Drawing primarily on ethnographic material from Taiwan, this article focuses on misfortune and, more especially, on the ques- tion of whether people are felt to deserve what happens to them-be it bad or good. I examine the cases of several people who have suffered misfortune in life, exploring ways in which they might actively try to make good things happen as a way of convincing others, and indeed themselves, that they are, after all, good. In considering these cases, I discuss three intersecting accounts of fate that are widely held by ordi- nary people in Taiwan and China: a cosmological one, a spirit-oriented one, and a social one.
A Taiwanese Case Study
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.
Janet Carsten, Sophie Day, and Charles Stafford
This special issue of places ethnography at its centre and considers how it is framed by the biographies of those involved. Probing some of the more unexpected connections that may arise between these parallel worlds, we discuss how collaborations between anthropologists and those they study inform the moral judgements and ethical practices that pervade the experience of fieldwork. What are the after‐lives of such encounters? What role does the materialisation of experience – for example, in houses, photographs, files and fieldnotes – play in the biographical narratives of anthropologists and of those they study? We explore these moral, material and political resonances and set out a new agenda for the biographical as part of the anthropological project.