1994, 3rd Biennial Conference, Oslo

Perspectives on Moralities, Knowledge and Power

At the meeting of the Executive Committee on 6 March, 1993, this theme was adopted for the Third EASA Conference, which is to take place in Oslo on June 24-27, 1994. The Organising Committee consists of Signe Howell (Oslo), Marit Melhuus (Oslo), Ornulf Gulbrandsen (Bergen), Joao de Pina-Cabral (Lisbon), John Davis (Oxford) and Jean-Claude Galey (Paris). An explanation of the theme and an outline of the plans for the conference follow. (Ed.)

Preliminary notice The topic is chosen in order to encourage debate on the empirical study of different moral discourses and how these are related to social practices, indigenous concepts of human nature (male and female), cosmology, and the nature of good and evil. Loosely, we suggest moralities to be understood as fields of ethical presuppositions, informing and creating rather than just maintaining values and social relations. Thus, moralities can be analyzed as combining the imperative and the meaningful; the inevitable and the intentional.

While “morality” or “ethics” are words not commonly found in anthropological texts, it could be argued, with Evans-Pritchard, that what we do – one way or the other – is to study societies as “moral systems”; as moral universes of meaning. Different fields of activity (domestic, economic, political, religious, ethnic), however, may exist within any one society, each with their own moral expectations and dynamics of power. Contradictory and ambiguous meanings and values thus co-exist in many instances perhaps giving rise to tension and conflict. The proposed focus on moralities could provide novel theoretical and interpretative challenges.

How is ethical knowledge grounded? Which social domains most profoundly articulate moral values and which are most affected? Who defines and who enforces what is right and wrong? What constitutes an ethical breach? What is the force of the ought, and how are the various discourses legitimated?

These are some of the questions that may be addressed.

Issues of modernity and social change can constitute major challenges to the plurality of moralities. We witness an increasing global integration - technologically, economically, and culturally with an accompanying export of ideas concerning Human Rights. How does this affect the sanctity of cultural relativism? In the face of an asserted dissolution of moral values and the process of "de-traditionalisation”, what can we as anthropologists contribute to the debates?

The third EASA conference committee invites anthropologists to reflect on these eternal perplexities with the specific aim of eliciting the interpretative usefulness of the perspectives of moralities. knowledge, and power.