Notes on: Zembylas M, Bozalak, V and Shefer. T. (2014) Tronto's notion of privileged irresponsibility and the reconceptualisation of care: implications for critical pedagogies of emotion in higher education. Gender and Education 26(3):200--214. DOI: 10.1080/0954025.2014.901718.

Dave Harris


Tronto is a care theorist.  This article looks at the implications for critical pedagogies of her 'political ethics of care'.  In particular, the notion of 'privileged irresponsibility' raises issues of power and privilege in the management of emotions and practices related to caring.


We have known for a while that care giving is a gendered form of labour.  Tronto sees carers practice and disposition, to do with maintaining and repairing the world.  Privileged irresponsibility extends the politics of care.  Tronto has argued that majority groups take their privileged positions for granted, and allocate caring responsibility to others, usually women or marginals.  Caring is both relied on and disavowed.  We can use this work to challenge moral and political frameworks underpinning divisions of labour, including teaching and caring.  We can also explore 'the "difficult" emotional knowledge arising from practices of privileged irresponsibility…  [Including]…  The feelings of moral indignation when care givers are treated unjustly…  Emotions of guilt and shame' when care receivers realise they have been complicit as practice of privileged irresponsibility (201). Caregiving work is still low status, and is devalued as a practice.


There are implications for critical pedagogy of emotion at HE.  This requires students and educators to interrogate 'the intersections among power, emotion, and praxis in society and education' (201).  Tronto will help us see how power and emotion interact with particular concepts of responsibility.  It also raises issues such as why he we can feel disgust towards the other 'often concealed under false claims of empathy and caring' and how we can 'objectify and sentimentalise the other'in a way which preserves privileged irresponsibility.  Emotional knowledge has been insufficiently addressed by critical pedagogues so far.


Tronto and Fisher originally saw caring as everything required to maintain and repair the world, including bodies, selves and the environment.  This might be too broad [!], But it is at least inclusive.  Self care is particularly important for gender and education, especially caring for teachers' own needs [including the need to publish are not always meet student needs!] It is important not to subsume the self while caring, and also to be aware of our own needs for care.  The definition is right to include environment, as a '"post humanist" perspective' (202), reconnecting us to the suffering of animals and how they might cause 'emotion and discomfort'[a south African study is cited]. Relations to the environment can help us develop 'imaginative and inclusive ways of thinking about relationality , connectivism and attachments in pedagogical contexts' (203), with a reference to Braidotti.  The definition takes care to be an emotional practice, in the Marxist sense of human engagement, something 'crucial for human life'.  As a practice, there is a necessary political social and emotional context, which cannot simply be devolved on to particular groups.  It follows that ' some caring practices may be superficial and sentimental if they do not challenge inequalities'.  The broad definition helps connect human flourishing to the environment and to social justice, and this [somehow] justifies embracing rather than glossing over feelings.  Finally, care becomes a collective activity not just a dyadic one, and this helps support 'collaborative teaching and learning practices'[all a bit forced and bolt on here].  Overall, this broad definition helps us to challenge conventional notions of care, including 'seeing the educator as expert' instead of 'engaging with many and different sources of authority in epistemic communities…  That challenge hegemonic views on care'.  [So it can be read as a radical practice, but there is also some notion of adjustment to social conditions?  A politics of care not a politics of protest?].


We can use Tronto's discussion of moral elements to form an evaluative framework to charge current caring practices.  Tronto says that care involves five phases and moral stances: (1) 'caring about'(204) noticing that people have needs which ought to be addressed, invoking the moral element of 'attentiveness', the opposite of active ignorance and denial. (2) 'caring for', taking responsibility for meeting people's needs, as a moral matter of responsibility, more than just 'obligation and duty'. (3) 'caregiving', involving 'competence'as a moral quality, the opposite of a 'learned incompetence…  A way of avoiding menial caring tasks' such as pastoral care. (4) 'care receiving', where we have to be responsive to the care giver, and this might involve, in education, assessing whether students have gained their goals…  'This can be equated with lifelong learning where learning is a continuous process'. (5) 'caring with', depending on 'the moral qualities of trust and solidarity'(205), and these might be important as the basis for subsequent struggles against privileged irresponsibility.  [Real portmanteau stuff here, with all the fashionable causes crammed in.  Rather sinister Foucaldian undertones with care defined in a rather narrow way, leaving out granting people independence, for example and made universal].


All these phases are required for Tronto, although they are 'inevitably involve conflict', for example when care givers are not adequately resourced [which must be virtually the case all the time].  The second moral element of care, responsibility, might be focused on in particular, especially as it seems to help us understand privileged irresponsibility and how to contest it.


We start by realizing that care givers are usually under-recognised.  Caregiving is clearly connected to gender other forms of inequality, as when migrant women workers fill the care gaps in wealthy countries, as with child care.  Powerful groups have avoided their responsibilities, for example not even acknowledging that these practices go on.  Tronto says this is a way of getting out of responsibility, or demonstrating privileged irresponsibility, where privilege helps us ignore hardships.  This can take the form of devaluing the contributions of the care giver, trivialising or ignoring them.  Privilege is also supported by constructions of dominance, including hegemonic masculinity [welcome back!  Haven't seen you for a long time]—real men don't care.  [Lots of literature is summarised displaying the usual contradiction, that although masculinity is constructed in different ways, it seems to remain hegemonic.  The key is 'the conflation of masculinity with notions of strength, resilience, and independence…  In opposition to vulnerability and care seeking'(206).  So care remains feminised.  Tronto adds some more issues—men see themselves as protectors of women, which makes them subordinate, and offering 'masculinist non-caring" care'[so is this care or not?]; dominant groups are interested in acquiring economic resources and arguing 'that they should be exempted from caring responsibilities' [assumes that caring is nothing to do with providing economic support?]; caring only for those close, a kind of privatized care, which ignores wider forms of activity and exploitation; seeing care as a matter of personal responsibility, as in neo liberalism generally, and holding individuals personally responsible for their vulnerability; charitable giving [always an evasion?] [We can clearly see the notion of care that is privileged {SIC} here—personal, generalised, nothing to do with economics, or with organised professional charities].  These practices help us [men?] to remain ignorant about the real pattern of care and how central it is, how everyone benefits from the gendered division of labour and so on.  Some misguided female teachers even think that they 'benefit from working with young children on the assumption that this is their vocation as women'.  We must break with these rationalisations and develop instead 'a sense of our collective social responsibility for care'(207).


Critical pedagogies of emotion have arisen from an awareness of the importance of emotion in higher education and critical pedagogy [largely citing Zembylas].  Much critical pedagogy by four overlooked the emotional aspects of difficult knowledge such as 'trauma, oppression, racism'.  The entanglement of emotions, structures and inequalities needed more investigation.  Privileged irresponsibility stands in the way of this, including the importance of trust and solidarity: moral responsibilities can be ignored, and it can be assumed that other people are tending to them.  Ignoring emotions causes harm and this is 'also deeply emotional'(208).  For example, female teachers who are treated badly can demonstrate 'the emotion of moral indignation', but this can be dismissed by men as irrational, a further justification for women's subordination [lots of references].  An adequate critical pedagogy of the motion can see how this anger has been constructed, and what its consequences might be.  [I go along with this to the extent that it is a way of calmly discussing emotions instead of just dismissing them or fearing them, but the argument is pretty tenuous in general.  Strategic demonstrations of emotion are not discussed either].


We can also trace practices and dispositions about hearing to social structures and 'socially constructed identities'.  This can 'urge us to reconsider existing policies and practices of care', for example understanding emotions of shame and guilt when care receivers notice the social position of their carers [maybe...  This seems to be a suggestion that care receivers can also develop privileged irresponsibility].  We should be interested in how schools and other institutions try to eradicate shame, by erasing history and sanitising wounds.  We need to reconsider shame and guilt in a more productive way, for example as a way into critical reflection and 'renewed action' (208) towards responsibility and attentiveness.  In HE this would require 'a critical and sustained engagement' with feelings, their consequences, and what might be done to transform the impact of the past.  It would be a way of critiquing neoliberal notions including the view that personnel are personally responsible, especially towards those who are already unequal and excluded.  Of course, we must 'not dismiss personal responsibility altogether', or but context it and deny neoliberal versions.


In this way we can take a critical stance towards ideas and practices that ignore emotions and the emotional consequences of privileged irresponsibility.  It will help us see how emotions are linked to caring responsibilities, and how these have been evaded by privileged groups.  We can see how work places and organisations help to sustain hegemony, for example by dismissing moral indignation, or trying to eradicate shame 'via an erasure of history of privileged irresponsibility'(209). We can offer both analysis and 'action - oriented possibilities', to counter hegemonic emphasis on some emotions while ignoring others.


A critique of 'the entanglement between power, emotion and responsibility' is been a major contribution of critical pedagogy of emotions, addressing important issues such as the movement of migrants and how they are included or marginalised.  An emphasis on the politics of care can see how vulnerability is constructed and managed, and responsibility allocated differently.


Dewey [no less] warned that sometimes compassion will lead to paternalism which infantilizes and objectifies.  A focus on emotions connecting them to action will avoid such simplistic and essentialist moral categories as 'that of "good" vs. "evil"' (210).  These categories can lead to a sentimental account of the suffering of others which evokes pity rather than action, voyeurism and passivity [reference to an earlier piece,.  One outcome is charity.  However, overall the picture is one of complexity, including ways in which compassion is allocated to different groups, how power relations produce responsibility and irresponsibility, and how power structures are supported by 'emotional investments and emotion - informed ideologies'.  We should be 'seeking to make a concrete difference in the lives of marginalised groups'.


In conclusion educators and students need to consider their own conception of caring responsibilities and irresponsibilities.  They might wish to interrogate 'emotions of anger and resentment among care givers'.  They might reconsider the caring responsibilities of privileged groups.  They might want to ask how 'emotions such as indignation shame and guilt become the point of departure for trust, solidarity and social change'(211).  Above all, they need to consider the issues in 'social ethical and political terms'.  Caring is so important, that it might be taken as the central issue, and we can see how it is bound up with inequalities and their production, especially gender.  It will help us challenge 'the binaries of masculinity and femininity', and the denigration of those who care.  If we challenge privileged irresponsibility, we can 'create space for the transformative potential of reconstructing caring responsibilities for all citizens'.  It has been helpful to discuss Tronto's work because of its ethical and political dimension, and because the educational context shows a particular formation of caring responsibilities.

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