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Moral scenes & ethical subjects: theoretical becoming in the ethical turn

Wednesday 30 November 2022
Welcome with coffee & tea at 13:45. Masterclass starts at 14:00. Afterwards: borrel!
Vrije Universiteit - Amsterdam

HG -1D26 / HG -Vergaderruimte Forum 6

Registration is mandatory.


About the masterclass

For more than a decade, anthropologists have been increasingly concerned with everyday moralities and ethical self-fashioning, which is now widely known as the “ethical turn”. Armed with a more precise philosophy-inspired focus on moral personhood, experience, and subjectivity, the ethical turn is a shift from the collective to the individual and a sharp turn from the contextual to the experiential, exploring the complex modalities of ethics and morality in action. As such, this new anthropological field has been crucial in recognizing ethical practice in unlikely places and of unlikely subjects, such as mistakes, unintended consequences, or moral failure. This seminar gives a concise introduction to the key debates within this ‘anthropology of the good’: where ethics can be ‘found’ and what implications it has if we locate ethical being in one place and not in others; whether ethics must be distinguished from morality; and how ethics and politics are closely interrelated in everyday life.

Vollebergh and van Roekel will discuss their own tentative theoretical becomings that brought them to the anthropology of ethics. They use concrete field experiences and encounters to tease out how investments in (or problematizations of) particular theoretical approaches are intimately connected to the singularity of situated ethical dilemmas and shared moral strivings of interlocutors and ethnographers alike.

They will use their own open-ended theoretical journeys into ethics and morality as prompts for several in-class exercises and group discussions to explore a) moral scenes that have been central to their research topics and field sites, and b) to reflect on the normative ethical ideals and moral politics governing each field of study and on the extent to which anthropological approaches to ethics provide tools to critically open up the realm of the good and the possible.

Preparations prior to class

Please read the four texts below and bring preparatory notes to class for the following two assignments (which we will do and discuss in-class):

a. Moral scenes: ethical being in practice is often more a potentiality rather than a set of fixed rules, and prone with moral failure. Think of a moral scene related to your research process (e.g. fieldwork, writing up, presenting findings) and research relations (e.g. interlocutors, supervisors, peers) and describe it in vivid ethnographic detail. To what extent did this ‘scene’ opened up the realm of the good? How did it transform the material and social space and how did it create moral selves in practice?

b. Politics of moral intelligibility: political and governance discourses assume certain moral goods and ethical ideals (of development, citizenship, human rights, neighborliness, ecological stewardship, etc). What dominant normative political ideals shape everyday life in your research site, and what consequences does this have for how certain categories of people, places or practices are considered as im/moral? How do your own political commitments or motivations underpinning your research relate to this broader social (and perhaps academic) politics of moral intelligibility?

Required readings

Optional readings


This masterclass is part of the course Contemporary Anthropology of the Netherlands School of Anthropology. Each masterclass takes 3-4 hours and offers a combination of a lecture and a seminar.

The NESA masterclasses are for all Cultural Anthropology PhD students from Utrecht University, University of Amsterdam, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, Radboud University and Leiden University. 

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