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The Experience of Social Care Work in North India: Motivation, Moral Obligation, and Balancing Care Worker Needs


What drives people to sacrifice time and energy to care for unrelated others? Caring in India has special cultural significance, often understood in relation to kinship, systems of reciprocity, and religious service. Based on fieldwork in the Delhi National Capital Region (NCR) of India during the summer of 2016, this paper investigates the motivations for engaging in care work, as well as the risks and challenges that arise in this work, among two separate groups of care workers: non-governmental organizations (NGOs) workers and sevadars, Sikhs taking part in religiously-grounded selfless service. Through an ethnographic study of the lived experience of care workers, I argue that cultural frameworks, in particular religious ideology and the importance of relationships of attachment, shape the motivation to care, the assessment of challenges associated with the work, and experiences of well-being that are a result of providing care to others. The opportunity to engage in care work creates the potential to fulfill moral obligations and strive towards ethical living. The subjective experiences of care workers, as well as the relationships created through this work, produce conditions that reinforce the continuation of this work and allow individuals to persist through the challenges that often lead to harm and burnout. The psychological processes and obligations that emerge during the process of doing care work recreate a cycle of commitment to ethically care for the self.

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