Zigon on Morality and Ethics in ‘Ethos’

Jarrett Zigon

Just read Zigon’s article ‘Within a Range of Possibilities: Morality and Ethics in Social Life’ published in Ethos in June this year (vol 74: 2).

The article begins with a reasonable summary of current anthropological literature  on ‘morality’ and ‘ethics’. He cites Joel Robbins as the most recent in depth contribution to anthropological literature on morality and ethics and the first third of this paper is spent summarising Robbin’s position, which is basically, he argues, a ‘quasi-Durkheimian view of society, in which several, rather than only one, moral-value spheres seemingly determine moral action’ (p. 254).

Zigon then goes on point out what he sees as the major shortcomings of Robbins’ work, which are insightful and sound points of contention, namely that: Robbins theory doesn’t ‘accurately represent the intricate subtleties, improvisations, and negotiations necessary in such a fragmented moral world (p. 255), and more importantly, that Robbins’ work cannot fully account for morality ‘because it leaves out the actual experience of living a moral life’ (p. 256). These are two really important points of issue, after all, what is morality if not the emotional experience of a political subject?

Zigon moves from summary and critique to present his own ‘analytical theory’, which moves beyond Robbins view of society as consisting of ‘separate, distinct and contextualised moral-value spheres, each governed by a primary value’ (264). He contends that any social context ‘allows for a range of possible moralities’. This is surely a development on Robbins segmented world of spheres. He focuses on what he calls the process of ‘moral breakdown’ that takes place when ‘for one reason or another the range of possible moralities available do not adequately ‘fit’ the context’, when there is a break or ‘shift in consciousness’ in which a person must ‘consciously and creatively find a way to be moral’ (263).

Overall, his analytical theory offers a productive development on Robbins’ model, and his ethnographic material on teh moral lives of Muscovites in postwar Soviet Union is rich and fascinating. However, I wonder about the other anthropological literature on moral-value analysis that he doesn’t include in the paper that departed from Robbins-like theory many moons ago. I’m thinking of the stuff like that in the edited book The Anthropology of Morality in Melanesia and Beyond, Strathern, A. & Stewart, P. ( series eds), but in particular, of the significant body of literature from cognitive anthropologist like D’Andrade, Strauss, Quinn and Holland. For example, see the edited book ‘Human Motives and Cultural models’, 1992 D’Andrade & Strauss (eds),  Cambridge University Press. This latter text is light years ahead of morality in terms of ‘spheres’ etc. and offer the theoretical tools for anthropological analysis with a great deal more explanatory power than phrases like: ‘cultivated new moralities’ (which sounds like a plowing exercise in the garden), ’embodied shifts to appropriate already cultivated moral dispositions’, ‘already embodied moralities’, and ‘going against the ‘nature’ of  already embodied morality’. With all due respect.

I remember one of my most admirable anthropology teachers once commented (upon reading my work) that my use of theory visa vi the subject of analysis was ‘like trying to dissect a microchip with a carving knife’. It’s kind of how I feel about anthropological analysis of emotion and morality without an understanding and account of how individuals learn and process both thoughts and emotions. This stuff happens in the brain (and yes, in the body – the brain is in the body).


Filed under Anthropology

4 responses to “Zigon on Morality and Ethics in ‘Ethos’

  1. faceless

    That’s an excellent mug shot of mister zigon. What’s he looking at for a crappy book? 8-10?

  2. To be fair I haven’t read Mr. Zigon’s book. I’d love to hear from someone who has read it and what they thought of it. It is an earlier publication than the article I’ve blogged about above.

    For those interested – Zigon, J., 2008, ‘Morality: An Anthropological Perspective’, Berg Publishers. Table of contents as follows:

    Part 1 * 1. Genealogy of Moral Philosophy and Social Scientific Foundations of An Anthropology of Moralities * Part 2 * 2. Religion * 3. Law and Human Rights * Case Study 1: Moral Torment in Papua New Guinea * Part 3 * 4. Sex and Gender * 5. Health and Medicine * Case Study 2: Morality and Women’s Health in Post-Soviet Russia * Part 4 * 6. Language and Narrative * Case Study 3: Narratives of Moral Experience in Moscow * Part 5 * 7. Conclusion

  3. …..p.s. …oh no – I think publishing any book is a ‘get-out-of-jail-free’ card for sure. In fact I’d say Mr Zigon gets 8-10 years of ‘get-out-of-jail-free’ card immunity for his book as well as a ‘go-straight-to heave-and-don’t-pass-go’ card too.

  4. tired

    It’s a shame for the trees that nobody bothers to read the stuff that’s been published previously – put brackets around a (re)iterative prefix and you’re original.

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