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Intimate Uncertainties

Ethnographic Explorations of Moral Economies across Europe

Sabine Strasser and Luisa Piart

For this special issue we are bringing together six ethnographic cases of intimate uncertainties that are situated within different regimes of reproduction, healthcare and borders in and beyond Europe. These ethnographic inquiries exemplify unprecedented settings of moral ir/responsibility shaping the intimate on different scales and in various sites of power (agencies, clinics, borderlands). These uncertainties in times of major transitions from old to new moral orders, from industrial to postindustrial, from welfare to austerity spark off a renewed debate on moral economy. The authors of these contributions all focus the theoretical lens of moral economy squarely onto the intimate.

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‘Fight Abortion, Not Women’

The Moral Economy Underlying Russian Feminist Advocacy

Michele Rivkin-Fish

This article traces the conceptual emergence and development of feminist-oriented abortion politics in urban Russia between 2011 and 2015. Examined as an example of local adaptions of global reproductive rights movements, Russians’ advocacy for abortion access reflects commitments and tensions characterising post-Soviet feminism. Specifically, I show how calls to preserve women’s access to legal abortion have drawn on both socialist-inspired ideals of state support for families and liberal-oriented ideas of individual autonomy. Attention to the logics underlying abortion activists’ rhetoric reveals the specific historical sensibilities and shifting cultural values at stake in the ways progressive Russian activists construe justice. The analytic concept of ‘moral economy’ brings into relief how their advocacy evokes ideal visions of reciprocal obligations and uncertainties in both state-citizen relations and intimate relations. I argue that contextualised analyses of local feminist abortion politics may enrich global debates for reproductive rights and justice.

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The Intimate Uncertainties of Kidney Care

Moral Economy and Treatment Regimes in Comparative Perspective

Ciara Kierans

Today the social and material situations of sick bodies are increasingly and intimately bound up with the variable moral economies of national healthcare systems in uncertain and contrastive ways. I approach these ‘intimate uncertainties’ comparatively and methodologically by drawing on ethnographic fieldwork on transplant medicine in Mexico in order to interrogate European healthcare, specifically the UK. The UK National Health Service is an exemplary site of moral economy, one that the Mexican case appears to stand in stark contrast to. However, as I show, the uncertainties we see at work in Mexico enable us to seek them out in the UK too, particularly those generated at the nexus of the state, failing organs and new strategies for healthcare rationing. The article traces the gendered and socioeconomic inequalities, which follow from these shifts, while offering a critique of analyses that take the European and North American experience as methodologically foundational.

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Up in smoke?

The making and unmaking of a rural moral economy

Sara Keene

This paper draws on the work of E. P. Thompson to understand anticapitalist resistance in northern California in the 1960s and 1970s. Through an analysis of the back-to-the-land movement in a region I call “Claytown,” I show how the making of a rural moral economy was in part enabled by the presence of a nascent marijuana industry. However, whereas a relatively small-scale marijuana industry helped forge anticapitalist resistance in the 1960s and 1970s, this industry has become a form through which values of capitalist political economy are being instantiated and reasserted. I situate my ethnographic analysis within a broader historical and legal framework to show how a contemporary moral economy is made and increasingly unmade in the context of late capitalism.

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David Meek

I focus on the role of agroecology in rural proletarian social movements in this article. First, I highlight these movements' conception of agroecology as an important element of their political ideology. Second, I explore the value of agroecology in helping maintain the permanence of the peasantry. Third, I show that rural proletarian movements emphasize agroecology because it is key to attaining sovereignty. I draw upon the geographic lenses of territory, the production of space, and autonomous geographies in positing these arguments. Throughout the article, I draw upon a case study of the Brazilian Landless Workers Movement, one of the most vocal agroecological social movements, to illustrate these arguments.

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Dave Elder-Vass

The significance of giving as a contemporary socio-economic practice has been obscured both by mainstream economics and by the influence of the anthropological tradition. Andrew Sayer’s concept of moral economy offers a more fruitful framework for an economic sociology of contemporary giving, and one that appears to be largely consistent with social quality approaches. This article analyzes giving from the perspective of moral economy, questioning the view that giving is a form of exchange, and opening up the prospect of seeing it as the outcome of a more complex constellation of causal factors. It uses examples from the digital economy, in particular the phenomenon of open-source software, which nicely illustrates both the progressive potential of digital gifts and the ways in which they can be absorbed into the commercial economy.

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Forgotten moralities of agrarian economy in Bali

Production and exchange, business and friendship

Graeme MacRae

The provisioning of human societies is widely understood in terms of technological, ecological, and economic processes. It is also, somewhat less widely, recognized as a social and cultural process, but rarely as a moral one. As the concept of “moral economy,” which drew attention to the moral embedment of agrarian economies, has faded from view in the analysis of radically changing agrarian landscapes, the moral dimensions of agrarian economies have progressively become obscured. This article summarizes recent transformations of the moral economy of rice in Bali and discusses a project of economic development in which the project’s moral dimensions were revealed only in its failure.

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Confined Live(r)s

Self-Infliction and Arbitrary Survival in the German Transplant System

Julia Rehsmann

This article traces the trope of self-infliction for the moral economy of liver transplantation. Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork in Germany, I discuss the trope of self-infliction to explore intimate uncertainties that people with an alcoholic liver disease face when looking for medical care. I claim that the moralising trope of self-infliction plays a significant role in considerations about who is deserving of a liver transplant and a ‘second chance’. As access to transplantation becomes a life-and-death matter when livers fail, I see the trope of self-infliction as a tool for triaging lives for liver transplantation. Moreover, I claim that the trope of self-infliction, with its emphasis on self-responsibility, has a gendered dimension that puts women with an alcoholic liver disease under particular moral scrutiny. Furthermore, I demonstrate how this moralising trope shapes regulatory practices, like the ‘six-month abstinence rule’, which consequently confine livers and thus, eventually, confine lives.

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Thomas Fillitz

The present economic and financial crises do not seem to particularly influence the global art market of contemporary art. In an attempt to understand this apparent opposition, I adopt a macro perspective, combining my own research ventures in Dakar and Vienna with general art market studies. I argue that this market is a special representation of millennial capitalism (Comaroff and Comaroff 2001). The global art market puts in place an organization of diversity that allows a high flexibility in including specific centers and marginalizing others, as well as a special focus on a globally acting group of “ultra high net worth” individuals. Striking features are the concentration of capital flows to a few major centers, the constitution of complex, transnational networks, the dominant logics for each market field (gambling, glamour, moral economy), and the diversification of the commodity character of the work of art.

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Is There No Honour among the Maltese?

Paradigms of Honour in a Mediterranean Moral Economy

Jean-Paul Baldacchino

The ‘honour-shame syndrome’ is an anthropological model originally developed in the sixties to describe Mediterranean cultural unity. The model came under heavy criticism, producing a veritable ‘anti-Mediterraneanist’ backlash. There is, however, a renewed interest in the regional paradigm. This article attempts an analysis of concepts of ‘honour’ in Malta, contextualising it within the broader ethnographic and linguistic evidence from the region. The author argues that ‘honour’ is a salient moral concept, and in fact, Maltese has a rich and highly nuanced discourse of honour, which includes both sexualised and nonsexualised aspects. While the author criticises the simplistic ‘honour-shame syndrome’ paradigm, he argues that honour needs to be considered in its own right as an important key to analysing the contemporary Maltese moral economy as it engages with ‘modernity’.