Oslo Summer School in Comparative Social Science Studies 2012

The Anthropology of Ethics

Lecturer: Professor Webb Keane,
Department of Anthropology,
University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, USA

Main disciplines: Anthropology, Political Theory, Psychology
Dates: 30 July - 3 August 2012
Course Credits: 10 pts (ECTS)
Limitation: 25 participants


The purpose of this seminar is to examine two approaches to the empirical study of ethical life, psychological and ethnographic, in order to investigate their points of convergence, congruence, and difference.  The motive is twofold, to survey the emerging social sciences of morality and ethics, and to rethink the possibilities for comparison in anthropology. Ethics and morality have received renewed attention in both cognitive/psychological sciences and socio-cultural anthropology in recent years. One reason is that current developments in such areas as global religious movements, human rights discourses, biotechnology, and secularism seem to demand an account of values and judgments that may not be entirely reducible to calculations of interest or underlying relations of power.

New approaches suggest we cannot understand cultural or political life, or even ordinary social interactions, without a grasp of people’s underlying and often tacit commitments to ideas of the good.  Moreover, background ideas of the good may be inseparable from subjectivity itself. The ethical turn may lead us to critically reevaluate some of the core organizing concepts in the human sciences, such as power, discourse, culture, self, subject, and mind. This seminar will begin with theoretical readings to ask “what are the problems to which ethics is posed as the answer?”  We will then explore contrasting approaches to the topic, ethnographic and cognitive. By means of this comparison, we can ask what each approach helps make visible, and what it tends to obscure. Empirically, studies of ethics often focus on religion, and we will ask what are the consequences in public life when religion and ethics or morality are, or are not, identified with one another.

Students who wish to receive a certificate and earn credit for a PhD program are expected to write an essay of about 6,000 words within eight (8) weeks after the course. Fulfilling this requirement gives you 10 ECTS points. Please, note that consultation with the lecturer prior to deciding about your essay topic is highly recommended.

Essential Books
We encourage all participants to obtain and read the excerpts from the following two books in advance of the course:

  • Hirschkind, Charles. The Ethical Soundscape: Cassette Sermons and Islamic Counterpublics. Columbia University Press. 2006.  (approx 125 pp)
  • Keane, Webb. 2007, Christian Moderns: Freedom and Fetish in the Mission Encounter, University of California Press. (approx 125 pp)

Background Reading
Social scientists who want some additional bearings in the social theoretical, philosophical, and social-psychological background that many of the assigned readings assume may wish to consult some of the following:

  • Darwell, Stephen  Philosophical Ethics
  • Durkheim, Emile  Elementary Forms of Religious Life
  • Durkheim, Emile  “What is a social fact?” In The Rules of the Sociological Method
  • Foucault, Michel  The History of Sexuality, vol. 2, The Use of Pleasure
  • Foucault, Michel  Ethics (Essential Works of Foucault, 1954-1984, vol. 1)
  • Howell, Signe, ed. The Ethnography of Moralities
  • Lambek, Michael  Ordinary Ethics: Anthropology, Language, and Action
  • MacIntyre, Alasdair After Virtue
  • Mauss, Marcel  The Gift
  • Mead, George Herbert  Mind, Self, and Society
  • Nietzsche, Friedrich The Genealogy of Morals
  • Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy Moral Psychology
  • Tomasello, Michael  The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition
  • Vygotsky, L.S.  Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes
  • Weber, Max  The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism

Course Outline

Day One

Lecture 1. Norm, Ethic, and Morality as Social Facts


  • Laidlaw, James 2002  “For an anthropology of ethics and freedom.”  JRAI  8: 311-32
  • Faubion, James D.  2001.  “Toward an anthropology of ethics: Foucault and the pedagogies of autopoiesis.” Representations  74: 83-104.
  • Zigon, Jarrett  2007  “Moral breakdown and the ethical demand: A theoretical framework for an anthropology of moralities.” Anthropological Theory  7: 131-50

Lecture 2. Social Facts and Moral Relativism


  • Shweder, Richard A.  1990  “Ethical relativism: Is there a defensible version?”  Ethos 18 (2): 205-218
  • Carrithers, Michael  2005  “Anthropology as a moral science of possibilities.”  Current Anthropology  46 (3): 433-56
  • Fassin, Didier  2008  “Beyond good and evil?  Questioning the anthropological discomfort with morals.”  Anthropological Theory  8(4): 333–344

Day Two

Lecture 3. Norm, Ethic, and Morality as Psychological Facts


  • Hoffman, Martin L.  2001 Chapter 1 “Introduction and overview” (pp. 1-26). Empathy and Moral Development: Implications for Caring and Justice. Cambridge University Press.
  • Bloom, Paul.  2005 Chapter 4 “Good and evil” (pp. 99-122). Descartes’s Baby: How the Science of Child Development Explains What Makes Us Human. Basic Books. 
  • Haidt, Jonathan 2003“The Moral Emotions.”  (pp. 852-870). Handbook of Affective Sciences, ed. Richard J. Davidson, Klaus R. Scherer, H. Hill Goldsmith, eds. Oxford.
  • Haidt, Jonathan 2001. “The Emotional Dog and Its Rational Tail: A Social Intuitionist Approach to Moral Judgment.” Psychological Review 108 (4): 814-834

Lecture 4. Psychological Facts and Ethical Thought


Appiah, Kwame Anthony  2010   Chapter 2 “The case against character” (pp. 32-72); Chapter 3 “The case against intuition” (pp. 73-120).  Experiments in Ethics (The Mary Flexner Lectures).  Harvard University Press.

Day Three

Lecture 5. The Self and Other Minds


  • Tomasello, Michael. 2009, Why We Cooperate.  MIT Press.  Chapter 1, “Born (and bred) the help” (pp. 1-47); Chapter 2, “From social interaction to social institutions” (pp. 51-100)

Lecture 6. Minds in Interaction


  • Goffman, Erving.  1963  Stigma:  Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity.  Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall   Chapter 1, “Stigma and social identity: (pp 1-19); Chapter 4, "The self and its other" (pp. 126-139)
  • Goffman, Erving  1967  Interaction Ritual: Essays on Face-to-Face Behavior.  Garden City: Doubleday.  “On face work” (pp. 5-45)

Day Four

Lecture 7. Field Studies in Interaction and Other Minds


  • Hill, Jane H. 1995  The Dialogic Emergence of Culture, eds. Dennis Tedlock and Bruce Mannheim, Urbana: University of Illinois Press.  “The voices of Don Gabriel: Responsibility and self in a modern Mexicano narrative” (pp. 97-147)
  • Stasch, Rupert.  2008  “Knowing minds is a matter of authority: Political dimensions of opacity statements in Korowai moral psychology.”  Anthropological Quarterly  81 (2): 443-454

Lecture 8. Ethics as Virtue


  • Hirschkind, Charles.  The Ethical Soundscape: Cassette Sermons and Islamic Counterpublics.  Columbia University Press.  2006.  (Introduction and chapters 3, 4, 6)

Day Five

Lecture 9. Objectification and a Moral Narrative of Modernity


  • Keane, Webb.  2007 Christian Moderns: Freedom and Fetish in the Mission Encounter University of California Press.  (Introduction and chapters 2, 6, 7, 8, 10)

Lecture 10. Ethical Revolutions?


  • Appiah, Kwame Anthony 2010  The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen  New York: W.W. Norton, Chapter 1, “The duel dies” (pp 2-51)
  • Keane, Webb  2010  Ordinary Ethics, ed. Michael Lambek, Fordham University Press “Minds, Surfaces, and Reasons in the Anthropology of Ethics” (pp. 64-83)
  • Robbins, Joel  2007  “Between reproduction and freedom: Morality, value, and radical cultural change.  Ethnos, 72 (3): 293-314


The Lecturer
Webb Keane  (BA Yale College, PhD University of Chicago) is a professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Michigan, with affiliations in the Program in Anthropology and History, the Program on Culture and Cognition, and the Center for Southeast Asian Studies. His writings cover a range of topics in social and cultural theory and the philosophical foundations of social thought and the human sciences, as well as the ethnography and history of Indonesia. In particular, he is interested in semiotics and language; material culture; gift exchange, commodities, and money; religion, morality, and ethics; media and public cultures. His most recent book, Christian Moderns: Freedom and Fetish in the Mission Encounter, concerns the impact of Protestantism from colonial mission to postcolonial church, with special attention to its role in inculcating concepts and practices of modernity.

He is also the author of Signs of Recognition: Powers and Hazards in an Indonesian Society and a co-editor of The Handbook of Material Culture. Professor Keane has received fellowships from the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, NJ, the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences in Stanford, CA, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation. He has been a visiting professor at the London School of Economics, Cambridge University, and National Taitung University (Taiwan), and has taught at the School of Criticism and Theory at Cornell University. He has delivered the Edward Westermarck Memorial Lecture in Helsinki, the D. R. Sharpe Keynote Lecture on Social Ethics at the University of Chicago, and the Annette B. Weiner Memorial Lecture at New York University.

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Tags: Anthropology, Ethics, Political Theory, Psychology, PhD, Summer School
Published Oct. 10, 2012 1:16 PM - Last modified Oct. 10, 2012 1:40 PM