Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Reflections on the Nancy Scheper-Hughes vs. Roy d'Andrade debate

Nancy Scheper-Hughes in action (Photo: Viviane Moos)
by Gideon Lasco, MD, MSc

One can feel the disgust of Roy d’Andrade in his denunciation of the seepage of a “moral model” in anthropology, especially in the wake of Scheper-Hughes’s Conrad-ian battlecry. It it as if he were a churchgoer made to be feel guilty of not making a donation - or a pedestrian made to feel bad at not giving alms to the homeless when all the others are giving five-dollar bills. “I’m still a good person!” he protests.

In this short response, I will focus my critique on d’Andrade’s usage of “morality”, his simplistic view of what critical anthropologists have been doing all along, and his failure to offer an alternative.

The world is a moral terrain and navigating it doesn’t necessarily make you a “moralist”. d’Andrade’s critique of “oppression-as-badness” conflates “moralizing” with simply seeing things as they are. Oppression is “bad”, but its badness can be incidental to its existence. “Since when is evil exempt from human reality?” as Scheper-Hughes counters.

Moreover, as ethnographers have demonstrated time and again, writing about “oppression” or “suffering” do not generate a “negative view” of the world that d’Andrade fears, but actually, a more textured view of power: there is resistance, contestation, struggle, and unexpected trajectories. Here, d’Andrade forgets that the very strength of anthropology is its microscopic view, its power to animate the ‘field’ but showing its complexity.

More glaring is his carte blanche denunciation of these “moral models” without providing any kind of viable alternative. His piece would have been more powerful had he followed a “show, not tell” approach, that is, by using ethnography to argue for his points, and in doing so, provide a model for the “value free”, “objective” anthropology that he has nostalgia for (here, Scheper-Hughes scores more points). Neither does he reflect on how we can arrive at “empirically demonstrable truths.” Then as now, a thoughtful consideration of what “interpretation” means in anthropology would have been most welcome. But in failing to offer a credible alternative, he himself is guilty of his critique of having  a “model [that] is almost entirely negative in character.”

In fairness to d’Andrade, I think he is warranted in his concern in an "unreflexive assumption that one is a member of an elect that by natural grace knows what is right, and this elect consists of those who hold the current moral model.” A priori assumptions based on clear agendas can definitely diminish the power of anthropology, not just methodologically but in the way people will receive our work. Which is why, in short, neither can I subscribe to Scheper-Hughes view at the opposite pole of this debate.

My stand is to see ethnography not just only a methodology, but also an episteme of my morality/politics as an anthropologist. By simply discovering and then illuminating “what is at stake” for our informants (Kleinman, 1997), I believe that we can preserve our “moral authority” (d’Andrade) but at the same time fulfill our “ethical obligation” (Scheper-Hughes). Let me end, however, with the caveat that given the immanence of politics in the production of knowledge (i.e. in selecting topics for research), this is easier said than done.

St. Louis, Missouri
April 2015

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