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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





  • Laidlaw, J., Bodenhorn, B. and Holbraad, M., 2018. Recovering the Human Subject, Cambridge University Press
  • 2013

  • Laidlaw, JA., 2013. The Subject of Virtue: An Anthropology of Ethics and Freedom (New Departures in Anthropology), Cambridge University Press
  • 2007

  • Whitehouse, H. and Laidlaw, J., 2007. Religion, anthropology, and cognitive science, Carolina Academic Pr
  • 2004

  • Whitehouse, H. and Laidlaw, J., 2004. Ritual and memory, Altamira Pr
  • 2001

  • Hugh-Jones, S. and Laidlaw, JA., Hugh-Jones, S. and Laidlaw, JA. (eds.), 2001. The Essential Edmund Leach: Vol 2, Culture and Human Nature, Yale University Press
  • 2000

  • Leach, ER., Hugh-Jones, S. and Laidlaw, J., 2000. The Essential Edmund Leach: Anthropology and society, Yale Univ Pr
  • 1995

  • Laidlaw, J., 1995. Riches and Renunciation Religion, Economy, and Society Among the Jains, Oxford University Press
  • 1994

  • Humphrey, C. and Laidlaw, J., 1994. The Archetypal Actions of Ritual: A Theory of Ritual Illustrated by the Jain Rite of Worship, Oxford UP
  • Journal articles


  • Laidlaw, J. and Mair, J., 2019. IMPERFECT ACCOMPLISHMENT: The Fo Guang Shan Short-Term Monastic Retreat and Ethical Pedagogy in Humanistic Buddhism CULTURAL ANTHROPOLOGY, v. 34
  • 2017

  • Laidlaw, J., 2017. The ontological turn: an anthropological exposition SOCIAL ANTHROPOLOGY, v. 25
  • Laidlaw, JA., 2017. Review article: Holbraad, M and M A Pedersen. The ontological turn: an anthropological exposition., Wiley-Blackwell Social Anthropology, v. 25
  • Laidlaw, J., 2017. An axial essay HISTORY AND ANTHROPOLOGY, v. 28
  • 2016

  • Laidlaw, JA., 2016. Through a Glass, Darkly, HAU-N.E.T HAU : Journal of Ethnographic Theory, v. 6
  • Laidlaw, J., 2016. The interactional foundations of ethics and the formation and limits of morality systems, University of Chicago Press HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory, v. 6
  • Laidlaw, JA., 2016. A Well-Disposed Anthropologist’s Problems with the Cognitive Science of Religion Anthropology Of This Century,
  • 2015

  • Eriksen, TH., Laidlaw, J., Mair, J., Martin, K. and Venkatesan, S., 2015. Debate: 'The concept of neoliberalism has become an obstacle to the anthropological understanding of the twenty-first century' Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, v. 21 10.1111/1467-9655.12294
  • 2014

  • LAIDLAW, J., 2014. Significant differences, University of Chicago Press HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory, v. 4
  • 2013

  • Laidlaw, JA., 2013. A Generous Pluralism: Comment on Lloyd, G. E. R. 2012. Being, Humanity and Understanding, HAU-N.E.T HAU : Journal of Ethnographic Theory, v. 3
  • 2009

  • Laidlaw, J., 2009. Morality: An Anthropological Perspective ETHNOS, v. 74
  • 2005

  • Laidlaw, J., 2005. A life worth leaving: Fasting to death as telos of a Jain religious life Economy and Society, v. 34
  • 2002

  • Laidlaw, J., 2002. For An Anthropology Of Ethics And Freedom, Wiley Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, v. 8
  • 2000

  • Laidlaw, J., 2000. A free gift makes no friends Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, v. 6
  • 1996

  • Laidlaw, J., 1996. Review Article : The Uses and Abuses of Theology: Comments On Jonathan Parry's Death in Banaras, SAGE Publications South Asia Research, v. 16
  • Laidlaw, JA., Anthropology and Cognitive Science: A Two-Way Street? Anthropology of This Century, v. 9
  • Laidlaw, JA. and Heywood, P., One More Turn and You’re There Anthropology of This Century, v. 7
  • Laidlaw, JA., Ontologically Challenged Anthropology of this Century,
  • Laidlaw, J., Morality and Honour Anthropology of this Century,
  • Sanchez, A., Parry, JP., Carrier, J., Gregory, C., Laidlaw, J., Strathern, M. and Yan, Y., Sanchez, A., Carrier, JG., Gregory, C., Laidlaw, J., Strathern, M., Yan, Y. and Parry, J. (eds.),‘The Indian Gift’: A critical debate, Taylor & Francis History and Anthropology, v. 28
  • Laidlaw, JA., Ethics / Morality, University of Cambridge The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Anthropology,
  • Other publications


  • Whitehouse, H. and Laidlaw, J. (eds.), 2004. Ritual and Memory: Toward a Comparative Anthropology of Religion, AltaMira
  • Teaching and Supervisions

    William Wyse Professor of Social Anthropology
    Director, Max Planck - Cambridge Centre for Ethics, Economy and Social Change
    Fellow, King's College
    on leave: 2021-2023
    Professor James  Laidlaw

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