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Durham University

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Image: Anthropology as a moral science of possibilities.Carrithers, M. (2005). Anthropology as a moral science of possibilities. Current anthropology 46(3): 433-456.

Author(s) from Durham


In a world of continued and expanding empire, does sociocultural anthropology in itself offer grounds for moral and social criticism? One line in anthropological thought leads to cultural relativism and an awareness that a cloud of alternative possibilites surrounds any moral code. However, a second line, based in reflection on fieldwork and on the professional ethics arising with it, does suggest some basic moral aesthetic standards, including trust, mutual forbearance, and acceptance of others' worth. Moreover, a third line, that investigating the sources of social change and cultural metamorphosis, suggests that moral agency-cum-patiency—doing-and-being-done-to in the web of social relations—is a basic category of human thought and existence and that moral rhetorical persuasion of agents-cum-patients is likewise a constituent of all cultural arrangements. These reflections give sociocultural anthropologists support, based in the moral logic of the discipline itself and in its understanding of the complexity of possibilities surrounding any moral judgment, for sceptical and therapeutic criticism of rhetoric exercised in pursuit of empire. This argument is illustrated through an analysis of American political rhetoric supporting the invasion of Iraq.