Caring about care infrastructures

5 June, 2019
Caring about care infrastructures Caring about care infrastructures

The concept of care means at least two things (Tronto, 1993). Firstly, it refers to caring for, the gendered and never-ending daily work of sustaining live that marxist feminism defines as reproductive labor (Orozco, 2006). This is often associated with caregiving and domestic work, but also professional care in hospitals, nursing homes, home care services, etc. The second meaning of care refers to caring about, it means being affected, concerned, even moved by something to which you are attached to. This is the ethical and affective dimension of care (Schrader, 2015). Drawing on this analytical distinction, my aim is to introduce CareNet as an attempt to turn an ethical concern for what usually goes unnoticed in care, its technical, mundane and infrastructural dimension, into a necessary research program in the advent of the multiple crisis we are going through. 

Care is a highly technical and gendered activity: It requires embodied technical expertise, techniques of the body, as Marcel Mauss (Mauss, 1973) called it, which at the same time are techniques of affects. Caring means learning to be affected and affected in a particular way, as the work of Ariel Horshchild (Hochschild, 2012) on “emotional labour” shows.

However, when we introduce the concept of technology in care practices, our attention is captured by the novelty of all sort of artifacts. All our interest goes to robot arms that feed people, rather than to the occupational therapists that adjust them to the eating preferences of their users. We are fascinated by the sensors and the digital interfaces that health and social care professionals interact with to make sure older people “age at home” well. The transformations that these sensors and interfaces unleash in their professional roles and in the relationship with family members and other caregivers seem to be less relevant (López Gómez, 2015; Pols, 2012). We are fascinated by the datafication of physiological or climatological activity, especially by the truthness and sense of control that it engenders. But we prefer not to pay attention to the complexities and messiness of their calibration, neither to the protocols and training that is necessary to produce accurate data. Even less appealing seems to be the social life of these data, specially when beyond the lab, accuracy worth less than expected in making a diabetic person changing their habits (Forlano, 2017) or policy-makers regulate pollution in a big city (Calvillo, 2018).

Much of the fascination exerted by these devices has to do with promises. In fact, technological development as a source of emancipation is probably the most ingrained promise in the modern world’s imaginary. It is everywhere, especially when investment in technology is presented as the logical solution in threatening scenarios. For instance, in they wake of the so-called grey tsunami, the dramatic increase of long-term care needs of aging societies, developing new innovative technologies to promote self-management and healthy behaviors adoption among older adults has become the recipe to avoid the eventual collapse of the welfare system. This is what most wearables targeting this cohort (Katz & Marshall, 2018), and new age-friendly architectures and urban designs (Buse, Nettleton, Martin, & Twigg, 2017) are pursuing. If these type of innovations succeed in making people healthier and active “agers”, age can be unmade in old age (Lassen & Moreira, 2014).

If we manage to make the environment programmable and responsive (Gabrys, 2016), for instance by making traffic lights and urban signals sensible for blind people as they walk, the promise of a more accessible and inclusive society comes true. Through these gadgets those who have been excluded because their bodies do not comply with the standardized ’normal’ body can adapt their environment to their functional diversity. Moreover, what works for the body, home and the city, could be extended to the environment in its most elementary aspect. With the help of small sensors we can monitor pollutants in the air so as to control and reduce our ecological footprint. As they are presented, these smart technologies not only seem to be solutions to better care for ourselves and the environment, but also to cuidarse del planeta, to take better care of silent and slow disasters, as they can be monitored, and make better decisions in the forecast of catastrophic geological and climatological events.

The Social Science and Humanities (SSH) have contributed decisively to the construction of these techno-utopian imaginaries, as they provide insightful narratives about how future societies could look like given current social transformations. However, in general, they have developed a greater attraction to the darker side of technological progress. The critical gesture is what usually constitutes us; this urges us to question the societal foundations of any peace of technology, what the machine tends to presuppose and reproduce in its operating scheme. In the case of quantified-self systems, for instance, this is the moral imperative of health and the capacity of conducting oneself as basic citizenship competence, which is not necessarily good per se and has been energetically contested by feminists studies for being an ideal that denies interdependence and vulnerability, and therefore contributes to downplay care as a crucial common good (Pié Balaguer, 2019). This is indeed the same critical gesture that makes us see in the automation and robotization of care the patriarchal, social and economical system that ignores care.

The main problem in care is that, since ethics and action can not be decoupled, its promises are as abundant and noisy as nightmares. We can easily go from fascination to fright, and this situation seems to make the pragmatics and materiality of technology and care lose their relevance. Both approaches leads us to consider the technical artifact a byproduct of a certain social organization and culture, more or less dystopian, which is actually what provides its meaning and purpose, and thereby what ends up grabbing our attention. The technicality of the artifact, its materiality, what entertains the practitioners (either engineers, carers or users), losses its importance in the face of these narratives. 


Interest in the boring things of care

Drawing on Science and Technology Studies and Techno-Scientific Feminism, at CareNet we have put forward one of the research program focusing on the technicality of care, taking into account those aspects that are usually unnamed within SSH and do not generate fascination nor fright. Following Leigh-Star, these aspects come together in the term “infrastructures of care” (Langstrup, 2013) whose study, as she says, involves “studying boring things”. “Infrastructure is both relational and ecological -it means different things to different groups and it is part of the balance of action, tools, and the built environment, inseparable from them. It is also often mundane to the point of boredom, involving things such as plugs, standards, and bureaucratic forms” (Star, 1999)

With this interest in the boring things of care, at CareNet we have approached processes of design and use of telecare technologies for older people (López Gómez, 2015) off-catalogue and DIY technical aids for accessibility politics (Sánchez Criado & Rodríguez‐Giralt, 2016), mundane practices of care as forms of enduring and healing in toxic environments (Tironi & Rodríguez-Giralt, 2017), mutual support systems and online platforms for social-connectedness (Beneito-Monagut, Begueria, & Cassian, forthcoming), as well as senior cohousing initiatives as supportive communities and networks of care (López, Estrada, Farré, forthcoming). As we become more interested in the infrastructural aspect, our focus shifts from social perceptions and narratives (elaborated by the different social actors) to the study of classification systems and standards deployed to measure, rank, plan and design, their genealogy and their pragmatic effects. We have also paid special attention to the materiality of artifacts and their affordances, what enables and disables and in relation to what bodies. Even in the case of sign ups and similar sort of data, rather than focusing on their abstract value, we are concerned about what they actually do: How something is recorded, circulated, combined and archived, that is, the web of relations that are made possible and impossible because of the circulation of these data. And last but not least, we are fascinated by routines, protocols and norms that organize corporal, affective and cognitive work, and how they make time and space in various ways.

In fact, as numerous studies have shown in the field of STS, it is precisely within the infrastructures where many of the ethical, political and social issues that interest social scientists take place. This is why infrastructures are never neutral or innocent, and neither is their study. As lab ethnographies have shown, scientists and engineers are doing politics (probably a different kind of politics) in the way they translate the world into inscriptions that can be combined and compared in a centre of calculation (Latour, 1987) or in how a green society is heterogeneously engineered as a result of assembling a battery in a car engine (Callon, 1986). These operations join together materially heterogeneous elements as as to configure specific worlds.

This political ontology also takes place in the field of care (Mol, Moser, & Pols, 2015). The definition of good or bad care, even that is considered care, attention, assistance, have much to do with these infrastructures. A case that clearly illustrates this is that of the independent life movement. As Sanchez-Criado’s work (Sánchez Criado, 2019) shows, this is an infrastructural struggle that aims to make visible the disabling standards of buildings, urban landscapes and technologies and denounce the harmful consequences this have on many bodies that do not conform to these standards. That is why it is so important for the independent living movement to build other standards with which to stabilize and make possible other ways of living independently: For instance, services that are organized and evaluated according to different criteria than “care” services (Moyà Kholer, 2018), or new standards of accessibility in buildings and digital environments, or even new literacy standards such as “easy reading”. It is not possible to understand what it means living independently without paying attention to those invisible and mundane infrastructures that make it possible.

Let me give you another example from the study of senior cohousing I’m currently conducting (MOVICOMA). In recent years, people in their late sixties are coming together to develop cohousing initiatives in Spain. They envisage them as an alternative to the two only living arrangements for later life people currently have: Either you move to a nursing home or stay in their own place with the support of home-care services (including telecare) and/or of relatives. The new cohort of people have different expectation with regard to later life so they want to live their later life with others, in community, not isolated in a nursing home and self-managing their services as they do not want to be a burden for their children. As it happens with the independent living movement, their struggle is infrastructural as the architectural standards and regulations they have to comply hamper the type of building and services they envision. The construction of these developments are indeed questioning the existing infrastructures for elderly care and residential care in Spain and new standards are emerging out of it.


Care, redefined

Caring about infrastructures of care is thus a process by which the limits of what is considered relevant, important, problematic or even characteristic of what we call ‘care’ are redefined. Drawing on the discussions we had in the workshop Radicalisation of care, this research program seeks to capture three different and transversal processes:

  • ‘Making visible’ practices of care that are usually disregarded;
  • Being sensitive to the ways in which different actors turn issues of care into public concerns;
  • Taking the materiality of care and the care of our material infrastructures as a political and ethical matter (López forthcoming, Latimer & López 2019)

This research program is not merely descriptive but also transformative, as it seeks to challenge the domains traditionally framing the “problem” of care. We aim to set the grounds for a productive encounter of different care practices and issues: Practices and problems that have been the object of concern of feminists, activists and scholars such as the distribution of care-work, the emotional, corporeal and relational dimensions of care; the definition of care as a practice, as work or as labor; or care as a political and epistemic matter; practices such as “help”, “support” or “personal assistance” that disability movements have crafted to contest specific forms of care and promote interdependent and ecological forms of independent living; new biomedical-based practices of care which are being co-produced by patient groups and other grassroot organizations; and finally practices such as design, maintenance, repair or waste-collection, which confronted us with the vulnerability of the material infrastructures that configure our social life.

By caring about care infrastructures we aim to unsettle care as a normative principle so as to discuss how and why care must or must not be made visible; how care is transformed into a matter of collective and public concern, and what repertoires of action, contestation and representation are mobilized; and finally, how care as a matter of public concern may lead to or is produced by the emergence of new practices, infrastructures and politics of care.


Daniel López Gómez

CareNet investigator at IN3 
Associate Professor in the Department of Education and Psychology
Universitat Oberta de Catalunya



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