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Department of Social Anthropology



Ethnographically, my research began in India, where fieldwork among Jain religious communities in Rajasthan and Gujarat resulted in a series of publications: The Archetypal Actions of Ritual (1994), a jointly-authored book on ritual theory; Riches and Renunciation (1995), a comprehensive study of Jain religion, morality, and social life; and several articles, including ‘A Free Gift Makes No Friends’ (2000), a contribution to classic anthropological debates on the gift and exchange.


Working on Jainism, with its strikingly complex and exacting ethical thought and practice, drew me to the view that anthropological theory (and social theory more generally) was ill equipped to comprehend the ethical dimension of human life, and far-reaching revision was necessary to enable productive dialogue with moral philosophy and psychology. An invitation to deliver the Malinowski Memorial Lecture in 2001 was an opportunity to set out this initially very controversial argument, and to propose remedies. The resulting publication (‘For an Anthropology of Ethics and Freedom’, 2002) turned out to be one of a handful of near-simultaneous opening statements in what has since come to be referred to (problematically to be sure) as ‘the ethical turn’ in anthropology. My 2014 book, The Subject of Virtue: An Anthropology of Ethics and Freedom (Cambridge University Press), gives a genealogy, survey, and prospectus for this field. A more recent, shorter survey is available here:


In the meantime, following participation in collaborative research projects on Buddhism in the Inner Mongolia region of China and in Bhutan, I have since 2013 resumed an earlier ethnographic engagement with Taiwan. I have begun a fieldwork project, in collaboration with my colleague Jonathan Mair at the University of Kent, on ethical self-cultivation in the Taiwan-based, but now fast-growing global Buddhist movement, Foguangshan (Buddha’s Light Mountain, 佛光⼭). This research is intended to lead to a jointly-authored book on the Foguangshan, describing the movement’s distinctive place within the gamut of reformist or ‘modernist’ Buddhist movements, its mode of adaptation to diverse social and cultural contexts world-wide, its liturgical style and forms of ethical thought and practice. The first published result of this research (funded by a British Academy/Leverhulme Trust Grant (SG151876)) may be found here:


My commitment to research in Taiwan is long-term, and beyond this project on Buddhism I have interest in other civil-society movements and organizations there, including the highly distinctive gay and lesbian movement, and comparisons with other societies in the region.


I have pursued a number of inter-disciplinary collaborations, including with cognitive anthropologists/psychologists and, more recently, with moral philosophers. The latest collaborative research initiative in which I am involved, together with other colleagues here in the Department, is 'Max-Cam', a new centre for research on ethics and economic change, based in Cambridge as a joint-enterprise with the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology at Halle (headed by Prof Chris Hann) and the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity at Göttingen (headed by Prof Peter van der Veer). This new centre brings together research on the relations and interconnections between economic change and changes in people’s ethical values, ideals, judgements, and practices. Ethnographic research within the Max-Cam Centre will include projects based in locations as diverse as Europe, West Africa, Turkey, India, South-East Asia, and Melanesia. See



Key publications: 


2018: Recovering the Human Subject: Freedom, Creativity and Decision. Edited by James Laidlaw, Barbara Bodenhorn and Martin Holbraad. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 

2014: The Subject of Virtue: An Anthropology of Ethics and Freedom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

2007 (ed): Religion, Anthropology, and Cognitive Science. Edited by Harvey Whitehouse and James Laidlaw. Durham NC: Caroline Academic Press. 

2004 (ed): Ritual and Memory: Toward a Comparative Anthropology of Religion. Edited by Harvey Whitehouse and James.Laidlaw. Walnut Creek CA: AltaMira.  

2000 (ed): The Essential Edmund Leach. Volume I: Anthropology and Society. Edited by Stephen Hugh-Jones and James Laidlaw. London: Yale University Press.  

2000 (ed): The Essential Edmund Leach. Volume II: Culture and Human Nature. Edited by Stephen Hugh-Jones and James Laidlaw. London: Yale University Press.  

1996 (ed): Lévi-Strauss, by Edmund Leach. Second Edition [originally published 1972], Revised and Updated by James Laidlaw. London: HarperCollins.

1995: Riches and Renunciation: Religion, Economy, and Society among the Jains. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 

1994: The Archetypal Actions of Ritual: A Theory of Ritual Illustrated by the Jain Rite of Worship. By Caroline Humphrey and James Laidlaw. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 



2019. 'Imperfect Accomplishment: The Fo Guan Shan Short-Term Monastic Retreat and Ethical Pedagogy in Humanistic Buddhism’, by James Laidlaw and Jonathan Mair. Cultural Anthropology, 34 (3): 328-358. Available here:

2018. 'The Anthropological Lives of Michel Foucault', in Matei Candea (ed.), Schools and Styles of Anthropological Theory. Routledge: London: pp. 173-184.

2018. 'Interpretive Cultural Anthropology: Geertz and His "Writing-Culture" Critics', in Matei Candea (ed.), Schools and Styles of Anthropological Theory. Routledge: London: pp. 148-158.

2018. ‘Fault Lines in the Anthropology of Ethics’, in Cheryl Mattingly et al (eds.), Moral Engines: Exploring the Ethical Drives in Human Life. Oxford: Berghahn: 174-93.


2017. 'Ethics / Morality'. In The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Anthropology (eds) F. Stein, S. Lazar, M. Candea, H. Diemberger, J. Robbins, A. Sanchez & R. Stasch.

2017. ‘An Axial Essay’, in Andrew Sanchez et al, ‘The Indian Gift: A Critical Debate’. History and Anthropology, 28/5: 553-583.


2017. Review Article: Holbraad, M. and M. A. Pedersen 2017. The ontological turn: an anthropological exposition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Social Anthropology/Anthropologie Sociale (2017) 25, 3 396–402.

2016. ‘Through a Glass, Darkly’. HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory, 6: 47–73.

2016. 'Can We Be Both Modern and Virtuous?', Religion and World Affairs Series, Institute on Culture, Religion & World Affairs (CURA), Boston University.

2016. 'The interactional foundations of ethics and the formation and limits of morality systems'. Hau: Journal of Ethnographic Theory, 6 (1): 455-461.

2016. ‘A Well-Disposed Anthropologist’s Problems with the Cognitive Science of Religion’. Anthropology Of This Century, 16.

2015. 'Detachment and Ethical Regard'. In Matei Candea, Joanna Cook, Catherine Trundle and Thomas Yarrow (eds.), Detachment: Essays on the Limits of Relational Thinking. Manchester: Manchester University Press: 130-46.

2015.  Thomas Hylland Eriksen, James Laidlaw, Jonathan Mair, Keir Martin, Soumhya Venkatesan, ‘The concept of neoliberalism has become an obstacle to the anthropological understanding of the twenty-first century’. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 21/4: 911-923.

2014. ‘Significant Differences‘: Response to HAU Book Symposium on Laidlaw, James. 2014. The subject of virtue: An anthropology of ethics and freedom.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press’. HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory, 4: 497-506. 

2014: ‘The Undefined Work of Freedom: Foucault’s Genealogy and the Anthropology of Ethics’, in, James D. Faubion (ed), Foucault Now: Current Perspectives in Foucault Studies. Cambridge: Polity Press: 23-37.

2014. ‘Anthropology and Cognitive Science: A Two-Way Street?’. Anthropology of This Century, Issue 9. 

2013. ‘Ethics’. In Janice Boddy & Michael Lambek (eds.) A Companion to the Anthropology of Religion. Chichester: John Wiley & Sons:171-188.

2013. ‘One More Turn and You’re There‘. By James Laidlaw and Paolo Heywood. Anthropology of This Century. Issue 7. 

2013. ‘A Generous Pluralism: Comment on Lloyd, G. E. R. 2012. Being, Humanity and Understanding. Oxford: Oxford University Press‘. Hau: Journal of Ethnographic Theory, 3: 197-200.

2012. Ontologically Challenged. Anthropology of this Century, Issue 4.

2011. Morality and Honour. Anthropology of this Century, Issue 1 .

2010. Agency and Responsibility: Perhaps You Can Have Too Much of a Good Thing. In Ordinary Ethics: Anthropology, Language, and Action. Edited by Michael Lambek. New York: Fordham University Press: 143-64.

2010. Ethical Traditions in Question: Diaspora Jainism and the Environmental and Animal Liberation Movements. In Ethical Life in South Asia. Edited by Anand Pandian and Daud Ali. Bloomington: Indiana University Press: 61-80

2010. Social Anthropology. In The Routledge Companion to Ethics. Edited by John Skorupski. London: Routledge: 369-83.

2010: Ethics, Anthropology of. In The Routledge Encyclopedia of Social and Cultural Anthropology. Second Edition. Edited by Alan Barnard and Jonathan Spencer. London: Routledge: 238-40.

2009: What if There is No Elephant? Towards a Conception of an Un-sited Field. By Joanna Cook, James Laidlaw, and Jonathan Mair. In Multi-Sited Ethnography: Theory, Praxis, and Locality in Contemporary Social Research. Edited by Mark-Anthony Falzon. London: Ashgate: 47-72.

2007: A Well-Disposed Social Anthropologist’s Problems with the Cognitive Science of Religion. In Religion, Anthropology, and Cognitive Science. Edited by Harvey Whitehouse and James Laidlaw. Durham NC: Caroline Academic Press: 211-246.

2007: The Intension and Extension of Wellbeing: Transformation in Diaspora Jain Understandings of Non-Violence. In Culture and Well-Being: Anthropological Approaches to Freedom and Political Ethics. Edited by Alberto Corsin Jimenez. London: Pluto: 156-179.

2007: Sacrifice and Ritualization. By Caroline Humphrey and James Laidlaw. In The Archaeology of Ritual. Edited by Evangelos Kyriakidis. Los Angeles: Costen Institute: 255-276.

2006: Action. By James Laidlaw and Caroline Humphrey. In Theorizing Rituals: Vol. I: Issues, Topics, Approaches, Concepts. Edited by Jens Kreinath, Jan Snoek and Michael Stausberg (Numen Book Series: Studies in the History of Religions 114-1). Leiden: Brill: 265-283.

2005: A Life Worth Leaving: Fasting to Death as Telos of a Jain Religious Life. Economy and Society, 34/2: 178-199.

2004: Embedded Modes of Religiosity in Indic Renouncer Religions. In Ritual and Memory: Toward a Comparative Anthropology of Religion. Edited by Harvey Whitehouse and James Laidlaw. Walnut Creek CA: AltaMira: 89-109.

2004: Humphrey, Caroline. In Biographical Dictionary of Social and Cultural Anthropology. Edited by Veera Amit. London: Routledge: 252-253.

2004: Leach, Sir Edmund Ronald (1910-1989). In Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Edited by H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison. Oxford: OUP.

2004: Informal Collaborations as an Aspect of Urban Anthropological Fieldwork: Experiences from Jaipur City. In Methodology and Fieldwork. Edited by Vinay Kumar Srivastava. New Delhi: Oxford University Press: 208-239.

2002: For an Anthropology of Ethics and Freedom. (The Malinowski Memorial Lecture, 2001). Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute. 8/2: 311-332.

2000: A Free Gift Makes No FriendsJournal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 6/4: 617-634. Expanded version reprinted as A Free Gift Makes No Friends. In The Question of the Gift: Essays Across Disciplines. Edited by Mark Osteen. London: Routledge: 45-66 (2002).

1999: On Theatre and Theory: Reflections on Ritual in Imperial Chinese Politics. In State and Court Ritual in China. Edited by Joseph P. McDermott. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press: 399-416.

1996: The Uses and Abuses of Theology: Comments on Jonathan Parry’s ‘Death in Banaras’South Asia Research, 16/1: 31-44.

Teaching and Supervisions

William Wyse Professor of Social Anthropology
Head of Department, Social Anthropology
Director, Max Planck - Cambridge Centre for Ethics, Economy and Social Change
Fellow, King's College
Office hours: appointment by email
Professor James  Laidlaw

Contact Details

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