Cycles of Care: Reflections on Strangeness

We recently held a fantastic event at Queen Mary School of Law in London, with presentations from a number of individuals based on the chapters they have written for our forthcoming edited collection. The papers highlighted how care operates in a wide range of contexts (Ireland-UK abortion travel; HIV/AIDs care in Africa; UK mental capacity regulation; parental leave regulation in Europe; carer regulation in the UK) and spaces (e.g. the home; older age residential care provision; provision for individuals with cognitive disabilities; rural communities; homeless street life; animal rescue centres) in many different ways (informal/formal; voluntary/paid; a blurring of each) and with different actors (e.g. human, animal, environment). Despite, or perhaps because of, this spread of spaces, places and players, a number of fascinating shared themes emerged, one of which, highlighted in particular by participant Donatella Alessandrini was that of strangeness, ‘strangering’ and unfamiliarity.

Ruth Fletcher spoke about stranger-care in the context of abortion travel, locating her analysis in the context of Sarah Ahmed’s work on strangeness (1); Sue Westwood spoke about the feared spatial dislocation into older age care spaces of strangeness and exclusion which concern older lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) people; Abigail Baim-Lance spoke about degrees of stranger care in local and extended communities, and the tensions which can exist between formal and informal stranger care; Rosie Harding spoke about the current constructions of UK mental capacity legislation which positions the individual as separate from, and almost a stranger to, her/his personal community/social network; Marie Fox spoke of the abandonment of animals by humans who are not strangers to them, and their care (even at the point of euthanasia) by humans who are; and Helen Carr spoke about companion animals and homeless individuals in the context of the ‘otherness’ of street life. All of these papers spoke to the importance of relationality, context, and the power dynamics which can operate in situations of both strangeness and familiarity.

At the same time the theme of resistance to strangeness also emerged. Ruth Fletcher showed how hosts of Irish women travelling to the UK for an abortion sought to make them welcome and at ease in their own homes and how supporters sought to make the process less unfamiliar (and so less daunting to them). Abigail Baim-Lance spoke of the control of state healthcare systems of informal community carers and the resistance of individuals with HIV/AIDS and their families to the use of formal medication regimes with the use of alternative (ineffective) herbal medicines. Marie Fox spoke of the resistance by volunteers in animal rescue shelters who try and rehome homeless dogs who would otherwise be put down. Helen Carr spoke of how companion animals and homeless individuals can become ‘home’ to one another and as such resist traditional, materialistic, notions of home. Rosie Harding proposed a return to relationally in mental capacity legislation, resisting notions of the autonomous adult. Sue Westwood suggested that a combination of the power dynamics of older age care spaces and age-related dependency upon others placed constraints on older LGB individuals’ capacity to resist heteronormativity and homophobia.

Each of these papers demonstrated in different ways how caring can be both a response to and resistance of strangeness, the unfamiliar, powerlessness and oppression. Marie Fox spoke, at the end of the day, about a man responsible for killing homeless dogs. She described how he both demonstrated a lack of care in his attitude towards killing them, yet a presence of care and compassion in how he did so, and a striking presence of care in how their bodies were incinerated afterwards, being concerned about its implications for our humanity and humane-ness. Marie’s paper highlighted the complexities of care and caring and how it can be a layered and nuanced thing, one which also requires – as all the papers at the event showed – similarly layered and nuanced analyses.

Ahmed, S. (2000) Strange encounters: Embodied others in post-coloniality. Psychology Press.

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