A reader’s guide to the anthropology of ethics and morality – Part I

This article is part of the following series:

Editor’s note: We asked several scholars which readings they would recommend to students or colleagues interested in familiarizing themselves with the anthropology of ethics and morality. This is response we received from C. Jason Throop, Professor of Anthropology at UCLA. Reading lists from other scholars will be forthcoming in this series.


Directly tied to my efforts to analyze moral aspects of pain and suffering in the context of my ethnographic work in Yap, in the fall of 2007, I decided to offer a new graduate seminar at UCLA entitled “Morality, Virtue, and Subjectivity.” My goal at the time was to put together a seminar that would explore the ways that philosophical and anthropological literatures on morality, virtue, and subjectivity might critically inform one another. There were two major problems I faced, however, when it came to selecting relevant readings. First, on the philosophical side, there was the problem of selecting which readings, out of a vast existing literature, would be deemed both accessible and anthropologically relevant to the students. Assuming that most students had very little exposure to longstanding debates between virtue ethical, consequentialist/utilitarian, and deontological traditions in philosophy, I had to find a way to cover some of the basics without overwhelming them. Second, on the anthropological side, I struggled with the fact that there were very few examples of anthropologists directly engaging the topic in either an analytically sophisticated or an explicitly philosophically informed way. The result was a syllabus that covered much more philosophical than anthropological ground, with the anthropological contributions more often than not merely hinting at, rather than explicitly engaging in, a discussion of the key philosophical issues. In the end, this required that I do a lot of lecturing to make sure the connections that I was seeing between the two literatures were indeed also legible to the students, something that took important time away from our group discussions.

When offering the seminar again in subsequent years (2011, 2014, and again this coming Fall 2016) things had changed drastically, however. Whereas I only had a handful of explicitly ethically oriented ethnographic examples to draw from in the inaugural version of the seminar, in the wake of what was being increasingly recognized as a so-called ethical-turn in the discipline there was not only a remarkable increase in detailed ethnographic work explicitly focused on the topic but also the advent of a number of truly excellent efforts to define and historically situate the field. In designing the most recent version of the syllabus this past summer the problem that I now faced was thus deciding which, of the abundance of anthropological work on ethics/morality, I should use. While I am not completely satisfied with the result, I have chosen to drastically cut down on the philosophical readings and to add an extended (but by no means comprehensive) “Suggested Readings” section.

Drawing from my experience teaching four separate iterations of what is now simply termed “The Anthropology of Moralities” seminar, I include below what I deem to be some of the core anthropological contributions to the burgeoning literature on ethics and morality in the discipline. I have organized the bibliography according to three rough historical phases, two of which provide the foundations upon which the so-called ethical-turn was built. Within the ethical-turn proper, I have further tried to delineate some of the emerging and at times competing thematic/theoretical orientations within it. A careful working through of the works cited below should well orient anyone who may be interested in learning more about contemporary anthropological engagements with ethics/morality.


I. Early Contributions

Durkheim, Emile. 1961. Moral Education. Everett K. Wilson and Herman Schnurer (trans). New York: The Free Press of Glencoe, Inc.

Durkheim, Emile. 1974. “The Determination of Moral Facts,” “Individual Reason and Moral Reality,” “The Feeling of Obligation: The Sacred Character of Morality,” “The Subjective Representation of Morality.” In Sociology and Philosophy. New York: Free Press.

Durkheim, Emile. 1979. Essays on Morals and Education. Edited with an introduction by W.S.F. Pickering. H.L. Sutcliffe, trans. London: Routledge.

Durkheim, Emile. 1993. Ethics and the Sociology of Morals. Translated and with an introduction by Robert T. Hall. New York: Prometheus.

Durkheim, Emile. 1995. The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. Translated with an introduction by Karen Fields. New York: Free Press.

Edel, May and Abraham Edel. 1959. Anthropology and Ethics: The Quest for Moral Understanding. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction.

Fortes, Meyers. 1987. Religion, Morality, and the Person: Essays on Tallensi Religion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ladd, John. 1957. The Structure of a Moral Code: A Philosophical Analysis of Ethical Discourse Applied to the Ethics of the Navajo Indians. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Linton, Ralph. 1952. “Universal Ethical Principles: An Anthropological Point of View.” In R. N. Anshen (ed.), Moral Principles of Action: Man’s Ethical Imperative. New York: Harper.

Malinowski, Bronislaw. 1926. Crime and Custom in Savage Society. London: Paul Kegan.

Nadel, S. F. 1964. “Morality and Language among the Nupe.” In D. Hymes (ed.), Language in Culture and Society: A Reader in Linguistics and Anthropology. New York: Harper and Row. Pp. 264-66.

Read, K.E. 1955. “Morality and the Concept of Person Among the Gahuku-Gama.” Oceania 25(4): 233-82.

Westermarck, Edward. 1917. The Origins and Development of the Moral Ideas. New York: Macmillan.


II. Some Pathways Toward a Turn (Morality and Ethics in 1980’s & 1990’s)

Asad, Talal. 1993. Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Brodwin, Paul. 1996. Medicine and Morality in Haiti: The Contest for Healing Power. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Briggs, Jean. 1998. Inuit Morality Play. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Csordas, Thomas. 1994. The Sacred Self: A Cultural Phenomenology of Charismatic Healing. California: University of California Press.

D’Andrade, Roy. 1995. “Moral Models in Anthropology.” Current Anthropology 16(3): 399-408.

Fiske, Alan and Kathyn Mason. 1990. Moral Relativism. Special Issue of Ethos. 18(2).

Howell, Signe (ed.), 1997. The Ethnography of Moralities. London: Routledge.

Jackson, Michael. 1982. Allegories of the Wilderness: Ethics and Ambiguity in Kuranko Narratives. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Kleinman, Arthur. 1999. “Experience and Its Moral Modes: Culture, Human Conditions, and Disorder.” In G.B. Peterson (ed), The Tanner Lectures on Human Values 20:357-420. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press.

Mattingly, Cheryl. 1998. “In Search of the Good: Narrative Reasoning in Clinical Practice.” Medical Anthropology Quarterly 12(3): 273-97.

Parish, Steven. 1994. Moral Knowing in a Hindu Sacred City: An Exploration of Mind, Emotion, and self. New York: Columbia University Press.

Parkin, David (ed). 1985. The Anthropology of Evil. Oxford: Blackwell.

Pocock, D. F. 1986. “The Ethnography of Morals.” International Journal of Moral and Social Studies 1(1): 3-20.

Scheper-Hughes, Nancy. 1995. “The Primacy of the Ethical: Propositions for a Militant Anthropology.” Current Anthropology 36(3): 409-420.

Shweder, Richard A. 1990. “In Defense of Moral Realism: Reply to Gabennesch.” Child Development 61(6): 2060-2067.

Shweder, Richard, Nancy Much, Manamohan Mahapatra, and Lawrence Park. 1997. “The ‘Big Three’ of Morality (Autonomy, Community, and Divinity) and the ‘Big Three’ Explanations of Suffering.” In A.M. Brand and P. Rozin (eds), Morality and Health. New York: Routledge. Pp. 19-169.


III. The “Ethical-Turn”


Barker, John (ed.). 2007. The Anthropology of Morality in Melanesia and Beyond. Hampshire: Ashgate Publishing Company.

Cassaniti, Julia and Jacob Hickman. 2014. “New Directions in the Anthropology of Morality.” Anthropological Theory 14(3): 251-262.

Castaneda, Quetzil E. 2006. “Ethnography in the Forest: An Analysis of Ethics in the Morals of Anthropology.” Cultural Anthropology 21(1): 121-145.

Csordas, Thomas. 2013. “Morality as a Cultural System?” Current Anthropology 54(5): 523-545.

Evans, T.M.S. 2008. Anthropology as Ethics: Nondualism and the Conduct of Sacrifice. Oxford: Berghahn Books.

Fassin, Didier (ed.). 2012. A Companion to Moral Anthropology. Malden, MA.: Wiley-Blackwell.

Fassin, Didier and Samuel Lézé (eds.). 2014. Moral Anthropology: A Critical Reader. New York: Routledge.

Faubion, James (ed.). 2001. The Ethics of Kinship: Ethnographic Inquiries. Oxford: Roman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

Faubion, James. 2011. An Anthropology of Ethics. Cambridge: Cambridge University press.

Heintz, Monica (ed.). 2009. The Anthropology of Moralities. Oxford: Berghahn Books

Keane, Webb. 2015. Ethical Life: Its Natural and Social Histories. Princeton: University of Princeton Press.

Laidlaw, James. 2013. The Subject of Virtue: An Anthropology of Ethics and Freedom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lambek, Michael, Veena Das, Didier Fassin and Webb Keane (eds). 2015. Four Lectures on Ethics: Anthropological Perspectives. Chicago: HAU Books.

Robbins, Joel. 2013. “Beyond the Suffering Subject: Toward an Anthropology of the Good.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 19(3): 447-462.

Sykes, Karen (ed.). 2009. Ethnographies of Moral Reasoning: Living Paradoxes of a Global Age. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Yan, Yunxiang. 2011. “How Far Away Can We Move From Durkheim? – Reflections on the New Anthropology of Morality.” Anthropology This Century. Issue 2.

Yan, Yunxiang. 2014. “The Moral Implications of Immorality: The Chinese Case for a New Anthropology of Morality.” Journal of Religious Ethics 42(3): 460-493.

Zigon, Jarrett. 2008. Morality: An Anthropological Perspective. Bloomsbury Academic.

Zigon, Jarrett and C. Jason Throop (eds.). 2014. Moral Experience. Special Issue of the Journal Ethos 42(1).


Foucauldian Reverberations and Contestations

Faubian, James D. 2001. “Toward an Anthropology of Ethics: Foucault and the Pedagogies of Autopoiesis.” Representations 74(1): 83-104.

Faubian, James D. 2013. “The Subject that is Not One: On the Ethics of Mysticism.” Anthropological Theory 13(4): 287-307.

Daswani, Girish. 2013. “On Christianity and Ethics: Rupture as Ethical Practice in Ghanaian Pentecostalism.” American Ethnologist 40(3): 467-479.

Laidlaw, James. 2002. “For an Anthropology of Ethics and Freedom.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 8(2): 311-332.

Laidlaw, James. 2014. “The Undefined Work of Freedom: Foucault’s Genealogy and the Anthropology of Ethics.” In James D. Faubion (ed.), Foucault Now: Current Perspectives in Foucault Studies. Cambridge: Polity Press. Pp. 23-37.

Mahmood, Saba. 2001. “Feminist Theory, Embodiment, and the Docile Agent: Some Reflections on the Egyptian Islamic Revival.” Cultural Anthropology 6(2): 202-236.

Mahmood, Saba. 2005. Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Mattingly, Cheryl. 2012. “Two Virtue Ethics and the Anthropology of Morality.” Anthropological Theory 12(2): 161-184.

Mattingly, Cheryl. 2013. “Moral Selves and Moral Scenes: Narrative Experiments in Everyday Life.” Ethnos 78(3): 301-327.

Nakissa, Aria. 2014. “An Ethical Solution to the Problem of Legal Indeterminacy: Shari`a scholarship at Egypt’s al-Azhar.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 20(1): 93-112.

Robbins, Joel. 2004. Becoming Sinners: Christianity and Moral Torment in a Papua New Guinea Society. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Robbins, Joel. 2007. “Between Reproduction and Freedom: Morality, Value, and Radical Cultural Change.” Ethnos 72(3): 293-314.


Ordinary Ethics

Das, Veena. 2012. “Ordinary Ethics.” Pp. 133-149 in Didier Fassin (ed.), A Companion to Moral Anthropology. John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Das, Veena. 2015. “What Does Ordinary Ethics Look Like?” in Michael Lambek, Veena Das, Didier Fassin and Webb Keane (eds), Four Lectures on Ethics: Anthropological Perspectives. Chicago: HAU Books.

Lambek, Michael. 2008. “Value and Virtue.” Anthropological Theory 8(2): 133-57.

Lambek, Michael (ed.). 2010. Ordinary Ethics: Anthropology, Language, and Action. Fordham University Press.

Lambek, Michael. 2015. The Ethical Condition: Essays on Action, Person, and Value. University of Chicago Press.

Lambek, Michael. 2015. “On the Immanence of the Ethical: A Response to Michael Lempert, ‘No Ordinary Ethics.” Anthropological Theory 15(2): 128-132.

Lempert, Michael. 2013. “No Ordinary Ethics.” Anthropological Theory 13(4): 370-393.

Mattingly, Cheryl. 2014. Moral Laboratories: Family Peril and the Struggle for a Good Life. Berkeley: University of California Pres.

Mattingly, Cheryl. 2014. “Love’s Imperfection: Moral Becoming, Friendship, and Family Life.” Suomen Antropologi: Journal of the Finish Anthropological Society 39(1): 53-67.

Naumescu, Vlad. 2016. “The End of times and the Near Future: The Ethical Engagements of Russian Old Believers in Romania.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 22(2): 314-331.

Pandian, Anand. 2008. “Tradition in Fragments: Inherited Forms and Fractures in the Ethics of South India.” American Ethnologist 35(3): 466-480.

Stafford, Charles (ed.). 2013. Ordinary Ethics in China. London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Zigon, Jarrett. 2014. “An Ethics of Dwelling and Anti-War Activism: A Critical Response to Ordinary Ethics.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute. 20(4): 746-764.


Moral Experience

Al-Mohammad, Haydar. 2010. “Towards an Ethics of Being-With: Intertwinements of Life in Post-Invasion Basra.” Ethnos: Journal of Anthropology 75(4): 425-446.

Benson, Peter and Kevin Lewis O’neill. 2007. “Facing Risk: Levinas, Ethnography, and Ethics.” Anthropology of Consciousness 18(2): 29-55.

Garcia, Angela. 2014. “The Promise: On the Morality of the Marginal and the Illicit.” Ethos 42(1): 51-64.

Geurts, Kathryn Linn. 2002. Culture and the Senses: Bodily Ways of Knowing in an African Community. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Jackson, Michael. 2013. The Wherewithal of Life: Ethics, Migration, and the Question of Well-Being. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Kleinman, Arthur. 2007. What Really Matters: Living a Moral Life Amidst Uncertainty and Danger. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kleinman, Arthur, et al.2011. Deep China: The Moral Life of the Person. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Lester, Rebecca. 2005. Jesus in Our Wombs: Embodying Modernity in a Mexican Convent. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Mattingly, Cheryl. 2010. The Paradox of Hope: Journeys Through a Clinical Borderland. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Pandian, Anand. 2010. “Interior Horizons: An Ethical Space of Selfhood in South Asia.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 16(1): 64-83.

Parish, Steven. 2014. “Between Persons: How Concepts of the Person Make Moral Experience Possible.” Ethos 42(1):  31-50.

Robbins, Joel. 2009. “Value, Structure, and the Range of Possibilities: A Response to Zigon.” Ethnos 74(2): 277-285.

Rydstrom, Helle. 2003. Embodying Morality: Growing up in Rural Northern Vietnam. Honolulu: University of Hawai`i Press.

Throop, C. Jason. 2008. “‘Becoming Beautiful in the Dance’: On the Formation of Ethical Modalities of Being in Yap, Federated States of Micronesia.” Oceania 79(2): 179-201.

Throop, C. Jason. 2010. Suffering and Sentiment: Exploring the Vicissitudes of Experience and Pain in Yap. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Throop, C. Jason. 2012. “Moral Sentiments.” Pp. 150-168 in Didier Fassin (ed.) A Companion to Moral Anthropology. Wiley-Blackwell.

Throop, C. Jason. 2014. “Moral Moods.” Ethos 42(1): 65-83.

Throop, C. Jason. 2014. “Friendship as Moral Experience: Ethnographic Dimensions and Ethical Reflections.” Suomen Antropologi: Journal of the Finnish Anthropological Society 39(1): 68-80.

Throop, C. Jason. 2015. “Ambivalent Happiness and Virtuous Suffering.” HAU 5(3): 45-68.

Zigon, Jarrett. 2007. “Moral Breakdown and the Ethical Demand: A Theoretical Framework for an Anthropology of Moralities.” Anthropological Theory 7(2): 131-150.

Zigon, Jarrett. 2009. “Within a Range of Possibilities: Morality and Ethics in Social Life.” Ethnos 74(2): 251-276.

Zigon, Jarrett. 2009. “Phenomenological Anthropology and Morality: A Reply to Robbins.” Ethnos 74(2): 286-288.

Zigon, Jarrett. 2010. Making the New Post-Soviet Person: Moral Experience in Contemporary Moscow. Leiden: Brill.

Zigon, Jarrett. 2013. “On Love: Remaking Moral Subjectivity in Postrehabilitation Russia.” American Ethnologist 40(1): 201-215.

Zigon, Jarrett. 2014. “Attunement and Fidelity: Two Ontological Conditions for Morally Being-in-the-World.” Ethos 42(1): 16-30.

Zigon, Jarrett. 2014. “Temporalization and Ethical Action.” Journal of Religious Ethics 42(3): 442-459.



Bialecki, Jon. 2014. “Diagramming the Will: Ethics and Prayer, Text, and Politics.” Ethnos 81(4): 712-734.

Bourdieu, Pierre. 1998. “Is a Disinterested Act Possible?” & “A Paradoxical Foundation of Ethics.” Practical Reason. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Brodwin, Paul. 2013. Everyday Ethics: Voices from the Front Line of Community Psychiatry. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Dave, Naisargi, N. 2011. “Activism as Ethical Practice: Queer Politics in Contemporary India.” Cultural Dynamics 23(1): 3-20.

Dave, Naisargi, N. 2012. Queer Activism in India: A Story in the Anthropology of Ethics. Durham: Duke University Press.

Fassin, Didier. 2008. “Beyond Good and Evil?: Questioning the Anthropological Discomfort with Morals.” Anthropological Theory 8(4): 333-344.

Fassin, Didier. 2012. Humanitarian Reason: A Moral History of the Present. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Fassin, Didier. 2013. “On Resentment and Ressentiment: The Politics and Ethics of Moral Emotions.” Current Anthropology 54(3): 249-267.

Hirchkind, Charles. 2006. The Ethical Soundscape: Cassette Sermons and Islamic Counterpublics. New York: Columbia University Press.

Kuan, Teresa. 2015. Love’s Uncertainty: The Politics and Ethics of Child Rearing in Contemporary China. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Matza, Tomas. 2012. “‘Good Individualism’? Psychology, Ethics, and Neoliberalism in Postsocialist Russia.” American Ethnologist 39(4): 804-818.

Muehlbach, Andrea. 2012. The Moral Neoliberal: Welfare and Citizenship in Italy. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Muehlbach, Andrea. 2013. “On Precariousness and the Ethical Imagination: The Year 2012 in Sociocultural Anthropology.” American Anthropologist 115(2): 297-311.

Ortner, Sherry B. 2016. “Dark Anthropology and its Others: Theory Since the Eighties.” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 6(1): 47-73.

Pandian, Anand. 2009. Crooked Stalks: Cultivating Virtue in South India. Duke University Press.

Scherz, China. 2014. Having People, Having Heart: Charity, Sustainable Development, and problems of Dependence in Central Uganda. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Ticktin, Miriam. 2006. “Where Ethics and Politics Meet.” American Ethnologist 33(1): 33-49.

Watanabe, Chika. 2014. “Muddy Labor: A Japanese Aid Ethic of Collective Intimacy in Myanmar.” Cultural Anthropology 29(4): 648-671.

Willen, Sarah S. 2014. “Plotting a Moral Trajectory, Sans Papiers: Outlaw Motherhood as Inhabitable Space of Welcome.” Ethos 42(1): 84-100.

Yan, Yunxiang. 2009. “The Good Samaritan’s New Trouble: A Study of the Changing Moral Landscape in Contemporary China.” Social Anthropology 17(1): 9-24.

Zigon, Jarrett. 2011. “HIV is God’s Blessing”: Rehabilitating Morality in Neoliberal Russia. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Zigon, Jarrett. 2015. “What is a Situation?:  An Assemblic Ethnography of the Drug War.” Cultural Anthropology 30(3): 501-524.


HAU Book Review Symposia on the “Ethical Turn”

Didier Fassin, James Faubion, Webb Keane, Eduardo Kohn, Michael Lempert, Cheryl Mattingly, Veena Das, and James Laidlaw. 2014. “Book Symposium – The Subjective of Virtue: An Anthropology of Ethics and Freedom (James Laidlaw).” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 4(1): 429-506.

Cheryl Mattingly, Rita Astuti, James Laidlaw, Nicholas Harkness, C. Jason Throop, Richard Shweder, and Webb Keane. 2016. “Book Symposium – Ethical Life: Its Natural and Social Histories (Webb Keane).” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 6(1): 433-492.


Jason Throop is Professor of Anthropology & Vice Chair of Undergraduate Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. He is the author of Suffering and Sentiment: Exploring the Vicissitudes of Experience and Pain in Yap (University of California Press, 2010) and the coeditor of the volumes Toward an Anthropology of the Will (Stanford University Press, 2010) and The Anthropology of Empathy: Experiencing the Lives of Others in Pacific Societies (Berghahn Books, 2011).



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