Obligation and Care in an Era of Responsibilisation

Year: 2013

Author: McLeod, Julie

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

This paper reconsiders debates about responsibility and responsibilisation from the vantage point of oral history interviews with former school teachers from the 1950s and 1960s. These interviews were conducted as part of an ARC funded project on ‘Educating the Australian Adolescent, 1930s-1970s' and include the experiences of teachers working in diverse secondary school settings during a period of substantial expansion in the provision and form of secondary education.
Responsibilisation is typically associated with intensified pressures on individuals, commonly emphasising a pessimistic account of rampant individualisation and the negative and regulatory aspects of responsibility in late modernity. Drawing on feminist accounts of ethics and care, this paper will offer a fresh contribution to well-established theoretical debates on responsibilisation by rethinking these in terms of relations of obligation and caring. It explores these themes in teachers' recollections of their working lives, and seeks to elaborate some of the gendered dimensions to this way of conceiving relations of responsibility. While the idea of responsibilisation captures an important trend in contemporary social life and educational practice, it can also risk overlooking the productive elements of a sense of obligation and responsibility towards others. This is a theme emerging through the oral history narratives, one that appears connected powerfully to how the participants now see themselves, and understand their teacher identities and investments in their work. The analysis of several teacher narratives will be discussed to draw out these themes, guided in part by memory studies and by the psycho-analytic insight of teaching as an ‘impossible profession'. In doing so, the paper seeks to open new directions for analysing and researching how imperatives for responsibilisation are enacted and struggled over in educational practice and in the subjectivities of teachers. Such work is especially timely in an era in which thin conceptions of teachers' work and lives dominate policy debates. Finally, this paper aims to contribute to both substantive and theoretical scholarship in this area by explicating some of the conceptual challenges of researching responsibility as obligation without falling into the romance of self-sacrifice and care for the other, while retaining the distinctive analysis of the present which the notion of responsibilisation affords, and bringing to the fore feminist insights and gendered perspectives.