Notes on Caring in a Technoscientific World

I recently had the pleasure of attending the Politics of Care in Technoscience, a workshop at York University that explored the concept of “care” in feminist STS. The opportunity to spend several uninterrupted days discussing papers with colleagues is a rare treat, and it made me nostalgic for my first years in grad school where my “job” mainly consisted of absorbing new ideas and discussing them with my peers.

Martha Kenney has already offered an excellent discussion in her blog post of the history of care in feminist theory and the various ways in which the workshop participants engaged the concept in different cases and contexts. So, instead of a more comprehensive discussion of the workshop’s themes, I will share a few notes on things that I hope to remember moving forward from the workshop.


1)   “Care” draws together many things and processes that are often pulled apart. One of the questions that the organizers put forward for us to consider was how care could be thought of and used as a research modality. This is a tricky question that has no one answer, but one of the aspects of this discussion that was generative for me was how using “care” as an orientation drew back in many things or processes that were often dismissed as irrelevant to the topic at hand. Carla Hustak and Natasha Myers’ paper directed attention to the affective and sensory aspects of scientific work that are almost always written out of stories of discovery; Michelle Murphy’s paper brought troubles and complications back in to “unsettle” existing historical narratives about global health problems; and Charis Thompson spoke about reattaching care to the “gifts” made by egg donors in settings like IVF clinics or research laboratories that severely constrain the exchanges, responsibilities, motivations and affects that can thrive there.

Thinking about care as a research modality has enriched the way that I am beginning to think about care as an empirical topic in my current fieldwork in cancer research. It is easy to be cynical when doctors tell you that they are motivated to do their work by the desire to cure cancer; but dismissing these affective expressions as irrelevant surely gives a flatter picture of the world of clinical research. At the same time, care in the hospital has a fraught history, and one that would also surely benefit from bringing back in concerns and cautions to “unsettle” the idea of what it means to care well for patients.


2)   Linking together the relational and the affective with concern and critique is important for our lives as academics, too. Many participants commented on the “caring” atmosphere of the workshop, and how they felt free to speak in ways that they might not normally: to use the first person in their papers, to draw on teaching experience to make an argument, to express their passion for their research topic, or to discuss families and hobbies (I had several good conversations about sewing!). The experience reminded me of this moving blog post on junior women in the academy, where the author encourages us to bring our “whole selves” to the job, including our passions for our research and our pursuits outside of work.

Academic culture often trains us to do otherwise. As Aryn Martin noted in her commentary, caring is often seen as illegitimate in knowledge production, and perhaps even in STS. I can recall well-intentioned advice from senior scholars to separate myself from my work so that I could learn to take critique more dispassionately, or to emulate models of academic engagement where you can shred colleagues’ carefully crafted arguments but still go out for an amicable beer afterwards. For those who argue that this is what it means to critically engage in academic work, I argue that the feminist science studies community offers a model for how academia “might be otherwise”—it is entirely possible to engage deeply and thoughtfully with academic work without pretending that there isn’t an author behind every paper who cares about the arguments he or she has put time into producing.

3)   The important lesson in moving from matters of concern to matters of care isn’t in the affective, it’s in the action. “Care” is a term that has strong affective connotations, which is part of what makes it a desirable term to think about in world that often separates out affect from the work of making knowledge or participating in political debate. But what I was more struck by through the workshop discussions was the power of “care” to reorient us towards practices and actions. As Maria Puig de la Bellacasa has argued, care “more strongly directs us to a notion of material doing” (90)—while we may be able to “act out of concern,” it is easier to understand and speak about care as something that we do rather than a quality that we hold. Continuing along these lines, she argued in her workshop paper that care should be thought of not just as a moral disposition, but as something that we become obliged to do through material entanglements. What I like about this description of care as a practice is that unlike many calls to action in academia that seem to suggest that we need more action (we need to blog more, volunteer more, engage more), Maria’s description of being obliged to care through material entanglements reminds me how we are all acting, all the time, through the mundane choices we make in day-to-day life. More is surely needed in some areas, but bringing attention to the way that we are already participating in the world around us is important as well.