‘Out of the Spheres of the Private and the Moral’

Social anthropologist Minh Nguyen analyses, how care is organized under market socialism. Care, she states, must be analysed as public and political.

Since 2019 Professor Dr. Minh Nguyen, Social Anthropologist at Bielefeld University, has been working on the project “Welfare for Migrant Factory Workers: Moral Struggles and Politics of Care under Market Socialism” (WelfareStruggles), funded as Starting Grant by the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon research and innovation program. From 26 to 27 March the final conference of the project will take place at ZiF. The conference which Minh Nguyen convenes together with Sociologist Dr. Jingyu Mao from Edinburgh University is called “The Politics of Care under Market Socialism. Labour Mobility, Global Capital and Changing Welfare Systems in Vietnam and China”. In this interview, Minh Nguyen draws first conclusions of her project.

How did you become interested in the question of care under market socialism?

My research has always had something do with care in one way or another, from my doctoral research on paid domestic service and my post-doctoral research on household organisation of care by rural migrants in Vietnam, to my later research on rural welfare and the ERC funded research on welfare provision for migrant factory workers in China and Vietnam. The research questions I ask are often about how different groups of people approach care from different social positions and in different power constellations, as citizens, as individuals, and as members of a community.

My understanding of care has broadened from an earlier focus on caring and being cared for as part of interpersonal relationships, for example between family members or between domestic workers and their employers, to a notion of care as central to social, political and moral life as concepts of justice and freedom. In this approach, care does not merely refer to what is needed by the sick, the aged, the infirm – in other word the activity of caring for others and the distribution of the labour involved, or Pflege in German – but to complex processes shaping the institutional and individual arrangements of care giving and receiving in human society.

Building on the scholarship on the ethics of care, Joan Tronto, Roberta Zavoretti and I have defined care as processes of creating, sustaining and reproducing bodies, selves and social relationships[1]. This definition brings care out of the spheres of the private and the moral, where care is deemed to belong as a feminine coded set of activities, into the public and political spheres. As we decry the prevalent notion of the autonomous and self-interested economic man, the homo economicus, ethics of care scholars underscore vulnerability and interdependence as that which define us as humans and the need for democratic deliberations and institutions in building the political and social foundations for care. At the same time, we also recognise that care is a moral value that the state and the market alike actively deploy for purposes of authoritarian control, marketization, and exploitation. That’s why we commonly hear authoritarian states or exploitative corporations claiming to be caring for their citizens or their workers, customers and the environment. So, it is a complex field of politics in which different conceptions of personhood, social relationships and societies come into tension with each other.

Professor Dr Minh Nguyen, exploring the politics of care under Market Socialism, convenes the final conference of her ERC-funded project WelfareStruggles at ZiF. Photo: Universtät Bielefeld.

Welfare is at heart a relationship of care, and our research project on the provision of welfare for workers employed at global factories in China and Vietnam has been guided by the notion of politics of care as the central concept for the inquiry. It refers to the negotiations and power dynamics at the societal, the institutional and the personal levels that go into shaping the care of the labour force. For example, how differing conceptions of labour, whether a part of the social person or as a commodity, a means of production, shape welfare arrangements; or how the individual ethics of self-responsibility and self-enterprise lead ordinary people to adopt marketised care solutions such as private life insurance.

I am an anthropologist, and ethnographic fieldwork is very important for anthropological research – our empirical work often involves long-term occupation and interactions with the lives and social worlds of the people we study in specific settings. My fieldwork so far has mostly been in Vietnam and China, but increasingly I am interested in including Laos as another context of market socialism. 

What is the most important difference in the politics of care under market socialism and under liberalism/capitalism?

This is a very good question, but not so easy to answer, because we are talking about political economic systems that do not stay the same, while the politics of care also evolve along with changing societies and human conditions.

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