Conversation As a Collaborative Research Method

At the 22nd June meeting of the Phenomenology and Imagination Research Group, Yonat Nitzan-Green led the group through reading and discussing the collaborative research method of conversation, referring to Allan Feldman’s essay ‘Conversation As Methodology In Collaborative Action Research’. Exploring conversation in personal experiences, including kibbutz childhood and way of life; and discussing Georg Gadamer’s concepts of ‘hermeneutic’ and ‘understanding’ as fundamental components in this method; the suggestion was that personal ‘threads’ might enrich the understanding of conversation. This article provides notes drawn from the seminar and commentaries from the participants: Jane Bennett, Bevis Fenner, Yvonne Jones, Yonat Nitzan-Green, Noriko Suzuki-Bosco, Cheng-Chu Weng and Simiao Wang.

Three main texts for the seminar:

  1. Allan Feldman, ‘Conversation As Methodology In Collaborative Action Research’, School of Education, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, MA.
  2. Jeff Malpas
  3. Ruthellen Josselson, Amia Lieblich, Ruth Sharabany, Hadas Wiseman, Conversation As Method, Analysing the Relational World of People Who Were Raised Communally, Sage Publications, London1997.


Yonat Nitzan-Green: Allan Feldman (Professor of Science Education at the University of South Florida) distinguishes between: 1. method and methodology. ‘Research methods are the techniques that are used by researchers. … [Whereas] A research methodology is a stance that a researcher takes towards understanding or explaining the physical or social world.’ (Feldman, 1999). 2. Conversation and other verbal exchange; 3. conversation and argument. ‘… conversation is not a competition … ‘ (Feldman, 1999).

Feldman’s essay gives us an opportunity to critically reflect on our group. Some main purposes of the group are to engage the intellect in order to ‘feed’ our varied art practices; to gain a new understanding through a dialogue between our practices and theory; and to develop the method of conversation as part of PIRG’s methodology.

After a long-term commitment to doctorate research we have identified a ‘gap’: we all needed to carry on researching, however, there was no collective forum that could facilitate this need for us. However, need on its own is not enough to sustain the group. It is the method of conversation that was used from the group’s inception that sustains and nourishes it. Indeed, as Feldman writes: ‘Conversation suggests a connection that is sustained or sustainable and goes beyond chit-chat or chatter.’ (Feldman, 1999).

Amongst the characteristics of conversation is an ‘exchange of views … that consists of connected remarks.’ In the method of presentation the verbal exchange may be illustrated as a ‘star’ (see Fig. 1 below): the presenter shows and explains her/his slides, text or idea and members from the group direct their questions and comments to the presenter; the presenter then replies to the member who made the comment/question. The method of conversation may be illustrated as a web of ‘threads’ (Fig. 2): all connect and intersect each-other, yet capable to produce a coherent form at the end of the conversation.


Figure 1 – The Star of Presentation


Figure 2 – The Web of Conversation
Figure 2 – The Web of Conversation

Another characteristic of conversation is cooperation and a will to participate. Margaret Buchmann writes: ‘People do not insist that partners follow, it is enough that they enter into conversation. Thus conversation is a great respector of differences.’ (Buchmann, 1983, 21. Quoted in Feldman’s essay). One more characteristic is conversation’s need of time, people and a shared intention.The direction in conversation is not ‘predetermined by one or several of the participants, but rather a direction that arises through and in conversation via a hermeneutical process (Gadamer, 1992), and is associated with the growth of understanding.’ (Feldman, 1999). In our group what was and still is important is that a process of understanding will take place during the conversation.

Jeff Malpas explains Gadamer’s idea as follows:

‘The prejudicial character of understanding means that, whenever we understand, we are involved in a dialogue that encompasses both our own self-understanding and our understanding of the matter at issue. In the dialogue of understanding our prejudices come to the fore, both inasmuch as they play a crucial role in opening up what is to be understood, and inasmuch as they themselves become evident in that process. As our prejudices thereby become apparent to us, so they can also become the focus of questioning in their own turn.’ (From:

As an example of Gadamer’s ideas of hermeneutic and understanding Yonat showed her installation Culture of Trauma (2006) that emerged from a dialogue with an old photograph involving materials and text and has led to a deconstruction of her kibbutz childhood experience. ‘No one knows in advance what will “come out” of a conversation. … a conversation has a spirit of its own, and … the language in which it is conducted bears its own truth within it – i.e. … it allows something to “ emerge” which henceforth exists (Gadamer, 1992, 383).’ (A quote from Feldman’s essay). In that sense, conversation is a collaborative phenomenological enquiry. Two questions arise as follows: How does the imagination function within conversation? and, What is the role of the imagination in the process of understanding? This needs a further research.


Yonat Nitzan-Green: Conversation and kibbutz up-bringing – Ruthellen Josselson et al Conversation as Method is a psychological critique of kibbutz life which was written in a form of conversation, documenting the conversations that took place between four psychologists. As such, it offers insights and a better understanding of one’s own kibbutz psychological history as well as a reflection on the method of conversation. All quotations in this part of the text are from this book.

Kibbutz was (and still is, but to a lesser degree) an Israeli communal way of life (the first kibbutz was established in 1909) where children lived in same age groups, ‘peer-groups’, in ‘children homes’ while their parents lived in ‘parents rooms’ at different parts of the kibbutz. Children were brought up by other adults, and visited their parents everyday for 3 hours in the afternoon, when parents didn’t work. This was considered to be ‘a quality time’. During the day all members of the kibbutz worked in agriculture, services and education, among others. This daily visits involved walking from the ‘children home’ to the ‘parents’ room’, starting at a very young age. One central idea was that the community will replace the nuclear family. It was a very secure and safe environment. However, psychological research, particularly from the past fifteen years reveal a psychological damage in the kibbutz population. The kibbutz system of child raising had changed during the 1980s. Today, children live with their parents.

Since the children lived away from their parents, the process of attachment, theorized by John Bowlby (1969) as the bonding between mother and child has been damaged. Amia Lieblich says: ‘According to Bettelheim (1969), the continuous part is the peers. It is very deep and primitive and primary.’ In the kibbutz system, children moved houses every two years and women who cared for the children changed too. However, the children grew up together and stayed in their original peer groups for 18 years. Ruthellen says: ‘for most people, it’s much more just the sense of being part of this group in an embedded sense, without the feeling that there was an individual who was there who could be counted on to be responsive.’ [My emphasis. YNG].

Ruth says: ‘Embeddedness in the group seems to offer a weaker substitute for attachment to a specific person.’

YNG showed her drawing, Dawn Group (Graphite powder and plastic glue, 2014). A stencil was made from a small toy soldier and was used to create an image of a group.

“During the making of this drawing I became aware that I might be in the presence of my own peer group. I recognized a state of dreaming with material, what Bachelard termed ‘material imagination’. All the images of the ‘people’ are connected, literally, by plastic glue”.

This drawing echoes a memory of being embedded in the peer group, literally called ‘Dawn Group’, without the feeling of real, deep, loving personalized care. One may have a sense of belonging to a group, yet the price is subdued feelings and suppressed emotions. It is in the light of this new understanding that conversation’s role in the peer-group needs to be re-visited and critically reflected upon. More research is needed.

In the chapter entitled ‘Eye to eye validation’ psychologist Ruthellen says: ‘Let’s talk about validation, eye-to-eye validation, with the negative pole being annihilation and rejection, and excess being transparency. … Of all the dimensions, this is where kibbutz members seem to locate the most pain and the most frustration.’

YNG’s Culture of Truama (first example) engaged with the problem of invisibility. Yonat’s face as it appeared in the original photograph had been covered with white paint, then turned into a screen on which images of army signs were projected.

Josselson writes: ‘Psychology understands the self far better than it understands connections between people.’ She makes the point that the professional language (psychology) and language in general is still limited in describing the human experience. ‘We have in our lexicon relatively few words to talk about our vast experience with relationship … Reality … far exceeds what we can express. We simply don’t have enough language to encompass what we know about the nuances of relationship.’

I think about conversation as a method that enables to refresh and perhaps widen language. The communication that takes place during a conversation is more than words. It includes body language (which in books or as text on screens is invisible); feelings, surprise, silences, hesitations, question marks, understanding or lack of it, all ‘written’ and communicated on and between bodies. The conversation reveals processes of thinking, day-dreaming, agreeing or disagreeing, engagement or disengagement and more, which are beyond the written text.


Cheng-Chu: Interaction process is a task for both peer and educator, it likes person drink tea with a beautiful pottery cup, and others never know the tea taste like until they drink it, of course, you may argue that every have a different sense of taste, yet I believe education is not just deliver knowledge but also create knowledge. The best method of interaction may as Yonat said “[…] the method of conversation has a potential for innovation” [Nitzan-Green, Y. (2015), Conversation as A Collaboration Research Method: P6]. Furthermore, the process of making an artwork could be the process of conversation, how artists communicate with the object.

Thanks for Yonat share the vibrate childhood experience, which contains humanity and political issues. It is hard to imagine that being ‘forcing’ to left parents and family, stay with same ages people. This is the typical case that citizens under the ‘shadow’ of politics. For me, this situation is hard to image, but I assumed that all of us already inform in the society systems unconsciously. Where is nature of a human being? Where is the sense of truth? For Yonat conversation is a method for understand philosophical view, which could be interrupt with others or herself, yet the process of conversation is not contain expression in a group, as she emphasis Ruthellen’s words ‘without the feeling’. This could link with Yvonne’s research of posthuman. Be in the peer-group or societal system people become less humanness. Where is the boundary between self identity and group?

In addition, the idea of visible and invisible could see in Yonat’s account, which could clear see in both context and the practice. The process of mixing the adding on the colour powders and effect of glue transformation fluid to solid state, presenting the phenomenological thinking of embodied in a group, equally, as Merleau-Ponty said: ‘The invisible is there without being an object, it is pure transcendence, without an ontic mask. And the “visible” themselves, in the last analysis, they too are only centered on a uncleus of absence’. Raise the question: the invisible life, the invisible community, the invisible other, the invisible culture. Elaborate a phenomenology of “the other world,” as the limit of a phenomenology of the imaginary and the “hidden” [Quoted by Reading Derrida, J. (1993) Memoirs of Blind: The Self-Portrait and Other Ruins, The University of Chicago Press: London, P52]

Following the above narrative, could describe that, in Yonat’s practice is presenting the invisible life through making, the figure as an icon attached to the nature ground which gave viewers boundless imagination space.


Noriko Suzuki-Bosco:  Yonat’s session highlighted the gap between theory on conversation (as potential methodology) and real conversation, where even amongst group of children, there was power at play to persuade and control others through talking. As Yonat pointed out, conversation in a theoretical sense is more than mere chit-chat. It involves extended dialogues, interactions, reflections, sensitivity to others and willingness to listen. The process of conversation, in theory, presents possible means of gaining empathetic insight of others.

Art Historian Grant Kester has noted, ‘We can never claim to fully inhabit the other’s subjective position; but we can imagine it, and this imagination, this approximation, can radically alter our sense of who we are. It can become the basis for communication and understanding across differences of race, sexuality, ethnicity, and so on.’ (Grant Kester, Conversation Pieces, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004, p.115).  In ‘Women’s Way of Knowing’, Mary Field Belenky describes ‘connected knowing’ as a form of knowledge based not on counter poised arguments but on a conversational mode, in which the participators work to identify with the perspective of the others (Mary Field Belenky, Blythe McVicker Clinchy, Nancy Rule Goldberger and Jill Mattuck Tarule, eds., Women’s Ways of Knowing: The Development of Self, Voice and Mind, New York: Basic Books, 1986).

Nikos Papastergiadis references the theory of mediation as potential process of creative production where participators are encouraged to go beyond their own beliefs and participate in a ‘collaborative knowledge-making that is not just the sum of their previous experiences.’ (Nikos Papstergiadis, Cosmopolitanism and Culture, Cambridge: Polity Press, 2012, p. 174). He gives an example of an art project initiated by the collective Stalker where refugees at Laviro, a camp just outside Athens, were invited to take part in a ‘picnic’ on the island of Makronisos. Within the spirit of hospitality, everyone taking part in the project were encouraged to converse and to engage in various shared activities. Stalkers project offers an unending experience of a coming community.

The potential significance of conversation is uplifting and there are artists and creative groups who remain deeply committed to the emancipatory potential of art and the possibility of transforming human consciousness through the processes of dialogue and collaborative production. Like the example given earlier of the project initiated by Stalkers, some have produced successful outcomes.

However, it is also incorrect to assume that all social conflicts can be resolved through the power of free and open exchange. This is too idealistic. Kester notes, ’while the idea of an open and equitable dialogue is laudable, we must at the same time recognize that we enter into these exchanges with attitudes that have been shaped by a less-than-perfect world: a world riven by differentials in power, authority, and access to the tools of rational discourse itself’ (Kester, ibid, p. 73).

The durational aspect of conversation and the opportunity to ‘listen’ to others do open up space to imagine and to expand our understanding of others. We must all start from somewhere if we want to work through the complex relationships between empathy and negation, domination and dialogue, self and other. Perhaps conversation is as good as any place to start that process happening.


Simiao Wang: If we draw a comparison between East and West, Western culture is more like a sound motion picture while Eastern cultural is inclined to be a silent film. The emotional expression becomes a detour in a family discourse and the non-verbal language is widely used in a disciplinary method. In the seminar, we talked about the power-relationship in conversation (even though conversation is not a competition), and I am surprised to listen to Yonat’s experience of conversations in the groups without the control from parental superiority due to the historical circumstance.

The power-relationship in conversation is manifold in the Chinese context; a conversation is surrender to power and a gentle compromise to conflicts in Chinese culture. It is natural to allocate different roles in a successful conversation such as dominant controller, participator or listener, which means, in any case, the roles are not equal. This conversational inequality brought out soldiers’ loyalty to their commander, people’s patriotism for their motherland and furthermore, a compromise to any form of power (political, aesthetical and economical).

However, China has been striving to approach Communism, which demands equality of any power, from property to ideology. History taught us that equality is accompanied by poverty and starvation in 1960s, while capitalistic methods of economy solved poverty in 1979 but China is still exploring equality in the conversation between the government and people.

I could hardly make any judgement on both 1960s ‘good old time’, and the economic boom in 1979, but a good conversation, as Yonat said, is people’s participation and their coherent understanding of one thing. Based on the criteria from Yonat, the conversation in Chinese political strategies seems to be working well although many people still question democracy and human rights in China.


Jane Bennett – It was so interesting to hear Yonat speak about her upbringing as a child in the kibbutz and how conversation became the way in which decisions were made amongst the children themselves, how constant and competitive conversation was as a way to control and assert one’s position in the group, and how the conflict this engendered was the norm. If I understood correctly, she said it did not feel like a shared space.

Yonat then asked us all to speak about the role conversation plays in our families, when do we converse and how do we listen. It was surprising that much of what followed was about the failure of conversation in various ways. Whilst there appeared to be some cultural differences, in the end there were really many similarities. ‘Major’ conversations in families – as opposed to the casual, everyday exchanges – are frequently staged around the assertion of power, about reaching decisions and trying to control our environments at different levels. Non-verbal communication was just as influential in these exchanges as the verbal.

Looking, then, at conversation as a research method, Yvonne has pointed out, in her response to Yonat’s presentation, that ‘We need to be mindful of infused power, there is trust between us, it is not from others that this infusion could arise, but unconsciously from ourselves.’ (Yvonne Jones 28/06/2015) My curiosity about the phrase ‘infused power’ led me to think that whilst we take conversation almost for granted as something we can all participate in, it can be a bit of a mine field unless we take care how we proceed. Yvonne’s reference to power within our conversations is definitely something of which we should be observant. The importance of symmetrical relationships in conversations and authentic expression is highlighted in L R Beaumont’s concept of emotional intelligence, developed to aid skills in good communication. (

In a paper for the Journal for the Study of Peace and Conflict, Evelin Lindner described how critical a symmetrical relationship is in conversation and how revealing her own history was the only way in which she could achieve this in her social research into such a sensitive and emotive topic as genocide. Writing about her search for a research method for her investigations into native Somalians’ experience of genocide that did not result in further humiliation for them nor for herself as researcher, ‘Dialogue was the answer to my struggle for method. Steinar Kvale writes, “The conversation … is not only a specific empirical method: it also involves a basic mode of constituting knowledge; and the human world is a conversational reality”. I had to enter into dialogue with people who knew much more about the subject I was to examine than me, namely about feelings in genocide, especially feelings of humiliation. I had to consider them as the experts. I had to become more aware of the social relations I actually formed by entering the scene as a researcher.’ (Lindner, Evelin Gerda, 2001 )

Whilst I am in no way putting our research on a level with Lindner’s, I thought this was a very moving demonstration of how thoughtfully this aspect of trust – essential to conversation and the perception of a shared space – must be dealt with.


Yvonne Jones: The session led by Yonat was packed with information and points for discussion. It has had such an impact on me that I am going to record here my personal thoughts and response arising from the session. For me understanding (through sharing) the history, culture values and patterns of others, of those around us, and, in an increasingly global situation, those across this decreasing-in-size world, is the way ahead for a better world. The enormity of this self-declared belief is unnerving.

Many questions and issues pour out of it. What am I saying here? That a better world will come out of understanding our difference? It has to go further, an understanding that there are differences, a tolerance of difference and an acceptance of difference. Inbuilt is the implied letting go of notions of conquering, either ideologically, geographically, physically or psychologically. There is an inbuilt (in this notion of a better world) characteristic of respect. Where the line, if any, has to fall is verging on impossible, if a culture cut the genitalia of its females, can tolerance prevail or must another value come into the fore? Clearly there is enough general evidence to demonstrate the human cruelty of the practice, therefore a legal stance to stop this is both understandable and acceptable. Is it the only way? Debate with the peoples who practice this could be a further tool.

Debate may change points of view; debate is not as free as it portrays itself. It is a free and open exchange of ideas, where points of view are presented, argued, supported and left for the masses to choose whose point to support. It is the equivalent of two or more forces acting on a central mass. It is a power struggle. Have you ever known a debate when one of those debating their point has changed their view? Debate is about each speaker PURSUADING the masses to their position. We have debates in politics, about important issues, without realizing it we are pawns in a power struggle. Debate is deadly and reinforces notions of power not equality.

In her session Yonat spoke of conversation as going beyond chit-chat, being an EXCHANGE of views that consists of connected comment. Debate exchanges views, however, the connection of comment is limited. One (speaker) makes a statement the other counters the statement. There is no attempt for one side to understand the other, its pull/push. It’s the equivalent of choose a banana or grapefruit; there is nothing in between, no greporanalun! If connections of comments were present there would be questions of the sort ‘ why do you believe this? Where does this notion come from? who gave you this information? When did you first think this?’ Giving space to choose or create a solution, allowing room for a greporanalun or even a pinoplum. Could conversation be a tool in the above example of FGM?

Conversation has the characteristics to be effective but only if the participants authentically desire and authentically seek, knowledge, awareness, understanding and respect for all, with some sense of opening a closer sense of a truthful scenario. In this respect what was ‘prescribed’ in the kibbutz as explained by Yonat, would seem ideal, until she divested the ‘performance’ of conversation with information that the conversations were usually infused with power. That is to say someone party in the process desiring a specific end decision, while appearing to be part-taking in authentic conversation, all the while guiding and persuading, giving the illusion of a democratic authentic conversation. Surely on humanity grounds ‘conversations’ on FGM would have the aim to dissuade the practice, and therefore be infused with power. Again where, if any, is the line?

This leaves a dilemma. While some people value power over all else, holding a conviction that their way is the right way, then all the more so will they feel justified to work to convince people, rather than converse with people, others find a justification. Power takes precedent in both cases. If knowledge, but here I have to pause and pull in justice and fairness, is not the goal there can be no authentic conversation, only debate, argument, persuasion, all quite forms of bullying. Is power infused conversation acceptable in order to protect human dignity and life?

What of our political lives, has conversation ever been the focal point, or only power struggles fuelled by the belief that this way or that way is the only way. Public discussions on a building development for example, have occasionally change things, but how many times were those changes already built into the plan? I have no political axe to grind. I freely state that I am not tied to any political ideology, having grown up in the middle of heated arguments of left and right between my parents. Nor have I looked for a middle road to balance the situation. I have what feels like, a refreshing position of being able to take a view on issues and make more balanced choices, using as much knowledge as I have at that moment. Politicians debate, bargain, argue, pressurise, the closest parties came to apparent conversation was with the coalition government, where of course all of the above power struggles were under pinning it. Power corrupts and total power corrupts completely. Politicians care for their careers it seems, more that the country and residents they represent. They forget they are representatives and believe they are rulers. Authentic conversations, may well lead to improved solutions for many of the issues we all face in society today.

Researchers have, on the whole, an authentic desire for knowledge and (truth?). Even here when funding is part of the equation, power comes into play to threaten derailment. Researchers have authentic conversations with their material, with theories of others, seeking new knowledge, new perspective on old knowledge. If the conclusions of research do not fit the aims of their funders what happens then? No more funds? No authentic research should be driven by political, financial or industrial goals. Funded research has access to the needed finance to proceed, and the promoted publication of the outcome. Unfunded research may have no agenda pressure, neither does it have an incentified promoter to publish it.

This session offered me hope and despair for society and humanity in equal measure. It would seem logically that while a society of fair-minded, open people were conversing, a society hungry for power and excited by control, could and would devour them, without any discussion what so ever.

The group, as evident from its form, growth and outcomes does use the methodology of conversation. We need to be mindful of infused power, there is trust between us, it is not from others that this infusion could arise, but unconsciously from ourselves.


Bevis Fenner: In some ways Yonat’s last PIRG session was the most important for the development of the group to date. In this session we started to make the first tentative steps towards developing a methodology through which our conversational methods could be used to feed back into our respective practices in order to acquire greater understandings of them as phenomena.

As a group, we have already become reflexively aware of methods as an attentive practice in itself. In response to one of the readings for the session – our ‘conversation is not a competition’ (Feldman,1999). We have an intuitive conversational method, which whilst utilising presentation and directed response as a starting point for discussion, does not privilege didactic discursive forms. Instead, we all take turns to relate our own ‘prejudices’ or preconceived understandings of the topic with a complete openness to challenging our habitual understandings through confrontation with difference. Thus the diverse cultural backgrounds of group members becomes an intrinsic part of our conversational method, which is ‘a great respecter of differences’ (Buchmann, 1983: 21. Quoted in Feldman, 1999). One of the things to mention in the light of this, is that phenomenology values the personal over the purely theoretical and this is important as there are not correct ways of approaching theory in the context of our methods – our conversations contain both deeply personal insights and abstracted or semi-detached overviews. They focus on the sharing of feelings, experiences and ideas, and are situated between theory and practice – they are more ‘mesa’ than ‘meta’. One key aspect of our conversational method is the ability to shift gears; to pan between a wide range of subjective perspectives from infra (subconscious) to intra-personal, inter to extra-personal.

In Yonat’s presentation, for example, there was a strong emphasis on the top and bottom end of this spectrum of understanding. In relation to her understandings of her kibbutz upbringing this meant looking both under and beyond the caring and sharing environment of her childhood, and focusing instead on the excess that had been chopped off in representation – that which haunted the complete picture and relayed areas of ambiguity and ambivalence that fell outside of common-sense understandings of the ideals of happy upbringing. Yonat described the structural necessity to find consensus within the social environment of the kibbutz and how accelerated normative processes grew out of the necessity for social cohesion. This meant that conversations were always a projection of power and that shared space always included the dissemination of a consensus reality.

It is my understanding that the need for solidarity and for knowing each other within the group produces an ‘excess’ within kibbutz living. In other words that the shared space of forever knowing others and being ‘known’ by others encourages readings of the self that do not allow for ambivalence or decent. In our shared social space we try to give space for this excess – to allow an openness in which meanings are never fixed but are always unfolding and in flux. We are also conscious of the temporality of social space and do not try to keep pace but instead allow a oscillating flow, which can speed up and slow down as needed. Prejudices can be interjected at speed and then stretched out, like making pasta – allowing them to be reconstituted in-being. This process is akin to attempting to give away the ego in order to find better insight; an ethics similar to that of Zen, in which ‘equanimity’ is produced in the sublimation of self to world. This ‘equanimity’ is an in-between state, between, on the one hand, ’suppression’ or when we deny, suppress or encase thoughts / feelings which arise, and on the other hand, ‘identification’ or when we fixate or hold onto a thought or feeling ‘inappropriately, not letting it arise, spread and pass with its natural rhythm’ (

Another (less complex and problematic) way to look at our methodological approach is that we deploy a feminist ‘ethics of care’ (Tronto, 1994). Joan Tronto’s definition of ethics of care is as an empathetic and attentive practice directed towards the self, others and various objects of care, including the structures in which care can take place. This ethics encompasses four elements as explained in the following points taken from the Wikipedia page on Ethics of Care

  • Attentiveness
    Attentiveness is crucial to the ethics of care because care requires a recognition of others’ needs in order to respond to them. The question which arises is the distinction between ignorance and inattentiveness. Tronto poses this question as such, “But when is ignorance simply ignorance, and when is it inattentiveness”?
  • Responsibility
    In order to care, we must take it upon ourselves, thus responsibility. The problem associated with this second ethical element of responsibility is the question of obligation. Obligation is often if not already tied to pre-established societal and cultural norms and roles. Tronto makes the effort to differentiate the terms “responsibility” and “obligation” with regards to the ethic of care. Responsibility is ambiguous, whereas obligation refers to situations where action or reaction is due, such as the case of a legal contract. This ambiguity allows for ebb and flow in and between class structures and gender roles, and to other socially constructed roles that would bind responsibility to those only befitting of those roles.
  • Competence
    To provide care also means competency. One cannot simply acknowledge the need to care, accept the responsibility, but do not follow through with enough adequacy – as such action would result in the need of care not being met.
  • Responsiveness
    This refers to the “responsiveness of the care receiver to the care”. Tronto states, “Responsiveness signals an important moral problem within care: by its nature, care is concerned with conditions of vulnerability and inequality”. She further argues responsiveness does not equal reciprocity. Rather, it is another method to understand vulnerability and inequality by understanding what has been expressed by those in the vulnerable position, as opposed to re-imagining oneself in a similar situation.(

Returning to Yonat’s description of the dynamics of conversation in the kibbutz there seemed to be a structural ethics of care within the unity of the group but a lack of ability to address ‘responsiveness’. In one particular example, Yonat’s described a scene in which structural ethics kibbutz prevented her peer-group from including a new member because she was a “liar”. Tronto’s ethics of care would have incorporated empathetic understandings, which would have gone beyond group unity to see the act of lying as a possible expression of vulnerability and inequality.

Since attending Yonat’s session, I have collaborated with another member of the group (Noriko) on a one day artist-led project. During this workshop we encountered problems with the structure of our project and a direct resistance from participants as a result. However, using our conversational methodology of care allowed us to get inside the problems and to empathise from within the social relations. Therefore, we were not simply able to put ourselves in the participants shoes but to put ourselves outside of the ideological structures and power relations we had produced in order to rebuild the conditions of care.


Tronto, J. Moral Boundaries: A Political Argument for an Ethic of Care. New York, NY: Routledge, 1994.

Tronto, J. “Women and Caring: What can Feminists learn about morality from Caring?” in V. Held, Justice and Care: Essential Readings in Feminist Ethics Boulder, CO: Westview Press (2006) 101-115.