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Giving and Taking without Reciprocity

Conversations in South India and the Anthropology of Ethics

Soumhya Venkatesan


This article contributes to the anthropology of ethics through an analysis of conversations among Muslim and Hindu householders in Tamil Nadu, India, about instances of alms/charitable giving where there is no expectation of direct reciprocity and where both giving and taking make reference to religion. I argue, first, that people make certain kinds of giving or taking ethical or unethical through talk and, second, that instances of ‘ethical talk’, which constitute reflections on and evaluations of action, point to questions concerning freedom and choice in people’s efforts to lead lives that are good or ‘good enough’. Such conversations also reveal a striving toward accepted forms of societal attachment and detachment while considering the claims that people can or should make upon each another.

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Talk and Practice

Ethics and an Individual in Contemporary South India

Soumhya Venkatesan

This article explores the intricate relationship between talk and practice in the anthropology of ethics by focusing on one individual, a temple and consecration priest, in Tamil Nadu, South India. By examining his relations with other people, gods and his ideal and present self, the article suggests that ethical self-cultivation is an ongoing practice and is based on ordinary and extraordinary encounters, evaluations and reflections thereon. It argues that the focus on an individual both allows an intimate and detailed reflection on processes of ethical self-cultivation and offers a window into the wider social world of which the individual forms a part.

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Putting Together the Anthropology of Tax and the Anthropology of Ethics

Soumhya Venkatesan

Placing the anthropology of tax and taxation in conversation with the anthropology of ethics yields productive insights into both subfields. This is because discussions and disputations about tax and taxation reveal the ways in which people articulate and evaluate their relations with others, with the state, with ‘ought’ and ‘is’, and in terms of ownership and responsibility. They open up the complex relationship between legal obligations construed as moral and ethical understandings that are grounded in reflection and seek to articulate and enact particular understandings of the ‘good’ and ‘right’. This afterword draws on my own research with English right-wing activists, the articles that make up this special issue, and key discussions in the anthropology of ethics.