Moral judgement close to home

in Social Anthropology/Anthropologie sociale
Charles StaffordLondon School of Economics

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In theory, anthropologists should suspend judgement of those they study – that is, on the grounds of cultural relativism. In reality, however, moral judgements undoubtedly pervade the everyday experience of fieldwork, not to mention that anthropologists sometimes take an explicitly critical stance towards the societies they study. This essay, together with others in this special issue, explores the consequences for this when the ethnographer has a biographical connection to the object of his or her research. Having briefly discussed the case of Bourdieu's project in Béarn, where he had spent his childhood, I turn to my own experience of doing a project in Oklahoma. The very ‘likeable’ people I have met there – many of whom come from the same background as my parents – also support (on aggregate) political positions that I disagree with. As an anthropologist, I could suspend judgement of them while trying to grasp the historical circumstances that have led them to think and act in the ways that they do. However, my biographical connection complicates this process, I suggest, personalising things – and potentially heightening the emotions that drive moral judgements – just when a lack of sympathy and emotional engagement may be what is called for.

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