Vulnerability and Response‑Ability in the Pandemic Marketplace: Developing an Ethic of Care for Provisioning in Crisis

The Covid-19 pandemic turned the mundane act of shopping into a situation layered with practical and epistemic uncertainties. The concentrated physical space of the supermarket became a microcosm for relational ethical reasoning in moments of crisis.

Against this scenario, we explore questions such as: What does it mean ‘to care’ and to be ‘ethical’ in the context of a crisis? What happens in times of crisis when emotions such as fear and insecurity intrude into and disrupt shopping practices? What changes are brought about when people shop not only as a way to care for themselves and their close ones, but also to exert responsibility toward others or society at large in a situation of crisis? How are shopping practices shaped when they are carried out in a physical space that lays open people’s vulnerabilities?

This paper draws on the ethics of care to investigate how citizens grappled with ethical tensions in the mundane practice of grocery shopping at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. Drawing on Fisher and Tronto (1990, p. 40), we define care as “everything that we do to maintain, continue and repair our world so that we can live in it as well as possible”. We use this case to address the broader question of what it means ‘to care’ in the context of a crisis. Based on the SolPan qualitative longitudinal cross-country interview study, we find that the pandemic transformed ordinary shopping spaces into places fraught with a sense of fear and vulnerability. Our participants responded to these multiple demands by adopting different degrees of “response-ability”—which we define, leaning on Haraway (2012), as the capacity of people to respond to ethical demands through situated ethical reasoning. Utilizing the ethics of care and particularly Joan Tronto’s (2013) notion of ‘caring with’, we capture how a sense of embodied vulnerability, political responsibilization, and people’s own situated capacities to respond all play together to form a particular ethos of care in periods of crisis.

Through close analysis of a large set of in-depth interview data collected in four countries (Germany, Ireland, Italy, and the UK) at two intervals during the pandemic (spring and autumn 2020), our study highlights care as a practical ethos in practices of provisioning. The striking similarities in participants’ ethical reasonings that we identified across the four countries give us a deep understanding of people’s ethical reasonings in the context of shopping in crisis. Our findings support care ethics scholars’ calls to replace an abstract and prescriptive morality with a situated, relational ethics of care (Ryan et al., 2023). Shopping during Covid-19 became a key moment where usually difficult to elicit and/or habitual behaviors and thoughts were disrupted and thus opened up to reflection.

We propose that shopping is not just a lens to understand the fabric of relationships with proximate and more distant others, but also an entry point to understand the personal and social tensions that an awareness of fundamental interdependency creates. We argue that how people coped with a crisis context can hold valuable lessons for consumption ethics beyond the current ‘pandemic moment’, lessons that may be extended to broader ways of interdependent ‘ethical living’ (Ariztia et al., 2018) in our current era of poly-crisis: while queuing in front of shops is history, at least for now, what may stay with many of us is an awareness that going about one’s daily errands could extend to a more response-able way of interacting with fellow shoppers and marketplace employees.

This study is published in a scientific journal: 

Geiger, S., Galasso, I., Hangel, N. et al. Vulnerability and Response-Ability in the Pandemic Marketplace: Developing an Ethic of Care for Provisioning in Crisis. J Bus Ethics (2023).