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How far away can we move from Durkheim? — Reflections on the new anthropology of morality

During the last ten or so years, a number of anthropologists have done admirable work in an attempt to revitalize the anthropological study of morality and ethics.  According to these scholars, in the past anthropologists commonly understood the notion of morality in a broad sense covering all major aspects of social life; consequently, the anthropological study of morality became so generalized or generic that it was never regarded as a subfield in its own right.  Stretching the notion of morality too thin and too wide originated with Durkheim’s idea of morality as the codified representation of society (see Laidlaw 2002 for the most convincing analysis).  It follows that in order to make morality the object of truly anthropological inquiry, one must first move away from the very broad Durkheimian notion of morality and then develop an approach to examining the moral aspects of social life with greater specificity.  To do so, the following questions need to be asked: What is it that constitutes the moral? How should one define and distinguish morality and ethics? What can anthropology contribute to the study of morality and how can an anthropology of morality, both theoretically and methodologically, be established in its own right (see Laidlaw 2002; Robbins 2004, 2007; and many authors respectively in Howell 1997, Heintz 2009, and Lambek 2010a)?  It seems to me that objectifying/specifying the anthropology of morality and moving away from Durkheim are viewed by many as inseparable parts of the same endeavor in the emerging anthropology of morality and ethics.

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Emile Durkheim

In the following pages I will first review the published works of Jarrett Zigon that are representative of the new anthropology of morality in a number of ways.  Intriguingly, despite his efforts to downplay the Durkheimian emphasis on the social, in his latest book Zigon has changed some of his early positions and reveals some prevailing and dominant influences of the social on the making of the moral self.  This, however, should not be too surprising because by nature the moral is social; Durkheim is surely correct about that.  In the second part of this essay, I turn to a long-overlooked area in the anthropological study of morality, that is, immoral behavior or immorality, to argue that the social nature of morality is best manifested through incidents of immorality, or “moments of moral breakdown” to borrow Zigon’s phrase.  As immorality is rarely examined by anthropologists, let alone explored in ethnographic depth, I will briefly introduce cases of immorality in contemporary Chinese society and discuss their social implications, especially their negative impacts on the social, which has been widely regarded among ordinary people as the root cause of a moral crisis.  This leads me to wonder to what extent the new anthropology of morality can actually move away from Durkheim, and, implicitly, to what extent there is a Durkheimian obstacle.  Might there be yet other obstacles that we need to overcome in order to develop a well-grounded anthropology of morality?  For example, Michael Lambek suggests that the new anthropology of morality should avoid both the British Durkheimian route and the American Boasian route (2010b: 12-13).

From a “Range of Possibilities” to a Dominant Global Value System

I choose Jarrett Zigon as the straw man, so to speak, because he stands out not only as one of the most provocative and inspirational anthropologists in the new campaign of studying morality anthropologically, but also as one of the most radical advocates of moving away from the Durkheimian tradition.  From the outset, he is quite clear and firm about the Durkheimian problematique in his call for a phenomenological anthropology of morality: “Therefore, in replacing Kant’s moral law with society, Durkheim also negated morality as a particular topic of study for those who follow his assumption that morality is congruent with society (or, culture).  For when morality is equated with society (or, culture), it is quite difficult, if not impossible, to analytically separate a moral realm for study” (2007: 132).  Zigon restates the necessity and importance of overcoming this Durkheimian obstacle to anthropological studies of morality, replacing it with a theory in which the self is “worked on” in situations of moral breakdown and through processes of ethical striving (2007: 134; 2009).

Zigon strongly opposes the common practice of viewing morality as a totalizing and unifying system of coded norms and rules of social behavior; instead, he finds morality existing in three major forms, that is, institutional morality, public discourse on morality, and embodied dispositions.  The former two, both articulating the moral beliefs, conceptions, and hopes of the individual, also constitute what Zigon refers to as a discursive morality.  The latter exists at the individual level like one’s habitus or one’s unreflective and unreflexive way of being in the world.  The various combinations of all three forms, argues Zigon, constitute the multiple moralities in a local moral world. Overall, morality “does not consist of principles and rules, but instead is a bodily way of being in the world that is continually shaped and reshaped as one assumes a new and different life, that is, social experiences” (Zigon 2008: 17).  Ethics, by contrast, is a kind of stepping-away from the embodied dispositions that leads a person to critically reflect, to think of her moral way of being in the world, and to find a way to appropriately return to her unconscious moral mode of being, that is, her morality as an embodied disposition.  This process of ethical thinking involves one’s freedom and agency and leads to the working of one’s moral self.  As such, moments of ethical thinking help to create new moral selves, either significantly or slightly, and indirectly reshape public discourse and discursive moralities at the level of institutions through individual ethical work.  But such ethical moments only occur when some people or events intrude into the everyday life of a person and force the person to come up with appropriate ethical responses; this is what Zigon calls “moral breakdown.”  In other words, moral breakdown begets ethical movement and motivates a person to reflect ethically and to work on the moral self, which in turn regenerates the person’s moral world at all three levels of morality.  Moral breakdowns, therefore, provide anthropologists with the best starting point to study morality and ethics (Zigon 2007, 2008, 2009).

In order to overcome the limitations of the Durkheimian obstacle, argues Zigon, the new anthropology of morality should also delink the judgments of social actors and social actions in terms of good vs. bad or right vs. wrong because these overarching notions are derived from a totalizing notion of the social, or an almost deified notion of society.  To illustrate this point with ethnographic evidence from his life-history research in contemporary Russia, Zigon notes with reference to one of his informants: “Larisa’s view shows that what I call morality need not be morality in the traditional sense of good and bad or right and wrong.  Rather, it might be more appropriate to say that morality can at times simply be the way in which persons and institutions are able to existentially be in the social world comfortably” (2009: 271). A return to the level of embodied dispositions, after ethical thinking and discourse triggered by the intrusion of a moral breakdown, is a way to become morally comfortable with one’s local world and is an indicator of the accomplishment of one’s ethical work on the self.

Another important point in Zigon’s theory of moral breakdown is the multiplicity of discursive moralities from which one can freely choose in order to reflect upon a given moral breakdown and to overcome the ethical dilemma about a return to the comfortable and unconscious level of embodied morality.  For instance, in his study of the ethical dilemma of truth-telling vs. lying, Zigon finds Olya and Larisa, his two key informants, self-questioning, negotiating, and picking and choosing in different ways from among a number of existing discursive moralities and their various sub-versions.  Zigon concludes: “There is no dominant value that persons feel compelled to follow; but rather there is a range of possibilities for morally and ethically acting” (2009: 273).  Between the two, Olya finds it difficult to lie because she in the ethical process of cultivating new embodied dispositions that enable her to treat her workplace and her private life as two different domains with different ethics, whereas Larisa can move back and forth between the two domains and easily use lying for her best interests because she has already cultivated the necessary ethical sensibilities and embodied dispositions.  In Larisa’s successful case, choosing ethical values in accordance with varying personal needs under different situations is similar to choosing goods in a supermarket.  In the model of supermarket shopping, there is indeed no need to lock the individual with the social, and morality indeed loses its totalizing and unifying effects on the individual social actors.

Zigon’s new book, “HIV Is God’s Blessing”: Rehabilitating Morality in Neoliberal Russia (2011), offers a rich and engaging ethnography of the remaking of the moral self in a Church-run rehabilitation program.  In this book, Zigon continues to develop his theory of moral breakdowns, but, to this reader, he also signals some interesting changes.   The book is divided into two parts.  In Part I, Zigon first reviews the world’s fastest growing HIV and drug-use epidemic in contemporary Russian society and introduces the rehabilitation program run by the Russian Orthodox Church near St. Petersburg where he carried out his ethnographic field research.  Zigon devotes considerable space to exploring the discursive moralities of the Russian Orthodox Church, human rights groups, and the state during the Soviet and current periods, nicely laying a foundation for the “range of possibilities” in ethical work and pointing out that an emphasis on self-transformation through ethical work is also shared by Orthodox morality, state morality, and various models of secular therapeutic treatment. In one chapter Zigon reiterates his theory of moral breakdown and ethical work, adding an analytic distinction between the self and the person.  According to Zigon, the self should be viewed as an embodied capacity to intentionally and dialogically engage the social world, whereas the person is the socially recognized outcome of this engagement process.  This distinction is important to Zigon’s research because it shows that the Church-run rehabilitation program is essentially a process of making new moral persons by way of ethical work on the self (2011: 63).

Part II of the book features a vivid and rich ethnography of interpersonal and intersubjective flows of words, gestures, and social actions among Church leaders, program workers, therapists, and drug addicts, as well as the deep reflections of these individuals when they face moral breakdowns.  These are all trademarks of Zigon’s masterful work.  He starts with the Church’s effort to convert the rehabilitants, which is also the original goal of the program, and then he moves on to explore the notion of “living a normal life,” i.e., the shared ideal among ordinary Russians and the rehabilitants in the Church-run facility.  Zigon discovers that the dominant notion of a normal life in contemporary Russia is basically defined by the consumerist ideology of the Western middle class and is expressed effectively through the neoliberal delineation of self-governance, responsibility, efficiency, and material comfort.  In its effort to be modern and collaborative with the Russian state, the Orthodox Church accepts this prevailing notion of normal life as the life goal of a moral person.  As a result, while aiming at remaking the moral person in accordance with Orthodox morality, the Church-run rehabilitation center ends up producing neoliberal subjects/citizens for the Russian state and the global market.  This is done, as Zigon convincingly shows through rich ethnographic accounts, by well-designed training and therapeutic programs to help the rehabilitants learn, cultivate, practice, and embody the ethical sensibilities of responsibility and self-discipline as well as the techniques to construct a normal sociality with other people in the larger society.

As Zigon clearly states at various points in the book, his intention is to examine the moral experiences of the individual rehabilitants in this particular Church-run facility as a process of remaking the moral person; then, in light of his theory of moral breakdown, nearly all aspects of the moral experiences of these individuals can be viewed as examples of ethical work on the self.  In this volume Zigon seems to have changed his positions in several areas.

First, the focus of analysis has shifted from individual experiences to techniques of shaping and remaking the self, especially by institutions and institutional moralities—in this case most obviously the Orthodox Church and neoliberal state polity.  Although Zigon provides rich ethnographic descriptions of the reflective and reflexive rehabilitants, unlike his early works where the individuals reflect within dialogues primarily with the moral self, in this new book the informants mostly reflect and react within the context of their engagements with the Orthodox Church, the Church-run facility, their networks of family and friends in the city, and the highly institutionalized notion of a normal life.  When I finished reading the book, what impressed me most was how the institutional powers of the Church, the state, and the therapeutic programs shape and remake the rehabilitants into a new kind of moral person, instead of how these rehabilitants proactively engage in ethical work to cultivate their new selves as they wish.  In other words, the agentive side of the individual, which is highlighted in Zigon’s other publications (2007, 2008, 2009), is much less obvious in his latest work.

Second, while continuing his early theoretical argument concerning a “range of possibilities” in ethical work on the self, Zigon emphasizes the idea of multiple moralities and ethics as an assemblage, intending to show how the particular assemblage of globalizing neoliberalism and the historical influences of Orthodox and Soviet ethics interact with each other and shape the Church-run rehabilitation center and its work to remake the rehabilitants into new moral persons.  What Zigon discovers, however, is that the Church-run program intentionally supports the biopolitics of neoliberalism, which ironically is what the Church claims to be the root cause of the moral problems that the Church has set out to overcome.  In line with the anthropological critique of the global expansion of neoliberalism by other scholars, Zigon concludes that the two centrally important values of neoliberal biopolitics in Russia, namely, individual responsibility and the ethical practice of self-governance, are also centrally important to contemporary Russian Orthodox moral theology and practice (2011: 14).  Under the dominant influence of these neoliberal values, the Church-run rehabilitation program eventually becomes a space of “inclusion-exclusion par excellence for the subjectivization of modern, neoliberal subjects” (2011: 225).  At the individual level, Zigon’s informants also felt the pressures of such a neoliberal regime of biopower because it is widely accepted in the larger society as the only way to live a normal or sane life.  Here we clearly see the inner hierarchy of the assemblage of moralities and ethics in which neoliberal values dominate all others.  This is quite different from Zigon’s earlier argument that there are no dominant values that a person is compelled to follow in her ethical work on the moral self, but rather only a range of possibilities from which to choose (Zigon 2009).

Although Zigon remains highly critical of the dominant influence of the globalizing neoliberal morality, his admirably detailed ethnography reveals that ordinary Russians are not.  Instead, most Russian embrace the values of “working hard, playing hard,” self-discipline and responsibility, and material comforts, so much so that even the Orthodox Church has had to back down from its morality and strategically adopt these values in order to conduct the ethical work on the rehabilitants; hence, the ironic result of producing neoliberal subjects/citizens.  As the chapters on sociality, normal life, and discipline show, all the hard work done by various individuals at the rehabilitation center is solely for the purpose of returning the rehabilitants to society so that they and their families can live normal lives.  This society, as Zigon points out on a number of occasions, is “contemporary neoliberal Russia” (2011: 13).  Putting all of these pieces together, one sees a powerful neoliberal Russian society projecting its own image onto its institutions and people, with neoliberal values playing a more or less totalizing role in the making of the moral self.  As a result, the morality of neoliberal Russia becomes the morality of Russian individuals; the social (now neoliberal) subsumes the moral, and the two become one.

Does this mean that Zigon has changed his theoretical position and has modified his theory of moral breakdown?  Obviously this is not the case.  He not only reiterates his theory in an independent chapter of the book but also engages in lengthy discussions about the importance of a moral/ethical assemblage, a concept elaborating on his early notion of a “range of possibilities.”  What happened, I suspect, is the triumph of ethnography.  Clearly Zigon has carried out well-grounded and thorough field work and he respects the ethnographic truth, including facts not fitting his theoretical framework, that could only emerge through his excellent field work.  These two key ingredients – his outstanding anthropological work and his masterful narrative skills – make Zigon’s 2011 book such a powerful story that its rich content cannot be contained by his own theory.  As a result, the social, which to a certain extent is not much different from the Durkheimian understanding, simply emerges out of personal accounts, reflections, life histories, and ethnographic anecdotes.  In several places (2007, 2009), Zigon criticizes other anthropologists of morality for unknowingly falling back into the Durkheimian trap; the same can be said of Zigon himself in relation to his new book.  But I do not regard this as an especially acute observation.  I prefer to see the “unintended” surfacing of a more or less totalizing morality and the patterns of reproducing the social through morality in Zigon’s new book as a sign of the impossibility of eliminating Durkheim from our study of morality.

Actually-Existing Immorality and Its Social Implications

Reading Zigon’s new book in relation to his earlier publications also led me to wonder whether the so-called Durkheimian obstacle to the development of an anthropology of morality is an overstatement and whether the underdevelopment of an anthropology of morality may be related to other obstacles or root-causes.  For example, immorality has rarely been studied by anthropologists, and we can hardly attribute this omission to Durkheim since the study of social anomie is an integral part of his social theory.  Let me elaborate so that we can continue to assess whether Durkheim stands in our way of developing an anthropology of morality.

Morality is like air that is so important and so bodily embedded in our existence that we normally do not feel its existence until something goes wrong.  In our field work, without special probing efforts, moral issues usually pop up when immorality attracts attention, particularly during times of radical social change (Robbins 2004).  This is how I understand Zigon’s argument when he insists that a theory of moral breakdown is the best way to revitalize the anthropology of morality.  But he stops short of the issue of immorality and focuses his attention on moral breakdown caused by conflicting moralities.  But he definitely is not alone. Most anthropological studies of morality tend to concentrate on the good: the moral principles and behavioral norms that require people to be good, the good people who strive to be moral, and individual efforts to be good by doing what is right (for example, Ellen Oxfeld’s study of a moral community in rural China, which is reviewed by Charles Stafford in this issue).  What constitutes the good and right may vary from one society to another, but the focus of anthropological studies of morality on the good and right remains constant. A noteworthy exception is Colin M. Turnbull’s 1972 book, which remains a lonely and controversial example that few wish to follow.

In the limited studies that examine the morally bad and wrong, the focus is typically on the immorality of government agencies, the state, or certain institutions, such as witchcraft or simply global capitalism.  If people, especially ordinary people, are found to be doing wrong or immoral things, it is normally the case of their entrapment in an immoral system; the anthropological critique ultimately returns to the immorality of the state or institutions. Or, as Oxfeld argues, although moral discourse is often generated from moral breaches, the discourse in turn shows that people do care, after all, about moral principles.  Therefore, the widespread fear of moral crisis or decay in China that we have often heard about from both scholars and ordinary people might be out of proportion, if not entirely mistaken (see Oxfeld 2010).

This makes me wonder: (1) does immorality exist among ordinary people?  And (2) if it does exist, why do so few anthropologists wish to study it?  The second question cannot be properly answered until we squarely face and answer the first question. My answer to the first question is a clear “yes” and I can cite two cases from my own research in China to show that immorality does actually exist.

In my view, immorality can be defined as an intentional violation of the prevailing ethical values in a society and/or purposeful damage to other people’s interests.   The extent to which a violation of ethical values is immoral sometimes depends on the larger social context and it is often contestable because of the existence of multiple systems of ethical values in our rapidly changing society.  Deliberate harm to other people’s interests through coaxing, cheating, extortion, and abuse of power, however, is widely and invariably viewed as immoral throughout the world.  Such morally disturbing behavior exceeds the bottom line of morality and often causes public outrage and panic, sometime leading to a public perception of a moral crisis, as shown in the two kinds of extreme immorality that I describe below.

The first is what I have called extortion of the Good Samaritan. In a typical case, a Good Samaritan tries to help a stranger in distress, such as an old lady who has fallen down on the street, but then the helper is accused by that very person of having caused the initial damage, e.g. of having caused her to be struck down in the first place.  The latter then extorts the former for monetary compensation.  Cases of extortion of Good Samaritans have been regularly reported in the Chinese media since the late 1990s, creating a public fear of helping strangers as well as a widespread social distrust of strangers.  This in turn has led to ethical reflections about the meaning of helping strangers and also the possibility of being a Good Samaritan.  In two well-known cases, the judges found the Good Samaritans guilty as charged on the grounds that in contemporary Chinese society no one would help a stranger in distress unless she or he had caused the initial harm, which is precisely the argument made by the extortionists.  The most striking finding in my research is that out of the 26 cases that I examined, 23 extortionists were senior citizens and 20 were women. I then explore the question of what makes these otherwise ordinary grandpas and grandmas extort those who help them. But here I simply want to point out that otherwise good and ordinary people may behave in immoral ways (for details, see Yan 2009).

A second kind of immorality involves the production and circulation of tainted foods.  There are four types of tainted foods in these cases: (1) adulterated foods; (2) foods with poisonous additives; (3) foods that use pesticides as preservatives; and (4) fake foods made out of water and chemicals.  A common feature of these four types of tainted foods is their deliberate contamination by food producers, food processors, or food sellers.  The majority of those involved in the contamination are poor ordinary people operating small-scale food factories or shops, and their products, which generally are less expensive, are mainly sold to people at the lower levels of society.  It should be noted, however, that from time to time large companies and even governmental regulatory agencies are also involved in the production of poisonous foods, as in the 2008 case of tainted milk powder in China.  The large-scale and institutionalized production of poisonous foods typically produced the worst kind of public panic and moral breakdown, as I examine elsewhere (see Yan 2011).

For example, in 2004 several companies producing Longkou cellophane noodles in Yantai, Shandong province, were found to be making the noodles from cornstarch rather than green beans.  To make these cornstarch noodles as transparent and chewy as those noodles made from green beans, the companies added sodium formaldehyde sulfoxylate, a toxic industrial bleach, and lead-based whiteners to the cornstarch noodles.  One of the best-known and long-lasting poisonous foods is pork containing clenbuterol, a drug originally developed to help patients with breathing disorders, which stimulates the central nervous system and increases the metabolism rate.  Once used in excessively large amounts in pig feed, clenbuterol can reduce the amount of fat in pigs; in the past there were experiments with clenbuterol as a pig-feed additive in the United States. But the practice was banned in the United States and other Western countries in the 1980s due to its harmful effects on humans.  However, in the 1990s clenbuterol was introduced in China as a pig-feed additive to increase the production of lean meat, which was then sold in the market under the Chinese name shouroujing, meaning “lean meat powders.” The first case of food poisoning from clenbuterol-contaminated pork was reported in Guangzhou in 1998, followed by a string of similar cases elsewhere.  In 2001 alone, more than 1,100 people in Beijing, Guangzhou, and Hangzhou were victims of tainted pork, leading the Chinese government to take clenbuterol off the list of accepted food additives and to ban its use in animal feed.  However, clenbuterol-contaminated food has continued to be found in the market, with recent cases reported in late 2009 and early 2011.

The deliberate production and distribution of poisonous foods is only one of the causes of the widespread food-safety problems in China and, statistically, they have only caused a small portion of the food-poisoning cases, as I note elsewhere (2012). Poisonous foods represent just one of three levels of food-safety problems  in China.  Yet, sociologically, poisonous foods are the major cause of public panic, social distrust of strangers, and moral breakdown at the societal level because this kind of immorality exceeds the basic levels of morality that are commonly recognized and upheld throughout the world (see Yan 2012).

Unlike an ethical dilemma at the individual level, the extortion by Good Samaritans and cases of deliberate tainting of food reflect a moral breakdown at the national level in China and have led to waves of public discourse on what has gone wrong in society and why people behave immorally toward others.  Taking a closer look at the public discourse, the source of panic and fear is the breakdown of basic moral principles, such as reciprocity (at least the reciprocal gesture of not attacking a person who just helped you) or basic public trust (that food producers or distributors will not deliberately poison you).  Without such basic moral principles and social norms, social life becomes impossible, a simple fact that leads us back to Durkheim – and to a question.

Even though Durkheim did not exclude immorality from his social theory, anthropologists have generally avoided studying immorality.  So much so that the existence of immorality among ordinary people has become a taboo topic in the field.  Why?  In his 2008 book, Zigon presents K.E. Read’s twofold explanation of why anthropologists fail to explicitly study local moralities in the non-Western world.  On the one hand, according to Read, the strong critique of evolutionary theory in socio-cultural anthropology and the influence of cultural relativism have rendered the study of local moralities in non-Western society largely off-limits.  On the other hand, morality tends to be viewed as highly subjective and thus an inappropriate object of study in a field that is based on the model of modern science (see Zigon 2008: 4).  Zigon also explores the constraining influence of cultural relativism on the anthropological study of morality.  Among other things, to the extent that they are moral relativists anthropologists would probably first question the legitimacy of studying other people’s immoral behavior, or perhaps would rather believe that the people they study (e.g., “the people in MY village”) are good and therefore avert their eyes when the ethnographic reality proves different.  Anthropologists are also bound, in some cases, by their own professional ethics; writing about the immoral behavior of the people we study may put them at risk. In one way or another, these concerns may have constituted a mechanism of self-censorship that has prevented anthropologists from studying immorality and perhaps some other forbidden aspects of morality and ethics in a local moral world.  If this is the case, there is no way we can attribute this obstacle to Durkheim.

Concluding Remarks

Simply put, the moral cannot be defined without the social because morality, like culture, must be learned and shared among a group of people.  Morality does not exist in an isolated individual.  By the same token, immorality is basically a violation of the social, and this is why it causes not only a moral breakdown but also, in some cases, a publicly-perceived crisis.

Admittedly, as modern societies have become increasingly mobile, open, pluralistic, and individualized, the power of a totalizing morality is declining rapidly; consequently, it is not uncommon that several value systems may compete with one another within a society (for an excellent ethnographic study of this, see Robbins 2004).  Therefore, when an individual’s choice of moral values does not fit the relatively dominant value system, a contestation is likely to occur, and more often than not the defiant individual will be regarded as different rather than immoral.

At another level, however, and regardless of all the social changes and diversities, deliberate harm to other people’s interests, or even lives, through coaxing, cheating, extortion, or abuse of power is still widely viewed as immoral.  To a certain extent, the modernization process has expanded the scope of immorality at this level to the deliberate harm of strangers in both close proximity and remote places, including on the other side of the globe, whereas in most traditional societies strangers are highly suspect or simply potential enemies and thus do not deserve moral treatment.  In this sense, certain basic principles in modern societies define immorality as well as morality, and the social remains the most important reference point in these definitions of immorality.

One of the recent trends in the anthropology of morality, however, seems to separate the moral from the social by focusing on the subjectivity of the individual, especially how the individual exercises her agency and freedom to work on herself, not in accordance with a set of ethical principles or norms, to create an ethics of her own so that she can live comfortably in her own world, as shown in Zigon’s work (2008; 2009).  As indicated in the first part of this essay, Zigon deliberately downplays the importance of the social because he wants the new anthropology of morality to move away from the influence of Durkheim and from the conventional way of studying morality in terms of good vs. bad, or right vs. wrong.  To a certain extent, the wish to move away from the Durkheimian understanding of morality, as I indicated at the onset of this essay, is shared by most of the pioneers in the newly emerging anthropology of morality.

Yet even Zigon cannot avoid the influence of the Durkheimian notion of morality, as I have shown above, because the moral is indeed inseparable from the social.  My own study of immorality in China, while demonstrating the centrality of the social in the study of morality from another perspective, also reveals that there may be many obstacles to the development of an anthropology of morality, including, among others, self-censorship out of concerns of political correctness.  It follows that the negative role of the Durkheimian obstacle may be misleadingly overstated.  A more careful and better-balanced assessment of the Durkheimian legacy and its contemporary implications is in order.  In this connection, I could not agree more with Joel Robbins when he declares: “I want to strongly resist having to throw out the Durkheimian baby with the bathwater of too rigid models of cultural reproduction as the price to be paid for securing an anthropological concept of freedom” (2007: 295).



I am grateful to Charles Stafford for his insightful comments on an early draft.  Some of my ideas were formed during various discussions with Jarrett Zigon and Jason Throop (mostly by email), to whom I also owe special thanks.  The remaining errors and possibly bias in this essay are of course entirely mine.


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