A dearth on both your houses: thinking through the concept of autonomy

How is it that there is a dearth of literature on the concept of autonomy? Philosophy and anthropology have had a field day with associated concepts like ‘equality’ but there is little critical examination of autonomy.

I am currently writing my as-yet favourite chapter of the thesis, which invites a re-examination of the prevailing model of Indigenous sociality. Generally speaking, the prevailing model suggests that Indigenous sociality is characterized by a tension between the value of autonomy on the one hand, and that of relatedness on the other. I find this more than a little problematic for a number of reasons.

Firstly, there is the presupposing that the concept of ‘autonomy’ is relevant, applicable and of value. As any of the literature on autonomy makes clear the concept of autonomy is deeply ingrained in the liberal tradition and caught up with a cluster of dichotomies such as individual/collectivity, private/public, freedom/coercion and as manifest in the modern state the dichotomy between legislation/common law. The chances that the concept is cross-culturally relevant, applicable and of significant meaning and value are not very high. Now I’m being presumptuous.

Given the culturally embedded nature of the concept of autonomy the least we should expect, if anthropologists are going to argue that the autonomy is pivotal and characteristic of social norms and sociality in their field site, is that they provide ample, clear ethnographic evidence demonstrating how or why this is the case. I have not come across any ethnographies that convincingly argue this point. My own ethnographic material suggests that the concept of autonomy vis-à-vis relatedness is not only not relevant in the Yolhu case but incommensurable with Yolhu concepts of affect, morality and value in social relations.

The second reason I take issue with the prevailing model and the presupposition that autonomy is relevant and of value is that there is no agreement among theorists and philosophers of autonomy as to what autonomy actually is. It is not very fair (nor very good scholarship) to impose concepts which are the subject of fundamental philosophical conjecture on one’s analysis of other cultures or cultural ways of life.

That’s my rant for the day. I’ll finish with a call out – does anyone know of any considered and thorough literature that deals with the concept of autonomy in a way that moves beyond Kant’s idea of moral autonomy? The best I have found is Gerald Dworkin’s ‘The Theory and Practice of Autonomy’, which is actually really fantastic. There is also a bit of feminist political philosophy that explores the contradictory tension inherent in the concept of autonomy (esp. Nedelsky). Unfortunately this literature and analysis has far less clarity (and if far less convincing) than Dworkin. Here is a sample from Nedelsky’s discussion about her vision for reconceptualising the concept of autonomy (but retaining it as a basic feminist value):

‘How is this a new conception of autonomy? The answer is that in measuring and weighing collective choices against the value of autonomy, the meaning of autonomy will be different. The autonomy I am talking about does remain an individual value, and a value that takes its meaning from the recognition of (and respect for) the inherent individuality of each person. But it takes its meaning no less from the recognition that individuality cannot be conceived   of in isolation from the social context in which that individuality came into being.

The value of autonomy will at some level be inseparable from the relations that make it possible; there will thus be a social component built into the meaning of autonomy. That is the difference. But the presence of a social component does not mean that the value cannot be threatened by collective choices; hence the continuing need to identify autonomy as a separate value, to take account of its vulnerability to democratic decision-making, and to find some way of making those decisions “accountable” to the value of autonomy’ (Nedelsky 1989, pp. 35-36).


Not only is this a bit of a shmozzle but anarchist political philosophy and practice has been working with a relational or inherently social approach to the concept of autonomy since the big bang.


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Filed under Anthropology, Thesis/Yolngu related writing

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