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Department of Social Anthropology


  James Laidlaw)

Ethical concern and moral evaluation are everywhere crucial aspects of social life.  Only recently, however, have anthropologists begun to focus explicit attention on them. Work at Cambridge on such topics as self-making and diverse notions of flourishing, achievement and success, social deployments of concepts of justice, the motivational and structuring force of values, social practices of accountability, and the role of creativity and emotion in fostering people’s understandings of ethical accomplishment have helped in recent years to contribute to a profound rethinking of anthropological theories of practice and accounts of the nature of social organization.

At the same time that many anthropologists have come to recognize the importance of morality in social life, others have taken note of the fact that rapid social and cultural change is a condition of life in many societies in the contemporary world.  Along with social transformations driven wholly by the internal concerns of those involved in them, the last several decades have seen an explosion of public and private projects undertaken by outsiders aiming to foster change through efforts at various kinds of development, humanitarian aid, and the enactment of legal controls on ethno-cultural practices deemed unethical.  Central to our work in Cambridge is the recognition that both kinds of change are frequently shaped by ethical goals and that they also raise difficult moral questions for those involved in them.  Drawing on the novel theoretical tools provided by the emerging anthropology of ethics and morality, we are thus developing ways to study the role of ethical thought, experience, and practice in shaping processes of social transformation.

One of the strengths of the anthropology of morality is that it has already begun to build bridges to other fields. At Cambridge, those of us working in this area are in dialogue with scholars in moral philosophy, religious studies and theology, political science, law, psychology, and science studies.  Our focus on change also links to key questions in development studies and media studies.  Building on these links, our research explores questions such as the following:


  • How do we understand the social basis of ethical thought and practice?
  • What are the capacities of ethical subjects?
  • Is morality an inherent, immanent, or constitutive feature of the human, and to what extent is it sustained and shaped by social relations?
  • How are moral values learned, organised, and transmitted, and what role do they play in initiating or responding to historical change?
  • What role do religious institutions and practices play in moral education?
  • How do moral concerns shape and how are they shaped by linguistically mediated social interaction?
  • What role do values play in organizing cultural understandings and setting up hierarchical relations between them?
  • How do situations of social change both make special demands on people’s capacities for ethical action and require changes in the locally meaningful ethical systems that guide such action?
  • What is the relationship between morality and politics?  How do social definitions of moral obligation and authority shape political debate around issues of poverty and inequality?
  • How are laws and legal processes shaped by ethical considerations and motivations?  How are cultural values and practices addressed through legal means?
  • What is the role of mass media in moral debate and how does media consumption influence moral experience?
  • What is the place of ethical self-making and self-reflection in the conduct of natural science research?
  • What modes of moral reflection and concern shape human engagement with and detachment from non-human animals?
  • How is morality linked to culturally specific ideas of achievement and excellence, and how do local understandings in these areas relate to globally circulating models of the good life and the good person?


Running through all of these critical research questions is a concern with the cross-cultural exploration of human moral capacities and selfhood, their expression in social life, and the fundamental role they play in situations of social change.  Beyond the findings of our focused ethnographic projects, our goal at Cambridge is to develop strong theoretical accounts of the role of morality in the construction of social action and communal life as well as detailed understandings of the moral transformations that accompany all instances of social and cultural change.