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How a focus on care can open ordinary worlds, hidden in plain sight.

Refreshing web pages to get your parents a vaccine appointment. Texting a colleague to see how they are doing. Cooking food to drop off for a sick neighbor. Scheduling doctors’ appointments and play dates for the kids. Shopping. Chatting. Driving. 

Such mundane communicative and embodied actions can do much to expand our understandings of care and caregiving. Rather than eliding the quotidian, we want to encourage a renewed inspiration in the everyday. To do so, we put forward a simple definition of care—namely, providing for others—as scaffolding for ethnographic inquiry.

Bringing together perspectives from linguistic and medical ­­­­anthropology draws our attention to a variety of actions, contexts, forms of meaning making, and scales of analysis that can increase our attunement to the broader significance of concrete forms of providing for others—allowing the political import of care to come into view in new ways. The quotidian invites us to appreciate the inherent contradictions of care, the multiplicity of its forms, and ultimately its simultaneous necessity and impossibility.

How is language implicated in providing for others?

My (Lynnette’s) interest in the everyday of care emerged from work with transnational Salvadoran families who continue to provide for each other despite long-term cross-border separation. Everyday communication or mundane forms of language use play a vital role in this care across space and time (see Arnold 2020 and 2021 for detailed discussion of this communicative care approach).

Most obviously, language facilitates care, making possible material and practical forms of providing for others. Through everyday conversations, families make decisions about collective provisioning: whether to plant a milpa or buy corn for tortillas, when to sell or purchase livestock, how to celebrate birthdays and holidays. Remittances, perhaps the most salient form of transnational care, are made possible by delicate conversations in which indirect requests are made and answered. Such communication is inescapably shaped by global political-economic inequalities, made manifest in asymmetries of provisioning between migrants and their nonmigrant relatives.

Credit: Charlotte Corden
Illustration of someone grinding medication
Grinding medications in Chiang May, Thailand. Illustration based on the author’s photograph.

Beyond this facilitating role, language can enact care by creating and nurturing the social relations on which provisioning is based. Relational care is communicatively enacted when relatives in El Salvador record video greetings to send to their migrant kin. As relatives identify migrants in a particular order, referring to some by name (Luís) and some with kin terms (Luís’s wife), they prioritize remittance-sending migrants over their spouses or children, and often exclude nonremitting migrants altogether. Such video greetings thus envision and cultivate cross-border relationships of obligation through which those in El Salvador work to prompt continued remittances in the future.

Even as it facilitates and enacts care, language acts on the level of signification, constituting meanings for particular actions carried out by specific individuals in certain situations. Sometimes this meaning  

making is explicit, such as when relatives in El Salvador state that they are sending greetings because of migrants’ continued support of the family through remittances. Most often, however, this signification emerges implicitly from patterned communicative practices. For instance, those in El Salvador never request remittances directly, communicatively protecting relationships from the damage of ongoing direct requests. Instead, they tell stories that quote conversations in which a family member complains about a lack of resources. Migrants consistently respond to these narratives of reported complaint by offering to send remittances, or suggesting other sources of support. This regular pattern portrays both migrant and nonmigrant relatives as attuned to family obligations, though with differing care responsibilities. By communicatively instantiating a divide between economic providers and those responsible for relational work, language reproduces both gendered and political-economic inequalities.

While the context of cross-border care makes the role of communication particularly salient, the contradictory interweaving of language and care is evident in other settings. As contributors to a recent special issue on Communicating Care demonstrate, language is crucial to the ways care is enacted and signified in pediatric and elder care, global health education, and engagements with medicinal plants. Take, for instance, household relations in North America. When mothers in heterosexual partnerships are consistently the ones to carry out the communicative labor of scheduling doctors’ appointments and play dates for their children, they not only facilitate embodied care and enact relational care, but they also signify themselves as household managers responsible for care in ways that shore up patriarchal gender disparities in the distribution of care labor. 

Care in the form of social “harmony” in Thai contexts—trained by attention to collectives and group cohesion—is not only promoted by tradition but also politically engineered and ferociously policed.

The communicative facilitation, enactment, and signification of care are not separate but often simultaneous and entangled with one another. With care, as always, language is a form of social action that is fundamentally multifunctional, a means of doing more than one thing at the same time. 

Looking at care through the lens of communication therefore opens up insights into its inherent multiplicity. Feminist women deeply committed to dismantling patriarchy may find themselves enmeshed in regular communicative care labor that reinforces gendered inequality. And the nuanced communicative practices that transnational families develop for maintaining care across borders simultaneously nurture the relationships of obligation that make survival possible and iteratively entangle families in the inequities of the global economy.  Thus, care is fundamentally contradictory, acting to sustain life and to reproduce violence across scales from the interpersonal to the global. Care is impossibly incoherent, and yet becoming enmeshed in the dilemmas of providing for others is an inescapable fact of life.

The social training of awareness

My (Felicity’s) work has taken up questions of care in Thailand, starting with family caregivers providing for bedridden elders and opening up to care as practiced in more expansive social realms, from care for a group to care for the nation. Through descriptions of everyday care routines—bathing, feeding, bending, greeting, brokering, volunteering—I focus on what is done, the very gestures of providing for others, day in and day out. And much of what is done is habit. Can we then trace what people habitually attend to in their daily lives, and how social worlds train attention and responses in particular ways, as a route to understanding care in its many guises?

This approach disrupts, at least preliminarily, some of the psychological presumptions that abound in anthropological and clinical literature on care—including ideas about autonomy, sincerity, authenticity, and other valorized forms of internal orientation often portrayed as essential to good care. One can witness throughout Thai social worlds techniques for encouraging and embodying alternative touchstones in ritual and formal logics. For example, doctors, families, and friends tacitly agree, without asking or coordinating, to shield a mother from her terminal prognosis. A friend, knowing of another’s heartache, takes her to the movies. Norms of deference and distraction from emotional tumult reflect values of placidity and a sophisticated model of intersubjectivity that could easily be read singularly as manifest hierarchy and emotional suppression without sensitivity to local lineages of care.

My contention here is that particular sets of emotional and practical ways of being with people differentially count as care in different contexts. But to be clear, this is not meant to promote solipsism or a re-instantiation of an imperialist focus on an imagined “other.” On the contrary, investigation of care can open up ethical orientations and philosophical traditions that challenge the dominant frames. Habits of care decenter individual intention, which is often presumed to be at the core of ethical practice. The social worlds have encouraged me, following Theravadan philosophical traditions, to emphasize instead the nonagentic or passive aspects of moral life as lived. From this vantage, moral agency can productivity be understood as a function of habits of perception, which are themselves conditioned by social practice. Thus a focus on the everyday can help us tease out how political, social, and religious structures are embodied and continually resubstantiated in habituated practices of providing for others—and thus how the regulatory and disciplining mechanisms of institutions and the confines of embedded tradition manifest in ordinary, day-to-day care.

In our most mundane actions of providing for others, we are inescapably complicit in forms of violence large and small.

This extends beyond care between individuals. Close attention to care practiced in groups and as part of institutions, as in private lives, can bring to the fore social patterning implicit in everyday encounters. For example, in Thai public spaces, the height of one’s hands in common greetings or the placement of one’s head in relation to others is contingent on relative social status. Social cues, explicit education, and repercussions for missteps serve to influence which variables people attend to the most. Perceptions and appropriate responses are naturalized with repetition and ingrained in habit. Over time, people move their bodies automatically through space in accordance with such socially instilled values: providing for one another in group settings by following polite dictates and social norms. And yet, care in the form of social “harmony” in Thai contexts—trained by attention to collectives and group cohesion—is not only promoted by tradition but also politically engineered and ferociously policed. Historical depth and ethnographic sensitivity can help unearth competing logics of care present in such circumstances, allowing for an appreciation of how people embrace harms or instill damage in the name of care.

Conundrums of care

Attending to everyday forms of providing for others, whether in language or in habits of perception and action, complicates how we think about care. Rather than leading to a more definitive picture of what care is, the quotidian points us to inevitable conundrums of care. 

Care can do violence, and violence can also be felt as care. Indeed, habits of action in homes and at bedsides as well as in boardrooms and faculty meetings, can serve to continually reproduce power structures that directly harm us or that we ourselves, ironically, are explicitly attempting to dismantle. And yet we rely on these norms, feel cared for by them, and care for others under their frameworks. 

With care, no one is ever off the hook. We all provide for others in ways that make sense according to trained logics as well as human instincts, and in doing so, inevitably resubstantiate systems of oppression and dispossession in the process. Everyday actions of providing for others are easily caught up with harmful forms of provision, enacted or co-opted in such a way that they simultaneously care for and sustain patriarchal inequities, an exploitative global economy, and state violence. Whether in family phone calls or doctor patient consultations, in what is said and what is not said, in what is done and what is not, the everyday is riddled with clues of the imperative and the impossibility of care.

To see the ways that violence is built into care, the ways that our habituated actions continually signify differently than what we might intend, can be terrifying. In our most mundane actions of providing for others, we are inescapably complicit in forms of violence large and small. 

At the same time, this insight can also open up space for empathy, solidarity, and change. Righteous judgements can be tempered. Felt needs and obligations, however seemingly inimical, can be appreciated. And just as habituated actions reproduce old forms, new rituals of care can be forged, with the aim of embodying something new.

For example, queer and trans activists of color in mutual aid networks have taken up everyday care as a means of working toward and simultaneously living out another world of social relations based on liberation rather than exploitation. In another vein, climate activists and multispecies ethnographers are bringing attention to interspecies care and communication to change what is available in the discourse for political mobilization. Coauthorship too is a form of care that can break structural habits in academia and builds new ways of thinking and relating (as it is doing for us!). This work is imperfect and partial, even as it strives for ever greater reflexivity. So too are our anthropological analyses. Close attention to these everyday forms of care, combined with careful tracing of their emphases as well as their origins, can add not only deeper insights, but also a humility and sense of shared humanity to our analyses. As we work to understand the embedded violence of care, we too can embrace the generative potential of care and the new ways of living that its forms can and do create.


Lynnette Arnold

Lynnette Arnold is assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. She is a linguistic anthropologist who studies the communicative dimensions of care in transnational Salvadoran families. Her recent publications include an article in American Anthropologist and a special issue “Communicating Care” in Medical Anthropology (coedited with Steven P. Black).

Felicity Aulino

Felicity Aulino is a five-college assistant professor based in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. In her recent book, Rituals of Care: Karmic Politics in an Aging Thailand (2019), she explores habituated practices of providing for others, along with the transformative potential of such acts.

Cite as

Arnold, Lynnette and Felicity Aulino. 2021. “A Call to Care.” Anthropology News website, June 23, 2021.