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Dr. Patrick McKearney

Dr. Patrick McKearney

Research Associate, Max Planck - Cambridge Centre for Ethics, Economy and Social Change

Affiliated Lecturer, Department of Social Anthropology

By-Fellow, Churchill College


My teaching and research sits at the intersection of conversations about the mind, care, and ethics. I focus in particular on adults with significant 'intellectual disabilities' - that is, cognitive impairments that place them in need of dedicated care throughout their lives. What are the consequences of lacking some of the crucial mental abilities we tend to take for granted in our lives and our relationships? What does adulthood mean for those who depend on the intimate care we typically associate with childhood? Put more philosophically, what forms of ethical flourishing, recognition, and connection are open to those who have impairments of the capacities our intellectual traditions have often taken as the very foundation of society, ethics, and personhood?

I explore these philosophical questions through comparative ethnographic research in the UK and India. My principal research project focuses on three aspects of the ethical life of a care home for adults with intellectual disabilities in the UK that is run by a Christian charity called L’Arche. First, the moral complexities that result from carers trying, as their counterparts do across Europe and America, to support vulnerable people in a way that makes them free - that is, to treat them as dependent and independent simultaneously. Second, the new possibilities and complications of intimate connection beyond the bounds of contractual relationships opened up by L’Arche’s distinctively communal model of care, in which carers eat, pray, and live with those they support. Third, what L’Arche’s unique way of trying to leave care behind tells us about the possibility of feeling like, and being recognised as, an equal adult in contemporary Britain while still relying on dedicated support.

I am also at the beginning of a research project on adults with intellectual disabilities in South India, where I am exploring how different ways of valuing and negotiating dependence affect the most intimate aspects of their lives. In the relative absence of state support, how are responsibilities for care distributed (or not) through descent, marriage, and charity - and what is the extent and ethical texture of the care these individuals receive as a result? How do different categorisations of the mind, and values of social interaction, shape the possibility of these individuals connecting to others intimately and publicly? How do contrasting understandings of the relationship adulthood and dependence, hierarchy and exchange affect their chances of (and their desire for) finding a job, getting married, and having control over their lives?

This research forms the basis of my teaching on care, religion, dependence, disability, cognition, and ethics; and it also takes me to Kerala where I am affiliated with the Mahatma Gandhi University of Kottayam and the Kerala Council of Historical Research in Thiruvananthapuram.

Research Interests

Anthropology of Religion

Anthropology of Christianity

Medical Anthropology

Anthropology of Care

Anthropology of Disability

Intellectual and Mental Disability

Psychological Anthropology

Dependence and Welfare

Anthropology of Ethics

Moral Philosophy

The Ethics of Care


SAN3: Anthropological Theory and Methods

Belief and the Anthropology of Christian Life

SAN5: Ethical Life and the Anthropology of the Subject

Personhood, Cognition, and Ethics

SAN13: Gender, Kinship, and Care

Disability, Dependence, and Care

Key Publications

McKearney, P. (2019). The Weight of Living: Autonomy, Care, and Responsibility for the Self. Journal of Disability and Religion

McKearney, P., & Zoanni, T. (2018). Introduction: For an Anthropology of Cognitive Disability. The 
Cambridge Journal of Anthropology36(1), 1–22.

McKearney, P. (2018). Receiving the Gift of Cognitive Disability: Recognizing Agency in the Limits of the Rational Subject. The Cambridge Journal of Anthropology,36(1), 40–60.

McKearney, P. (2017). L’Arche, Learning Disability, and Domestic Citizenship: Dependent Political Belonging in a Contemporary British City. City & Society29(2), 260–280.
McKearney, P. (2016). The Genre of Judgment. Journal of Religious Ethics44(3), 544–573.