Multiple bumper stickers with the word "Responsibility" attached to a wall.

Competing Responsibilities

The anthropology programs at Victoria University of Wellington and the University of Auckland’s School of Social Sciences invite submissions for an international conference on “Competing Responsibilities: The Politics and Ethics of Responsibility in Contemporary Life” to be held in August 2014. Keynote speakers include: Professor Nikolas Rose (King’s College London) and Professor Cris Shore (University of Auckland)

  • What Three-day international conference
  • When Friday through Sunday, August 15–17, 2014
  • Where University of Wellington, New Zealand
  • Submissions Due Sunday, June 1, 2014
  • More Information Catherine TrundleSusanna Trnka

The deadline for submitting 200-word abstracts and short biographies (1–2 sentences) is Sunday, June 1, 2014. E-mail submissions to both Catherine Trundle and Susanna Trnka. Selected papers will be invited to be part of an edited volume.

Calls to “be responsible” pervade public and private life. Notions of responsibility, for example, can powerfully underpin contemporary claims for political legitimacy, evident in President Obama’s (2009) hailing of his presidency as the start of a “new era of responsibility.” Demands for people to “act responsibly” can also shape our most intimate relations, as in Australia where the Family Responsibilities Commission in the Northern Territories seeks to instill norms of “respect and responsibility” in local aboriginal families through welfare regulations and education initiatives. Elsewhere, responsibility can be the marker of a good worker, as in Scotland where senior nurses have been called to take more “responsibility and accountability” for their workplaces (BBC News 2012).

“Responsibility” and the “responsible citizen” have become buzzwords for the adoption and internalization of some of the core ideals of contemporary governance. In 2012, for example, the Deputy Mayor of Wellington, New Zealand, could refuse residents’ requests to put up barriers at a crosswalk where numerous pedestrians had been hit by buses, on the grounds that it is not up to the city to provide such protection as “personal responsibility remains key” for pedestrian safety (The New Zealand Herald 2012). In a similar call for responsibilized citizens, in the U.S. the Personal Responsibility in Food Consumption Act was introduced in 2005 to protect companies from being sued for selling addictive food products linked to obesity (Congressional Record 2005).  Claims of responsibility resonate in such varied social arenas because of the diverse values that the term can evoke. Depending of the context, responsibility can signify accountability, self-sufficiency, prudence, care, obligation, dependency, or even culpability.

In the face of these diverse political and ethical claims to be responsible, there is increasing scholarly need to systematically interrogate the social and cultural assumptions driving contemporary claims and calls to responsibility. Recently, a number of scholars have explored the increasing ubiquity of responsibilization discourses across the domains of health, public policy, and economics (Rose 1996, 2007; Adams 2013; Davis 2012; Zigon 2010). There have, however, also been calls to consider how neoliberal ideals of responsibility have come to overshadow other understandings of individual and collective responsibility. A number of scholars have demonstrated how neoliberal visions of autonomous, individual “responsible subjects” fall short of capturing the “competing responsibilities” or multiple frames of dependencies, reciprocities, and obligations at play in contemporary life (Rose 2007; Davis 2012; Zigon 2010; Adam 2005; Kelty 2008; McCarthy 2008; Ferguson 2012; Welker 2009, Trnka and Trundle 2014). In this conference we seek to examine both neoliberal framings of responsibility and the variety of counter-currents to them.

We invite scholars from diverse academic disciplines to critically reflect upon the varied calls to responsibility being made in contemporary life. Participants may consider, but should not be limited to, the following questions:

  • What relationships exist between responsibility and allied concepts such as trust, care, accountability, obligation and liability in different social contexts?
  • What forms of personhood are constituted by and governed through ideals of responsibility?
  • How are relations of responsibility configured between humans and non-human entities in different cultural settings, such as towards the environment, ecosystems, the material world, animals, spirits or gods?
  • How do people resist calls to be responsible? Do certain groups create moral and ethical discourses for being non-responsible or irresponsible?
  • How do claims for more responsibility intersect with assertions of blame and accusation, or legal, moral and political demands for restitution in diverse settings, such as within indigenous rights movements, health social movements, national apologies, or truth and reconciliation commissions?
  • What does responsibility really signify within Corporate Social Responsibility? Which practices and actions get responsibilized and which slip outside the bounds of responsibility within economic spheres?
  • What is the relationship between citizenship and responsibility, and what are the diverse ways that citizens are called upon to be responsible?