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Department of Social Anthropology


Prof Joel Robbins (University of Cambridge)

On the prospects for a comparative study of the good: Beyond the bad and the ugly in anthropological relativism

In her influential recent article on “Dark Anthropology,” Sherry Ortner questions the critical potential of anthropological studies of ethics, and particularly of research focused on studying people’s perceptions of and efforts to achieve the good.  Instead, she suggests that anthropological efforts are best directed at examining how people critique the darkness that besets their lives.  In this paper, I argue that critical anthropology is significantly handicapped by posing itself in opposition to the study of the good.  I develop this argument both through a consideration of recent work in critical theory and by means of reconsidering the critical potential of the anthropological study of difference.  This critical potential, I suggest, has itself been hampered by the way anthropological relativism has tended to focus on the dark sides of various cultural formations.  In response, I argue for an approach to difference based on a pluralism of the good.  In developing this position, I illustrate my claims in part by considering recent work on what even now, long after the mainstreaming of the anthropology of Christianity, scholars continue to consider somewhat repugnant forms of the Christian faith.

Thursday, 28 November, 2019 - 17:00 to 18:00
Event location: 
The Maypole (upstairs room in the pub)