Robinson, Fiona 2011, The Ethics of Care: A Feminist Approach to Human Security, reviewed by Jennifer Hyndman (posted 14 July 2012)
Robinson, Fiona, The Ethics of Care: A Feminist Approach to Human Security, Temple University Press, Philadelphia, 2011, 200 pages, $24.95, ISBN 9781439900666 (http://www.temple.edu/tempress/titles/2048_reg.html)
I opened up Fiona Robinson’s recent book with excitement when I received it, as I was working on a paper linking human security and disasters and needed to think more critically about the human security literature. Robinson achieves this goal handily. She rehearses debates about human security, a concept coined in 1994 by the UN Development Programme and moves them into a more original context: that of care work. Certainly, the ‘ethics of care’ is a pressing global issue, as temporary foreign workers from poorer countries are imported into wealthier countries. They perform care work, from child rearing and housecleaning to community-based health care as seniors try to stay at home longer.
Robinson ably maps out the contours of scholarship in political science on both human security and the ethics of care. Coincidentally, Robinson’s book comes out of a Canadian university (Carleton) at a time when the Canadian Government has abandoned human security as foreign policy (Davis, 2009). Nonetheless, the concept still holds currency in UN and humanitarian circles. Robinson takes many of the usual categories for analyzing and applying human security (i.e. health, environment, gender, humanitarian intervention/peacekeeping) and works them into chapters around the ‘ethics of care’ theme.
Care work is and always has been highly gendered “women’s work”, and Robinson is careful to outline how this continues in sexualized economies and in relation to domestic work. She argues that “relations of care in a global context are constructed by relations of power determined primarily by gender, class, and race” (page 5). This argument is not new in 2011, however. I was surprised that there was little if any mention of ability, sexuality, and nationality in the global division of labour that care work imputes, especially given Robinson’s espoused interest in postcolonialism, discussed in Chapter 5. Nonetheless, she does an admirable job of bringing scholarship on masculinity to bear on her analysis, correcting for the longstanding mistake that gender somehow refers to women.
Robinson acknowledges the contributions of human geographers generally (page 106), but not feminist geography in particular. I was glad to see one piece of Vicky Lawson’s burgeoning work on care ethics included. Nonetheless I was surprised that no reference to Geraldine Pratt’s Working Feminism (2004), an outstanding contribution to feminist analysis of care work, is made. Pratt’s work is accountable both to the narratives of care workers from the Philippines, who come to Canada as domestic workers, and to the theoretical project of forging a transnational feminist framework in which the normative elements are not pre-given.
Live-in caregivers from the Philippines experience deskilling when they come to Canada with backgrounds as teachers, nurses, and bankers, but the hope of seeking Canadian citizenship is salient. Pratt explores the limits and possibilities of human rights discourse, noting that any form of the universal is “necessarily exclusionary but paradoxically holds within it the means to be challenged by those who are excluded by it” (Pratt, page 85). This paradox is evident in many political struggles, among them those of Filipina caregivers who live in their employers’ homes and trade their freedom and mobility for paid work. Pratt maps the ways rights are mobilized in different spaces: at the scale of the body, between the (private) home and (public) Canadian society, in the context of the Canadian state, and on the global commons.
I am quite convinced that Robinson would agree with Pratt’s critique of the universality of human rights, as she herself voices similar concerns about human security discourse: “I am well aware of the potential for human security discourses to become a technique of governmentality or a project of paternalism” (Robinson, page 130).
Geographers will appreciate the multi-scalar approach that Robinson takes in her effort to decentre the liberal state, its institutions, and the rights-bearing individuals who are its normal subjects. Robinson’s approach instead is “one that that sees individuals as existing in complex webs of interconnection – in families, neighbourhoods, ethnic and religious groups” (page 61). The relational subjectivity she advances unsettles much of the human security literature but also that of IR in general.
Robinson’s book is an impressive overview of the work of other scholars who address the ethics of care, such as Joan Tronto and Kimberly Hutchings, and as noted, provides trenchant critiques of the existing human security literature. Her argument is a subtle one: “A feminist ethics of care does not understand ethics as a set of principles waiting to be ‘applied’ … rather, it views the task of normative or moral theory as one of critical moral ethnography – a term coined by Walker” (page 115). And yet without situating such an ethnography in a particular place or society, it is difficult to fully apprehend how this would be done with people from various countries coming together on the global commons of care work.
While Robinson hesitantly forges the beginnings of a postcolonial critique, two concerns remain in my view. Where is the social mapping of who does care work in the global economy and the political implications of this? What about the nationality of care workers and the disparities that make such work appealing in her analysis? And while Robinson is critical of the individualistic democratic norms of liberal thought and practice, human security discourse is so ensconced in these liberal norms that even a feminist critique of human security is still complicit in the geopolitical assumptions that it implies.
I like Robinson’s critique of “democratic imperialism” (page 13), a result of liberal internationalism in her view, but I think that scholars too are susceptible to such projects. I would like to have read more about how we as scholars can skirt this oppressive politics while still using and writing about human security, a term that is an expression of humanitarian compassion, but is weak in application and discretionary on the part of states.
The Ethics of Care will be a welcome tome on my shelf, though a future survey of the empirically rich and theoretically sophisticated publications on the politics of care work would complement Robinson’s contribution.
Jennifer Hyndman, Departments of Social Science and Geography, and Centre for Refugee Studies, York University, Toronto ON M3J 1P3 Canada
Davis J, 2009, “Liberal-Era Diplomatic Language Killed Off”, Embassy, http://embassymag.ca/page/view/diplomatic_language-7-1-2009
Pratt G, 2004 Working Feminism (Philadelphia, Temple University Press)