OSS9104 – The Ethics and Politics of Care

Schedule, syllabus and examination date

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Course content

This seminar will examine the ethics and politics of care.  We will not begin with the presumption that care is a self-evident good.  Nor is our goal to posit a definitive theory of care.  Rather, we will treat care as we and our informants often do in our everyday lives: as a problematic concerning the distribution of moral responsibility across social, cultural, political and economic boundaries.  We will thus use the concept as a springboard into the ethnographic exploration of political and ethical life and of different governing regimes of life itself. We will consider ethnographic accounts of humanitarianism, care work, biopolitics, repair work, extinction, social reproduction, and other topics, exploring who is obliged to care for whom, with what effects, and in accordance with what moral/ethical logics, regimes of personhood, and modes of politicization.  Along the way we will also consider care in relation to other core concepts such as harm, giving, value, exchange, coercion, vulnerability, hospitality, sovereignty, responsibility, dependency and interdependency.  Ultimately, I am interested in cultivating ethnographic sensibilities around the question, How is care’s morality established in practice and how is moral responsibility assigned and distributed in different care regimes.  I would like us to speculate as well about why care has surfaced recently as both an object of ethnographic inquiry and a new moral and political imperative.

Learning outcome

By the end of the course, students will be able to:

  • Formulate research questions about care and explain how the concept has been used to open up specific lines of ethnographic inquiry.
  • Discuss and critically engage the care concept as it is used in ethnographic theory and writing;
  • Develop original ideas about the possibilities and limits of care as a concept; and
  • Write effectively about the care concept and related themes.



1. Moral Responsibility

  • Interdependence
  • In the name of the good: thinking care’s morality beyond Aristotelian virtue ethics
  • The harm in giving and the ethical impossibility of hospitality

2. Social Reproduction

  • Social reproduction and the choreography of care work
  • Crisis, dependency, freedom

3. Compassion

  • The critique of humanitarian reason
  • Liberalism and its Limits (The Problem of Compassion and Innocence)

4. Commensurability

  • Dispossession
  • Care as Commensurability 

5. Life and Death

  • Necropolitics and Extinction
  • Animal Life and Industrial Agriculture 
  • Why do we care about care now?


Access to teaching

July 5              Moral Responsibility

The Care Collective, Andreas Chatzidakis, Jamie Hakim, Jo Littler, Catherine Rottenberg, and Lynne Segal. 2020. The care manifesto: the politics of interdependence. https://rbdigital.rbdigital.com.

Davis, Elizabeth Anne. 2012. Bad souls: madness and responsibility in modern Greece. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Kittay, Eva Feder. 2001. “When Caring is Just, and Justice is Caring: Justice and Mental Retardation.”  Public Culture 13 (3): 557-580.

Robbins J. 2013. Beyond the suffering subject: toward an anthropology of the good. J. R. Anthropol. Inst. 19:447–62.     



Das, Veena. 2011.  Engaging the Life of the Other.  In Lambek, Michael, eds. 2011. Ordinary ethics: anthropology, language, and action. New York: Fordham Univ. Press, Pp. 176-199.

Derrida, Jacques. 1992. Given Time: 1. Counterfeit Money.  Peggy Kamuf, trans.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press.   (Focus on pp. 34-70, “The Madness of Economic Reason: A Gift without Present.”)

Derrida, Jacques. 2008 [1999]. The Gift of Death and Literature in Secret.  David Wills, trans.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press.   (Read pp. 54-81 in The Gift of Death, “Whom to Give to [Knowing Not to Know].”)

Foucault, Michel. 1990. The History of Sexuality, vol. 1, An Introduction. 1976. Trans. Robert

Hurley. New York: Vintage.

Foucault, Michel. 1988. The History of Sexuality, vol. 3, The Care of the Self. 1984. Trans. Robert

Hurley. New York: Vintage. 

Mattingly, Cheryl, and Jason Throop. “The Anthropology of Ethics and Morality.” Annual Review of Anthropology, vol. 47, no. 1, 2018, pp. 475–492., doi:10.1146/annurev-anthro-102317-050129.


July 6              Social Reproduction

Dalla Costa, Mariarosa, and Selma James. 1975. The Power of women and the subversion of the community. Bristol: Falling Wall Press Ltd. http://catalog.hathitrust.org/api/volumes/oclc/2376769.html.

Fraser, Nancy. 2016. "Capitalism’s Crisis of Care". Dissent. 63 (4): 30-37.

Katz, Cindi. (2006). Growing up global: economic restructuring and children's everyday lives. Minneapolis, Univ. of Minnesota Press.

Mullings, Leith. 2002. "The Sojourner Syndrome: Race, Class, and Gender in Health and Illness". Voices. 6 (1): 32-36.



Bookman, Ann, and Sandra Morgen. 1988. Women and the politics of empowerment. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Bowman, John R. and Alyson M. Cole. 2009. Do Working Mothers Oppress Other Women? The Swedish “Maid Debate” and the Welfare State Politics of Gender Equality

Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 2009 35:1, 157-184.

Brodkin, Karen. 1988. Caring by the hour: women, work, and organizing at Duke Medical Center. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Cooper, M. 2008. Life as surplus: Biotechnology and capitalism in the neoliberal era. Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press.

Davis, Dána-Ain. 2019.  Reproductive Injustice: Racism, Pregnancy, and Premature Birth. New York University Press.

de la Bellacasa, M. 2011. Matters of Care in Technoscience: Assembling Neglected Things.” Social Studies of Science 41 (1): 85106. 2011.

Engels, Friedrich, and Eleanor Burke Leacock. 1983. The origin of the family, private property, and the state, in the light of the researches of Lewis H. Morgan. Moscow: Progress.  Pay special attention to Leacock’s very important rethinking of Engels’ work in her Introduction.

Mullings, Leith, and Alaka Wali. 2001. Stress and resilience: the social context of reproduction in Central Harlem. New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers.

Roberts, Dorothy E. 2006. Killing the black body: race, reproduction, and the meaning of liberty. New York: Vintage Books.  (especially Chapters 6 and 7)

Smith, Susan Lynn. 1995. Sick and tired of being sick and tired: Black women's health activism in America, 1890-1950. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Willis, Paul E. 1977. Learning to labor: how working-class kids get working class jobs. New York: Columbia University Press.


July 7               Compassion

Fassin, Didier. 2005. "Compassion and Repression: The Moral Economy of Immigration Policies in France." Cultural Anthropology 20, no. 3: 362–87.

Miriam Ticktin 2011. Casualties of Care: Immigration and the Politics of Humanitarianism in France. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Ticktin, Miriam Iris. 2017. "A world without innocence". American Ethnologist. Volume 44, number 4, 577-590.



Arendt, H. 2006. On revolution. New York: Penguin Books. (Especially Chapter 2: The Social Question, 59-114).

Michel Foucault, 1978. “Right of Death and Power over Life” in The History of Sexuality, Volume I. New York: Vintage Books, 134-159.

Muehlebach A. 2011. "On Affective Labor In Post-Fordist Italy". Cultural Anthropology. 26 (1): 59-82.

Redfield, Peter. 2014. Life in crisis: the ethical journey of Doctors Without Borders. Berkeley: University of California Press


July 8              Commensurability

Angela Garcia, 2010. The Pastoral Clinic: Addiction and Dispossession along the Rio Grande. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Foucault, M. 1982. The subject and power. Critical Inquiry, 8, 777–795.


Judith Butler, 2004. “Violence, Mourning, Politics” in Precarious Life: The powers of mourning and violence. Verso: New York: 19- 49.

Foucault, Michel, Mauro Bertani, Alessandro Fontana, François Ewald, and David Macey. 2003. Society must be defended: lectures at the Collège de France, 1975-76. New York: Picador.  

Fanon, Franz. 1978. "Medicine and Colonialism." In The Cultural Crisis of Modern Medicine, edited by J. Ehrenreich. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Kittay, Eva and Ellen Feder, eds. 2002. “Introduction” in The Subject of Care: Feminist Perspectives on Dependency: Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield: 1-3.

Livingston, Julie. 2012. Improvised medicine: an African oncology ward in an emerging cancer epidemic. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Parrenas, Rachel 200 “The Care Crisis in the Philippines: Children and Transnational Families in the Global Economy” in Global Women: Nannies, Maids, and Sex Workers in the New Economy. Barbara Ehrenreich and Arlie Hochshild, eds. New York: Holt: 39-54.

Martin Manalansan, 2008. “Queering the Chain of Care” Scholar and Feminist Online 6(3).

Stevenson, Lisa. 2014. Life beside itself: imagining care in the Canadian Arctic. Berkeley, University of California Press.

Tronto, Joan C. 2013. Caring democracy: markets, equality, and justice. New York: New York University Press.

Zoë Wool and Seth Messinger, 2012. “Labors of Love: The Transformation of Care in the Non-Medical Attendant Program at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.” Medical Anthropology Quarterly 26(1): 26-48.


5/7      Life and Death

Blanchette, Alex. 2020. Porkopolis: American Animality, Standardized Life, and the Factory Farm.

Durham, London: Duke University Press.

Mbembe, J.A, and Libby Meintjes. 2003. "Necropolitics". Public Culture. 15 (1): 11-40.

Wadiwel, Dinesh. 2015. Biopolitics.  The war against animals. Leiden: Brill Rodopi. Pp. 65-126.

Wolfe, Cary. 2014. “A New Schema of Politicization”: Thinking Humans, Animals, and Biopolitics with Foucault” In Foucault Now, James Faubion, ed. New York: Polity, pp. 152-167.



Agamben, Giorgio, and Daniel Heller-Roazen. 1998. Introduction. The Politicization of Life. Biopolitcs and the Rights of Man. The Camp as the ‘Nomos' of the Modern. Homo sacer. Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press.

Clarke, John. 2003. "Turning inside Out? Globalization, Neo-liberalism and Welfare States". Anthropologica. 45 (2): 201-214.

Foucault, Michel, Mauro Bertani, Alessandro Fontana, François Ewald, and David Macey. 2003. Society must be defended: lectures at the Collège de France, 1975-76. New York: Picador, Pp. 239-264 (the rest is recommended).

Murphy, Michelle. 2017. The economization of life. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Sunder Rajan, K. 2006. Biocapital: The constitution of postgenomic life. Durham, NC: Duke University Press

Thom van Dooren, “Breeding Cranes: The Violent-Care of Captive Life” in Flight Ways: Life and Loss at the Edge of Extinction : 87- 124.

Waldby and Melinda Cooper, “The Biopolitics of Reproduction: Post-Fordist Biotechnology and Women’s Clinical Labor,” Austrian Feminist Studies, Vol 23, no. 55 (March 2008).


Final project. You are responsible for submitting a final project that demonstrates your critical engagement with the ideas and debates discussed over the course of the semester.  Your final project could be a research paper.  But it could also be something else – a grant proposal, white paper, journal article draft, or conference paper perhaps.  Group projects are welcome.  Whatever you do, the relationship to course content should be clear in it, and you should reference and cite course material extensively.  Do not submit a paper or project you have written for another course without asking me and the other instructor first.  Please submit a 1-page written proposal to me during week 1 (teaching week).  Then submit the final paper by 22nd of October.

Policy on Incompletes, Extensions and Late Work. If you cannot complete an assignment on time, please contact me pro-actively to request a short-term extension. Except in extraordinary circumstances and with proper documentation, Incompletes will not be granted.  After-the-fact requests for extensions and Incompletes will also not be considered.  Late work will be graded but I will return it without detailed comments. 

The Lecturer 

Jeff Maskovsky is Professor and Executive Officer (Chair) of the Ph.D. Program in Anthropology at the CUNY Graduate Center, and Professor of Urban Studies at Queens College.  

His research and writing focus on poverty, welfare, health, security and governance in the urban United States.  He is the author of the forthcoming monograph, Staying Alive: Poverty and the Fight for Life in the New Inner City (NYU Press), and co-editor of The New Poverty Studies: Ethnographies of Power, Politics and Impoverished People in the United States (NYU Press, 2001), and Rethinking America: The Imperial Homeland in the 21st Century (Paradigm Press, 2009).  

His current work explores the politics of race and the rise of right-wing populisms in the United States and elsewhere.  He is the co-editor of the new anthology, Beyond Populism: Angry Politics and the Twilight of Neoliberalism (West Virginia University Press, 2020).  

His work has appeared in many anthologies and in American AnthropologistAmerican QuarterlyAnnual Review of AnthropologyAntipodeCity and SocietyCritique of AnthropologyFocaalIdentities, and Medical Anthropology.

Facts about this course






5 July - 9 July 2021

Teaching language


Course fee

4000 NOK