The Theme of ‘class’ in care-ethical research

The Critical Ethics of Care research network of the Dutch foundation Critical Ethics of Care reflects on whether care-ethical research should engage more with the theme of ‘class’.

Dr. René Gabriëls (Maastricht University) was invited to give a lecture and present his ongoing work on poverty, Food Banks and emotions on October 3rd 2019.

Gabriels’ research on Food Banks considers the emotions of volunteers and recipients and the public discourse on the role of Food Banks in alleviating poverty.

This meeting, Gabriels first immersed the group in the thinking on social stratification in sociology (Marx, Weber, Bourdieu) and why ‘class’ is more relevant than ever. According to him, one should engage with the theme of class, because poverty is depolitized. The Food Banks provide an illustrative case: they are considered a form of charity for people in pitiful or blamable situations. This obscures the question of distributive justice: what are the causes of poverty in the first place? Poor people are deemed as a stand-alone problem, not as the outcome of a politics in which people are enriching themselves at the cost of others.

This in turn affects the interactions between Food Banks volunteers and recipients, and between recipients among each other. Due to the negative perception of poverty, those interactions are riddled with recipients’ feelings of shame and guilt. What is expected in public discourse to be a place full of warm and cozy benevolence, is in fact a place where people have to deal with the emotional costs of being dependent, being judged for being so and having to be thankful.

Gabriëls is also interested in the way ‘class’ affects these situations. He recommends to the group the BBC documentary series All in the best possible taste with Grayson Perry, in which artist Grayson Perry tries to find out what are typically ‘lower’, ‘middle’ and ‘upper class’ tastes in Britain today [[1]]. We can’t be neutral good-doers or clients, others see and smell our class and vice versa.

In the afternoon, Gabriëls presented his preliminary findings. This gave rise to a discussion between the CEC group and Gabriëls on similarities and differences in doing research with the aim of doing critique. Similarities were found in reflecting on the ethics of the relationship with your respondents as a researcher.

‘Class’ provided an anchor to think this through. Whatever your background, respondents are fully aware that you have a middle-class position in academia and that their voice will be a part of the publications that aim to secure your position. They can rightfully confront you by asking what’s in it for them.

It takes a lot of time and effort to build a good relationship and what such a ‘good’ relationship consists of remains contested. In spite of the ability of the researcher to relate, one should keep in mind how power imbalance operates in situations where researchers have more means to seek connection with lower-class respondents than vice versa. Care theorists add how breaking up such a relationship poses its own questions, how lives are interfused next to, and beyond the researchers’ initial goals.

Differences were found in the way insights concerning relationality (vulnerability, interdependence) should be related to social stratification, and what type of analysis has the most to offer for bettering (care) practices. At first, the CEC group and Gabriëls seemed to have a shared interest in emotions and their relation with praxis, but on closer scrutiny it turned out that Gabriëls and care theory disagree whether one should pay attention to what people do and how they account for it, or whether the reflection-in-action of deeds should be made explicit, together with the actors involved, by the efforts of the researcher.

A second topic of discussion was the notion of ‘ethical dilemma’. Gabriëls interprets the public discourse on Food Banks and experiences and perspectives of volunteers and recipients as situations in which people navigate the dilemma of charity versus justice. Care theory, however, is critical of the notion ‘ethical dilemma’: it is deemed too far off from the ethics in daily practices.

Last, strategies of critique were discussed. Should one seek to critique people’s conceptions and judgements, or let them become aware of other people’s position and their interdependence through experience? Should one aim to develop a critical macro-level analysis for bettering the future, or seek to foster the possibilities of the present situation?

When the session came to an end, it was concluded that ‘class’ is a very relevant topic for care theorists, but it provides food for thought how ‘class’ could be fruitfully employed in care-ethical forms of analysis.

The typically ‘lower’, ‘middle’ and ‘upper class’ tastes in Britain today according to Grayson Perry:
Working Class Taste
Middle Class Taste
Upper Class Taste

Featured image: Albert Anker, Die Armensuppe (1893)

About the author: Laurine Blonk

Laurine Blonk

Laurine Blonk is a philosopher and qualitative researcher, currently doing her PhD on volunteer services for older adults ageing in place. Since 2015, she has worked on various research projects concerning the civil society and care: community building and social initiatives, neighbourhood support, volunteer services, citizens' initiatives and active citizenship policies.

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