Competing Responsibilities: An Interview with Susanna Trnka and Catherine Trundle

(former Mind Thomas Strong recently participated in a conference on ‘competing responsibilities’ organized by Susanna Trnka and Catherine Trundle. What follows is an interview between Tom, Susanna, and Catherine on the conference theme, which dove-tails wonderfully with Bree Blakeman’s recent blogging on the concept of responsibility. Transparency: By chance I’m going to the next round of the conference in Wellington, so this is something I’ve been thinking about as well -Rx)

TS: Could you both introduce yourselves, and talk about how you came around to the question of responsibility?

ST: I’d been doing work in the Czech Republic, looking at kids and asthma and comparing what I found there to responses to childhood asthma in New Zealand, and I was quite stunned by the different approaches in these two countries, in terms of their very different ideas about the roles of individuals and the family in trying to cope with a chronic condition. In New Zealand, it’s very much about self-management, while in the Czech Republic it’s focused on medical and other forms of scientific expertise. Obviously I was very much influenced by the work of Nick Rose on “responsibilization” as a way of both understanding mundane, everyday behavior and the larger political forces behind it. But I also started to see that when you begin to unpack the category of ‘care’ – even with respect to a narrowly defined set of care practices, in this case all related to childhood asthma – you can discover a whole range of various modes of responsibility, from responibilization to corporate social responsibility to kinship, and that got me thinking about how we might theoretically come to discuss such competing modes of responsibility in more productive ways.

CT: I came to it looking at a group of New Zealand and British veterans who were involved in nuclear tests in the Pacific, and I anticipated that they would be using the language of rights to talk about their desire to get health care. And in fact, what I found was that it was entirely infused with the language of responsibility and state responsibility and, in contrast, the state trying to ensure that these men took a position of self-responsibility in accounting for their own health, and saying it wasn’t about radiation, it was about their lifestyle habits: diet, smoking etc. So like Susanna, my research had some interesting contrasts between broader social responsibility and individual responsibility, and we started talking about this and saw some interesting parallels. We realized that the concept of “care” has been very carefully unpacked in anthropology but the word “responsibility” hadn’t received the same treatment, and we think it deserves the same kind of interrogation and critique. And as Susanna said, the idea of “responsibilization” is being carefully thought out, but its links to other styles of responsibility less so.

ST: One of the things we talked about in the piece we wrote (Trnka and Trundle 2014) was about how we feel ‘responsibility’ has been colonized by individual responsibilization in political rhetoric. We see it in so many examples around the world, and certainly in New Zealand. For instance, last year, one of my children who was in Intermediate School and was then 13 years old, came home with the news that “responsibility” was the theme for their Social Studies course for an entire school term. But all they talked about during the term was individual responsibility, self-management, and how to improve one-self – they didn’t consider ‘responsibility’ in terms of community responsibility, responsibility to the environment, or their relationships to one another in terms of being collectively responsible as a class, or as young people in New Zealand. Her sense of what they were supposed to learn was the idea that learning to be responsible is all about learning how to be responsible for yourself.

CT: As another example, Susanna, you’ve received flyers in your mailbox that talk about ‘responsible pet ownership.’

ST: Yes, I am now “a responsible dog owner!” In New Zealand, as of two years ago you can be officially registered “responsible dog owner” as opposed to a normal dog owner if you pass a certain course that ensures you know how to take adequate care of your dog. (And as a consequence, your licensing fees are lower). “Responsibility” is thus increasingly permeating into everyday language but primarily – and this is key – through the rhetoric of responsibilization. One of the things that Catherine and I are trying to do is show how unsettling, and dangerous, it is to have “responsibility” become so restricted to such individual-focused forms of “responsibilization.”

TS: Is that what “responsibilization” means? It refers to making individuals responsible for themselves or their own conduct?

CT: It speaks to the language of empowerment very strongly, and autonomy. Whether that’s an individual responsible for her own conduct or whether that’s a parent for a child, a boss for his worker, trying to instill an ethos of self-empowerment.

ST: It’s about self-autonomy and self-reliance.

TS: You referred to Nikolas Rose. His arguments about “responsibilization” have been really important and original and have helped us understand trends in healthcare and politics and so on. So, if you were going to take a snapshot of that idea, that trend, that concept, what does that mean?

ST: I think it refers to divesting or redistributing responsibility from a broader array of sets of obligations and reciprocities to focus it on the individual. So, one of the examples I particularly like, or dislike, was the one in Wellington, where the pedestrian lane has been changed. It’s no longer pedestrian-only, as they now allow buses on it. Of course, when you make a change like that, it takes people a while to adjust because they have a habit of walking across the road without worrying about buses. And so a dozen people, who have been injured or died from walking into the bus lane —

CT: One of those injured was, ironically, the Director of NZ Bus.

ST: So there’s been a public call to respond to this, people demanding not to get rid of the bus lane but something much less costly, namely putting up markers or barriers so people don’t just wander into the bus lane without realizing it. And in response to this the deputy mayor of Wellington said—

CT: He deemphasized the issue of political responsibility, and talked about safety as “a partnership” between “those people who drive on the roads and the pedestrians who cross those roads”, and a Council report on the accidents found that pedestrians were “largely to blame”.

TS: Right, “they need to look after themselves.” I don’t know if I mentioned this, but I have a Google News alert on pedestrian deaths. I’m a big walker, and it’s something I’m obsessed with. Whenever I get a report on a pedestrian death, I put it up on Twitter, “pedestrian killed,” and unfortunately there’s a lot of them. But there’s a new kind of pedestrian activism all over the world. There’s pro-bike activism, but there is also a new focus on pedestrians — or rather, simply people who walk.

ST: We could think about it as another type of responsibility, namely the kind of activism that is demanding that governments and states and local councils take some responsibility for making spaces safe. These are precisely the sorts of tensions and nuances of responsibility that we’re interested in drawing out.

TS: So I think that story’s pretty familiar to a lot of people. When you talk about “competing responsibilities,” what does that capture, or what do you put forward with that idea?

CT: We want to look at the cross-cutting and contrasting types of responsibilities that exist in the different layers of social practice. Some which are very contrasting with some of those dominant neoliberal modes of responsibility, and some are quite aligned and complementary with it. It’s certainly not our idea to take other types of obligations beyond responsibilization, whether they be care or ideas of the social contract, and say that they are the antithesis of or the cure for neo-liberal notions of responsibilities. But we want to show there are a range of ways in which responsibilities get enacted today in a range of contexts, with different moral valences and which enable diverse types of relationships.

ST: I think if you speak with people about responsibility, you won’t get a response that just focuses on responsibilization. Ordinary people have a sense of being enmeshed in all sorts of different kinds of relationships, so that’s what we tried to capture with the idea of competing responsibilities. At times you might be pulled in different directions, at times these different kinds of responsibilities might actually align, but the idea is that there’s a multiplicity of ways you are responsible to yourself, to others, to the environment, to your family, to your community, to your workplace, to the state – as well as a whole myriad of expectations you have that others will act responsibly towards you – that really supersede the way responsibility is being politically redefined.

TS: [Redefined] In neoliberal discourse—

CT: Also we are interested in the ways people respond to the drive for responsibilization, sometimes by purposeful acts of ‘irresponsiblization’ or by demanding others take responsibility. People can have a range of reasons to resist calls to become empowered and personally responsibilized. These types of subjectivities can be a burden in certain contexts. Other times, they can be very enabling. So we are seeking to not just look at different types of responsibilities, but the ways that people respond to calls to be responsible.

TS: I think we talked about this at length earlier — the idea that there is a tension between emergent notions we have about complex systems, and ideas about complexity and enmeshedness, and at the same time, this profound discourse of responsibility, of personal or individual responsibility. Rose talks about that a little bit — where he talks about criminal culpability and notions of genetic determinants of behavior, notions that are orthogonal to the idea of personal responsibility, where one might invoke a phrase like, “maybe I have maladaptive genes”— that kind of thing.

CT: His work sometimes gets simplified down by scholars to say “it’s all about self-responsibility,” but he’s much more nuanced. Genetics implies a whole set of relationships you can’t get away from, and which can become more important, or important in new ways to one’s sense of self and obligations to others. So he does talk about the forms of, for example, pastoral care that develop between genetic counselors and patients, and the way in which family members have to think responsibly for kin, in the present and in an imagined future, and the wide ranging obligations, choices, decisions and demands that come with this. Empowerment is certainly a part of it, he shows, but within more complex contexts of competing responsibilities.

ST: I think what we’re trying to do is to make sure the word “responsibility” stays there and in its broader sense, and so it is important to talk about these other entanglements, dependencies, and obligations as responsibility. And in order to try and encourage people to look at responsibility in all its variations and guises, what we’ve tried to do is suggest two arenas—one is care and the other one is social contracts and ideologies—where a range of different ideas and practices of reciprocity, obligation, and duty get played out.

TS: In that light, then, what is your hope for this conference that you’re organizing in August? August 15?

ST: August 15-17, in Wellington, New Zealand.

TS: What is the conference about? What are you hoping to see there?

ST: We’re trying to “open up” our understandings of responsibility in the 21st century. We hope to do this both in terms of looking ethnographically at the diverse ways that people enact responsibility (or fail to enact it) as well as to then critically look at such responsibility practices in terms of where they fit historically and politically and what they tell us about contemporary social forms.

CT: We’re hoping to get a widely diverse set of case studies: mundane, quotidian forms, corporate and social responsibility, issues of culpability and blame at the national level, philosophical discussions of responsibility. So we’re hoping that in drawing together those diverse ethnographic angles we’ll be able to theoretically and analytically develop and extend this as an anthropological concept.

ST: And show how it’s useful for critical analysis, and why it might be politically important to try and not necessarily reclaim the term ‘responsibility’ but provoke more the debate over its current usage: to create debate around the question “what is responsibility?” so it doesn’t de facto become responsibilization. And I think another key thing about the conference is that we want it to be interdisciplinary so we can bring together a range of the different angles. It won’t be just anthropology, but much broader.

TS: There’s one thing we didn’t discuss yet and that’s the notion of ethnographic responsibility. I’m curious, is that a dimension and a kind of anthropological responsibility that you’d like to examine?

ST: Absolutely. I wrote about this topic in a book with Cris Shore called Up Close and Personal (2013, Berghahn Books) which is about the production of ethnographic knowledge and pulls together a diverse group of anthropologists who to talk about their experiences in the field, in academia more broadly, and in the wider community. One of the things they discuss in relation to anthropological practice is
the responsibilities of the ethnographers to their interlocutors, but also, the responsibilities of our interlocutors back to us? Because at the end of the day we’re all human beings engaged in relationships that are based on forms of reciprocity. Of course you take on a different kind of responsibility if you’re writing about people and publishing what you learn from your interactions with them, but those sort of human interactions supersede the goal of producing some sort of ethnographic work. They are important in their own right, and need to be considered as such. That’s something Catherine and I didn’t explore in our paper — simply because we kind of needed to narrow it a little bit! — but it’s certainly something we would like to see explored in the conference.

CT: We’re not just thinking uncritically about responsibility as an all-liberating concept, because responsibility can get invoked within fieldwork settings in ways that perhaps elide the complexity of what’s going on. I’m thinking about the way the word “engagement” has become one of those tropes that is seen as a social good in fieldwork. Another recent project of mine has been an edited book with Matei Candea, Joanna Cook and Thomas Yarrow in the UK on the idea of detachment (Detachment: essays on the limits of relational thinking, Manchester University Press, forthcoming), which in part seeks to question the often thinly interrogated trope of engagement within anthropology. I think in the same way we need to think hard about what calls for responsibility mean in fieldwork and not necessarily see it as something we simply need more of, but look at all the different shades and consequences of its enactment.
ST: For example, if you look at Annemarie Mol’s work on ‘care’ — that’s very much in line with what we’re trying to do there, to take a concept and inquire about how it’s used ethnographically, but also in terms of critical analysis and in doing so hopefully come up with a sharper conception of what we mean by responsibility, much in the same way that she did for ‘care.’

CT: And in the way she contrasted it with notions of citizenship and notions of choice—we were also trying to compare and contrast with other useful concepts to see how responsibility enables other words.

TS: Why is New Zealand an interesting place to do this work?

CT: Being a small country, in which the competitive market model doesn’t necessarily work well to solve certain social problems, there is a very strong historical legacy of the engaged state. At the same time we led the world in embracing a very strongly neoliberal vision in the 1980s, which really transformed society on many levels. So there is a unique and sometimes tense mixture of responsibilities at play here, between individual empowerment and the social contract. And the other interesting factor in New Zealand is that there is the actively ongoing, contested, and sometimes contentious issue of responsibility between the Māori indigenous population and the Crown, the state. There exists a treaty, the Treaty of Waitangi, a social contract that is unique in many ways internationally in the way in which it allows a political debate about responsibility to occur at the national level based on ethnicity, historical injustice, law and state responsibility. So I think that is also an interesting feature of New Zealand life when talking about responsibility.

TS: And the two keynotes who will be at the conference — Cris Shore is a keynote, and he’s done work on accountability and so on, and obviously Nikolas Rose has worked in this area, so clearly there’s an important conversation occurring between their work.

ST: Through his work on the anthropology of policy and ‘audit culture’, Cris has come at this in quite a different angle, looking at how techniques of modern management and financial accounting are being used as instruments of responsibilisation and to govern people at a distance. They might appear apolitical — ‘it’s just a routine measure of performance’, that kind of thing — yet those sorts of moves toward neo-liberalizing society (which we were discussing above) are being promoted precisely through such different modes of accountability and auditing. Much of his work has sought to understand the various ways in which these policy processes create new categories of persons by operating as technologies of the self that produce responsible – and responsibilized – subjects.

These will be some of the key themes we hope will be picked up in the conference, through a range of perspectives and disciplinary approaches that will, we hope, both build and deviate in interesting ways from the idea presented in the two key notes.


Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at

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