An Anthropology of Ethics: Book Review

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

By: Anna Strhan (University of Kent)

How do people engage with questions about the good and how we ought to live in everyday social encounters? What role do particular moral logics play in the constitution of human subjects, and how, when and where does the formation of ethical subjectivities happen? Such questions might seem basic to any study of the nature of social and cultural life, and Michael Lambek notes in his introduction to Ordinary Ethics that ethnographers often find that the people they meet “are trying to do what they consider right or good, are being evaluated according to criteria of what is right or good, or are in some debate about what constitutes the human good” (2010: 1). Yet specific attention to ‘the ethical’ has arguably been historically something of a blind spot within anthropological and other social scientific theorizing.

The early canonical texts of both anthropology and sociology were preoccupied with ‘moral facts’ and the nature of cultural values and obligations, thus this lacuna may seem surprising. In the past decade, however, there has been a proliferation of anthropological writings focusing on ethics, values, and morality. James Laidlaw, an influential early advocate for developing an anthropology of ethics, argued that it was in part precisely the Durkheimian origins of anthropology and Durkheim’s identification of the moral law with the social collective that inhibited anthropological examination of the ethical dimensions of social life (Laidlaw 2002: 312). Jarrett Zigon also argues, “in replacing Kant’s moral law with society, Durkheim also negated morality as a particular topic of study… For when morality is equated with society (or culture), it is quite difficult, if not impossible, to analytically separate a moral realm for study” (2007: 132). Thus the idea of an anthropology of morality or of ethics seems at first glance somehow odd, since most anthropologists might have felt that in studying social and cultural practices, they were studying morality all along (Robbins 2012).[1]

Why then has there been such rapidly growing interest in focusing specifically on ‘the moral’ and ‘ethical’ as modalities of social life? Robbins (2012) suggests that it is precisely because the ethical is a ubiquitous element of society and culture that once questions about the interrelations of ethics, culture and social interaction are brought to the fore, most anthropologists are able to relate this to their own intellectual projects. Interest in ethics might also be seen as part of a broader turn towards conceptualizing social life in terms of relationalities, processes and flows, and away from metaphors of structures (Pyythinen 2010; Strhan forthcoming).

Michel Foucault’s interest in ethics in his later work can be seen as a forerunner of this move. In “Technologies of the Self,” he stated, “Perhaps I’ve insisted too much on the technology of domination and power. I am more and more interested in the interaction between oneself and others and in the technologies of individual domination, the history of how an individual acts upon himself, in the technology of self” (1988: 19). Much of the work within the ‘ethical turn’ in anthropology has been influenced by Foucault’s later work on ethics, and, as Lambek suggests, follows from a sense that exploring the complex textures of ethical life can “shift or deepen our understanding of social life more generally” (Lambek 2010: 7). This growing literature has often been in conversation not only with Foucault’s later work but also with other philosophical texts, most notably those within the Aristotelian tradition of virtue ethics.

This new anthropological interest in ethics is opening up exciting avenues for attending empirically to fundamental existential questions about what it is to live a good life, and how this is negotiated within the concrete limits of everyday social existence. Several important contributions to this field have emerged from within the anthropology of Christianity, for example, Webb Keane’s analysis (2007) of Protestantism and “the moral narrative of modernity,” and Robbins’ work on Pentecostal conversion and moral fragmentation (2004). It is perhaps not surprising that anthropologists working not only Christianities but on religion more broadly have helped stimulate these discussions about ethics. As Lambek notes, historically, questions concerning morality and ethics have been closely bound up with religion and questions of theodicy and the problem of suffering, so that “through religion, the ordinary is transcended and ethics intellectualized, materialized, or transcendentalized” (2010: 3). Keane argues that in the contemporary world, religious institutions have become particularly identified with morality, as part of the functional differentiation that Durkheim and Weber saw as a fundamental process of modernization, so that today “morality is often treated as the special concern of religion” (Keane 2010: 79). Anthropologists of religion have thus explored how forms of religious life can justify, inculcate and resist particular moral norms (e.g. Mahmood 2005; Hirschkind 2006), whilst anthropologists of Christianity in particular have demonstrated how the moral logics implicated in Christian (and especially Protestant) practices can have agency in effecting the cultural changes such as individualization that are characteristic of modernity (e.g. Robbins 2004; Keane 2007). Anthropologists of Christianity working in late modern Western contexts have also shown how focusing on the ethical and moral opens up the everyday complexities of negotiating Christian moral lives in the moral landscapes of pluralist, differentiated modernity (e.g. Bialecki 2008; Elisha 2011; Bielo 2011).

Drawing questions about ‘the moral’ and ‘the ethical’ into more precise analytical focus is opening up promising discussions not only within the anthropology of Christianity and the anthropology of religion, but also within anthropology and sociology more broadly. However, as Robbins notes (2012), to become sustained conversations, these discussions need orienting around shared resources and texts. James Faubion’s An Anthropology of Ethics is thus highly timely, developing an ambitious revision of Foucault’s approach to ethics in his later work as a resource for anthropological investigation into ethical life. Faubion argues that developing new programmatic approaches in anthropology is something of a lost art, and suggests that recovering ‘the ethical’ holds promise for “the reconstitution of the anthropological” (269). Thus the aim of his book is precisely to develop such a programme, with the first part of the book assembling a conceptual apparatus for the anthropological study of ethics, or more precisely, “modes of subjectivation,” and the second part utilizing this framework to analyse three particular individual life histories: (1) Fernando Mascarenhas, a contemporary Portuguese aristocrat, (2) Amo Paul Bishop Roden, a leader in the Branch Davidian Group in Waco, Texas, and (3) Constantine Cavafy, a Greek poet living in the late 19th and early 20th century.

The conceptual framework Faubion develops draws primarily on Foucault’s investigation of ethics in his later work, drawing this together with Niklas Luhmann’s systems theory and Max Weber’s work on charisma. Following Foucault, Faubion is centrally concerned with ethics in terms of processes of subjectivation – how actors strive towards and come to occupy particular subject positions, and the ‘autopoietic’ nature of this; i.e. seeking to examine not only the pedagogic relationships that enable the fashioning of ethical subjects, but also how subjects learn to work on themselves. I will not here summarize Faubion’s account of Foucault’s work on ethics and technologies of the self, since this will be familiar already to many, but his discussion of Foucault’s later work presents a clear and engaging account, that will be especially useful for students encountering his ideas for the first time. Faubion’s account also goes beyond Foucault in several respects, for example, his placing Foucault fruitfully in discussion with the work of Weber and Luhmann. Through this, he develops an argument for deeper engagement with questions about the nature of ‘acknowledgement’ and interactions with ‘ethical others,’ which has the potential to enrich understanding of ethical intersubjectivity and the complex textures of experiencing the claims others make on us. As Faubion puts it, “the ethical subject, even when only an individual human being, is thus already always of intersubjective, social and cultural tissue. Its parts are never entirely its own. Its self-referential ‘I’ is Rimbaudean. Its I is always also other” (120).

Faubion’s use of Weber’s concept of charismatic authority provides an original way of thinking through questions about ethical innovations and creativity in the moral life. Faubion develops a distinction between what he calls ‘the themitical’ normativity of everyday routines – the “order of the reproduction of what at any particular place and point in time constituted the regnant moral order” (24), which, following Aristotle, he renders as something like a normative ‘architectonic’ – and ‘the ethical domain’ as a totality. He describes the themitical as internal to this broader ethical field, which also includes dynamics of becoming and self-becoming. Following Weber, Faubion describes how charismatic authority functions outside the routines of the themitical order, and suspends its moral normativity. In this Weberian primal charismatic scene, there is no place for ethics (84). The ethical enters, Faubion argues, when the charismatic leader recognizes their charisma as shared with others, so that it becomes “no longer a purely personal but instead a collective affair, an affair of the jointly ‘elect’” (87). Although this aspect of Faubion’s analysis may be of limited application to most fieldwork encounters, it nevertheless raises questions about how we might find new ways of thinking about the nature of ethical creativity and change over time, and the interrelational dynamics of this, an area that theorists across different social scientific disciplines have not always been attuned to. These issues of the reproduction of the moral order and its interruption are intimately bound up with questions about the nature of freedom, and in Faubion’s account, all modalities of ethical practice require freedom (cf. Laidlaw 2002; Lambek 2010: 25-29; Robbins 2012). This focus on the nature of freedom in the moral life makes an important contribution to debates about the meaning of and limits of freedom within ethical praxis and autopoiesis.

At the end of Part 1, Faubion presents a useful ‘narrative-friendly’ version of the schematic of the ethical domain he has developed, which in Part 2 of the book he utilizes to analyze three ethical subjects. Within this, the attention he pays to ‘voice’ and the ‘ethics of parrhesia’ in particular has potential for enriching analysis of the interrelations of self, other, language, freedom and society implied in the formation of ethical subjectivity, resonating with Stanley Cavell’s conceptualization of the self and “society being in conversation, demanding a voice in each other” (2004: 68). Whilst each of the individual accounts Faubion presents is engaging and demonstrates how his programme for an anthropology of ethics can be practically applied, this approach of applying a schematic to particular life histories seems to limit its utility for ethnographers, most of whom are likely to begin ethnographic analysis through attention to the specificities of their fields. The particular structuring of this part of his book also raises questions about the meaning of ‘the ethical’ in the practice of anthropological writing. This can be opened up further through comparing this schematic approach with that of another key anthropological text focused on the textures of ethical life: Veena Das’s Life and Words (2007). Das’s attention to the ethical lives she is studying opens out – as is more usual within ethnographic writing – from her informants’ experiences, and she vividly gestures towards the limits of language to express the alterity of the ethical others and their experiences she has engaged with, the resistances of the other, and the ways in which the knowledge of the other have marked her (17). Whilst her approach is influenced by and centrally engaged with the philosophical writings of Stanley Cavell, her approach to ethics is not articulated through a rigid schematic analysis of modes of subjectivation such as that structuring the second part of Faubion’s book, but rather through close attention to how the ethical is woven within the dense fabric of everyday interactions. Faubion’s analysis clearly shows how the programmatic approach he develops can be applied to analyse individuals’ life histories, opening up the complexities of their broader social and cultural locations. However Das’s close attention to the practice of ‘ordinary ethics’ and the everyday as an achievement rather than something we take for granted (2010: 176) invites us to consider drawing on the work of other philosophers who might stimulate further reflection on how anthropological writing might ‘acknowledge’ the ethical others who are the subjects of our writing and the ultimate irreducibility to language of some forms of ethical experience. Faubion’s attention to the question of ‘ethical others’ is certainly engaged with this conversation, but drawing in other philosophical voices who are more attentive than Foucault was to the nature of responsibility and the claims that others make on us – for example, Stanley Cavell and Emmanuel Levinas – would be useful interlocutors here to open up avenues for further thinking about acts of anthropological writing as themselves forms of ethical practice.

Overall, I recommend Faubion’s text to all anthropologists who are interested in the nature of ethical and moral life, which should surely be all anthropologists (and sociologists). I share Lambek’s hesitations (2010: 10) about the attempt establish the anthropology of ethics as another subfield: the ethical is inseparable from what it is to be human.  However attending more closely to what it is to become an ethical subject and the ambiguities and uncertainties this entails undoubtedly deepens our understanding of the complex textures of social life. This increasing interest in the nature of the ethical, morality and questions of value is also an area where anthropology can make significant contributions to wider public debates about the cultural formation of understandings of ‘value’ and relations of obligation (e.g. Graeber 2011 on debt). Within the study of Christianities, Faubion’s programme could easily be used to develop comparative studies of modes of subjectivation. His focus on relations with ‘ethical others’ invites further attention to what it would mean to develop more focused attention to the dynamics of intersubjectivity and the lived experience of the claims others make on us in the formation of ethical subjectivities, in conversation with the work of philosophers more attentive to these themes. This could include exploring modes of relationality with and senses of responsibility towards non-human others, including sacred others (cf. Orsi 2005, 2012; Strhan 2012; Bialecki forthcoming). Faubion also raises questions about how we might approach the nature of motivation and desire in the ethical life, and how the formation of ethical subjectivity entails, as Cavell and others (including Foucault) have argued, a division of the subject, as he or she imagines the way a world could be, memorably expressed by Emerson: ‘I know that the world I converse with in the cities and in the farms, is not the world I think’ (cited in Cavell 2004: 1).


Bialecki, Jon. (2008) ‘Between Stewardship and Sacrifice: agency and economy in a Southern California Charismatic Church’, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 14: 372-90.

— ‘Does God Exist in Methodological Atheism? On Tanya Luhrmann’s When God Talks Back and Bruno Latour’, forthcoming in Anthropology of Consciousness.

Bielo, James (2011) Emerging Evangelicals: Faith, Modernity and the Desire for Authenticity (New York, New York University Press).

Cavell, Stanley (2004) Cities of Words: Pedagogical Letters on a Register of the Moral Life (Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press).

Das, Veena (2005) Life and Words: Violence and the Descent into the Ordinary (Berkeley, University of California Press).

Elisha, Omri (2011) Moral Ambition: Mobilization and Social Outreach in Evangelical Megachurches (Berkeley, University of California Press).

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

Faubion, James D. (2001) ‘Toward an Anthropology of Ethics: Foucault and the Pedagogies of Autopoiesis’, Representations 74:83-104.

Foucault, Michel (1988) ‘Technologies of the Self’, in Luther H. Martin, Huck Gutman and Patrick H. Hutton (eds) Technologies of the Self: A Seminar with Michel Foucault (Amherst, University of Massachusetts Press), pp. 16-49.

Graeber, David (2011) Debt: The First Thousand Years (London, Melville House).

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

Keane, Webb (2007) Christian Moderns: Freedom and Fetish in the Mission Encounter (Berkeley, University of California Press.

— (2010) ‘Minds, Surfaces, and Reasons in the Anthropology of Ethics’, in Michael Lambek (ed.) Ordinary Ethics: Anthropology, Language, and Action (New York, Fordham University Press), pp. 64-83.

Laidlaw, James (2002) ‘For an Anthropology of Ethics and Freedom’, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 8(2): 311-32.

Lambek, Michael (2010) ‘Introduction’, in Michael Lambek (ed.) Ordinary Ethics: Anthropology, Language, and Action (New York, Fordham University Press), pp. 1-36.

Lynch, Gordon (2012) The Sacred in the Modern World: A Cultural Sociological Approach (Oxford, Oxford University Press).

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

Pyyhtinen, Olli (2010) Simmel and ‘The Social’ (Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan).

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

— (2012) ‘On becoming ethical subjects: freedom, constraint, and the anthropology of morality’, Anthropology of This Century. Online. Available http: (accessed 16 July 2013).

Strhan, Anna (2012) Discipleship and Desire: Conservative Evangelicals, Coherence and the Moral Lives of the Metropolis. PhD thesis (Canterbury, University of Kent).

— ‘Christianity and the City: Simmel, Space and Urban Subjectivities’, forthcoming in Religion and Society: Advances in Research 4.

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

[1] This is not to suggest that Durkheimian approaches necessarily dissolve the ethical into the social. For a non-reductive approach to the sociology of moral life that (critically) engages with the Durkheimian tradition, see Lynch (2012).

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