Understanding Caregiving Across Contexts and Cultures
TWCF Number
Project Duration
July 8 / 2024
- July 7 / 2027
Core Funding Area
Big Questions
North America
Amount Awarded

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Alison Gopnik
Institution University of California, Berkeley

The central empirical project is to investigate the character, origins, and development of human conceptions of caregiving across multiple contexts and cultures. Second, we will begin to provide a formal model of those conceptions. In parallel, the project team plans to use this knowledge to contribute to a more general interdisciplinary theoretical account of care, rooted in cognitive science but integrating ideas from philosophy and biology, as well as economics, religious studies, and political science. Finally, they hope to apply this new understanding to inform urgent practical questions about the social organization of caregiving.

The project team will focus on children’s developing conceptions of care in this proposal. Within cognitive science there is a long tradition of studying children’s “theory of mind”. This research has been highly influential. More recently, there has been a significant focus on children’s early social understanding, their “intuitive sociology,” including their understanding of in-groups and out-groups and of dominance and alliance. In both cases, understanding how people think about the mind and society – particularly their “intuitive theories” of mental states and social groups provided crucial insight into psychological and social behavior. Strikingly, however, there is almost no research on developing ideas about caregiving, even though caregiving is evolutionarily central for children and plays a crucial role in their everyday experiences. Is there an initial understanding of care even in infancy? How do older children and adults think about caregiving, and how does that thinking differ from their understanding of other social and economic relationships? Could we provide a formal model of those conceptions, analogous to other formal models of “intuitive theories”? How does the everyday idea of care relate to ideas in other disciplines and to policy questions?

A particularly important question concerns how experiences of caregiving, which can be highly varied across individuals and cultures, might influence cognitive conceptions of caregiving. To do this, the project team will consider a wide range of caregiving relationships -including parents of young children, adult children caring for elderly parents, professional caregivers, and children who receive and give care in different settings. Attitudes and caregiving practices also vary significantly across different cultures. In collaboration with anthropologists and psychologists, both in the United States and abroad, the team plans to conduct cross-cultural work assessing the generalizability of cognitive conceptions of caregiving across a broad range of social structures: industrialized communities in the United States and Peru, forager-horticulturalists Shipibo-Konibo communities in the Amazon, and pastoralist OvaHimba communities in Namibia. Ultimately, they aim to provide an informed and thoughtful scientific background to the urgent practical caregiving decisions crucial for human flourishing.

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