Accepted Paper:

A proposed ecology of "the Beast": issues and contexts of relativism and relationality via Eastern Tibet  


Gillian Tan (Deakin University)

Paper short abstract:

This paper surveys some of the issues and contexts of relativism and relationality within the literature. Guided by an ethnography of Eastern Tibet, it articulates an ecology of moralities, which prioritises the relationships that shape and create always-contingent entities.

Paper long abstract:

Within Anthropology and beyond, the usefulness of relativism, as a concept, has been variously critiqued and defended. In the process, versions of relativism - as extreme, strong and mild - have emerged, with commentaries on how these connect to issues of political critique, moral imperative and philosophical axiom. Notwithstanding the insights afforded by the literature, this paper starts from a different question. Rather than take for granted the stability of entities that form relationships and that may then be placed "relative to" each other, the paper explores how, and to what extent, relationships create always-contingent entities. Guiding this question is an ethnography of Eastern Tibet and, particularly, the relationships between human pastoralists and nonhuman animals and worldly beings. When animals are liberated, moral injunctions alter pastoralists' relationships with animals because of changing relationships with worldly beings. Yet relationships with worldly beings - visible in one way, non-visible in another - themselves interplay with environmental and political contexts. What emerges is a methodological approach - an ecology - that is sensitive to the quality of relations and contexts in any situation. The implications of this different logic are explored in conclusion, by the playful set-up of an ecology of "the beast", namely, relativism in its various versions.

Panel Ethn04
A particularly hairy beast: relativism, relationality and an ecology of moralities