When was the last time you read an Anthropology article or book?  Did you know that there is a recent “Ethical turn” in anthropology and that anthropologists are writing interesting things about moral development, practical reasoning, virtue, autonomy, and other moral topics – all with reference to specific cultural contexts and practices?

If you are like me only a little while ago, you have never heard of the ethical turn because current anthropology is simply not on your radar.  And that is why I am posting!   I think this might be of interest to many philosophers, but especially to graduate students.

I learned about the “Ethical Turn” in Anthropology when I emailed an anthropologist who has done very interesting work on moral development in Thai Buddhist Communities (Nancy Eberhardt) and I have now poked around and found significant thought-provoking stuff.  In my experience, Anthropologists are engaging with philosophers but it is only “Continental” philosophers such as Foucault and select older analytic philosophers such as MacIntyre and Williams; they don’t seem to engage with current analytic moral philosophy at all.  From my admittedly cursory reading of the growing literature, there seem to be numerous untapped opportunities for fruitful influence, connection, and collaboration.

Recent anthropological work on ethics might be of special interest to grad student with empirical leanings or an interest in the topics listed below.  Maybe looking into this could help some grad student get a grant that favors interdisciplinary connections?

Here is a list of some topics that I think people could easily link up – and I bet there are more:

(i) Recent work on ignorance and responsibility
(ii) Practical reason
(iii) Autonomy
(iv) Definition/concept of morality
(v) Oppression
(vi) Moral education/cultivation

In case you are interested in poking around – maybe just as a form of potentially productive procrastination – I am happy to share a great resource that Professor Eberhardt kindly shared with me.  It is a sort of on-line guide to the Ethical Turn in Anthropology:

On line bibliography of recent anthropological work on Ethics

In addition, here is an overview piece, to which Eberhardt pointed me to, and a more recent article that surveys the major shifts in the field since the 80s:

Book Symposium on the Ethical Turn

Orthner overview of tends in Anthropology since the 80s

Hope this leads someone to read some interesting stuff, if nothing else!

Finally, if anyone knows of better resources of recent work connecting moral philosophy to anthropology of course I am glad to learn more.

13 Replies to “New Research Avenues in Anthropology?

  1. Interesting stuff, thank you! I think the issue of ethics does have a long-running history in anthropology, although it may emerge (or become submerged) at various points. This may not be what you are looking for, but my page on What is Anthropology? discusses some of the ways in which anthropologists have turned toward exploring human possibilities (rather than simply critique or documentation). I draw inspiration from what anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot called anthropology’s “Moral Optimism.”

  2. This is great, Brad, thanks! Can you explain what you take to be the difference in methodology and aims of anthropologists working on these issues from, say, developmental psychologists?

  3. Thank you for this! I would also like to report that there is ample room for a philosopher of mind or even metaphysician to read a lot of anthropology. I’m making my way through some ethnographies of mental illness, and they are proving very useful in thinking about the reduction/anti-reduction and realism/construction/antirealism debate.

  4. Wow, this is amazing – I especially appreciate the reader’s guide. Just looking through the titles makes it obvious that anyone interested in moral philosophy ought to be paying attention. Thanks Brad!

  5. Thanks very much, Brad! I have been thinking about cross-cultural issues in moral responsibility and this will be a great entry point.

  6. Hi Heath, Chike, and Anonymous! Thanks and glad you think this might be useful. I have started some of the books on specific cultural contexts and found them very interesting.

    Heath, you probably know about these but John Ladd and Richard Brandt wrote books on Hopi and Navaho ethics in the 50s which you might also find interesting.

  7. Hi Dave,

    Great question. I have only wild speculation to offer in response. First, it sure seems that both psychology and anthropology have made a turn from studying negative stuff to positive stuff in the roughly same time-period & that is remarkable but I am not sure how significant it is. But I do see the disciplines as having some general differences. Here is how I see things based on my admittedly very limited experience:


    1. I think psychologists working on morality want to give something like a culturally invariant account of human nature and development that explains moral judgments and motivation. If experiments show that one’s assumptions about human nature are false that is bad news. Maybe: negative results that dis-confirm one’s initial assumptions are considered bad news and not something to publish.

    2. They want their theories to be based on experimental results and although self-reports and structured interviews have a big role to play in psychology, there seems to be general deference to/preference for “more objective” behavioral and MRI data.

    3. Psychologists don’t seem to reflect much on the normative status of their own work. There are clear connections to business, the military, the penal system, and the pharmaceutical industry, but I don’t get the impression that psychologists think about this much in a professional capacity (might be totally wrong!). (I am thinking of the kinds of professional self-reflection that William Davies pursues in his “The Happiness Industry”) If this is right it might be because they don’t conceive of themselves as being engaged in normative inquiry.

    4. Finally, here is my only somewhat informed sense of what psychologists working on moral psychology are up to. My rough and ready understanding (influenced by talking to only a few psychologists) is that many working on what philosophers would call moral psychology trace themselves back to Kohlberg. In general they seem to view Kohlberg’s project as a path-breaking, glorious failure. Like Kohlberg, most current psychologists seem to find moral relativism (in some shifting sense) repellent but they also tend to think he was too focused on a perhaps idiosyncratic conception of high grade moral deliberation and judgment. More recent work seems to focus on what we might call the development of basic moral decency – it focuses on (i) how people come to internalize something like basic moral competence rather than how they approach moral wisdom and virtue (ii) it focuses on questions about why some people bridge the judgement-motivation and motivation-action gaps and others do not (I have seen moral pyschologists in various camps complaining that Kohlberg should have been more interested in these gaps than he was).

    — I would love to hear from any of the many others who know more than I do about psychology. I bet this caricature is misleading in various ways and I would be happy to know how & how to improve on it.

    Now when I poke around in anthropology I seem to find stark contrasts:

    1. Anthropologists seem wary of claims about universal human nature and appear to be interested in understanding specific moral and ethical subcultures. They are normally cautious about interpreting other cultures and worried about imposing external (perhaps supposedly universal) ideas and frameworks on their subjects. It would be considered interesting and good to show how one’s initial, external assumptions are problematic and need to be improved in order to understand another culture and its values. In this sense negative results (relative to one’s starting assumptions) are valued if not prized.

    2. Anthropologists seem to rely a lot on embedded observation, interview, and subject-report. I know nothing about the field’s larger dynamics. There may be people using behavioral report, MRIs or, for example, digital humanitities methods and claiming that these methods are more “objective”. My general impression is that this sort of split shows up in various humanitites (history and art history for exmaple) so I would not be surprised if it shows up in Anthropology.

    3. Anthropologists seem to be very concerned about the normative status and propriety of their professional activities. Perhaps this helps account for their acquaintance with philosophers such as Foucault and MacIntyre who are deeply interested in professional self-reflection.

    4. Anthropologists get interested in specific moral communities and the way that specific social processes (e.g. rituals) and actors impact moral attitudes, thinking, and behavior. They also seem to often take an interest in the way that people at different life stages think, act, feel, and in the ways that they are treated. They do seem interested in the development and different understandings of virtue and moral wisdom, not just basic moral competence. I can’t generalize much more because I have not read enough. Maybe others can respond?

    — Jason if you read this, I would be interested to hear your thoughts!

  8. I forgot perhaps the most important contrast when it comes to what philosophers can gain from reading this stuff;

    Anthropologists want to understand the norms and normative thoughts, codes, etc in other cultural contexts. So they want to understand various specific and different forms of ethical thought: their object of inquiry inculdes modes of thick normative thought.

    Psychologists are not centrally interested in understanding various diverse ethical codes and modes of ethical thought.

  9. The field of heritage studies, which includes many scholars from anthropology and allied field, is very engaged with ethical issues. And Alison Wylie has done interesting work at the intersection of archaeology and ethics. I have an entry on the Ethics of Cultural Heritage that will (hopefully) be out in the SEP soon and may be useful to other philosophers interested in these intersections. A lot of this work is about the ethics *of* anthropology and allied fields, but also includes some anthropological approaches *to* ethics in the course of exploring such topics.

  10. Shameless self-promoting: here is a paper on the intersection between philosophy (focus on political theory, but it can be applied to normative theorizing more broadly speaking) and “fieldwork” that I co-wrote with Bernardo Zacka. Maybe of interest for a few people here?

  11. Hi Brad, this is in response to your #1-4 characterization of anthropology. I would say that in general you’ve got us pegged correctly. There are some outliers, of course. I’ve tried to track the back-and-forths between ideas of particularity and universal human nature in this post: Human Nature & Anthropology. However, I’ll also admit that my favored position, via Tim Ingold that “there is consequently no human nature that has escaped the current of history” may be a bit of an outlier too. By the way, an Ingold statement from 1992, that anthropology is “philosophy with the people in” may be helpful.

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