Autonomy on the horizon: comparing institutional approaches to disability and elder care

Altomonte, Guillermina; Munson, Adrianna Bagnall

This article asks how people come to interpret themselves and others as autonomous given their multiple dependencies. We draw on a cross-case comparison of ethnographic studies with two populations for whom autonomy is both central and problematic: elderly patients in post-acute care, and young adults with disabilities in an independent living program. Analyzing the institutional efforts to make their clients “as independent as possible,” we find that staff members at each organization formulate autonomy as a temporal project through an ongoing calibration of open futures, ideal pasts, and situational competence. Constantly adjusting and fine-tuning where in time autonomy “really” is, workers arrange present dependence so that the contours of the future remain open for their clients. In other words, they make use of temporal markers to produce recognizable autonomous subjects whose dependencies are momentary. Theorizing this temporal project enables us to see more clearly how all of us engage in the constant business of “doing” autonomy, and to better understand the role of institutions in producing autonomous selves.

Keywords: Agency, Aging, Autonomy, Disability, Independence, Temporality


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Theory and Society

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March 1, 2022