A woman carrying a child on her back

Revaluing Care: An Interview with Dr. Jocelyn Olcott

Duke professor shines light on the meaning, and future, of care

-By Charles Givens

August 4, 2022

Jocelyn Olcott is a Professor of History, International Comparative Studies and Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies at Duke University. The Office of Global Affairs co-sponsored Dr. Olcott’s virtual summit in May 2022 called Visualizing Care, where artists, activists and scholars came together to discuss how care can be streamlined and redesigned to be more effective and efficient.

We sat down for an interview with Dr. Olcott to dive deeper into the world of care.

Q: When you talk about care, what do you mean? For a lot of people that might just mean taking care of the elderly or infirm, but you’re using it in a much broader sense, right?

A: The classic definition is all the time and attention to provide care, whether for people or the planet. Care is any kind of support for the sustainability of the planet and the health of those who live on it. This is a broader ethical question about how we can construct a society in which we favor sustainability and well-being over growth and productivity.

Q: Can you talk about what the Revaluing Care Lab is?

A: The lab has its origins in the fall of 2018, when I was completing a sabbatical at the University of Nantes with a group of scholars who worked on labor law and the Global South. In April 2019 we had our first brainstorming session and we decided to focus on three basic areas of research: measuring care; policy around care and social practices.

The ecological, social and cultural aspects of care are very much interrelated. If you think about Nature American cultures that are based on cultures rooted in the planet, you’ll see that that the care of the planet translates into value for those laborers who provide care, like growing food.

The Revaluing Care Lab is a Humanities Unbounded Lab. We did a series of online workshops, and used COVID as a way to highlight how the paid and unpaid sectors of the economy were really not valuing care.

We also wanted to put together a website with all the resources we’d been gathering and developing, and one of the first things we ran into was that we had a hard time even finding visuals that could highlight care that didn’t just repeat stereotypes about care and caregivers.

A woman carrying a child on her back
A photograph from Irupé Tentorio’s “An Unbearable Invisibility” (Photo credit: Irupé Tentorio – https://visualizingcare.com/exhibition/irupetentorio)

Q: Why do you think we need to revalue care? Why the emphasis on revalue?

A: I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently, especially as there’s a lot of talk about a possible recession. The only system that we use to value things is the market, and that has led to a chronic undervaluing of care labor. This undervaluing is a huge cost to society as a whole and to the economy itself. The reason it looks like our economy is contracting and we’re headed towards a recession is that people are doing more care. The Great Resignation is people leaving the labor market, but then doing things that are some kind of care, whether cultural, environmental or social. If someone has retired because they want to spend more time with their kids, we consider that valuable, but the market doesn’t.

So, when we talk about revaluing care, we’re asking whether we can make care valued without just adding market values. The care economy is five times the size of the tech economy. If we would just pay everyone who worked in the care economy the minimum wage, that would transform our entire economy.

Duke is such an ideal place to be thinking through these questions because the research is so question-driven and interdisciplinary. These are big, vexing challenges that need to be addressed from very many different perspectives.


Q: What is the best course of action then? How do we go about revaluing care?

A: We need to start thinking about things that are external to the market, and that includes things that may cost us – whether our health, or the environment or society. When you look at inflation through that lens, it’s not necessarily a bad thing – higher wages are good, and even higher gas prices could be good, if it would make us make decisions about allowing for remote work or living closer to our work. A good first step would be moving away from GDP as a way that we measure value.

We need to think of a way to reward and encourage behaviors that we think are socially and ecologically positive. It could be something as simple as paying people to pollute less, but that’s not really solving the larger problem. Generally, in the past we’ve heard these things will save us: some form of technology, some sort of market system, and state-run solutions. We’re trying to think of other ways, but sadly I don’t have a neat and pat answer at the ready – as I said, this is a vexing problem!

Q: What do you hope will result from the work that you and your colleagues are doing?

A: In the medium term, it would be a recognition of how big this problem is and knowing that we need to do something. We need to reorder our policies, practices and measurements in a way that could recognize that care that is currently going unvalued and unnoticed.

We’re at a point in time now when there are more women in academia, and it’s no coincidence that this issue has come up now, when women are predominantly caregivers. I think things are changing and we’re in the middle of a very intense conversation and we can imagine and try not to close off any creative solutions that might bring us to where we would all say we would want to be: protecting our planet and ourselves.