Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Professor Matthew Cooper


The ethnography explores moral dimensions of the motives and experiences of L'Arche caregivers in Canada. L'Arche is an intentional faith community, whose mission is to be a sign of hope and love to the world through creating homes and relationships with people with intellectual disability. I historicize the evolution of L'Arche by identifying the confluence of socio-political, economic, and religious factors through which it emerged. Related to this is how the founders reframed the negative overtones of difference and disability, and developed a radical ethic and model of caregiving. To illuminate how radical that model was, and still is, I situate it in relation to mainstream histories of care based on a deficit model of disability. I also illustrate the cultural construction of disability historically.

The narratives of L'Arche caregivers point to what it means for them to live and work in L'Arche. These narratives reveal a blend of self-interest and altruism, tied to identity, morality, spirituality, and community. While some of their motives reflect their desire to contribute to broader socio-political change, I show that in the end these aspirations are not finding sufficient outlets in today's inward-focused communities.

The caregivers learn this radical approach through a process of enculturation into the local moral world of L'Arche. This transforms their moral perspective on difference, disability, and care, and makes them suitable reproductive agents. I deconstruct this process into key strategies and illustrate with ethnographic data. The constructive and negative potential of each aspect of the cultural system is dealt with from assistants' perspectives. I analyse the key fruits of L'Arche; the mutual relationships between caregivers and people with intellectual disabilities. I discuss traditional barriers against such relationships and present fieldwork examples of negotiating relations in practice, across the capacity and power imbalances inherent in them.

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Anthropology Commons