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A Matter of Morality

Originally published in 2009, The Anthropology of Moralities, edited by Monica Heintz, will be published in paperback this month. The collection deals with the collision of moralities as human beings exist on a more and more globalized scale. Below, the editor discusses what first interested her in a moral study and what made it, and keeps it, important to the field of anthropology.




Somehow after 1989 the Eastern bloc got obsessed with values. How could it be otherwise for people who had lived with double sets of values in the public and private spheres and who saw all their public values officially collapse in one night?


And this obsession with values produced intransigency, but also false values; it produced new ideals and destroyed others; generated imaginative discourses of justification, new interpretations or new lies, new excuses or new values, as Western values became the new references standards.


So I got obsessed with values myself, and even more after I have moved west. My first anthropological study back at the end of the 90s was after all nothing less than the measure of the Romanian work values on the scale of Western (Protestant) work ethic, an ideal model that many Romanians took seriously then. Luckily enough, as in most stories that anthropologists tell, I realised along the way that when describing and measuring values against the standard stick given by my Anglo-saxon training, the dice were loaded. This is how I started reconsidering the method.


Soon I realised that despite the fact that the words ‘moral’, ‘ethic’ or ‘morality’ have been amply used in recent anthropological studies in order to describe social facts, the black box of ‘morality’ had seldom been thoroughly examined. Morality was often used as the ultimate explanation of social facts, but remained a synthesis entity that could not be dug into further, an opaque screen. I felt that if this approach did not change, there is a risk that the term ‘morality’, though ‘new’ and ‘popular’, becomes just another synonym for culture or society, terms that are used evocatively rather than explicatively to the point that they become useless for social science. I was privileged to find fellow anthropologists who thought the same. The book “Anthropology of Moralities” and the emerging field of studies that it is today would not exist without them—their theoretical frames, their methods and their years of field experience all over the world.


It is not surprising that difficulties in defining morality across cultures and in evaluating its role in shaping action in a given society oblige social scientists to use the suggestive rather than the analytical function of the term. An observable social event could be explained by the anthropologist through the moral values of a group; this claim can be easily accepted by readers, without them knowing whether the evaluation of these values as ‘moral’ belongs to the anthropologist or to the group itself, i.e. whose morality is in question.


Moral values are not easy to observe therefore they do not represent sets of collectable data; they can only be revealed by action (including the action of verbal assertion). How anthropologists collect this liquid form of data becomes crucial, as the links between actions and the values underpinning them are complex. For determining indigenous moral values through the observation of action, the anthropologist has to take into account the interplay of subjectivities of his respondents, his own subjectivity and the principles of action existing in that society. Finally, the greatest difficulty encountered by social scientists is to remain neutral, objective, but still in empathy with the observed facts. And to remain convinced that this neutrality is not a comfortable excuse given by science.


But, after all, the interrogations and reflexive methods of research developed for the study of moral values could pertain to other subfields of anthropology, in which the construction of social facts has gone traditionally unquestioned.



Monica Heintz received her PhD in Social Anthropology in Cambridge in 2002, and was appointed Research Fellow at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology in 2003. She is currently Lecturer in Social Anthropology at the University of Paris Ouest Nanterre La Défense, the author of ‘Be European, Recycle Yourself: Changing Work Ethic in Romania (LIT, 2006) and the editor of Weak State, Uncertain Citizenship: Moldova (Peter Lang, 2008).