Ethics and ethnography

Where do our conceptions of “good”, “bad”, or “evil” come from? How do “values” form, and why do we end up “valuing” certain things over others? Are common values necessary for social stability? How should we treat others? What is our conception of a good life? And how do we treat those who defy – or come in the way of - our notion of the good? How do people act in ethical dilemmas, where they have to juggle or choose between various moral obligations? What responsibility comes with power, particularly the power to shape mentalities, memories, cultures, reputations, futures? Does anthropology wield this kind of power? And how should it act in respect to those who do?

In this module, we will compare moral behaviour across many different cultures. In doing so, we will come to explore ethics as a cultural process, that is constantly being shaped by the political, religious, social, economic and legal pressures bearing down on us. Time and time again, we will be surprised by the sheer creativity people show when trying to establish moral obligations on each other. Time and time again, we will be amazed by people’s ability to re-define, ignore, or slip out of such obligations. Time and time again, we will note how ordinary people are, in fact, rather extraordinary.

But we will not stop there. This module provides students with the space to critically reflect on the development and use of ethical standards in professional anthropological practice. We ask what our obligations to the people we work with are, and reflect on our understandings of harm. We discuss how anthropologists behave when confronted with dilemmas that can put some of their interlocutors in danger, or threaten the end of their own research and careers. In the world of rising xenophobic nationalism and social inequality, this involves learning to work with people with whom we disagree fundamentally.