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Support Boosts Care and Caregiving Project

A newly-funded CASBS-based cross-disciplinary project on caregiving will accelerate work initiated here under a seed grant and operate in concert with a larger effort based at the University of California, Berkeley.

Caregiving has received much less intellectual and academic attention than other kinds of social relationships, even though there is ample evidence to suggest that humans’ ability to cooperate is rooted in caregiving capacities. The CASBS project, called The Social Science of Caregiving, aims to rethink the philosophical, psychological, biological, political, and economic foundations of care and caregiving and translate those insights into better design principles that inform practical policies.

The Social Science of Caregiving project enjoys support for at least the next two years thanks to a generous grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

The project is led by 2003-04 CASBS fellow Alison Gopnik, the renowned developmental psychologist, cognitive scientist, philosopher, and public intellectual who is a Distinguished Professor of the Graduate School in the Department of Psychology at UC Berkeley. Most recently, Gopnik was named winner of the 2023 David Rumelhart Prize in Cognitive Science. Gopnik’s recent books include The Gardener and the Carpenter: What the New Science of Child Development Tells Us About the Relationship Between Parents and Children (2016); and The Philosophical Baby: What Children’s Minds Tell Us About Truth, Love, and the Meaning of Life (2009). 

CASBS faculty fellow (and former director) Margaret Levi and CASBS program director Zachary Ugolnik are assisting Gopnik in steering the project.

The CASBS project runs concurrently and in collaboration with a research project based across the Bay at Gopnik’s Cognitive Development and Learning Lab at UC Berkeley. That lab seeks to develop a “cognitive economics” research program to explore how people understand caregiving relationships, then develop formal models of that understanding.

“For most people, caring for others who need us, children or parents, patients or students, is one of the most significant and morally meaningful things we do,” said Alison Gopnik. “And yet caregiving has been largely invisible in psychology and cognitive science – it seems so different from other human relationships and activities and yet we know very little about just how it works.”

Launched in 2021 using a portion of a seed grant from Stanford University’s Ethics, Society, and Technology Hub, and with initial funding from the Templeton World Charity Foundation, the Social Science of Caregiving project is the final project initiated under the umbrella of two sun-setting CASBS programs – Creating a New Moral Political Economy and Humans, Nature, and Machines.

The project already is producing deliverables related to both. In spring 2023, Gopnik appeared on an episode of the CASBS podcast in conversation with acclaimed science fiction writer Ted Chiang about whether we should care for machines the same way we do for children. An edited transcript of the episode will appear in the digital magazine Public Books in February 2024.

In addition, like the moral political economy program, which curated an issue of the prestigious journal Dædalus, the flagship publication of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Social Science of Caregiving project, under the editorship of Alison Gopnik, will curate the Winter 2025 issue of Dædalus. The connection between the two journal issues is seamless, in some respects; Gopnik wrote an essay on “Caregiving in Philosophy, Biology & Political Economy” for the moral political economy issue of Dædalus.

In preparation for the Winter 2025 issue of Dædalus, the CASBS project will host a two-day workshop in January 2024 to gather contributors and thought leaders to develop and exchange feedback on essays that will appear in the issue. Some of the authors include former CASBS fellows Andrew Elder, Robert Frank, Margaret Levi, Toni Schmader, Maisha Winn, and Caitlin Zaloom. Other workshop participants include former CASBS fellow Laura Carstensen; current fellows Louise Aronson, Faranak Miraftab, and David Moore; and current visiting scholar Dawn Moore.

The January workshop also will feature a fireside chat with Gopnik, Margaret Levi, and project member Anne-Marie Slaughter, the CEO of New America, former dean of Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, and former director of policy planning at the U.S. State Department. (Slaughter, incidentally, contributed a relevant essay, “Care is a Relationship,” for the moral political economy issue of Dædalus.) The gathering will be open to the CASBS community and the conversation recorded live for a future episode of the CASBS podcast. [Go to podcast episode.]

Eventually, various project work streams will coalesce and inform a trade book, already under contract, that Gopnik will write for a wide audience.

Challenge and Opportunity for Social Science

Principally due to public health, public education, and technological advances resulting in or influencing fertility rate declines and improvements in life expectancy, the age distribution pyramid in many countries has flipped in recent decades, with older people now outnumbering younger people. Perhaps the most visible challenge is determining how we will take care, or better care, of elders, given that there are proportionally fewer younger adults to take care of them. Amid the eldercare crisis, some of those elders themselves are playing new roles in caring for children both within and outside families to help address a parallel crisis in affordable childcare in the U.S. and elsewhere. 

The crises of care intertwine with a crisis of work. Increasingly, the care economy presides over some of the most consequential employment sectors. A particularly thorny problem for policymakers is how to guarantee that caregivers and those they care for receive the resources they need to thrive. The demand is great for caregiver services and only growing. Though care work is among the most essential work careers, support for wages, training, education, and assistance is well below the need. Nor is most care work accorded the level of dignity and respect it deserves.

Add to the mix recent and approaching developments in robotics and artificial intelligence, which may alleviate some aspects of the concurrent crises and provide tangible benefits, but not without inevitable missteps and ethical conundrums. How we align familial and community values with the design of AI technologies in a way that promotes human flourishing remains far from resolved. And even if somewhat autonomous artificial intelligences are developed, humans will face many of the same caregiving dilemmas that arise in raising children.

Finally, caregiving relationships often are of an entirely different character compared with social relationships and social contracts that most academic disciplines typically study – and which inform policies and shape the administrative bureaucracies that implement them. For example, in the context of personal ties, caregiving does not imply or demand reciprocity. An intrinsically altruistic expansion of the self leads to greater collective good, as with social contracts, but it uses different mechanisms to achieve it that must be articulated. In addition, classic social contracts assume that actors are independent, autonomous, reciprocal decision makers exchanging goods or services. But care relationships are intrinsically asymmetric; the caregiver has capacities or resources that the person being cared for does not. And there’s the delicate and difficult balance between taking responsibility for the welfare of another person and preserving their autonomy – a balance that is very different from negotiations of social contracts. Given these and other differences, the general proposition is that our markets and other social and government institutions are not equipped with mechanisms for easily accommodating care structures.

All told, the combination of demographic shifts, economic realities, technological and social transformations, and deficiencies of modern institutions underscore the importance of understanding new and emerging relationship structures of care; rethinking interrelationships between families, markets, and the state; and fundamentally reimagining ways in which we provide care and security for loved ones, communities, and societies.

“There is an imperative for social scientists to interrogate the fundamental inadequacy of our current social institutions for delivering or enabling care,” said CASBS program director Zachary Ugolnik, who manages the project on the CASBS side and will contribute an essay to the Winter 2025 Dædalus issue. “Our current collective path is not sustainable. This presents an opportunity for projects like ours to deepen and expand thought on these urgent questions and challenges.”

Because the greater social science community has not yet arrived at a general interdisciplinary account or synthesis of care that can advance understandings and policy discussions, The Social Science of Caregiving project gives these vital care structures and relationships some deserved attention and interrogation. The CASBS project will engage in a cross-disciplinary effort to rethink economic, philosophical, and psychological foundations of care and caregiving; glean insights from and generate synergies with a more focused empirical “cognitive economics” research program at Gopnik’s UC Berkeley lab, exploring how people understand caregiving relationships and, eventually, developing formal models of that understanding; and relate both sets of efforts to more practical policy problems and public understanding.

The motivating objective is producing a clear, broad, coherent empirical and theoretical account of the general features of care – features that differentiate it from other kinds of work and relationships. That account will inform the development of a general theory of care that can contribute to a better politics of care. Getting there will require greater intellectual understanding of the special character of human caregiving and the ability to translate that understanding into actionable, practical policy proposals.

“Caregiving is rarely given attention commensurate with its importance as a fundamental human activity. We more often treat it as addendum: politics and care, development and care, economics and care, and so on," said Ugolnik. “Through interdisciplinary work in the social sciences, the CASBS project aims to highlight its central role.”


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