EASA2016: Anthropological legacies and human futures

Rethinking the concept of moral economy: anthropological perspectives
Location U6-38
Date and Start Time 20 July, 2016 at 14:30
Sessions 2


  • Giuseppe Bolotta (National University of Singapore) email
  • Chiara Pilotto (University Milano-Bicocca, Ehess) email

Mail All Convenors

Discussant Silvia Vignato

Short Abstract

Originally formulated outside the discipline, the concept of "moral economy" is increasingly used by anthropologists. This panel aims to critically "take stock" of the mounting theoretical fertility of this concept by examining its greatly diverse extensions and applications to ethnography.

Long Abstract

Moral economy is a concept which has been widely and divergently used by anthropologists. Initially formulated by a social historian, Edward Thompson, in order to analyze English popular riots in the XVIII century, it later penetrated the anthropological discipline thanks to the influence of James Scott's work on peasants' social mobilizations in Southeast Asia. More recently, Didier Fassin has reflected upon the genealogy of this concept and its potentialities, proposing a new theorization of the "moral economy" which does not limit its heuristic capacities but reasserts its necessary contribution to critical thinking.

Following this critical approach, which takes into account the historical, social and political conditions for the emergence of specific moral economies, this panel proposes to offer further insights on the anthropological revitalization of the concept. Contributors might scrutinize different aspects related to its appropriation in the production of anthropological knowledge: how do "moral economies" encounter history in anthropological studies? How can this concept link macro-social and political processes to micro-politics? How does the idea of "moral economy" address the relationship between the production and manipulation of emotions in public discourses, deterritorialized systems of "humanitarian" neo-liberal governamentality and individuals' affects? How can it contribute to critical analyses of political violence which avoids simplified dichotomies between "victims" and "oppressors"? How might the critical stance of anthropology gain political momentum through the use of this theoretical construct?

The panel welcomes papers which show a pertinent use of the concept anchored to a deep and extensive ethnographical work.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


(Re)negotiating morals: corporations/investors in agriculture and their critics as countermovement

Author: Tijo Salverda (University of Cologne)  email

Short Abstract

To better understand the potential and limits of the interactions between corporations/investors (active in agriculture in Africa) and their critics, such as local communities and NGOs, I will discuss linkages between the moral economies concept and Polanyi’s countermovement.

Long Abstract

As part of my research on foreign corporations/investors active in agriculture in Africa, I spoke to many such actors in Zambia, visited projects, and attended (investment) forums in Cape Town and Rome. What became evident during these encounters is that many worry about the moral and ethical issues critics raise. In response to this 'countermovement' of NGOs, local communities, journalists, etc., corporations/investors have to balance their economic interests with concerns about the negative consequences of their practices (regarding 'land grabbing', unequal distribution of gains, environmental damage).

To better understand the potential and limits of the interactions between corporations/investors and critics, I will broaden the discussion on the moral economies concept by linking it to Polanyi's (2001) countermovement and to macro-level realities of the global economy - this resonating with thoughts of Edelman (2005) and Fassin (2009). In many instances, from agriculture investments in Zambia to mining and even global finance, morals and ethics are lurking around the corner, if only because of the regulation by laws. Moral 'agreements' with (parts of) the societies in which corporations operate appear to be constantly renegotiated. Certainly, corporations are interested in making a profit, but not necessarily at all costs: the homo economicus version of the corporate person, who only acts to maximise profits, an image which is often reproduced by the critics (Welker 2014), does not necessarily reflect everyday realities. However, substantial limitations remain regarding the embracing by corporations of the concerns critics raise - and the perpetuation of negative consequences of global economic practices.

Selves and commodities: the moral economy of business consultants

Author: Felix Stein (University of Cambridge)  email

Short Abstract

This paper puts the anthropology of ethics into dialogue with that of the moral economy, through the study of German business consultants. It explains why consultants see their job as work on themselves, and which tensions arise from this view. It argues that self-care results from a specific moral economy.

Long Abstract

The growing anthropology of everyday ethics has largely developed without engaging with the established literature on the moral economy. Following recent work by Fassin and Robbins, this paper puts these two bodies of literature into dialogue with one another, through the ethnographic study of German business consultants. It shows how business consultants are encouraged to consider that ultimately the telos of their activity is to work on themselves. Instead of arising naturally, the goal of working on the self is created through a series of corporate technologies, which include personality tests, constant feedback and regular training sessions. The paper goes on to show that such work on the self regularly clashes with the consultants' parallel role of being commodities, i.e. of serving the ends of their employer and of being relatively powerless in defining the criteria of legitimate self care. As a result, consultants frequently adopt either a cynical attitude towards their jobs, or they look for work elsewhere, where care for the self may be better served. The paper argues that care for the self should not be considered to precede moral values, but that it is the result of a specific moral economy - one that is increasingly prevalent in contemporary capitalism.

What's the value of the mother-tongue? Reflections on the production of a 'moral economy' in international policy-making

Author: Catherine Scheer (Asia Research Institute)  email

Short Abstract

Relying on fieldwork in meetings and conferences that bring together actors from international institutions, universities and governments with the goal of influencing language policy in Southeast Asia, I will reflect upon Fassin’s approach to the production of ‘moral economies’.

Long Abstract

Over the past twenty years, language has become increasingly foregrounded in international discourse. Terms such as language endangerment, language revitalisation, and Mother Tongue-Based Multi-Lingual Education have gained prominence. These specialized phrases come out of and rely on academic knowledge, mostly from the fields of linguistics and science in education and can be analysed as being part of a scientifico-political endeavour, framing the social in technical linguistic terms.

Since 2015 I joined meetings of a specialised working group at UNESCO Bangkok and international conferences in Myanmar and Thailand, observing the involvement of UN agents, NGO representatives, scholars, and government officials in the process of making policy recommendations in linguistically diverse Southeast Asia.

Although the specialised phrases discussed in these contexts are deeply marked by "a set of values, norms and emotions" (Fassin, 2012) about language, I propose that the reverse is also true: that scientific observations entangled in political agendas can influence the production of a 'moral economy' of the mother-tongue .

The analytical tool of 'moral economy' as defined by Didier Fassin can thus provide a complementary level of understanding to the scientifico-political one, and at the same time the study of international policy-making might affect Fassin's approach to the "production" of moral economies. By pursuing this reflection, I will attempt to critically examine what appears to be a specificity of Fassin's definition of 'moral economies' as compared to E.P. Thompson's and James Scott's.

The 'moral economy' of illegality and biological citizenship in Germany: German parents using gestational surrogacy services in Ukraine

Author: Daniela Heil (University of Newcastle)  email

Short Abstract

Presented from the perspectives of German parents using gestational surrogacy services in Ukraine for the procreation and delivery of their biological children, the ambivalence of the ‘moral economy’ of illegality and biological citizenship in Germany will be examined.

Long Abstract

In Germany, the domestic prohibition for surrogacy continues to persist. Thus, over the last 15 years, Ukraine has often become a last bastion of hope for heterosexual German couples that want to have children, but are unable to do so the natural way. Both extra-corporal insemination services and gestational surrogacy are cheaper in Ukraine than in many other countries, and these assisted reproductive technologies are considered legal as well. Drawing on ethnographic examples that illustrate the perspectives of heterosexual German couples that have been using gestational surrogacy services in Ukraine to have their biological children, the paper critically explores the ambivalence of the 'moral economy' that addresses the illegality of the procedure and the biological citizenship of the children in Germany. The purpose of the analysis is to unveil the principle of contemporary states when it comes to the moral evaluation of difference. I will demonstrate that this evaluation is anything but indifferent. Not only is it full of norms, desires, emotions and stereotypes of all of those engaged in each of the different examples, but it also comprises the transnational legalisation of the biological children (delivered with the help of Ukrainian gestational surrogates) into German citizens throughout the process. This moral economy defines the scope of contemporary biopolitics in terms of politics that deal with the lives of the newborn children and the legitimisation of the latters citizenship rights in the name of biology.

Global memory narratives and local martyrs: dehistoricization and new spaces of agency in an ethnography of Turkish former revolutionaries and their children

Author: Lorenzo D'orsi (Bicocca, University of Milan)  email

Short Abstract

Through the memories of Turkish revolutionaries and their children, the paper considers global memory narratives not only as removal of cultural frames but as different moral economies and reflects on how they intertwine with local logics, produce new emotions in public and in private discourses

Long Abstract

Global frames like trauma, healing-through-telling, Transitional Justice are ubiquitous in interpreting memory and violence. Anthropology showed how these narratives reduce pain to intra-psychic facts, removing history and reifying subjects into victims. Through an ethnography carried out in Istanbul on the memories of Turkish revolutionaries and their children, crashed by 1980 military-coup, this paper considers global narratives not only as a medicalization of society but as new moral economies and aims to reflect on how they intertwine with local logics, produce emotions in public discourses and affect intergenerational transmission.

In Turkey, marginal groups challenge official history by proposing agonistic memories in a highly politicized memory-field. Leftists promoted counter-memories through narratives of martyrs and fighters that are opposed both to official history and to global memory-frames threatening the "us" underlying these memories. Nevertheless, global narratives not merely de-historicize but also embed pain in other moral-scapes where political violence (included armed-struggle) is rejected. Although new narrative rewrite family dynamics interpreting as traumatic the parents' silence tied to fighter values, for children trauma represents a cultural code in a global youth-scape allowing to build trans-historical bonds within and outside Turkey. The comparison with other subaltern Turkish memories shows how Leftists' marginality doesn't result only from State repression. When new narratives de-historicize, they also de-reify historical oppositions, drawing new "us" and building emotional bonds with people considered as "others". By drawing new boundaries of individual/collective action, these narratives disrupt previous hegemonic-subaltern dichotomy, break social indifference, promote new space of agency in a historically politicized memory-field.

The moral economy of violence: examples from contemporary Egypt (2011-2015)

Author: Perrine Lachenal (Philipps Universitat Marburg)  email

Short Abstract

Built on an ethnographic research in Cairo, my contribution aims at showing that the concept of “moral economy” enlightens the processes of political subjectivation and renews the anthropology of popular mobilizations.

Long Abstract

My contribution aims at showing that the concept of "moral economy" enlightens the processes of political subjectivation and renews the anthropology of popular mobilizations and "social unrest". I use this key-concept in my own research, analyzing the political and social transformations taking place in contemporary Egypt and focusing on the enunciation of violence: the words and categories used to describe it and their performative effects since 2011. The concept of "moral economy" emphasizes attention to the "ordinary" language through which justifications or disapprovals get associated with social actors' experiences. Therefore, "moral economy" allows for a better understanding of the ways violence is framed either as legitimate or illegitimate. Moreover, it brings to light certain perceptions of justice and the way in which they are produced and contested.

My contribution builds upon my PhD research on the transformations of the representations and uses of violence and the reconfigurations of gender and class relations in revolutionary Egypt (through an ethnography of self-defense classes for women in Cairo). In addition, my ongoing post-doctoral research about iconographies and martyrdom in Egypt focuses on the social positions of "martyrs" and on the public representations of their political commitments and performances.

I will discuss my ethnographic results and theoretical assumptions in light of other research, and provide a critical analysis of the concept of "moral economy" that regards recent political upheavals and social movements (Siméant, 2010 ; Hibou, 2011 ; Fassin, 2012).

Between theory, ethical and morals: rethinking the place of the moral economy in the social agenda of justice production

Author: Theophilos Rifiotis (Universidade Federal de Santa Catarina)  email

Short Abstract

Drawing upon ethnographical works carried out at the Violence Studies Laboratory (Brazil), this communication discusses the place of anthropology in public debates about justice. The presentation intends to put into perspective the juridical approach focused on the notions of rights and victim.

Long Abstract

The purpose of my communication is to present a set of theoretical, political, and ethical concerns that have recurrently emerged from the ethnographic works developed at the Violence Research Laboratory (LEVIS) of the Federal University of Santa Catarina since 1996. After introducing the basic elements of our research trajectory in the field of violence, without any pretension to exemplarity, I will critically reflect on some specific theoretical and methodological issues, with particular reference to the importance of the notion of "moral economy" for our current research. This will be a preliminary exercise of systematization focusing on the role that anthropology can play in the social agenda concerning justice production in Brazil. My anthropological reflection will question the notion of moral economy and its relevance in analyzing social movements and public policies in the field of violence, justice, and human rights. Specifically, I will highlight how theory, politics, and ethics intersect in our work, in order to discuss the fundamentals that have guided our research throughout three interrelated and complementary analytical areas : 1) the production and moral character of violence; 2) law and the judicialization of social relations; and 3) the juridical construction of the subject-victim.

Reflections on the authority of giving, professionalism and moral reason in medical South-South-cooperation: the case of Cuban health workers in Brazil

Author: Maria Lidola (Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro)  email

Short Abstract

The paper discusses micro-politics of moral responsibility, humanitarian emotion and professional recognition in medical South-South cooperation by introducing categories such as race, nationality and class into the discussion of moral economies in international medical work and humanitarian action.

Long Abstract

The vast international mobility of health professions are integral part of emerging Western aid industries as well as current South-North, respectively East-West, labor migration of skilled workers. As Fassin, Redfield, Connell and others showed, all these dynamics are subject to moral economies, which also comprise the micro-level of local actors and their constant negotiations between altruistic conformant, professional positioning and economic needs. Yet, these discussions turn out to be preponderantly biased, centering on altruistic challenges of "helpers" from the North (while their professional recognition is hardly questioned), whereas focusing rather more on economic needs of "workers" from the South (and on the subjection of their professionalism to doubt or even disqualification). South-South mobilities of health workers did rarely enter these discussions so far, even less the moral economies involved. The paper addresses this gap by introducing a case study of Cuban health professionals working in urban peripheries of Rio de Janeiro, being part of international health cooperation between both countries in order to improve the precarious Brazilian public health sector. I will focus on the multilayered local negotiations taking place around moral responsibility, humanitarian emotion and professional recognition in this specific South-South-cooperation. Based on ethnographic fieldwork and discourse analyses, I will discuss how these local negotiations are intimately shaped by wider social imaginaries on the authority of giving, of medical professionalism and of moral reason, comprising categories such as race, nationality and class in medical work and humanitarian action.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.