COMMENT: Being “Forced to Care” About Social Constructivism

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In my blog post early this month entitled Is “Machine” the New White? I mentioned a 2010 book by Evelyn Nakano Glenn entitled Forced to Care: Coercion and Caregiving in America. I also mentioned that I would probably have more to say about Forced to Care in a later blog post. Well, that time is now. In this blog post I’d like to comment on Glenn’s book.

Fair warning: I’m going to apply “sandwich theory” to Glenn’s book. What’s sandwich theory? Sandwich theory holds that if you wish to avoid the ideological spin that all narratives contain, then throw out the introduction, throw out the conclusion, and only consume the center between. As Jacques Ellul tells us in his 1970s book Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes, good propaganda is made up of 95% factual information and 5% propagandistic spin. Good propaganda uses the sandwich theory.

Believe it or not, in this blog post I do not wish to spend much time with the 95% center or sandwich meat of Glenn’s book. The content Glenn delivers covers such topics as Indian boarding school systems, movement of men and women into their own respective factory environments at the turn of the last century (two topics I talk about in Is “Machine” the New White?), slavery, and mechanization of our healthcare system (a topic I talk about in my blog post entitled Affordable Ashmordable … What About Desirable Care?). This content is part of the historical record. As far as the content is concerned, I’m not sure Glenn presents a significant amount of new material. As an example, much of the content that Glenn presents can be found in Christopher Lasch’s 1979 book entitled The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in An Age of Diminishing Expectations. In specific, see Lasch’s book chapter entitled The Socialization of Reproduction and the Collapse of Authority (book chapter executive summary available).

Christopher Lasch unabashedly uses a conservative, Strict Father (using a George Lakoff frame) spin for his sandwich. As an example, Lasch argues that moving care from the private realm (e.g., the nuclear family) to the public realm (e.g., institutions of care) is a bad idea because such a shift could undermine the authority of the father. In contrast, Glenn argues that by imprisoning care within the private realm (again, the nuclear family), women and children are oppressed. Glenn wishes to institutionalize or socialize all care.

Honestly, both Lasch and Glenn present great content or sandwich meat, however, drama explodes when their respective ideologies (and ideological spins) collide. We know Lasch’s ideology—conservatism and the Strict Father cultural cognitive model. So, let’s spend a bit of time looking at Glenn’s 5% or her sandwich bread because I think that’s where the real story is. Not to spoil the surprise but Glenn uses bread made out of social constructivism. Very simply, social construction theory holds that all of reality is socially created. Social construction theory shares much in common with postmodern and relativistic thinking.

Let me begin by stating that regardless of the ideology or cultural cognitive model you use—liberal, conservative, libertarian, modern, postmodern, Nurturant, Strict, etc.—hopefully we can all agree with Glenn: many countries like Japan and the US are experiencing a care crisis. Heck, 10,000 Baby Boomers hit 65 every day and this pattern will continue for the next 19 years. Yeow! Simply, this care crisis is defined by too many people requiring care and too few appropriate caregivers. In economic terms, the demand for care far outstrips our current supply of care. Glenn argues that one reason the normal market dynamic of supply and demand is not solving this care crisis is because, on one hand, demand has been monetized or “marketized” while, on the other, supplies of care still remain largely unmonetized and unmarketized. Glenn’s solution: monetize and marketize all care so that normal supply and demand forces can hold sway. Glenn would have us believe that if we could convert all forms of unpaid-for care to paid-for care, the care crisis could be brought down to manageable and sustainable levels.

Glenn’s argument is not new and can be found in Paul Stiles’ 2005 book entitled Is the American Dream Killing You?: How “the Market” Rules Our Lives. In contrast to Glenn’s position, Stiles, using a conservative Laschian frame, argues that institutionalizing, socializing, or marketizing caregiving would be a disaster. Peter Marris (who tends to use a liberal voice when he writes about Bowlbian attachment and society) wrote an essay back in 2003 entitled What Can Be Wrong With Growth? In his essay (copy available by permission), Marris, like Stiles and Lasch, argues that attachment relationships cannot be monetized or marketized without severe degradation (more on this below). To make their respective points, Marris uses Bowlbian attachment theory, Stiles uses economic theory, and Lasch uses political theory. So, even though we can all agree that there is a care crisis, possible solutions vary depending on what ideology is being used. At times like these I recommend keeping the following continuum in mind (drawn from the work of systems thinker Gerald Midgley):

worldview <==> ideology <==> methodology <==> intervention

Getting back to Glenn, let’s look at some of the dimensions she employs:

  • Private versus public — Glenn imagines all care as public care.
  • Unmonetized versus monetized — Glenn would have us monetize all care.
  • Male versus female — Currently only women perform care according to Glenn. Glenn suggests that a needed shift along this dimension is for men to begin performing care. For a different take on this dimension, see the article by biologist and mother Tavia Fuller Armstrong entitled First Person: I Refuse to Chase the Myth of Gender Equality.
  • Love versus labor — Glenn puts forth the idea that one reason care oppresses women and children is because care is framed as an act of love (which agrees with Marris’ position as talked about below) and not as an act of labor. Glenn suggests that a needed shift along this dimension is for all care to be framed as labor protected by such things as labor laws, labor unions, and labor contracts.
  • Mind care versus body care — Glenn points out that the privileged and monied elite can “think” about care in very sentimental ways, not unlike a Mary Cassatt painting. In contrast, the poor and powerless do not have the luxury of thinking about care because their bodies are too busy actually doing care. This dimension is not unlike the contrast between mind workers (i.e., those who write computer programs) and back workers (i.e., those who build homes or collect garbage). As Hilary Rose puts it, “Women who manage to get jobs in science have to handle a particular contradiction between the demands on them as caring laborers [a la Evelyn Glenn’s work] and as abstract mental laborers” (contact the Foundation for the Rose reference). Rose goes on to suggest that the schizophrenia that study of the natural sciences imposes on women is one reason why we find so few women in the natural sciences. Really? Try telling that to all of the women I studied with as a geology graduate student back in the early 1980s [1]. Glenn tries to convince us that back care workers need relief from “care doing” so that they can critically reflect on care. This dimension could also be looked at as a “rich versus poor” dimension.
  • Natural versus artificial — Glenn would have us believe that all care is artificial care. In other words, all forms of care are socially constructed using certain status categories such as “mother.” That all of reality is created using socially constructed status categories is at the heart of social construction theory (mentioned above). Social construction theory rejects any references to the so-called natural world. As a result, there is nothing approaching a natural propensity to care or Maternal Desire (the title to Daphne de Marneffe’s 2004 book—executive summary available). Rejection of the natural world filters out such things as natural science and innate behavioral systems such as attachment, care, and even sex. As mentioned above, social construction theory is framed by postmodern thinking in that it wishes to point us to a world beyond the one created by modern natural science (you know the one, the one with all the buildings, automobiles, airplanes, and, yes, smartphones). I found this dimension interesting because I just finished reading three books by philosopher John Searle. Searle argues that, yes, society is created by using status categories but with one big caveat: all status categories have a foundation in the natural world. Whereas Glenn wishes to separate body (natural) from mind (society), Serale argues that there is no separation between body and mind; they are both forms or states of the same substance, like ice, water, and steam are forms of H2O.

I’d be remiss if I did not point out that Glenn uses a definition of coercion that closely tracks the one that Peter Marris presents in his 1996 book entitled The Politics of Uncertainty—Attachment in Private and Public Life (executive summary available). Consider this excerpt from my executive summary of Marris’ book:

“To be able to secure commitments from others,” so says Marris, “without having to make reciprocal commitments of your own, is one of the most attractive prerogatives of superior power.” Interestingly enough, Marris suggests that the current drive toward privatization seen today is centrally about a desire to obtain superior power by obtaining commitments from others without making any commitments in exchange. Simply put, privatization is about reducing or eliminating reciprocity. Looked at from an attachment standpoint, Marris tells us that “if you have learned from your childhood that order comes from the assertion of a dominating will, it may seem the only reliable strategy for controlling uncertainty.” This is the essence of the Strict Father cognitive model.

In many respects, Marris agrees with Glenn when he suggests that if we insist on keeping care in private environments (i.e., the nuclear family), care will continue to be subjected to coercion. Interestingly, Marris and Glenn diverge on the topic of monetizing care (as mentioned above). Consider this excerpt from Marris’ essay What Can Be Wrong With Growth?

It is in such [attachment] relationships that we characteristically speak of love; and the love of someone or something, love for its own sake, as an attachment that requires no other justification, is surely the most universal and powerful source of meaning. Attachment implies a relationship to that particular, irreplaceable individual whom we love. If we try to reinterpret such attachments in terms of generalizable, theoretically marketable goods—for instance as a need to nurture and be nurtured—we miss their essential quality. Erotic attachment becomes prostitution; mothering and fathering become childcare. Not that childcare is undesirable; but it has a different meaning. So it is impossible, and misguided to try to subsume these relationships under some cost benefit analysis of supply and demand.

Well, Marris has created a bit of a problem here: if care relationships should not remain in private realms, nor should they be monetized as a part of seeking refuge in traditional markets, then where should they go exactly? The only answer I can come up with is some type of social market, the one philanthropists talk about often but are powerless to bring about.

So, I hope I have given you a sense for the sandwich bread that Glenn uses for her book Forced to Care. In my opinion, Glenn provides great content or sandwich meat, but she leaves little room for discussion of the ideological bread that she uses. In contrast to Glenn’s approach, I would suggest that all discussions of care begin with a discussion of ideology. Discussions of ideology help protect against a narrative being used for goals centered on propaganda and persuasion. Hopefully the above shows that the same content can be spun in myriad directions depending on ideology. As an example, Christopher Lasch definitely spins the topic of care, however, he essentially tells us what he is doing and why. Lasch is a conservative who sees attempts to socialize care as affronts to traditional, Strict Father authority structures. Allow me to finish up by further commenting on a few of the above dimensions.

In the private versus public realm, Glenn suggests that the private family should be one among many forms of care containers. Glenn points to the socialized care environments of Scandinavian countries for models here. (For a current look at how well these models are doing, consider the article entitled Nordic Welfare State Being Cut Down to Size.)

Unmonetized versus monetized. I’ve run into this one before (beyond Marris). It was economist Jeremy Rifkin, writing in his 1995 book entitled End of Work (executive summary available) who wrote about this topic. Allow me to quote Rifkin at length:

In the 1980s the volunteer theme became so associated in the public mind with Republican politics that it was, like so many important issues in American life, reduced to a partisan cause. The Democrats and most liberal thinkers and constituent groups either openly opposed the volunteer theme or steadfastly ignored it. The National Organization for Women (NOW) passed a resolution against volunteerism in the 1970s, saying that it was traditionally used as a means to deny women—who make up the majority of the volunteer force—pay for their services. Volunteerism, they contended, was looked down on as less professional, less serious, and of less importance than professional, paid work, and for that reason ought to be discouraged among women.

Doesn’t it seem odd that liberals would reject volunteerism. But as Glenn’s book points out volunteerism is rejected on the grounds that it tends to enforce the oppressive elements that surround care: done largely by poor, unsupported, unpaid, (in many cases undocumented), unrepresented, unrecognized women.

Male versus female. I think I was blown away by Glenn’s assertion that only women engage in care labor. Glenn specifically points out that when men earn money (e.g., act as breadwinners) and then use that money to support their families, this is not care. Glenn has to do a bit a scrambling with respect to this position when in her conclusion (the 5%) she says that single women should be appropriately paid for care labor so that they can then use that money to in turn care for their kids. Feminist scholar Susan Faludi got into a bit of hot water with fellow feminists for her position (expressed in Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man) that men do care, that men do engage in care labor. Faludi argues that men engage in care when they protect our country by joining the military, protect our homes by joining police and fire departments, protect our national interests by building ships and even spacecraft. Faludi talks about how men are being thwarted in their attempts to engage in care labor because, for instance, systems engineers have taken over the military, and shipbuilding has been sent to countries like China. This may be way too personal but as a male growing up in the late 1960s and early 70s, I always knew intuitively that at any time I could be asked to give up my life in defense of my country. Heck, I still have my draft card. I’m not sure what to do or how to react when I’m told that there is no care operating here at all. I give Faludi a lot of credit for stepping up and saying to her feminist sisters, “You simply cannot say that men do not care, especially for each other, and for their country.” If you read Forced to Care, I’d recommend following it with Stiffed. Maybe in some cosmic way the two opposing spins will balance each other.

Natural versus Artificial. I have no idea where to go with this one. To suggest that all of care is artificial and constructed using status categories boggles my mind. So, what, higher order animals do not engage in caring behavior and do not bond with each other? (Try running that one past a self-resepcting group of ethologists.) How could animals bond … they can’t create status categories. How can elephants fall all over themselves in excitement after being reunited following a twenty year separation. Or what about human – animal bonds? Any care there (hair bristling because I’m a devote dog lover who has cared for and has received care from several dogs in my lifetime)? Writing in an edited volume entitled A House Built on Sand—Exposing Postmodern Myths About Science, Margaret Jacob tells us that it was rise of the Natural Sciences at the end of the seventh century that gave rise to all manner of democratic structures. As Jacob puts it,

Bentley and the first generation of Newtonians could not foresee, but they could still fear, what by the 1830s occurred: the Whig constitution would succumb to democratizing tendencies. The accommodation made by the church in 1689 had permitted Dissent to flourish. Between 1776 and 1832, the religious Dissenters and the secular republican and radicals effected other, far more democratic revolutions of the late eighteenth century, coupled with parliamentary revolution of 1832, only began a process of democratization that workers, women, blacks, the impoverished, and the utopian have sought ever since to broaden and deepen.

I simply have no idea why social constructivism seeks to destroy the very foundation—the Natural Sciences—upon which many democratic structures rest. Even our very rules of evidence are modeled on ideas contained within the methods of the Natural Sciences (as I leaned from a video I watched during a recent stint of jury duty).

Side bar: Jacob points out that the early experimental scientists tried to take up a middle position between absolutists on one side and “cynical relativists” on the other. Jacob writes, “[The early experimentalists] believed that words were connected to reality, to their own unstable present, and to a desirable future, and in general they recognized that words could never simply be mere arbitrary signifiers.” As I argue in Bowlby’s Battle for Round Earth, John Bowlby also tried to take up a middle ground between absolutism (today represented by rabid reductionism) and cynical relativists (today represented by vitalists, postmodernists, and New Agers). I sense that the middle ground today has been largely lost. It’s such a hard place to occupy and defend because attacks appear to be coming at you from all sides at all times. But as Jacob points out, without that middle ground, the very foundations upon which so many democratic structures are built begin to crumble. One only needs to look around to see this happening.

I’ll close with an excerpt from an email that I sent a colleague the other morning:

I am very tired of fighting postmodernism. As you probably heard on the national news, New Mexico had a school shooting the other day. A 12-year-old boy shot two of his fellow classmates. Bullying has been implicated but nothing definite yet. What I saw on the TV were a bunch of scared and freaked out parents and kids. Parents had to wait two hours before they could be reunited with their kids who were being held at a local mall. Many of the parents said something like, “I know my children are OK because I got a text from them, but I so desperately want to hold my children and not let go. It won’t be real until I can actually hold them.” I’m sorry but all of this to me represents an activated attachment behavioral system at the levels of individual, family, and community. But yet postmodernists insist that there is nothing approaching a natural, biologically mediated, attachment behavioral system. Yeah right … a mother’s/grandfather’s desperate need to hold her/his kids tight is a social construction. And our society has no idea what motivates these school shooters because, I would argue, our society cannot access that which does not exist, namely, attachment. There are sections of Bowlby’s trilogy on attachment where he specifically talks about the connection between attachment and the fears associated with kids going to school and being at school. But postmodernists refuse to access this scientific knowledge, this knowledge of the natural, biological world. I simply shake my head. Without access to the natural world and natural science, school shootings will remain inexplicable mysteries. Bowlby’s attachment theory may not get us all the way there in terms of explanation, but it sure gets us further than just shrugging our shoulders in disbelief and bewilderment.


[1] – I completed my undergraduate degree in geology back in the late 1970s. I finished my MS in geology in 1983. I went on to work as a petroleum geologist for about three years until the big crash of 1986, at which time a number of us low time geologists were asked to, how shall I say, “repurpose” ourselves. Throughout my geology studies, my classes were roughly 50/50 men to women. The same ratio held when I started working at one of the major oil companies. It did not matter geologist, geophysicist, downhole tech, or landman, the ratio stayed at about 50/50. And, yes, all the female landmen I came in contact with insisted on being called land men. As a newbie petroleum geologist I made the mistake of trying to use a gender neutral term like “land person” and I had my head handed to me. Now, there was a place where it was all men: the drilling platform. All of the tool pushers and drillers were men. I’ll let you figure out why that might be. But, wait, when I did a stint as a soils engineer between undergraduate and graduate school, the women geologists were slinging tools with the men as we drilled shall sample holes (less than 300 feet) using portable drill rigs. I know my data is idiosyncratic (where n=1) but I found the world of geology (a natural science mind you) to be very balanced with respect to gender. And this was back in the late 1970s – mid 1980s. Sadly, geology departments across the US are closing because grant and research dollars are flowing toward lab based STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) and away from field based STEM (field geology, field biology, ethology, marine biology, archaeology, anthropology, naturalistic psychology, etc.). This is a problem area that the FHL Foundation is tracking closely.