Opening Up the Trouble with Care…by Jade Vu Henry


Caring about emotions

Struggling with my doctoral research on the design and use of educational technology, I had the good fortune of stumbling upon “Matters of Care in Technoscience: Assembling Neglected Things” (2011) by Puig de la Bellacasa. I had adopted approaches in Science and Technology Studies (STS) to study a mobile learning project for Kenyan health workers but couldn’t figure out how to engage with a key feature of my ethnographic research: emotion. With prior training in epidemiology and statistics, I’ve been inclined to consider emotion as something akin to bias or confounding – a variable to be isolated and controlled for in order to distill rigorous, scientific accounts of objective phenomena.

Yet emotions loomed large in a pedagogically-rich digital learning project with aspirations for social justice in Kenya. They circulated through the lived experiences that connected community health workers, public health officers, development practitioners and UK academics. Emotions such as joy, hope, concern, outrage and disappointment shaped, and were shaped by, the trajectory of this mobile learning project and were attached to competing definitions of project success and failure. Emotions also infused my own research practices, engaging me as an active and accountable participant within a research collective, rather than a detached observer and chronicler of events.

Many researchers working for social change have alluded to these affective dimensions of their work, but these narratives have remained distinct from the theoretical and practical accounts of their technology deployments, appearing in the discussion sections of scientific papers (“future studies should…”), prefaces, epilogues, or as separate reflexive papers that recount their experiences in the field. The late feminist sociologist Susan Leigh Star observed how a similar bracketing of emotion often occurs in socio-cultural and philosophical accounts of technology:

[…] when we try to speak of our technological lives in a philosophical manner which includes experience, suffering, or exclusion, we are silently shamed – either within academia or within the swamps of convention. We are silenced, because people have been trained to turn away from intimate truths in places where technoscience lives […] The death-dealing words used to silence those who try to speak of this intimacy include “a bit confessional,” “that’s all very well, but where’s she going with this?,” “..and the point is?” (2007, 229)

Puig de la Bellacasa’s treatise on the ethic of care (2011) points to over four decades of feminist scholarship which not only corroborated my empirical encounters with emotions in technoscience, but also puts such insights into conversation with the work of critical social theorists such as Foucault, Guattari, and Deleuze. In doing so, this lineage of intersectional feminist thinking about technology offers distinct theoretical and methodological tools to analyze power critically while attuning to emotion, as well as to the “suffering, exclusion, manual labor, and invisible work” that has been experienced historically by women and other marginalized groups

Care is in Trouble

This feminist scholarship on “care” is therefore an ethico-political commitment to the marginalized, as well as an affirmation of the affective states of individual researchers and those that they research. Care is a critical analytic lens with which to both foreground oppressive structures in technoscience and to highlight neglected experiences:

Something might be wrong for those who are or make themselves concerned when technology reinstates interdependency as expendable, when promising labour-saving devices just displace human labour to somewhere else, or for a world in which most labouring ‘others’ have not been replaced by smart digital machines […],  Puig de la Bellacasa (2011, 94)

As Martin, Meyers & Viseu assert (2015), acts of caring through scientific and technological innovation are always fraught with the politics of colonial histories and neoliberal alignments, and need to be interrogated critically rather than conflated with positive feelings, sentimental attachments, moral values or inherently political “goods”. Murphy warns us further that “[w]hen affect is constructed as a pivot of a political or recuperative project, and when technoscience is invited to choreograph belonging or pleasure, or to assemble intimacy and rescue, this is a moment to remember critical tools and entangled pasts” (2015, 732).

In this light, “caring” is about holding on to a creative tension which affirms the affective relations necessary to sustain an interdependent planet, while remaining vigilant to how such relations can shift and calcify into oppressive hegemonic structures. Care is thus an ambivalent, dynamic, and contextual practice which, in the words of Donna Haraway, “stays with the trouble” by “facing those who come before, in order to live responsibly in thick copresents, so that we may bequeath something liveable to those who come after” (2010, 53).  But as appeals for a more caring society gain purchase in a damaged and increasingly volatile world, it (perhaps surprisingly) becomes more and more difficult to practice this form of caring.

Duclos and Criado make a convincing argument that “in spite of and perhaps also because of its rising popularity, the analytics of care is in trouble”  (2019, 1). They assert that in privileging the cultivation of positive, affective interdependencies, care now risks becoming simply “palliative” or “reparative” –  a “[…] placeholder for a shared desire for comfort and protection” which conceals “[…]the importance of antagonisms, exclusions, infinitudes, and terrors of many sorts in the historical shaping of care, its objects, and its practices” (Ibid., 1-2). Pointing to populist movements around the world, the authors argue that in the absence of more critical and reflexive engagements, care is too easily coopted by reactionary isolationist politics which work to entrench existing power asymmetries, serving as an anesthetic so that “what’s better collapses into what feels better” (Ibid., 8).

Careful Hacking for the Commons

I write this blog post as a post-doctoral researcher, in the wake of eight days of industrial action across 60 UK universities. I have to confess that right now I am feeling doubtful that academic critique can contribute to a better politics of care in educational technology and in open education. Yes, “care is in trouble” if we abandon critical tools, but scholarly critique in the absence of affective relationalities seems equally problematic, particularly now. Kelty has wryly observed that:

[W]hat should be clear from the fact that “critique has run out of steam” is not so much that it has run out of steam for academics, but that those in the world who regularly ‘invent the social’ were never really listening very hard to such critiques in the first place. It is quite possible that academic social science is just now emerging from a kind of legitimacy cocoon, within which critique seemed to be its main product, packaged in the butterfly garb of scientism or intellectual capital, and delivered to the world stage for everyone to gaze upon. (2018, 296)

As higher education reckons with a colonial past and staves off the incursions of neoliberalism, I ask myself whether my critical scholarship on care and educational technology is all a bit too theoretical, where am I going with this, and what is the point?

While it may be intellectually fashionable right now to dismiss the “imaginary” in educational technology as naïve, disingenuous, or deceptive, I need to articulate my own imaginary, my own set of “pictures and stories” (see Verran 1998) which underpin and motivate my critical engagements with educational technology and with feminist theories of care. I have found in this description of hacking by Kelty a promising yet pragmatic imaginary that points to how critical theories of care might participate generatively within the ecology of other knowledges and practices that constitute Open Education:

Now picture a hacker. No, not that one. It should be an ambivalent figure: white hat, black hat, Unix geek, Facebook employee, social engineer, GCHQ operative, hactivist, criminal, feminist, troll, gamer, maker: hacking comes in an under-appreciated variety of flavours today, ranging from morally repulsive to ideologically blinkered to creatively progressive […] At the heart of hacking is a certain commitment to critique through making. It is critique in a sense far more expansive than the kind that ostensibly belongs to ‘critical social scientists’ – it is more in line with what Foucault described as a refusal: ‘we do not want to be governed like that’ (Foucault 2007). So perhaps even more importantly, hacking is a particular kind of making – not the invention de novo (or creative destruction) of the engineer or economist, but a seeing-from within, a making-as-exploiting, a kind of making that requires dwelling within precisely those ruins of past attempts to invent in order to find the weakness, the opportunity or the precise place to build a critique […] It necessarily implies a collective, if not a social contract […]

So picture instead a collective of hackers. Perhaps something like the latterday multicultural Star Trek crew of the television series Mr. Robot where the diverse collective society is led by a smart, savvy, female hacker, and includes a black felon, a young Muslim woman, a (now token) bearded white guy, and, tying them all together like a hoodie-wearing Spock, is a mentally ill drug addict. Which is to say, picture not the anti-social adolescent hacker of media stereotypes but a more gregarious group of friends and lovers and neighbours, engaged in problem-seeking and problem-solving in the face of a complicated world duct-taped together by big and small corporate experiments, previous hacks and kludges, broken technologies and a conflictual mix of expectations about the future and how to achieve it. (2018, 291-292)

In this description of critique, I find compelling resonances with Helen Crump’s account of the commons as a mode of production, as a multi-layered plurality of practices that converge and diverge around a shared desire to decenter education and the privileges and power that it confers. As a newcomer to the open educational movement, I am looking forward to the OER20 Conference on The Care in Openess, and to locating myself within this diverse, if fragile, patchwork of scholars and practitioners as they “stay with the trouble” and engage, collectively, in the critical and reflexive (re)making of care and justice.

Jade Vu Henry ([email protected]) is a visiting post-doctoral researcher at the Centre for Invention and Social Process (CISP), at Goldsmiths, University of London. She co-convenes “Care In(ter)ventions”, a workshop series on the methods and the material practices of care in research. Her doctoral thesis is entitled: Theorising the design-reality gap in ICTD: matters of care in mobile learning for Kenyan Community Health Workers


Duclos, Vincent, and Tomás Sánchez Criado. 2019. “Care in Trouble: Ecologies of Support from Below and Beyond.” Medical Anthropology Quarterly, September, maq.12540.

Haraway, Donna. 2010. “When Species Meet: Staying with the Trouble.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 28 (1): 53–55.

“Interview with Susan Leigh Star.” 2007. In Philosophy of Technology: 5 Questions, 223–31. Automatic Press/ VIP.

Kelty, Christopher M. 2018. “Hacking the Social.” In Inventing the Social, edited by Noortje Marres, Michael Guggenheim, and Alex Wilkie. Manchester: Mattering Press.

Martin, Aryn, Natasha Myers, and Ana Viseu. 2015. “The Politics of Care in Technoscience.” Social Studies of Science 45 (5): 625–41.

Murphy, Michelle. 2015. “Unsettling Care: Troubling Transnational Itineraries of Care in Feminist Health Practices.” Social Studies of Science 45 (5): 717–37.

Puig de la Bellacasa, Maria. 2011. “Matters of Care in Technoscience: Assembling Neglected Things.” Social Studies of Science 41 (1): 85–106.

Verran, Helen. 1998. “Re-Imagining Land Ownership in Australia.” Postcolonial Studies 1 (2): 237–54.