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Associate Professor University of Göteborg

Public ethics of care

An interview with Helena Stensöta Olofsdotter, associate professor and senior lecturer. Her research focuses on gender, ethics, public policy and administration. “A public ethics of care: bringing ethics of care into public ethics research.”

1. Where are you working at this moment?

Political Science Department, University of Göteborg, Sweden.

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

I have developed the concept Public Ethics of Care (PEC) that contributes both to ethics of care research and public ethics research. Public ethics research does not incorporate contemporary versions of ethics of care, but uses it mostly as is intended to bring ethics of care into research on public ethics. At the same time it is intended to emphasize care concerns on areas of government that reached beyond what we commonly consider as care relevant.

Ethics of care

“Ethics of care has been my main theme in research during several years. I understand ethics of care theory as a way to capture citizenship and human ontology as necessarily involved in care-responsibilities, a notion with political consequences.
I have developed a theoretical model for how patterns of care-responsibilities on structural level may affect policies, a notion that I examined empirically in my dissertation and pursues in the project “why are gender differences in the Swedish parliament diminishing?” 1)Göteborgs universitet

3. How did you get involved with ethics of care?

I used the ethics of care perspective already in my dissertation. 2)Stensöta Olofsdotter, Helena. 2004. The empathetic state. Childcare and Law Enforcement Policy 1950 – 2000. [Den empatiska staten. Daghemspolitik och polispolitik 1950-2000]. Doctoral dissertation. Gothenburg Studies in Political Science No 80. Livrena (pp. 250).

“I argue that the concept of public ethics may serve as a vehicle for promoting care ethical concerns in practice. I develop the concept of public ethics of care, intended as a general public ethics, thereby expanding the scope of the ethics of care towards policy areas hitherto not considered care-oriented; such as law enforcement policy, prison management, as well as housing, infrastructure and environmental policies. I outline the argument theoretically and demonstrate how PEC may reshape concerns in practice.” 3)Abstract Public ethics of care (2015a) 

4. How would you define ethics of care?

I build on the notions presented by Joan Tronto on what care is, and how it can be comprehended as a four staged process. I have further defined the public ethics of care as:

  • Ontology: interdependence grounding the significance of relations building on a notion of interdependence that brings attention to the relations people are involved in. I defined relations broadly as consisting of relations between people but also between people and the environment as well as the future.
  • Purpose: to establish, nurture and protect relationships the normative goal of PEC is comprehended as first enhancing that relationships be established, thereafter to make sure the relationships are nurtured, and protected.
  • To enhance the purpose, a broad problem definition of assuming responsibility is necessary.
  • Judgement and decision-making is made in sensitivity with context.

I further elaborate on how PEC may be useful for implementation of policies by sketching different types of relationships. The following relations are considered:

  • Implementation of policies directly affecting citizens’ relations.
  • Implementation of policies indirectly affecting citizens’ relations by organizing the context of interactions.
    Here I include relations between persons and their environment as well as relations between persons and the future.
  • Policies may create a relation between an employee performing public tasks and a citizen, where the relationship can be
    • (a) voluntary or
    • (b) based on coercion.

5. Whom do you consider to be your most important teacher(s) in ethics of care? And what works in the ethics of care do you see as the most important?

I do not want to single out any particular person in a field where so many talented and ambitious scholars do great work.

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

  • Stensöta, Olofsdotter Helena. 2004. Den empatiska staten. Göteborg: University of Gothenburg Press.
  • Stensöta, Olofsdotter Helena. 2010. The conditions of care: Reframing the debate about public sector ethics. Public Administration Review 70 (2): 295–303.
  • Stensöta, Olofsdotter Helena. 2015a. Public ethics of care – A general public ethics. 2015. Ethics and Social Welfare 9(2):183-200.
  • Stensöta, Olofsdotter Helena. 2015b. A public ethics of care. Bringing ethics of care into public ethics research. In: Lawton, Alan, van der Wal, Zeger and Leo Huberts Ethics in Public Policy and Management: A Global Research Companion. London: Routledge.

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