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Between Facts and Norms: Towards an Anthropology of Ethical Practice

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Note that date for publication is 2009.
Chapter 10
BETWEEN FACTS AND NORMS:
TOWARDS AN ANTHROPOLOGY
OF ETHICAL PRACTICE
Mark Goodale
As correctly argued in the introduction to this volume, anthropologists
have traditionally neglected morality as a topic for ethnographic study
and ethnological theory. This major lacuna in the intellectual history is
a peculiar one, and not without consequence, especially as twenty-first
century anthropology tries to come to terms with a range of
contemporary problems in which morality – and normativity more
generally – is fundamentally implicated. These include the rise of
transnational human rights after the end of the cold war, the
increasingly aggressive campaigns of religious conversion being waged
in new places and new ways in the developing world, the attempt to
establish a real international legal regime through institutions like the
International Criminal Court, and, more recently, the reframing of
major military and political interventions – by the United States, for
example – in the language of the moral crusade. But because
anthropology has failed to produce – through its twisting theoretical
turns – an epistemological framework for either explaining or
understanding the increasing normativity of contemporary social life,
anthropologists have come to the debates over these problems with
their discursive quivers poorly stocked. The lack of sustained and broad
anthropological engagement with the normative is compounded by the
fact that anthropologists have been working at cross purposes. Scholars
have developed quite robust traditions that are self-limited to areas like
religion, law, politics and (more recently) human rights, without really
considering that each of these more conventional focuses are, at least
from certain perspectives, expressions of a more basic normativity: the
social practices through which illusive values are rendered – or,
perhaps, actualised – as standards of right conduct, visions of the good,
legal prohibitions, and so on.
Yet this anthropological absence carries with it several unintended
benefits: first, it means that the sudden interest in the normative
unfolds non-paradigmatically, without the heavy burden of
expectations; secondly, the anthropology of normativity (including
morality) can be critical in the best of senses, because to answer the
question ‘Why not anthropology?’ (in matters moral, for example) is,
by extension, to ask questions like ‘Why must values be opposed to
facts?’ or ‘Is there a way in which norms can be understood as both an
object worth of ethnographic attention and a category of social
ephemera at the same time?’ and, finally, as in other instances in which
anthropology was late to the game – the anthropology of global systems
or transnational networks, to mention two others – the recent
concentrated attention to questions once thought beyond the pale
comes with a delightful combination of vim and subversion. As the
current volume shows so convincingly, anthropologists are beginning
to offer answers to these questions that show remarkable potential,
not least in how they point to a set of unifying threads – or, if you like,
strings – that link apparently disparate forms of normative practice.
Of course anthropologists have not been completely absent from
debates over the normative. Late in his career, Bronislaw Malinowski
considered the relationship between morality and freedom in his
Freedom and Civilization (1944), although the great father remains more
widely known for leaving the veranda and deigning to help the natives
build their canoes than for anything he had to say about morality.
Moreover, there could very well have been a much more robust
anthropology of normativity at the time scholars like Mary Douglas
became neo-Durkheimians, but they were inspired by different ideas
from the Frenchman’s oeuvre. And the American anthropological
philosopher David Bidney, who is credited with introducing what has
come to be known (somewhat idiosyncratically, I am implying) as
“humanism” into the discipline, certainly seemed to be addressing
himself to a range of social-normative questions, most notably in his
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article ‘Normative Culture and the Categories of Value’, which appeared
in this Theoretical Anthropology (1953). But, as I shall explain in more
detail in the next section, his efforts, like those of Malinowski before
him, to bring anthropological forms of knowledge to bear on moral and
other normative questions – either in the abstract or in context – never
got off the ground. In Bidney’s case, he tried to bring anthropology
closer to philosophy, an effort that was largely futile, although it did lead
– by yet more twists and turns – to a fondness for poetry of all things
among a small, but passionately devoted, cadre of American
anthropologists.1As I will develop more fully below, Bidney would have
done much better and his worthy efforts would have had a more lasting
influence, had he attempted something like the opposite: to bring
philosophy closer to anthropology, to suggest a way in which the very
nature of normative enquiry could be re-established, to rethink what it
means to ask and answer questions that transcend the empirical levels
where the Malinowskian ethnographer plies her trade.
This chapter is in part both a reflection on this intellectual history and
a kind of counter-discursive reading of it, a way of imagining what the
anthropology of normativity would be like had the discipline been more
willing to move in different epistemological directions and less willing to
cede the conceptual high ground to those for whom the empirical is just
an annoying distraction from the journey to and from the Platonic ether.
To do this, I explore what it would mean to pursue an anthropology of
normativity by first developing a version of what I have described
elsewhere (Goodale 2006a) as an ‘anthropological philosophy of human
rights’. In other words, I consider the implications of bringing philosophy
to anthropology. Next I illustrate these problems and possible solutions
with reference to certain normative shifts in contemporary Bolivia. As
we shall see, to argue for an alternative epistemological framework
through which problems of values, morality, rights and norms can be
understood is not simply to replace one artificially abstracted system with
another. Instead, it is to conceptualise such a system, as we shall see, in
terms of social practice, to anchor both its criteria and ultimate legitimacy
in the messiness of everyday life. Normative questions are also, at times,
real questions of life and death for social actors caught in any number of
insidious webs. So there is also, unavoidably, an ethical dimension to this
debate, one that must somehow be given new prominence. Finally, I end
this chapter more prospectively by suggesting how what I call an
anthropology of ethical practice modestly points the way towards new
directions for research, critique and socio-political action.
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Anthropology between Facts and Norms
Through the first part of the twentieth century, anthropology was the
science of mankind, a self-understanding that had both epistemological
and intellectual-historical consequences. This positioning was the result
of a division of intellectual and academic labour that, with certain
modifications, shaped the emergence of the discipline and its identity on
both sides of the Atlantic. American cultural anthropologists might have
been more heavily informed by the German historical school and
developments within the wider Austro-Hungarian counter-
enlightenment (Stocking 1996), while British sociocultural anthropology
might have emerged under the sign of British empiricism (Stocking
1988; Goody 1995), but both were committed to the empirical study of
culture and society, which was expressed in terms of those ‘social facts’ –
to invoke an idea from yet another major disciplinary tradition at the
time – through which illusive internal imaginaries were made manifest
as objective things that could be studied scientifically. In other words,
anthropology was committed to the observation, description and
explanation of what fitted within the dominant post-Enlightenment
scientific paradigm; the inevitable controversies – and there were many
– took place within these circumscribed epistemological boundaries.
And, of course, to draw boundaries like these is to define a range of
phenomena that lie beyond as much as it is to define those that lie
within. Without question, both specific normative problems, and, even
more, those we might call meta-normative – that is, those that revolve
around the nature of morality or values or law as such – were
conventionally excluded from the domain of the science of mankind.
The first kind of problem involved questions of feeling, belief and
meaning that were perhaps, at some level, empirical, but very difficult –
or, indeed, impossible – to observe, measure, predict and otherwise
access through even the most expansive and creative applications of the
scientific method. And the second were understood to be clearly non-
empirical problems that fell within the rubric of philosophy and were
thus subject to a completely different epistemology, one in which
knowledge is produced through a deductive process of conceptual
envisioning and the derivation of logical implications. Mathematics is
perhaps the best example of this non-empirical epistemology, but other
disciplines – theology, for example-are also dependent on it.
A good example of how this epistemological division of labour had
profound consequences for anthropology – some intended, some not –
is the case of American cultural anthropology and human rights. As I
have described in much more detail elsewhere (Goodale 2006a, b,
2007), UNESCO solicited an advisory opinion from Melville Herskovits,
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185
who later produced an official ‘Statement on Human Rights’ that was
adopted by the Executive Board of the American Anthropological
Association, then as now the largest association of professional
anthropologists in the world. In his ‘Statement’ Herskovits rejected the
idea of a declaration of universal human rights on a number of
grounds. But the one that concerns me here is his assertion that the
idea of human rights makes claims that are based on perceived
universal values. The discipline of anthropology was being asked to
evaluate this claim and, it was hoped, legitimate it. But Herskovits
demurred. He explained that anthropology was a science committed to
empirical observation and, as such, was simply unable to say anything
either way about human rights, at least anything based on
anthropological research itself. The formal engagement with values and
their actualisation as norms was best left to the philosophers,
theologians and others for whom non-empirical speculation was firmly
and epistemologically grounded. The result of the 1947 ‘Statement’
was that anthropological modes of enquiry played almost no role in the
post-war development of human rights theory and practice until about
the 1980s, when a small group of mostly American anthropologists
undertook to transform the relationship between the discipline and
human rights.2This they did through a series of special commissions
that were constituted to investigate various accounts of human rights
abuses against indigenous populations, mostly – coincidentally – in
South America. This intense and passionate activism led to the creation
of a permanent standing committee on human rights within the AAA
and, in 1999, the promulgation of the ‘Declaration on Anthropology
and Human Rights’, which clearly and unequivocally repudiated the
1947 Statement and outlined a set of essentially political rationales
through which anthropologists could – and, indeed, must – use their
knowledge of particular cultures to advocate greater protection of
populations at risk.
But this radical realignment was not based on a new understanding
that normative problems like human rights were now suddenly within
those epistemological boundaries that had previously excluded them.
Indeed, the dramatically reconfigured relationship between at least
American anthropology and human rights was not, as I have said,
grounded in a well-articulated epistemology shift at all. Instead, a
political decision was taken – or, perhaps, emerged over time – that it
was no longer tolerable for the discipline to stand idly by as its
subjects/informants/collaborators were victimised in any number of
ways, even if the basis for this decision was ambiguous at best.
What this sounding from one current in the recent broader
intellectual history of anthropology tells us, among other things, is that
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any reframing of the discipline’s potential contribution to normative
problems once thought beyond the pale has taken place not through
epistemology but rather, we might say, against it. The emergence of an
activist anthropology committed to the protection and support of
international human rights, for example, must be seen in the light of
contemporaneous waves of disciplinary self-critique that shook the
halls of academic departments and set the pages of journals on fire
throughout the 1980s. Although anthropologists on both sides of the
Atlantic had always engaged in vigorous and, at times, contentious
debates, these unfolded within a more general set of assumptions about
what anthropology as a discipline could, and could not, do. But what
distinguished the critical battles of the 1980s was the fact that some
quarters suggested that the very idea of epistemology itself implied a
discursive framework that served to exclude and marginalise. That is to
say, with the dark shadow of certain continental post-structuralists
hovering over them, at least some anthropologists were suggesting that
any theory of knowledge tended to transmogrify into the dreaded
master narrative. This meant, among other things, that even the mere
gesture towards a different epistemological foundation through which
anthropology could engage with normative problems was effectively
foreclosed as a reactionary retreat into the Comtian citadel.
The problem with these two opposed currents – the one committed
to anthropology as some version of the science of mankind, the other
committed to an anti-epistemological deconstruction of it – is that they
both exclude in different ways, but with equally profound effects, the
possibilities of envisioning a new basis on which anthropology can
address super-empirical problems without having to merely adopt a
version of the philosophers’ method. The real contribution to our
understanding of the normative lies elsewhere, in a radically
reconfigured approach to knowledge, one that unfolds in a conceptual
space that draws from aspects of both poles of the classic fact-value
spectrum without positioning itself anywhere between them. In other
words, as I shall develop more fully in the chapter’s final section, a
different anthropological orientation to the normative can be pursued
that combines the peculiar knowledge produced by the ethnographic
encounter with normative practices with knowledge that transcends
the empirical. Indeed, as I shall show, these two dimensions – what I
shall call ‘ethical practice’ – are mutually and inseparably constitutive:
a mere ethnographic understanding of normative practices is necessary
but not sufficient, and the theorisation of normativity as such that is
not grounded in actual normative practices is, ultimately, an
intellectual (and perhaps ethical) house of cards.
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Political Change and the Moral Imagination
in Bolivia
Since 1999, Bolivia has been shaken by a series of political, economic,
social and, most important, discursive upheavals whose meanings and
implications are fraught with ambiguity. There is a conventional way of
framing developments in contemporary Bolivia, one that is – as I have
argued recently (Goodale 2006c) – more a mis-reading than anything
else. The reasons for both this ill-conceived diagnosis and the potentially
much more fruitful alternative to it illustrate certain dilemmas in the
anthropology of normativity more generally. Although I am not able to
give a full account of key developments in Bolivia’s recent past (see
Postero 2006; Goodale 2008), the following synopsis should give a sense
of what is most important for my purposes here. Between 1999 and
2005 the traditional political establishment in Bolivia – or at least the
one that had emerged after the (apparently permanent) restoration of
civilian rule in the early 1980s – was dismantled, piece by piece, partly
through its own critical misunderstanding of broader currents flowing
through the majority indigenous Bolivian body politic, but also as a
result of wider transnational discursive shifts, within which Bolivia was
merely one seismic fault line.
A succession of old-school elites from all points on the conventional
political spectrum – from Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada to Hugo Banzer
Suárez – continued with what is known in Bolivia (as elsewhere) as
neoliberalism,3which meant, among other things, the development of
business relationships with multinational corporations to take over the
management of major public utilities (like water services), a focus on
the exploitation of natural resources, in which foreign companies both
assumed control over extraction and retained a major stake in future
profits, and, perhaps most importantly, the robust embrace of human
rights discourse at all levels, which included both the codification into
national law of key international human rights instruments (like ILO
169 and CEDAW) and a seemingly bottomless receptivity to the work
of transnational NGOs, most of whom had by the late 1980s
reconceptualised their mission in terms of human rights.4At the same
time, new political and social movements were crystallising in Bolivia,
many anchored in new forms of indigeneity. The two most important
were the Movement to Socialism (MAS) party, headed by Evo Morales,
the former head of Bolivia’s coca growers union, and the Indigenous
Pachakuti Movement (MIP), under the leadership of Felipe Quispe, a
former katarista who worked to position himself to the purer left of
Morales and MAS.
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As in the past, social unrest and resistance to the status quo
apparently took the usual forms: marches through the streets of La
Paz, Cochabamba and El Alto drenched in a sea of wiphalas; blockades
of major national transportation arteries; running street battles with
police and the army (which eventually massacred almost 100 people in
El Alto in October 2003, in what quickly became known as Black
October); the pall of tear gas and the whizzing of rubber bullets; the
increasing unease of Bolivia’s powerful ally to the north, which saw the
prospects of relatively cheap natural gas imports disappearing with
each passing week; and, finally, the millenarian assertions by leaders of
the resistance that the moment had, at long last, come in which a new
day would dawn for Bolivia’s exploited indigenous majority. But, even
though the forms of protest in Bolivia between 1999 and 2005 evoked
memories of upheavals past, they ended in what is from a mere
historical perspective a startling result: the election of Evo Morales to
Bolivia’s presidency in December of 2005 in what was – given the
multiple candidates in the race – a landslide, in which middle-class
mestizos and urban Bolivians joined with the rural and peri-urban
indigenous majority to deal a crushing blow to Bolivia’s ancien régime.
Yet, even if the political, social and legal momentum in Bolivia over
the last six years has led in surprising directions, what is important
here is to remember that the forms of this momentum are understood
to be simply variations on a theme, the logical, if extreme, conclusion
to the influence of centuries of identifiable structural factors. In other
words, although extraordinary in every way, the election of Evo
Morales and the defeat of the symbols of Bolivia’s elite political
establishment have not been seen as signs of an epochal rupture or the
beginnings of an epistemic break beyond which only a completely new
reality is possible. Rather, the marches and blockades and rubber
bullets this time simply accomplished what they were always meant to
accomplish: the giving to Bolivia’s indigenous majority its world-
historical due, the shift of Bolivia’s modern trajectory on to the track
from which it had long been derailed – the track of justice and dignidad
humana. The final straw in this much longer historical process was the
series of legal, political and economic reforms instituted during the late
1980s and through much of the 1990s that were hatched under the
sign of ‘neoliberalism’. The apotheosis of neoliberalism in Bolivia was
about 1993 or 1994, the middle point of Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada’s
first government, when middle-class and urban Bolivians suddenly had
‘indigenous’ on their lips and there was a growing sense – only among
progressive intellectuals, as it turned out – that the creation of a
pluricultural Bolivia was the key to breaking free from the seemingly
unbreakable bonds that had historically kept the country from realising
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its true potential. But the creation of a multicultural Bolivia came with
its own strings attached, including those that tied the transforming
nation to transnational economic networks in both new and very old
ways. And of course there were the ever-present and rapacious
demands of Bolivia’s landed elites, many of them based in the Santa
Cruz region, who did not simply allow themselves to be swept away in
the torrent of wiphalas and calls for the redistribution of land. If
anything, they saw the decentralisation of the power to make decisions
over public monies and lands – a key pillar of Goni’s Law of Popular
Participation – as an opportunity to exercise their own human rights
(especially to acquire and increase property). So despite what were
unarguably the best of intentions by at least some segments of Goni’s
cadres of progressive government officials, journalists and supportive
academics, the reforms of the mid-1990s actually reinforced many of
those structural factors they were meant to weaken.
All of this is nothing if not eminently conventional: long existing
economic, political and social factors have worked to oppress Bolivia’s
indigenous majority, from the norte de Potosí to the forests of the Beni;
these factors have formed the foundation of modern Bolivia, even if
through the years they have taken different forms and have involved
different sets of government, corporate and social actors; these factors are
not mystifying or spiritual or abstract, but rather apprehensible through
reason, material (endemic poverty, for example) and concrete, in that
they express themselves in the form of social hierarchies, class prejudice,
racism and the highly skewed distribution of wealth throughout the
country; they are, taken together, the long-term cause of the pervasive
disenchantment among Bolivia’s indigenous populations and, more
recently, the proximate cause of the upheavals over the last six years;
and, finally, as keen observers of these types of structural factors, from
Marx to Guevara, have long said, there will come a time when the
world-historical system from which they ultimately emerge will no
longer be able to sustain them and the political-economic version of
Newton’s third law will no longer be valid – when the forces of social
change push hard enough there will not be anything to push back.
And of course there is a role for anthropology to play in tracking and
explaining these processes, since they take the form of those social facts
that are susceptible to the application of the discipline’s latter-day
version of the scientific method – ethnography; and, for those
contemporary anthropologists who vehemently reject the scientific
method and the totalising epistemology that justifies it, there is another
response: the self-referential critique that is couched in the broadest
and most amorphous of terms, so that developments in Bolivia come to
look – to the extent they are referenced or, we might say, indexed at all
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– suspiciously like developments in other parts of what James Ferguson
(2006) has recently described as the ‘neoliberal world order’. So, at
least for the orthodox, anthropologists have a choice to make: either
document and then try and understand the empirical manifestations of
underlying structural factors – in the form of resistance, counter-
resistance and even apathy – or ignore the empirical dimensions of
contemporary Bolivia altogether. The problem is that both of these –
admittedly starkly drawn – alternatives, which continue to characterise
dominant trends in the discipline, are badly miscalculated to miss both
the most important changes that are taking place in Bolivia today, and
the long-term meaning of these changes. If the sheer fact of Evo
Morales’s election, or the presence of protesters in the streets or the
cancellation of contracts with multinationals are all empirical (and
social) facts that can be observed – after a fashion – described and
explained, while the illusive values that shape these facts remain for
ever closed to ethnographic study (and thus open only to critical
theorists, philosophers and perhaps literary realists), then we must
conclude that socio-political change in contemporary Bolivia is actually
taking place between these facts and values.
By this I very much mean to imply a new way of understanding the
social ontology of actual sociocultural processes, one that is based on a
different analysis of the spaces of normative engagement through
which social actors across the range in Bolivia reclaim for themselves
the meaning of modernity itself. They do so through a radical
projection of the moral imagination, a complicated social act that has
been – as I have suggested above – misinterpreted in conventional
political and structural terms. The real action, as it were, is taking place
in the conceptual, social and normative spaces between values and
social action, between morality and political reform, between actual
norms and social facts. There is no question that earlier periods of
socio-political ferment in Bolivia have also unfolded at multiple levels.
But what is so different about contemporary developments is that the
underlying discursive framework has been so profoundly reconfigured,
in particular in the way it makes transformations in subjectivity the
ultimate basis of socio-political action. Keep in mind that for much of
the last century, a completely different set of ideas motivated social and
political actors in Bolivia by, in a sense, removing the problem of
agency from historical processes. Bolivian peasants, miners, coca
growers, rural schoolteachers, and all the other social classes for whom
fundamental change was the regular rallying cry took comfort from the
fact that their socio-political worldview put both the burden and the
potential for system transformation on factors within the system itself.
Moreover, because the potential for transformation was embedded in
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191
the national expressions of different factors within a broader world
political-economic system, oppressed social actors in Bolivia could also
take solace in the fact that these factors were impelling the system to its
logical conclusion: its disintegration and evolution into something
dramatically different, and more just.
But since the late 1980s Bolivia has undergone what I have described
elsewhere as a liberal renaissance (Goodale 2008). I very much mean to
contrast this account of contemporary Bolivia with the discourse of
neoliberalism in that I understand the rise of new indigenous parties and
their self-articulation within a conventional liberal rights framework as
evidence that Bolivia is undergoing a process of return more than
anything else – a return to its origins in liberalism mediated by law. The
liberalism vs. neoliberalism debate is perhaps tangential to my purposes
here, but both ways of explaining Bolivia’s contemporary epistemic
condition underscore several key points, all of which indicate the need for
a new way of understanding recent socio-political developments. First,
with the coming of the human rights discourse to Bolivia in the late
1980s, the historical externalising of system transformation was brought
to a grinding halt. No longer would social actors look outside themselves
for both the causes and meanings of social change. Rather, the idea of
human rights effectively internalised the impetus for change and, in a
way, circumscribed it within the boundaries of personhood itself. In other
words, the idea of human rights – as distinct from any second-order legal
or bureaucratic manifestations of this idea – makes subjectivity both the
alpha and omega of what we might describe as moral progress. What is so
peculiar from an intellectual-historical perspective is that the kind of
development of human rights consciousness that is so important to much
of the contemporary international and transnational political and social
landscape takes places one person at a time without any assumptions
about how this internal normative revolution is supposed to add up.
Another way of saying this is that the rebirth of liberalism in Bolivia is
essentially monadic in the Leibnizian sense: each person is a little mirror
of the moral universe, indivisible, complete and, to the extent to which
each person’s humanness is the source of human rights, immortal, in that
everyone is – from this perspective – an actualised expression of a more
universal human essence. This is a far cry from the competing social
ontologies in Bolivia that made the individual an essentially powerless cog
in a historically fragile machine; it was only en bloc, as social classes, as
ethnic groups or, much broader still, as ‘the oppressed’ that individual
Bolivians could be said to exercise agency. In contrast, the most recent
iteration of liberalism in Bolivia – the version that expresses itself with
perhaps the most historical force and clarity – makes the moral subject
almost hyper-agentive.
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Secondly, to understand current socio-political change in Bolivia as
unfolding first (and last) at the level of the moral imagination, and not
within those political-economic structures that had always seemed
paradoxically to both exclude and encapsulate the Bolivian modernity
at the same time, is to adopt an explanatory framework that is
startlingly non-teleological. Liberalism (or neoliberalism, for that
matter) is anchored in a set of assumptions about the moral and social
world, of course, and some of these assumptions imply movement of
some kind. For example, if human beings are, ultimately, rational
beings whose purpose is to clear away the range of social, political and
legal obstacles to the actualisation of this rationality, then ‘progress’ can
be defined as the forward movement towards this existential ideal. And
the spread of human rights discourse in places where such a vision of
the moral and political universe was either submerged (as in Bolivia) or
absent altogether can be seen as a kind of progression in the late-
modern drive to make dignity and autonomy pillars of the human
condition. But all of this is a long way from the intensely teleological
theories of history that have structured much of Bolivia’s historical self-
understanding since at least the early twentieth century. For most of
the last century, Bolivia’s contested modernity was rolling on through
that process of dialectical inevitability that provided what Rorty (2000)
has recently described as ‘social hope’ at the same time it seemed to
dehumanise the meaning of history itself.5If people had a social role to
play, it was only as understood in the longue durée, as the sum total of
clicks on the historical dial, as symbolic actors in a series of increasingly
purer epochal syntheses. The moral and discursive revolution that is
emerging in contemporary Bolivia, in contrast, has no defined end
point; it is, in Kantian terms, an end unto itself. Its purposes are realised
every time another indigenous activist invokes the idea of human
rights or speaks of the ‘essential dignity’ of Bolivia’s indigenous
populations. In a way, both the greatest potential and danger in this
new transformation of the moral imagination in Bolivia result from the
fact that it is, quite literally, going nowhere.
And, finally, the kind of alternative understanding of current socio-
political developments in Bolivia I am proposing here reinterprets the
socio-political itself. Instead of seeing social and political spheres as
prior to and determinative of the more ambiguous – and difficult to
apprehend – levels of the moral and (more broadly) normative, I want
to propose something like a categorical reversal of these relationships.
With the coming of Bolivia’s (neo)liberal epistemic moment over the
last twenty years, in which certain ideas about personhood have taken
on new, and fundamental, importance, the moral imaginary has
become the primary lens through which the meanings of socio-political
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193
change are refracted. By moral imaginary I mean those socio-cognitive
spaces in which individuals within collectivities construct their own
visions of life, what Grace Jantzen (2001) has described as ‘the habitus
of our ethical attitudes and actions’. So there is something like an order
of normative priority, as I would like to understand it, although it is not
my intention to offer a formal theory of the normative. But, just for the
sake of argument, we can understand values to be the most general set
of necessarily contested and dynamic principles from which people can
and do derive meaning. Within the symbolic anthropological literature,
the equivalent of values would be what Sherry Ortner (1973) described
as ‘summarizing key symbols’. Norms would be the first step towards
giving values some social shape, although they still exist below and
prior to the more formal institutional sphere. Ethical practices, or what
Jantzen calls ‘ethical attitudes and actions’, are norms as social practice,
and by social I mean anything beyond the internal imaginings of the
individual mind.6There are other ways of dividing the conceptual pie
and other permutations; for example, morality could be seen, within
this schema, as institutionalised ethical practices; laws would occupy
the most formal, bureaucratic end of this normativity continuum; and
so on.7But what is most important for my purposes here is the fact that
the real revolution in contemporary Bolivia is taking place somewhere
between values and ethical practices. New understandings of
citizenship, the transformative impact of human rights discourse and
what I have called elsewhere indigenous cosmopolitanism are shifting
the nature of Bolivia’s modern trajectory, and these developments must
be tracked in these ambiguous and illusive sub-political-economic
normative spaces. But how can this be done, by anthropologists or
others? And what would a project like this mean for the ‘anthropology
of moralities’?
Toward an Anthropology of Ethical Practice
In this final section I want to both draw together the different theoretical
arguments and speculate on what they might mean for a reconfigured
anthropology of moralities/normativity. I began the chapter by making
what I think is the fairly non-controversial observation that earlier
anthropology failed to develop an epistemology of the normative that
was distinct from dominant alternatives of the time, most notably those
based in law and philosophy that were anchored in deductive, non-
empirical or logical procedures. Although the sociologist Emile Durkheim
had developed several ways of integrating the empirical with the
normative, and Durkheim was obviously influential to at least some early
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and mid-twentieth-century anthropologists (particularly in France and
Great Britain), his work on social norms, law and regulation did not
inspire anthropologists in the way his other writings (most notably about
religion) did. This anthropological reluctance to consider the problems of
normativity (including morality) more robustly was related to the early
commitment to a very orthodox – and thus narrow – self-understanding
of the discipline as the science of mankind. This meant, among other
things, that the range of topics that was understood to fall within the
disciplinary rubric was circumscribed by, in the first instance, what could
be observed or derived at the empirical level. This is not to say that
anthropologists were bound by a rigid Humean empiricism or that they
engaged in debates over the accuracy of sense perceptions, but there was
a general agreement that certain aspects of the human experience were
clearly outside the empirical – even understood broadly – and therefore
beyond the anthropological pale. The normative was only accessible to
anthropologists as scientists as second-order phenomena, for example,
when underlying values were eventually codified into legal codes. And,
even here, what was accessible was not the nature or meaning of the
values as norms themselves, but rather their expression within observable
forms of legal or political practice. The later disciplinary auto-critique, in
which the scientific self-understanding was nearly problematised out of
existence, did not bring anthropology any closer to developing alternative
frameworks for apprehending and conceptualising the normative. If
anything, the possibility of developing such new approaches was made
even more unlikely, especially since much of the new critical
anthropology was devoted to destabilising just the kind of generalised
social theory – beyond the theory of critique itself – that is necessary in
order to create an alternative framework to the normative that
synthesises empirical and, say, philosophical epistemologies.
But, as we saw through the illustrative sounding from
contemporary Bolivia, the consequences of this epistemological myopia
for anthropology have been profound. And, I would argue, the
consequences have been equally profound for the more general
understanding of normativity itself, since the historical absence of
anthropology’s peculiar forms of methodological and critical
engagement from debates over legal subjectivity, human rights and
values, among others things, has negatively shaped the way these
illusive and largely non-empirical dimensions of the moral imaginary
have been (mis)understood. For example, as I have argued elsewhere
(Goodale 2006c), many scholars, especially those committed to
ethnography and other forms of empirical engagement, have largely
misread Bolivia’s emergent revolution, one that is unfolding primarily
at the level of the moral imagination. An understandable – in light of
Towards an Anthropology of Ethical Practice
195
the intellectual history – obsession with social-structural relations of
power within Bolivia and the transnational political-economic
structures in which they are embedded has meant, among other things,
that the internalised spaces of social change in contemporary Bolivia
have been ignored in favour of what is believed to be a more concrete
and fundamental, reality. Indigenous Bolivians might be thinking of
themselves in profoundly different ways, this dominant line of
reasoning goes, including as citizens of a new global community of
human rights bearers. But all of this is framed as a kind of
superstructural gloss that obscures the more basic relations of economic
and social power. What about poverty? Rates of literacy? Infant
mortality? The problem of domestic violence? These are understood as
the real sites of struggle, the real indicators of either social
transformation or inertia.
Looking forward, I would argue that a new synthesis can be envisioned
that would allow anthropology to make different kinds of contributions to
understanding the role and meaning of the normative in social life. It
brings together insights from the empirical, critical and philosophical
traditions in a way that creates new possibilities for the anthropology of
normativity, but it is really directed beyond disciplinary debates, especially
since the underlying stakes involved are so consequential for many social
actors for whom the practice of normativity goes to the heart of many
basic struggles over identity, meaning and even the sustainability of life
itself. I would describe this synthesis, or potential ordering principle, as
the anthropology of ethical practice. As I have already explained, ethical
practices are locations on a broader spectrum of normativity in which
conceptually and ontologically illusive values are given different forms of
expression in practice. These expressions could take the form of legal
processes, debates over morality, arguments about the relationship
between culture and human rights, and so on; what is most important is
that those most basic frameworks of subjectivity, values, are rendered or
actualised in a way that can be apprehended for analytical, political or
other purposes. The key problem – and point of intervention – revolves
around apprehension: if values rendered as ethical practices provide a
window into the what Jantzen and others have also described as the
‘moral imaginary’, how is one to gain access to them? What does (or
might) ‘apprehension’ mean in this context?
The first point to remember is that values without ethical practices
are, in a sense, incomplete, but so are ethical practices taken in
isolation, as a kind of fact that is susceptible to empirical study. In other
words, I am making a claim that is both ontological and methodological
at the same time. Values and ethical practices do not exist in a kind of
linear relationship; rather, they are what I shall call ‘co-instantiative’.
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They exist, that is to say, in their co-instantiation, their co-expression.
And, since values, as such, cannot be expressed except through ethical
practices, we must think of them ontologically in a way that does not
give priority to either location on the normativity spectrum. To make
the idea of co-instantiation the core of an anthropology of ethical
practice is necessarily to owe a debt to other scholars of social practice,
especially Habermas, who has articulated several similar theories of
what we might call communicative normative action. In his
monumental study of law and democracy, for example, Habermas
(1996) examines law through what he calls ‘co-original’ systems of
both knowledge and action (and public and private autonomy),
systems that, while distinct, coexist in that communicative realm in
which social categories (ideally) are given both legitimacy and
potentiality. But the co-originality thesis is too dichotomous for my
purposes here: co-instantiation is a way of theorising the relationship
between values and ethical practices that avoids having to make this
conceptual distinction without giving up the ability to make other,
more fruitful ones, for example, between the internalised nature of
individual moral identity and the social nature of morality (another
form of ethical practice).
And, finally (and more pragmatically), how would an anthropologist
translate this idea into her own professional practice? How does one –
methodologically – encounter this moment in which values and ethical
practices are co-expressed? There is obviously an important empirical
dimension to this process, one for which conventional ethnography is
happily well placed. But, since ethical practices are examined in part as
they co-instantiate values as well, how are the meaning and contours
of these values to be read through these practices? Here it is necessary
for the anthropologist to retreat, in a sense, into her own moral
imaginary, without retreating so far that she is forced to simply assert
(or deduce) the meaning and contours of the particular values. I
envision this, again, methodologically, as a kind of non-philosophical
critique or process of sustained reflection, one that is informed by
everything the anthropologist knows about the broader social context
in which normativity plays itself out. In other words, ethnography is
not nearly enough, since the kind of internalised dynamics that form
such an important part of normativity are beyond the scope of direct
perception; yet this fact should not then necessarily lead us to either
escape into various metaphysical approaches to normativity or simply
to wait for the second- and third-order empirical dimensions of it to
emerge. Rather, the anthropology of ethical practice calls for the
projection of the analytical imagination in a way that captures the
complicated in-betweenness of the values/ethical practice relationship.
Towards an Anthropology of Ethical Practice
197
In many ways, an epistemological language does not yet exist that
would allow us to describe these normative spaces with any degree of
precision. But anthropologists – like the contributors to this volume –
who are turning to problems of morality, rights and values with
renewed interest and creativity are in a good position to help build
such an analytical grammar.
Notes
1. Even though Bidney’s efforts to establish a proper – meaning informed by the
criteria of an essentially deductive contemporary philosophy – theoretical
anthropology modelled on those titans of reine Vernunft came to naught, his
willingness to abandon the need for ethnography seemed to open the
epistemological floodgates, so that a journal like Anthropology and Humanism, which
has been associated with students of Bidney like Bruce Grindal and Dennis Warren,
now features all manner of experimental writing, including poetry, some of which
has a difficult time passing for either poetry or anthropology.
2. As I have argued elsewhere (Goodale 2007), it is questionable whether the earlier
founding of Cultural Survival, Inc. (1972) by the anthropologist David Maybury-
Lewis and his wife Pia was a first sign of the realignment that was to begin about
fifteen years later. Even though CS later focused its work on behalf of indigenous
peoples through a human rights lens, its earlier organisational statements point to
other grounds for justifying action.
3. This description is not meant to be self-consciously naive, but rather to signal that
‘neoliberalism’ is actually a much more complicated problem than indicated by its
elevation into the pantheon of apparently self-evident propositions – like
Globalisation – that are too obvious now to even mention. In Bolivia, neoliberalism
is almost universally used as a simple historical marker, a way of describing a
moment in the recent Bolivian past that has either run its course – as Postero (2006)
argues – or which continues to characterise at least some aspects of post-2005
Bolivia. As I argue in this chapter, what is best understood as the discourse of
neoliberalism in Bolivia (a discourse that includes the vigorous critique of it – both
within and outside the country) obscures more than it reveals about Bolivia’s
actually existing emergent revolution.
4. There is, of course, in fact a two-step process here that I gloss over in this
description. Bolivia first ratified a series of important international human rights
instruments (ILO 169 in 1991 (the third country to do so after Norway and Mexico)
and CEDAW in 1990) and then ‘reglemented’ them by converting them into
domestic law, a process that left the frameworks more or less intact. After
reglementación, the Bolivian government went further (more steps) by creating new
ministries and vice-ministries that were charged with ensuring that the spirit of, say,
CEDAW was followed through a series of ever more specific steps, like the
establishment of legal clinics – the Servicios Legales Integrales, or SLIs – that were
meant to provide a resource for women victims of domestic violence-cum-human
rights abuses.
5. I realise that this joining of Rorty’s idea of social hope with the more utopian social
hope that was supposed to flow from the inevitability of dialectical materialism can
only be ironic, since Rorty himself would be horrified to see his ‘postmodernist
bourgeois liberalism’ associated with a social vision that would be considered
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fundamentally opposed to it. But I’m sure the great ironist would not mind this
jarring identification, especially since he has made a career of developing his many
profound insights in part by juxtaposing the idea systems of others in often
unexpected ways, often against their wills!
6. And to talk about the normative is simply a way to describe any (or all) of this
continuum between values and ethical practice.
7. As I have done even within this chapter, the moral is also a perfectly acceptable way
of describing points anywhere east of values on this spectrum.
Towards an Anthropology of Ethical Practice
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... Nevertheless, such alternative theories may not filter through to social policy, parenting classes, or professional training of teachers or social workers. Indeed, it is the institutionalization of classic developmental psychology that underpins international law and aid agencies (Burman, 2008;Goodale, 2009), including the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (Woodhead, 2009), as well as everyday forms of governance in which family members monitor their own behaviour (Burman, 2016;Rose, 1999). The critical psychologist Erica Burman (2008) thus argues that, as long as it maintains a unitary, general model of maturation, developmental psychology can only recognize difference in terms of … relative progress on a linear scale … Developmental psychology therefore functions as a tool of cultural imperialism through the reproduction of Western values and models within post-colonial societies. ...
... Here, we enter the field of value pluralism and moral relativism (Lukes, 2008), which has seen something of a resurgence of interest among anthropologists in recent years (e.g. special issue of Anthropological Theory, 2014;Csordas, 2013;Fassin, 2008;Goodale, 2009). The terms, 'values' and 'morals', are debatable but interlinked, including 'types of rights, obligations and duties, as well as morally desirable ends' (Wong, 2014: 337). ...
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