “those who are cared for.” Raghuram gave a broad picture of Feminist Care Ethics, sharing that feminist scholars have centered care as an important part of women’s and racialized people’s experience in colonialist and capitalist societies. Historically women have been placed in caring roles and often the assumption is that women’s caring work provides a normative and universal good to societies. However, the caring work and its devaluation has been integral to the maintenance of asymmetrical relations of power—a characteristic of colonialism. These histories of care also place white women at the pinnacle of the “caring hierarchy” as the most competent carers in relation to Black and Indigenous women and Women of Colour (BIWOC). Such stratifications of caring work are reflected in compensation, financial or otherwise.
Parvati Raghuram located the 1980s as a particularly significant time in the formation of Feminist Care Ethics and studies of care. Views on the topic have continued to develop as scholars and activists have considered women in relation to one another–such as middle and upper class white women mothers and the diverse carers they employ to care for their homes, children, and the elderly. Such relations mark those in proximity to white women as worthy of care, while BIWOC care-workers are away from family as they perform caring work for white families. These structures produce care deficits in certain communities.
In the 1990s, there were significant shifts in analyses of care as the focus moved from labour to affect and emotion. Scholars integrated questions about how affects structure, enforce, and interrupt relations of power in the context of caring work. Looking at affect may also interrupt pre-occupations over exploitation as carers offer counter-affects such as that they enjoy and are fulfilled by the work they do. This brings to mind Laura Agustin’s work on sexual commerce and the ways that sex workers often resist concerns over exploitation by explaining the freedoms and benefits of their work. In a world ordered by colonialism, racialized and otherwise minoritized women’s work options are always informed by various forms of exploitation and limited choices.
Another significant piece of “care competency,” a term Raghuram used throughout her presentation, involves not only race and class-based ordering but also cultural awareness. Across culture, care looks different and sets of affective structures are embedded in culture and language. Disability scholars have done a lot of work around this as well, showing that care competency may also be subjective based on abilities and disabilities. Therefore, what feels like caring in one context may not be caring in another. Further, care shapes identity. Your carers tell you who you are and what sort of care you can or cannot expect to receive.
Raghuram’s use of Intersectionality as a method to understand orders of care was an intervention into feminist scholarship and the ways we must flesh out the complexities of Feminist Care Ethic. While putting forward a Feminist Care Ethic can be useful in answering questions about improving care work, it needs to be developed in fulsome and context-specific ways. A primary concern of feminist scholarship is the ways our work can serve the communities we engage with. Prioritizing the service of community above all distinguishes feminist research from non-feminist scholarship. This priority shapes our approaches to writing, researching, and teaching. Raghuram noted that this concern is at the forefront of her mind, as she relayed her experience teaching incarcerated students through Open University and her concern that the communities she works with are able to access her writing—both in the sense that they understand what they’re reading and in her considerations of where to publish. As she argued, the communities we work with deserve fulsome, context-specific, and appropriate Feminist Care Ethics.
In responses to Parvati Raghuram’s lecture, the audience asked questions regarding care and climate change, hope in crises, and what to do about exploitative working conditions. Raghuram informed her audience that much of the austerity measures the Global North is experiencing in relation to caring work has already been done in the Global South and, as a result, it would be wise to look to the South as an example of how to do things differently and better as carers and policy-makers have a fuller view in the South. Additionally, in response to worries over exploitation, Raghuram encouraged her audience to keep in mind that while it is popular to research transnational flows, most caring work is done at home rather than abroad.
On the subject of the exploitative nature of caring work and ending exploitative working practices, I am reminded of the relevance of self-reflexivity as a feminist practice and interrogating relationships between researchers and the subjects of research. Checking our own worries and concerns about the wellbeing of our community-partners and those we research is important as our own feelings can be a barrier to hearing communities we’ve marked as exploited. I’m thinking of Chandra Mohanty’s and Gayatri Spivak’s interventions in White/Western dominated feminist scholarship that forces the “Third World,” Subaltern, and racialized woman to meet our standards of agency. As Spivak challenges in “Can the Subaltern Speak?,” much is lost when scholars center their subjectivities and cultures while producing knowledge and constructing “Others.”
Much thanks to York’s Geography Department and Jolin Joseph for organising and to Parvati Raghuram for the lecture. Raghuram continues to visit York and share some of her research and writing on gender and skilled work in the Information Technology industry as well as other projects with the Economic and Social Research Council.
Agustín, Laura Maria. Sex at the Margins: Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry. New York: Macmillan, 2007.
Mohanty, Chandra. “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourse,” in Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism, Chandra Mohanty, Ann Russo, and Lourdes Torres (eds). Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1991.
Spivak, Gayatri. “Can the Subaltern Speak?” in Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg (eds) Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, London: Macmillan, 1988.