Thinking of cultures with care: Introducing a special issue of Social and Cultural Geography on cultures of care
Thinking of cultures with care: Introducing a special issue of Social and Cultural Geography on cultures of care
Care is complicated and hard. To paraphrase social theorist Maria Puig de la Bellacasa, writing in 2011: it can feel good, it can do good, it can feel awful, it can oppress. Puig de la Bellacasa’s work was pioneering in drawing attention to how the complexities of care are entangled in ethics and politics, and formative in shaping both technoscience and different nature cultures. Ten years later, care is no longer neglected in social scientific research and there has been significant attention paid to the previously overlooked labour of those who care for humans, animals, and things. However, whilst more social scientists are ‘thinking of things with care’, there has been less attention paid to how culture is now a key part of discussions around how care is practiced within and beyond institutional settings.
This blog post introduces a special issue of the journal Social and Cultural Geography, which aims to explore what it means to talk about cultures of care and to think of culture with care. It emerges from conversations between Beth Greenhough and I about how to read the growing discourse around a ‘culture of care’ in our work on laboratory animal research alongside the other domains where conversations about a ‘culture of care’ are developing. Creating a good ‘culture of care’ is now an important component of the regulation of care across a wide range of institutional settings, including hospitals, care homes, schools, and workplaces, as well as in animal research. The term also circulates outside of these contexts, where there are questions about how care can be restructured, resourced, and nurtured, including in contexts where institutional support is being removed.
Like care itself, the idea of a culture of care is complicated and hard to pin down. Culture can be pinpointed as both the cause and solution to a failure of care. The idea of an institutional culture of care often emphasizes the importance of communication, connection, and empowering people to sustain care. However, acting on culture to affect change is uncertain and seeking to measure shifts in culture may involve techniques of audit that present a risk to care itself. Highlighting culture as the problem can also redistribute responsibilities for care from those with management accountabilities to those individuals who are most precarious within institutions. Different cultures around care may emerge at the margins, as institutions are stripped of responsibilities for care under austerity politics. National and local contexts, as well as institutional cultures, may shape assumptions around emotional labour, responsibility, and care.
As geographers, we anticipated a broadly comparative approach to mapping the ideas and networks that animate cultures of care across different settings would add to academic conversations about care, as well as facilitate learning between sectors. We set up a conference session at the Royal Geographical Society (with TIBG) Annual Conference in 2018 on ‘Situating cultures of care’. This included a wide range of papers, seven of which appear in this special issue of the journal Social and Cultural Geography. We want to thank all of the authors for their work in developing their conference papers into written articles, the supportive editorial team at Social and Cultural Geography, and of course all of the paper reviewers who cared enough to give their time to help. There are now attempts to bring a culture of care to academic publishing too, which includes making the hidden labour of review more visible.
The seven papers are now published online and will be collected into the print edition in 2022. We cannot do justice to their richness in a short blog, so encourage you to explore the articles themselves. Do get in touch with the authors, or us as editors, if you cannot get access to any of the following papers.
Three of the papers take up the challenge of exploring – with care – how culture is understood in this aspect of the regulation and operation of animal research. The paper by Nathalie Nuyts and Carrie Friese is focused on Communicative patterns and social networks between scientists and technicians in a culture of care: discussing morality across a hierarchy of occupational spaces. They add empirical evidence to assumptions that communication between scientists and animal technicians is important for creating a ‘culture of care’, and map how conversations about operational issues and moral concerns are distributed between different groups. Bella Williams looks at the wider networks in which a culture of care is embedded, exploring who is Caring for those who care: towards a more expansive understanding of ‘cultures of care’ in laboratory animal facilities. Bella’s work has been developed in close conversation with the sector and she has produced an accessible summary here as well. Emma Roe and Beth Greenhough address the tensions inherent in a culture of care in their article A good life? A good death? Reconciling care and harm in animal research. Drawing on longitudinal ethnographic research and in-depth interviews with junior animal technicians, they look at how care and harm co-exist in this sector, reflecting on the harms experience both by the animals used in research and the technicians involved in the process of caring for and killing animals.
Three further papers look at the complexity and marginality of care in different settings, reflecting on how cultures are shaped by institutional assumptions. Jo Little looks at the relations between violence, love and care in the provision of safe housing in her paper on Caring for survivors of domestic abuse: love, violence and safe space. Her work demonstrates the need to understand care within organizational structures and the wider cultural attitudes, interests and motivations that shape those organizations. She shows how attitudes towards survivors of domestic abuse include notions about romantic love and personal agency, which may limit access to safe housing and to wider cultures of care and support. Laura Colebrooke, Catherine Leyshon, Michael Leyshon and Tim Walker turn to the experience of those negotiating universal credit to write about how being ‘on the edge’ shapes cultures of care within third-sector organisations and housing associations in ‘We’re on the edge’: Cultures of care and Universal Credit. They are interested in how this ‘edgy-ness’ means practitioners who deliver care value outcomes that differ from those of the project funder. Gabrielle King uses her personal experiences of navigating institutional ethical review in fieldwork to explore what happens when procedures intended to protect research participants can cause harm to both researchers and respondents. She identifies the potential to move Towards a culture of care for ethical review: connections and frictions in institutional and individual practices of social research ethics.
The two sets of papers may seem divergent but running through both are themes around what care looks like from different perspectives, and how these viewpoints are connected or are disconnected with implications for who cares. In each, there are tensions between organisational visions that start with how a good culture of care is defined, how it might be regulated, and how it will be measured, and the everyday experiences of those practicing care. In contrast to the organisational overview, where there may now be a consensus about the importance of a culture of care, these everyday experiences are messy, contradictory, unavoidable, but also exhausting, and at times hard to manage.
The final paper, written by Rich Gorman and me, looks at what happens explicitly at the interface between the cultures of care, here between animal research and patient involvement. In When ‘cultures of care’ meet: entanglements and accountabilities at the intersection of animal research and patient involvement in the UK, we look at how moves to invest patient representatives with opportunities to shape care practices can be positive, but can also generate anxiety if not accompanied by changes that empower patients to make meaningful contributions to the things they are being asked to care for.
Returning to the work of Puig de la Bellacasa, we can suggest these articles help elaborate her suggestion that ‘care is embedded in the practices that maintain webs of relationality and is always happening in between’ (2017, p. 166). This is a special issue not about discrete cultures of care, which are easy to identify, measure, or compare. Instead, the articles demonstrate that each culture of care is a complex network through which care is expressed, extended, audited, and at times undone. However, we do continue to find the idea of a culture of care productive. It provides a platform for discussing how the connections around care also involve assumptions about responsibilities and accountabilities. As Rafferty et al. (2017) propose in their reflections on the NHS culture of care barometer, the culture of care has value as a concept for its performative functions and the belief that ‘culture changes by talking about it’. We hope that further work will follow to help us all think and enact cultures with care.
Colebrooke, L., Leyshon, C., Leyshon, M. and Walker, T., 2021. ‘We’re on the edge’: Cultures of care and Universal Credit. Social & Cultural Geography, pp.1-18.
De la Bellacasa, M. P., 2011. Matters of Care in Technoscience: Assembling Neglected Things. Social Studies of Science 4 (1):85-106.
De la Bellacasa, M. P., 2017. Matters of care: Speculative ethics in more than human worlds. University of Minnesota Press
Gorman, R. and Davies, G., 2020. When ‘cultures of care’ meet: entanglements and accountabilities at the intersection of animal research and patient involvement in the UK. Social & Cultural Geography, pp.1-19.
King, G., 2021. Towards a culture of care for ethical review: connections and frictions in institutional and individual practices of social research ethics. Social & Cultural Geography, pp.1-17.
Little, J., 2021. Caring for survivors of domestic abuse: love, violence and safe space. Social & Cultural Geography, pp.1-19.
Nuyts, N. and Friese, C., 2021. Communicative patterns and social networks between scientists and technicians in a culture of care: discussing morality across a hierarchy of occupational spaces. Social & Cultural Geography, pp.1-20.
Rafferty, A. M., Philippou, J., Fitzpatrick, J. M., Pike, G., & Ball, J. (2017). Development and testing of the ‘culture of care barometer’ (CoCB) in healthcare organisations: A mixed methods study. BMJ Open, 7(e016677), 1–8. https://doi.org/10.1136/bmjopen-2017-016677
Roe, E. and Greenhough, B., 2021. A good life? A good death? Reconciling care and harm in animal research. Social & Cultural Geography, pp.1-19.
Williams, A., 2021. Caring for those who care: towards a more expansive understanding of ‘cultures of care’ in laboratory animal facilities. Social & Cultural Geography, pp.1-18.