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Collaboration between Cambridge and the Max Planck Society

last modified Jan 25, 2018 09:26 AM

Everyone with an interest in the social sciences remembers the take-home message of Max Weber’s essay, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.  After the Reformation, Weber tells us, some Northern Europeans began working hard to accumulate funds they could invest in starting or expanding businesses that would accumulate even more funds because they were convinced that worldly success would provide them some proof that God had elected them for salvation.  What we often forget when we think about Weber’s argument today, however, is the question that Weber was trying to answer.  That question, a burning one for historians in Weber’s time, was why anyone anywhere ever came to think that it was acceptable to acquire more than they needed to take care of themselves and their families.  Until the rise of capitalism, such an emphasis on accumulation was more the mark of the witch than it was of the morally upright person who had been saved.  How had views changed so dramatically that accumulating capital came to be seen as in itself a good thing to do?

Weber’s argument, though often debated, remains one of the most important in the social sciences because it ties together economic and ethical change and suggests that major transformations in society are always accompanied by profound changes in how people understand what it means to be a good person.  The new Max Planck-Cambridge Centre for the Study of Ethics, Economy, and Social Change is dedicated to the exploration of this intersection between moral and economic life as a way to gain important comparative insights into the course of social transformation around the world in the turbulent times in which we live.  And drawing further inspiration from Weber, as well as from Durkheim and deep traditions in anthropology, we add to the mix an interest in how ritual practices – from collective celebrations of success and achievement to routinized techniques of accountability and self-cultivation – often serve as the settings in which ethical and economic changes are made meaningful to people and diffused throughout a population.  In the wake of the global financial crash, when there is renewed interest among Max-Cam-News-Stock-Exchangeanalysts, policy-makers, and regulators, in the ethics of business practice and the values promoted by corporations and institutions, our goal is to develop new approaches to studying some of today’s most pressing social issues.

The Centre is a joint project of the Department of Social Anthropology at Cambridge, The Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology at Halle, and the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious Diversity at Göttingen.  The strengths of the Cambridge Department in the anthropology of ethics, the Department and Göttingen Institute in the study of religion, and the Institute in Halle in human economics give us a unique mix of skills with which to approach the study of the role of ethical and economic transformations in the contemporary world.  The Centre’s initial budget of £2,000,000 has been accumulated through competitive grant funding from the Max Planck Society and the Isaac Newton Trust, as well as from contributions from the Cambridge Vice-Chancellor’s Office, the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Cambridge, and the Department itself.  These funds will be used to support six postdoctoral fellows for four years each, working on issues of ethical and economic change around the world, from Turkey to Melanesia, and from Africa to India.  We hope in the future to expand the Centre, offering PhD studentships, positions for visiting scholars, and further postdoctoral fellows in an effort to make it a hub for the generation of new approaches to understanding the entanglement of ethical and economic change.

                                                                                                                                         Image: Flickr Creative Commons

The Research

Johannes Lenhard studied Economics and Management in Germany, with his postgraduate career at the London School of Economics and then the University of Cambridge focussed on  various aspects of homesslessness, asking the question; how to people make a better life on the street? At Max Planck-Cambridge, Johannes will act both as the centre’s research coordinator and continue his own research on inequality and ethics. His postdoctoral project will turn to the international venture capital industry and investigate the values and ethics behind the investors’ efforts of making a better future. 

Patrick McKearney studied Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Cambridge, before obtaining his PhD from Cambridge in the Anthropology of Religion.  His doctoral thesis examined the work of a Christian charity called L’Arche, and their unusual community approach to the care of people with intellectual disabilities. As a Research Associate at the Max Planck-Cambridge Centre, Patrick will take this research project on tour: looking at how people with intellectual disabilities fare in situations of social change and economic development, especially when receiving education and care from Christian NGOs like L'Arche.

Anna-Riikka Kauppinen has been conducting ethnographic fieldwork in Ghana’s capital Accra since 2010 with a focus on urban middle-classes and diverse locally-owned industries of value creation that have emerged in the city since the post-1990s transition to democratic rule. Anna-Riikka’s PhD project at the London School of Economics was a study of Ghanaian-owned private media companies, young professionals and entrepreneurs. At Max Planck-Cambridge, Anna-Riikka will look at Ghanaian-led private banks and explore in particular the social networks between banking institutions and Charismatic Pentecostal churches, while historicizing the moral ambiguities that have surrounded banking in West Africa since the colonial times.

Patrice Ladwig studied Social Anthropology and Sociology in Germany, France and the UK, and obtained his PhD from the University of Cambridge. He completed postdoctoral research at the University of Bristol, and the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, and was Visiting Professor at the Universities of  Zürich and Hamburg. Patrice’s Max Planck-Cambridge research will focus on the interconnections between economic modernization in Laos, and the impact of the latter on ethics and values as articulated in funerals and Buddhist ordination rites. Patrice will be based at the Max Planck Institute for Religious and Ethnic Diversity in Göttingen, Germany. 

Samuel Williams studied Social Anthropology at the University of Sydney and obtained his PhD from Princeton University.  Samuel works on economy and material culture in Turkey, and has a particular interest in the ethnographic study of markets. His research for the Max Planck-Cambridge centre will examine the circulation of certain forms of gold coin and jewellery between the Middle East and Europe, and he will be based at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology in Halle, Germany.

Rachel Smith obtained her PhD in Social Anthropology from Manchester University, which focused on the ‘domestic moral economy’ in a rural Melanesian community undergoing rapid socio-economic change. She then completed a two-year postdoctoral fellowship in Anthropology at Stanford University. For her Max Planck-Cambridge research, Rachel will build on her doctoral work, by conducting further research into domains related to the values and ethics surrounding guilt and shame, forgiveness and reconciliation, gift and sacrifice in the context of socioeconomic change.