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Care and Culture: A Q&A with Jason Danely

December 20, 2016 • By Jason Danely Care and Culture: A Q&A with Jason Danely

Should policymakers provide care for those who provide care for others? What can be learned from approaching human history from the standpoint of care and compassion? These topics may not be the first to come to mind when we think about the social sciences, but perhaps they should be. Jason Danely, a senior lecturer of Anthropology at Oxford Brookes University has been exploring these very questions through his project “Compassionate Human Values: Enhancing Life and Futures of Global Aging.” Here, he discusses these questions of care and compassion and how he applied them to his pedagogy in his recent course “Culture and Care.” 

Tell us a little bit about your research for the ELP and explain the public relevance of your research.

My research for the Enhancing Life Project is looking at care of older people in two different cultural settings: Japan and the UK. As I began this research and started thinking about this in terms of enhancing life, I really wanted to explore the idea of compassion and how that idea can be applied to improving the experience of caring for an older family member. I think being able to care for an older family member with a certain amount of spiritual, meaningful feeling behind it, and being able to support that caring as a society, would be a really powerful way to enhance people’s lives. My project, which has immediate public relevance for carers, should be something accessible to them, and something that they’ll want to read, so I’ve been asking carers in Japan and here in the UK about what kind of a book they would like to read about this. I also want this to be something that care providers and policymakers and others who are supporting carers or family of carers are going to be able to learn from, be inspired by, and generally feel supported by. 

Are there specific policy implications which might be tied to your research – public policy, medical policy, legal policy, etc?

The cases of Japan and the UK are interesting to compare because in Japan, there’s a really rich culture around compassion, care, thinking about others, and being with others in suffering. However, there’s very little formal institutional support for carers—they’re sort of on their own, and perhaps that’s because there’s this cultural assumption that you can just take up the job and be able to do it. I think that’s a problem—there definitely needs to be much more support for carers in policy. On the other hand, in England, there are specific policies in place that are directed to helping out carers, so they’re able to get some resources that they need. However, there’s not as rich of a culture around caring and compassion, so a lot of people aren’t sure how to make sense of it. Japan and the UK are two cultures that could really learn from each other. This is an issue where cultural exchange will be critical going forward into the future: lots of societies are aging around the world, which will impact how different countries and groups interact with and understand each other.  

There are many different audiences for a scholar and I know one of yours is in the academy, when you teach a course to students. What was your Enhancing Life Studies course about?

 My Enhancing Life Studies course was called “Culture and Care”. I wanted to get a really broad look at what care is in the human experience, and so in order to do that we had to go as far back as we could. We started by looking at nonhuman primates’ capacity for empathy, communication, cooperation, and fairness. We looked at how they care for each other, compared to how we care for one another, to try to look at the evolution of care. Then we brought the focus into our own lives, and thought about these questions from a psychological point of view, from an ethics point of view, and from a more philosophical point of view. We looked at care in medicine, at care in humanitarian organizations, at child care, elder care, care of people with disabilities, and in all of these things we tried to get examples from different ethnographic accounts, so we weren’t looking only at care through time but care across different cultures. 

What were your goals for the course?

I think the way that social science is often approached is through power struggles, whether you’re looking at sociological Marxist conflicting power struggles, or at human evolution through survival of different species and competition. There’s a general picture that life is about competition and struggle—care is out there, but not as serious or important. I wanted to give them a sense that, yes, it is as serious and important. If we're looking at what humans are, at what is humanity, it's important to look at care as a fundamental thing that makes us human, and to maybe restore more of a balance between care and competition. 

Who were your students and what did you have the students do? 

It was about 34 undergraduate students in their 2nd or 3rd year. Most of them were anthropology students, with a handful of psychology students. There were three main tasks that we did together. One of those was keeping a care journal. I wanted them to then take time to reflect on their experiences from the point of view of care—to think about care, to write about it in their own way, and to be creative. Another of the main tasks was a mini field work assignment. The students went into a place where care was happening, and they observed, talked to people, and participated. And then we shared this with each other, and we did a little write up. That really was one of the most challenging and rewarding aspects of teaching this class, because students had really brilliant projects that I think they learned a lot from doing. The last assignment was to write a blog post—much like I’ve done with the Enhancing Life Project. A lot of the time, you do work for class and then you show it to your teacher and then you never show it to anyone again in your life, which is a shame. I wanted the students to really consider how they might apply something that they’ve learned to some real world problem, and to then put their work on a public blog that anyone can see. I wanted them to have a sense of responsibility for their words and their work. I think they appreciated that chance, and I think the topic of care really lent itself to being able to write about a variety of things that students were concerned about. 

Do you have any changes for the next time you teach it, or elements you’ll be sure to preserve?

I thought we could have spent a lot more time on child care—we had some really fascinating discussions and debates about it. At the time I was teaching, my daughter was about 2 months old, and I brought her to the class, and all the class was just so taken with her. That real, visceral reaction that they had toward the baby—which is a pretty cute baby—really brought the lesson home. We immediately understood that this is really something that’s part of our makeup, genetically—we evolved to care for babies, and babies evolved in a way to try to signal that they need care from us. That led to some really interesting discussions, and students are really interested in combining these ideas about our biology as well as these more conceptual ideas. I wanted to expand on that idea and talk more about children in other cultures, because I think that’s something they immediately respond to. I also think I’d expand the section that we get to more toward the end about humanitarian organizations and global humanitarian aid. A lot of students are interested in working for global development, and it’s important to keep a critical point of view toward how they go about providing care.


Read Jason's blog post here