Caring democracy: current topics in the political theory of care

Caring democracy: current topics


In 2013, political care ethicist Joan Tronto((Joan C. Tronto is Professor of Political Science at the University of Minnesota, Professor Emerita at the City University of New York and initiator of the Care Ethics Research Consortium applied a care-ethical view to democratic theory in her book Caring democracy: Markets, equality and justice, and invited scholars from all over the world to think about democracy from a care-ethical perspective.

Petr Urban((Petr Urban, PhD, is Head of the Department of Contemporary Continental Philosophy at the Czech Academy of Sciences)) took up this invitation by organising the ‘Caring Democracy’ conference, with the aim of discussing current topics in the political theory of care in order to contribute to a more caring democracy. Hosted by the Institute of Philosophy of the Czech Academy of Sciences, the conference was held at the Karolinum, a historical building located in Prague’s Old Town.

The conference programme consisted of a keynote talk by Tronto and work presented by 16 experts from 11 countries. The conference attracted an international audience who actively participated in the discussions. The well-arranged coffee breaks and lunches were excellent moments for attendees to get to know each other and to exchange information.


Professor Joan Tronto delivered the keynote address on ‘Neopopulists and exclusionary discourses of care: towards a new politics of inclusion’. She started by stating that we should no longer see care as just a ‘practice’ and a ‘disposition’; we need to think of care as a discursive practice and as ‘an idea that functions in powerful ways’. In the first edition of the International Journal of Care and Caring (IJCC) in 2017, Tronto offered a critique of, and an alternative to, the political discourse of neoliberalism, noting that it is important to rethink the allocation of care responsibilities, but within a democratic framework. In her keynote address, Tronto paid attention to the discourse of neopopulism now evident in the US and Europe as new problems arise, and explained why it is a problematic framework while proposing an alternative one. Tronto explained that neopopulists can be characterised by their shared concerns, for instance, people who feel threatened by immigrants and call for additional security to protect society. She argued that we could not offer an alternative until we understand these beliefs within a discourse of care. To do that, we first have to look at those who vote for neopopulists, and why.

Recent research indicates that especially men, less educated people, those with religious affiliations and majority ethnic groups opt to vote for neopopulists, seeking security and economic protection, with neopopulist leaders responding to these concerns within a context of care: ‘Take care of yourself, blame others’. Tronto associates this discourse with a traditional breadwinner–caregiver model, that is, vulnerable women are protected by strong men who feel good about carrying the responsibility to protect their families. She stressed that we have to understand that neopopulists cling to familiar traditions out of fear. However, this traditional model of caring no longer works in an increasingly diverse society in which women and men have become more equal. Most importantly, this model creates greater levels of economic inequality and endangers democracy. Tronto posed the following question: ‘How can we offer an alternative to this old-fashioned model of caring and formulate a better argument from the political Left to challenge the neopopulists’ framework?’.

Tronto underlined that she does not yet have a precise answer to the question, but she does know that good practices of care and governmental change towards a more caring democracy will help. According to Tronto, care generates more care. She shared some examples showing how new spaces and conditions have created opportunities for strangers to connect and care for each other across racial, age and economic lines: senior citizens spending time in a childcare facility with the children of working parents; and people asked to invite their previously unknown neighbour to share a meal. In Tronto’s words: ‘We don’t need to be afraid, we need to be more caring’. Tronto’s keynote address encouraged us to think about a caring democracy as an alternative political framework to neopopulism, and showed how opportunities to create a more democratic society can be centred around care.

In celebration of the first ever annual CERC conference in Portland, USA this week the latest International Journal Care & Caring special issue is free to access until 30 September.


The two-day programme included papers on a range of topics addressing areas related to the political theory of care. At the end of the conference, Tronto summarised the contributions of the papers in three categories: (1) the conceptualisation and meaning of ‘caring democracy’; (2) ‘democratic practices’; and (3) ‘appropriate methods’ for researching topics in care ethics.

In the first category, Elizabeth Conradi’s (DE) paper reflected on conceptualisations of ‘care’ and showed that these often refer to either an ethical-political dimension or a welfare-resourcing dimension, with a tension emerging between these two dimensions. Conradi proposed to separate the dimensions analytically because they translate into different kinds of practical questions, and are sub-structed by different political goals. Brunella Casalini (IT) addressed another conceptual gap, that is, between two different feminist traditions on the meaning of care: one with a vocabulary of care; the other with a feminist vocabulary. She compared both vocabularies by analysing the differences and similarities, and showed how they could be merged. Using a more philosophical language, including Nussbaum’s notion of ‘compassion’, Justin Leonard Cardy (US) presented his work on a philosophy of love, titled ‘Civic tenderness: love’s role in achieving justice’.

In the second category, Helena Olofsdotter Stensöta’s (SE) presentation defended the welfare state as a historical institution that can, under certain circumstances, be seen as a caring institution. Petr Urban (CZ) also stressed the possibility that state institutions care, arguing that, ‘Oftentimes, the tension between bureaucratic and caring values in the practice of public administration is healthy and productive’. However, there were also presentations about state-oriented practices that are not so caring: Lizzie Ward described a disturbing situation concerning elder-care in the UK, which showed the risks and responsibilities inherent in self-funded care; she stressed that intense vulnerability is not a good bargaining position. From the viewpoint of poor women in Japan, Yayo Okano and Satomi Maruyama presented examples that made clear that these women do not have a voice. The lack of care and of the opportunity to participate in political debates on poverty conceals the poverty of these women.

There were three presentations on the problematic role of the state in the field of education. Pokorný indicated that the Czech government shows little interest in education, especially in the school as a niche of positive deviation. Adriana Jesenková presented examples of practices in Slovakia that show the deficits of democratic care, as well as the importance of diversity and pluralism. In a presentation on caring, education and democracy, Tammy Shel pleaded for more philosophy classes in Israel in order to teach students how to debate in a proper way. In the long term, this should benefit democracy in her country. Furthermore, there were presentations that provided alternative ways of developing democratic practices: Jorma Heier (DE) postulated that democratic care starts from social movements, rather than from politics; Anne Cress (DE) explored the critical and transformative potential of care ethics; and Kanchana Mahedevan (IN) raised a global postcolonial concern, namely, that care goes beyond the boundaries of nation-states and causes new care inequalities. Concerning caring practices, Veerle Draulans and Wouter de Tavernier (BE) presented their research on culturally diverse elder-care and the complexity of the intersubjective relations of recognition in this field.

In the third category, the focus was more on the question of how to conduct research on care. The research presented included a variety of methods: Pokorný promoted phenomenology; Jesenková argued for pragmatism; Clardy defended the use of cognitive science; and others used philosophical analyses in various forms (eg Casalini and Cress). Research by Okano and Maruyama (JP), as well as Draulans and De Tavernier (BE), focused empirically on social science data, and Lizzy Ward showed an example of how co-production might be a way to think methodologically about care.

Tronto’s keynote address and the papers presented show that it is a challenging (But not impossible!) task to move from a neopopulist to a democratic framework in which care should be central in our society. Tronto closed the conference with an urgent call to continue to refine the feminist arguments of care and to engage in broader public discussions on care as a research community, and invited participants to become a member of the Care Ethics Research Consortium (CERC) (see:

  • Honsbeek, K. (2018) Caring democracy: current topics in the political theory of care (23–24 November 2017, Prague, Czech Republic), International Journal of Care and Caring, 2(3): 449–52, DOI: 10.1332/239788218X15355318754221

Krystel Honsbeek

Krystel Honsbeek MA

Krystel Honsbeek has a background in social work, and received her Master’s degrees in philosophy (Tilburg University) and care ethics (University of Humanistic Studies). Currently, she is a PhD student at the Department of Geography, Planning and Environment at the Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands. Using a care ethical perspective, her research focuses on meeting care needs of older LGBT people in changing local care landscapes. Also, she is a social worker at autism organization Leermakers Zorggroep, and is a member of the editorial board of the Care Ethics Research Consortium.

Between Care and Terror

Care and Terror

Klaxon, an elektronic magazine about ‘living art in public space’, just published a special issue on Care and Terror. Last year, Joan Tronto spoke about this topic at a conference in Brussels. Now her contribution and others have been included in this issue, which you can dowload for free.


Confronted with terror, what can art do? “Care” was one of the options explored at Signal #5, here by Joan Tronto.

“My goal in this essay is to speak about care, and to show how this essential human practice can help us to cope with terrorism. At first glance, this must seem quite strange, since our first associations of care are with the intimate souci and soin, that go on in the household. What happens in such private settings surely cannot have anything to do with internationally motivated violence and disorder, can it?”

This Klazon issue also echoes artistic approaches that focus on interactive forms in society in the interest of the other, integrating the notion of care—without yielding to sentimentality in any form ((Klaxon 7: Between care and terror)).

Art facing Terror

See also our other post((Care and art in response to terrorism; Translated to English by Google Translate.)) with more on this Signal conference and this serie with more on art and care((Re-learn to look at art, research and care; Translated to English by Google Translate.)) (in Dutch). (For English, please use the ‘translate’ option of your browser or the direct links to the English translated pages in the below references).

Klaxon is an electronic Magazine about living Art in public Space

Klaxon reflects Cifas‘s interest for living artistic interventions in public space, an interest consolidated through the organisation of urban practice workshops, as well as SIGNAL, name behind which we organise on one hand, debates and workshops around practices and experiences of living art in public space, and on the other hand, urban artistic actions addressing Brussels’ urban fabric.

Six issues have been published focusing on living art in the city. Each successive issue examine this central theme from a different perspective.

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Joan Tronto

Joan Tronto

Interview with Joan Tronto, Professor of Political Science, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA.

1. Where are you working at this moment?

At the University of Minnesota.

2. Can you tell us about your research and its relation to care ethics?

I’ve been writing about care ethics for about thirty years.  My current research involves thinking about care from a global perspective.

3. How did you get involved in care ethics?

Two ways.  As a feminist scholar, I kept thinking about the political cost if women decided that they should join “the mainstream of American society” in “equal partnership with men” (as the National Organization for Women’s founding document put it).  What would we lose as a society if middle-class women became just like middle-class men?

I began talking to my students about my “feminist nightmare” when women, no longer constrained by the caste barriers that had kept them out of some occupations and professions, passed the caring work in society over to poorer women and men and people of color.  So I was paying attention to care as work.

On a more philosophical level, and I am trained as a political theorist, I was part of a feminist faculty development seminar at Hunter College in 1983. When we read Carol Gilligan’s just-published book, In a Different Voice, I was struck that the care-justice distinction there seemed parallel to a different philosophical moment. I was struck by the similarity between this difference and the one between Scottish Enlightenment philosophies and Kantian ethics. This parallel led me to think more systematically about care, as Gilligan and others were describing it, and non-Kantian models of ethics.

4. How would you describe care ethics?

Care ethics is both a moral and political concept that emphasizes the centrality of care in human life.  Democracies should support democratic care.

5. What is the most important thing you learned from care ethics?

Oh my gosh, there is so much to say here.
First, that ethics comes out of daily life, not in huge pronouncements of right and wrong from the sky.
Second, that one must look at all care activities from various perspectives, from the standpoint of receivers as well as givers of care.
Third, that there are not singular but plural answers to questions about what it means to care well.
Fourth that bad forms of care can deceive us into thinking unjust things are OK.

6. Whom would you consider to be your most important teacher(s) and collaborators?

My most important teacher in political theory was my dissertation adviser, Sheldon Wolin, whose work on the important of theory in an age in which thought becomes increasingly dessicated remains with me everyday.

I have learned immensely from Hannah Arendt, and Simone Weil, and my dear friend Mary Dietz, who is a scholar of their thought.  Carol Gilligan, Sara Ruddick, Virginia Held, Nel Noddings, and Eva Kittay have taught me so much.

My first most important collaborator was Berenice Fisher.  It took us two years to write the essay ‘Toward a Feminist Theory of Care’, in which we defined care and discussed the first four phases of care.  Selma Sevenhuijsen was my close interlocutor for decades and raised basic questions and brought insights to the study of care that are with me everyday.

Henk Manschot taught me to think about care from the perspective of the care-receiver. Guy Widdershoven has kept me well educated about developments of care ethics in bioethics. Fiona Robinson’s application of care in international relations helps me to think more globally.  Fiona Williams’s fantastic work on social policy is so insightful. Olena Hankivsky’s way to reorganizing care was important to me, as is her critique of care from an intersectional perspective.

Truthfully, I have learned so much from my graduate students and younger colleagues, too.  Among graduate students with whom I have worked on care ethics, Dan Skinner, Jocelyn Boryczka and Vivienne Bozalek have taught me so much.  And I keep meeting scholars from whom I learn so much all the time.  I’m afraid I’ve left some people out…

7. What publications do you consider the most important with regard to care ethics?

I’ll leave my own work off this list;  Carol Gilligan, In a Different Voice. I learn something new every time I re-read Ruddick’s Maternal Thinking.  Held, An Ethic of Care Kittay, Love’s Labor. Sevenhuijsen’s Citizenship and the Ethics of Care (though I like the Dutch title, “Judging with Care” better).  Dan Engster’s The Heart of Justice. Among recent books, I am fond of Stephanie Collins, The Core of Care Ethics.

8. Which of your own books/articles/projects should we learn from?

Even though it is over twenty years old, Moral Boundaries is still worth reading in its entirety; and Caring Democracy shows what care should look like in a more democratic society.

9. What are important issues for care ethics in the future?

In the most immediate future, there are a couple of key issues, all of which have to do with expanding the arena of care:

  1. Recognizing the connection between care and the struggles of disabled people, indigenous people, and others who are not fully included in society.
  2. Overcoming the parochialism and tribalism of the recent turn to the right in Europe, the USA, and elsewhere, which, of course, can be expressed as a care discourse.
  3. Recognizing the danger to care givers and receivers everywhere (that is, all of us) from neoliberal economic orders.
  4. Understanding how care operates to meet need differently everywhere in the world and trying to be attentive to all such forms of care.
  5. Finally, perhaps most importantly, our need to care for the earth.

10. How may care ethics contribute to society as a whole, do you think?

By reorienting us towards the things that really matter.

11. Do you know of any research-based projects in local communities, institutions or on national levels, where ‘care’ is central?

There are movements growing up everywhere, to improve the conditions of care workers, to strengthen the voice and rights of disabled people, indigenous people, to stop religious persecution, to make all feel welcome. Many of my undergraduate students have become more politically aware in recent months; we can hope that this continues.

12. The aim of the consortium is to further develop care ethics internationally by creating connections between people who are involved in this interdisciplinary field, both in scientific and societal realms. Do you have any recommendations or wishes yourself?

I am an optimistic person by nature.  I hope that the Consortium can reach an international audience at both the scholarly and political level.

Earlier, in 2009 we interviewed Joan Tronto on similar topics.

Joan Tronto

Joan Tronto is professor of political science and women’s studies at CUNY and author of Moral Boundaries: A Political Argument for an Ethic of Care.

1. Where are your working at this moment?

Currently I teach at Hunter College, CUNY, New York City. In September I moved to the University of Minnesota, Department of Political Science. (update 2011: Joan Tronto has moved to the University of Minnesota.)

2. Can you tell us about your research and its relation to care ethics?

My research is primarily theoretical, exploring the nature of the care ethics itself. Currently I am completing a book about the relationship of care ethics and democratic theory.
I have also been writing and thinking about the global trade in care workers and how that question should be approached from the standpoint of an ethic of care.

3. How did you get involved into the care ethics?

I read Carol Gilligan’s In a Different Voice in the early 1980s and I have been promoting these ideas ever since.

4. How would you define care ethics?

An ethic of care is an approach to personal, social, moral, and political life that starts from the reality that all human beings need and receive care and give care to others. The care relationships among humans are part of what mark us as human beings. We are always interdependent beings.

5. What is the most important thing you learned from the care ethics?

It is as important to realize that we are receivers as givers of care, acted upon as well as agents. This is a difficult position to understand politically, but strength and human cooperation can arise from our recognition of our mutual interdependence.

6. Whom do you consider to be your most important teacher(s) in this area?

My most important teachers are both feminist scholars of care, such as Carol Gilligan, Sara Ruddick, my co-author Berenice Fisher, Selma Sevenhuijsen, Virginia Held, Fiona Williams, Fiona Robinson, etc. I disagree in some fundamental ways with Nel Noddings, Eva Kittay, Michael Slote, Daniel Engster, but I find their writings inspiring.

Also, I am influenced by Foucault, and sympathetic to the views expressed by Heidegger, Levinas, Derrida, and other post-structuralists. My Dutch colleague Henk Manschot inspired me to think along these lines some years ago.

I also rely quite heavily on the account of meta ethics offered by Margaret Walker.

As a political theorist, I am a small “d” democrat. I find inspiration in the great writings of Marx, Machiavelli, Hannah Arendt, Simone Weil. But I am no follower of any of these thinkers in particular.

7. Which works in care ethics do you see as the most important?

This is a difficult question, I learn so much from all of the readings that I do. I read widely in the ethics of care in: philosophy, sociology, bioethics, political science, public policy, religion, geography.

I have read Annelies van Heyst’s Menslievende zorg with great interest. Several Canadian writers have been writing about care ethics from a policy perspective that is very inspiring: Olena Hankivsky, Paul Kershaw.

While Carol Gilligan does not use the language of “care” in The Birth of Pleasure, it is also an important set of perspectives on care.

8. Which of your own books/articles should we read?

Start with Moral Boundaries.

9. What are important issues for care ethics in the future?

I think an ethics of care needs to understand itself locally as well as globally, from the standpoint of the most vulnerable and most privileged receivers of care.

The next big question that I want to consider, too, is the nature of caring and uncaring institutions.

10. It is our ambition to promote care ethics internationally. Do you have any recommendations or wishes?

Just—keep up your excellent work!