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The world today faces a crisis of responsibility. We have no idea how to assign responsibility for the meltdown of 2008 or the noxious air and water with which many of the world’s denizens must still live. Nor do we know how to make our own grandees—bankers, oligarchs, CEOs, political leaders—effectively accountable at all. Impersonal and increasingly automated regulative processes—bureaucracy, auditing, financial software and the like—deepen confusion still further by eliminating human subjects as carriers of responsibility.
Our workshop explores the deep social roots of this crisis through a comparative investigation of different cultural orders of responsibility. Bringing social anthropologists into conversation with philosophers and other social scientists, we will examine how different social orders—hierarchical, individualist, egalitarian—distribute responsibility, allocate social duties, and hold their members to account. How do the different ways of placing persons within a society relate to the different cultural allocation of responsibility? How do different norms of personhood and relatedness shape conceptions of social obligation and prescribe means of discharging it? What happens to structures of responsibility when regimes of valuation shift or radically transform? And how do the different orders of responsibility relate to the asymmetries of power and privilege, and the ways these are normatively conceived?
Hierarchy offers an instructive contrast to the Euro-American case, since it allocates responsibility with a clarity lacking in egalitarian schemes. What lessons might egalitarians draw from hierarchical modes of allocating responsibility? And in what ways do hierarchical arrangements already resemble the egalitarian, in ways an egalitarian normative sense may fail to appreciate or even recognize? What can we learn from alternative egalitarian and individualist schemes? And finally, how do these reflections help us to square the notion of individual, equally distributed responsibility with the de facto asymmetries of resources, status and power, and the stated requirements of accountability?
This workshop challenges the ‘flattening’ of the social terrain both in popular imagination and in social theory, which relies increasingly on individualist tropes like ‘agency’ and socially horizontal, mechanistic models like ‘networks’ or ‘reciprocity’. In doing this, we hope to bring into sharper focus the rapidly globalizing egalitarian normativity, whose implications are as political as they are intellectual.
Supported by the Centre for Research in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences (CRASSH) at the University of Cambridge, the Economic & Social Research Council (ESRC), the European Research Council (ERC) and The Leverhulme Trust
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DAY 1: Friday 13 May
Registration from 09.00
Chair: Joel Robbins (Cambridge)
Anastasia Piliavsky (Cambridge) Hierarchy as responsible life
Hallvard Lillehammer (Birkbeck) What do I owe? Moral responsibility and circumstantial luck
Chair: Beverley Skeggs (Goldsmiths)
Rupert Stasch (Cambridge) The Political Complexity of Egalitarianism: A New Guinea Example
David Gellner (Oxford) Ghosts of hierarchies past: Disasters, inequality, and blame in Nepal
Chair: James Laidlaw (Cambridge)
Vita Peacock (UCL) From Verantwortung to vendetta: on obligation and its absence in Europe
Beverley Skeggs (Goldsmiths) Allocating responsibility without resources: Pathological performance on reality TV
Chair: Caroline Humphrey (Cambridge)
Harri Englund (Cambridge) Liberalism and ethnography
James Laidlaw (Cambridge) Responsibility and the self: beyond holism and individualism
Chair: André Iteanu (CNRS)
DAY 2: Saturday 14 May
Chair: Anastasia Piliavsky (Cambridge)
Nick Evans (Cambridge) The Caliph who cannot be wrong: How an infallible hierarchy demands loose accountability
Ward Keeler (U of Austin, Texas) Taking responsibility vs. being accountable: What people expect of their politicians
Chair: Bruce Kapferer (CNRS)
Caroline Humphrey (Cambridge) The ‘Chamber of Fairness’ and Russia's system of social estates
Guido Sprenger (Heidelberg) Spirits and systems: The shape of hierarchies and the distribution of responsibility in Southeast Asia and ‘Western modernity’
Chair: Harri Englund (UCL)
Joel Robbins (Cambridge) What are the prospects for a responsible egalitarianism? Melanesian configurations of value, responsibility and shame
Ayçe Zarakol (Cambridge) Hierarchies in world politics
Chair: Ward Keeler (U of Texas Austin)
David Sneath (Cambridge) Anthropology, Hierarchy and the Evaporation of Aristocracy
Harri Siikala (University of Virginia) Hierarchy, egalitarianism, and chiefly authority in Samoa
Chair: Vita Peacock (UCL)
André Iteanu (CNRS) The confusion of private and public violence
Hierarchy as responsible life
Anastasia Piliavsky (Cambridge)
One of the chief misapprehensions of hierarchy in contemporary social science is the idea that hierarchy is a ‘top-down’ structure of power where the capacity to command or influence others is the prerogative of grandees. Drawing on my ethnography of North Indian politics, I argue that as a normative logic hierarchy is an order of responsibility – a set of expectations about who owes what to whom – and that, as such, it also works bottom-up. It entitles people in subordinate positions to hold superiors responsible for doing things for them. The idea that exerts normative leverage here is, very simply, that social standing and responsibility are directly related. The higher you stand, the greater is your responsibility. The grandees’ responsibility is greater not only in degree but also in kind: they are responsible both for and to their subordinates. Closer home, it is this responsibility for others which we find so difficult to locate socially and which we end up relegating to all kinds of impersonal processes and institutions.
What do I owe? Moral responsibility and circumstantial luck
Hallvard Lillehammer (Birkbeck)
I shall discuss two issues that are often treated as separate in philosophical discussions of moral responsibility. The first is that there is something distinctively problematic about the attribution of responsibility for aspects of our situation beyond our control. The second is that there are situations in which exercising responsibility involves actively responding to the acute vulnerability or risk involved to significant others. The aim of discussing these two issues together is to interrogate some of the assumptions made in discussions of how to sensibly attribute and allocate responsibility in the context of contemporary ills involving misfortune or disaster affecting others, where the misfortune or disaster in question is not (or not primarily) of our own making. I place these issues in the context of debates about ethical individualism and cosmopolitan values.
The Political Complexity of Egalitarianism: A New Guinea Example
Rupert Stasch (Cambridge)
In “Equality as a Value” (1994), Robbins addressed issues of cultural variation in definitions of what equality and inequality are and what to do about them. Picking up from Robbins’ exploration of Melanesian ethnography in particular, I suggest that the egalitarianism of Korowai of Indonesian Papua consists not of an absence of inequality but of exceptional sensitivity to its omnipresence. Robbins focused on exchange as a practice whereby Melanesians locate responsibility for a livable egalitarian existence in relationships rather than in individuals or in state legal institutions. I trace Korowai patterns of decentralized responsibility for equality of outcome in positive exchange practices, but also paradoxically in negative, highly inegalitarian acts such as theft and killing. I then explore how these internal fissures of egalitarianism are visible in new patterns of interface with Indonesian national society. Despite a strong heritage in their internal social relations of being “against the state” in Clastres’ sense, Korowai today are not only rejecting exogenous hierarchical institutions (along the lines of Scott’s The Art of Not being Governed), but also have actively embraced and amplified state power. For example, they make frequent overtures of self-lowering toward distant new political “heads.” I analyze violent repudiation and self-abasing overture as different methods for trying to have an egalitarian life, which both underscore the germinal prominence of hierarchy in the very fabric of egalitarian politics.
Ghosts of hierarchies past: Disasters, inequality, and blame in Nepal
David N. Gellner (Oxford)
2015 was the worst year in the recent history of Nepal. First there were two earthquakes and over 400 aftershocks in which nearly 9,000 people died. Then, starting in August, and continuing to the end of the year, protests by Tharus and Madheshis in the Tarai plains in the south of the country against the new constitution (as exclusionary and discriminatory) were met by government repression. Fifty-four people have died so far and there is untold suffering and economic damage (worse, it is claimed, than the earthquake), as essential supplies are blockaded at the border and schools and businesses are closed. Blame, recrimination, hierarchy, and aspirations to equality are all in play. Even the earthquake, it was quickly apparent, could not be treated merely as an act of God or nature: suffering was distributed by class, ethnicity (including caste), distance from the capital, and even gender. Attributions of blame are all-pervasive. Nepali politics cannot be understood without a simultaneous appreciation (a) of the hierarchies of the past, and the multiple ways in which they are still powerful in the present, and (b) of the aspirations to equality and fairness (including reparations for past injustices) that animate many today. Analytically, the task is to encompass both the enormous (though patchy) outpouring of spontaneous altruism following the earthquake and, on the other hand, the limits to empathy and imagination when contemplating the sufferings and viewpoints of others during the ongoing political conflict.
From Verantwortung to vendetta: on obligation and its absence in Europe
Vita Peacock (UCL)
One assumption which has saturated political thought in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries has been that the problem of social happiness and ill is simply a one of social organization. By substituting capitalism for communism, socialism for anarchism, hierarchy for egalitarianism and so on and so forth, we will achieve the social harmony always just out of reach. But what if we re-frame the question? What if the problem and the solution are not ways of organizing people but something else which transverses them: namely, the shape and scope of social obligation? We could call this responsibility. We could call it accountability, loyalty or duty. By comparing two long-term ethnographic studies - of the Max Planck Society in Germany and of Anonymous in Britain - I explore what happens when responsibilities are performed and when they are abnegated. In both it is apparent that it is social organization which continually claims the credit - or gets the blame - for something else which is both simpler and more complex.
Liberalism and Ethnography
Harri Englund (Cambridge)
Moral and political philosophy hardly comes flatter than in the conventional claim of liberalism that we are all equal. No wonder that whenever anthropologists deploy ‘liberal’ or ‘late liberal’ (not to mention ‘neoliberal’) in their descriptions of the world, they do so out of a critical impulse. ‘Liberal’, David Graeber has affirmed, is a term that many anthropologists cannot pronounce ‘without a snort of contempt’ (2004: 98). But where does that leave the anthropologist when quintessential liberal values, such as free speech, engage his or her interlocutors and demand, therefore, ethnographic elucidation? Is the answer to stay loyal to the critical impulse and to expose those values as chimera? Or is it, rather, to stay loyal to ethnography and to allow it to open out new questions to be asked? This paper explores the various ways in which the value of free speech informs talk radio in Malawi, Zambia and Finland. Unexpected insights into hierarchy emerge, both as a condition of free speech and as a source of values it serves. Ethnography appears here as the anthropologist’s equivalent of the ‘acts of excavation’ by which the intellectual historian becomes ‘equipped with a broader sense of possibility’ (Skinner 1998: 117).
Allocating responsibility without resources: Pathological performance on reality TV
Beverley Skeggs (Goldsmiths)
Theories and studies of govermentality assume that the incitements offered are taken up eg self-responsibility, self-care, self-discipline. However a whole genre of entertainment (reality TV) is produced to reveal and persuade those who do not willingly curate themselves accordingly to do so. Due to the demise of traditional sources of authority the public performance of a person's value has become critical for their legitimacy. This legitimacy is crucial for accessing and receiving state services such as welfare, law and medicine, as well as access to other resources, including public space. Yet being able to perform one's value in public is dependent upon access to not just forms of capital but the>episteme that underpins their practice.Traditional theories of recognition assume a link between visibility and democracy. Yet being made an object of spectacular pathology via public media delegitimises claims for personhood. However, although reality TV is replete with these incited performances of pathology, our ESRC research with audiences of reality TV found that incitements to the elements of governmentality were differently resisted depending upon one's position in circuits of person value.
Responsibility and the self: beyond holism and individualism
James Laidlaw (Cambridge)
This paper considers the ways in which processes of allocation of responsibility are constitutive of recognised agents, which may be more heterogeneous than individuals on the one hand or hierarchical 'social wholes' on the other. Accounts of social change will require a more varied repertoire of agents, if we are to improve, for instance, on simplistic narratives of a singular recent (neoliberal) trend towards the individualisation of responsibility.
The Caliph who cannot be wrong: How an infallible hierarchy demands loose accountability
Nicholas Evans (Cambridge)
This paper is a response to the idea, found in the conference organiser’s abstract, that hierarchy ‘allocates responsibility with a clarity lacking in egalitarian schemes’. I draw upon ethnography of the religious bureaucracy of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community in Qadian, Indian Punjab, which is composed of a loosely connected set of hierarchies. The more peripheral of these hierarchies tend to be somewhat flexible in their structure. By contrast, the central hierarchical systems of the bureaucracy act directly beneath the community’s leader, a Caliph who lives in exile in London. The Caliph himself is said to be infallible, while the systems that support his work are understood to be divine in inspiration. These are hierarchies with fixed and inflexible relationships between functionaries, and maintaining this state of affairs requires constant work, which mainly takes the form of complex negotiations of responsibility. Interestingly, the greater the effort expended upon maintaining a fixed hierarchy, the more ambiguous accountability becomes at an individual level. Indeed, to maintain the infallibility of the Caliph requires that, for all other members of the bureaucracy, accountability as an aspect of personhood should be indistinct, hazy, and lacking in clarity. The question this paper thus raises is whether long-term consistent accountability at a personal level is somehow incompatible with the discursive effort required to sustain certain kinds of hierarchical formation.
Taking responsibility vs. being accountable: What people expect of their politicians
Ward Keeler (U of Texas, Austin)
I will consider what expectations people bring to the political field when they ask, as most of the people I know in Southeast Asia (Indonesia and Burma) do, that their politicians “take responsibility” for their welfare, or when, as most Americans I know do, they insist that politicians be “personally accountable.” Much of the contrast turns on hierarchical vs. egalitarian assumptions, inasmuch as the former suggest that relations of dependency are obvious and valuable, whereas the latter suggest that “representation” is fundamental. Both positions are riven with contradictions, and the contradictions follow in patterned ways from contrasting ideas about what binds people to each other in any polity. Yet the individualist ethic that enjoys discursive dominance in American circles makes the whole notion of politics particularly thorny in that society, as the current silly season of a presidential campaign makes clear.
The ‘Chamber of Fairness’ and Russia's system of social estates
Caroline Humphrey (Cambridge)
In recent years Chambers of Fairness (Palata Spravedlivosti) have been set up in Russian cities to cope with complaints. One organiser said he was sure that over 90% of the questions would concern claims against the state (pensions, subsidies, unfair legal decisions, etc.). The Chamber’s work would consist of redirecting these ‘according to competence’, i.e. to the relevant organs of power. Russian critics argue that the need for Chambers of Fairness arises because, after some wobbles in the 1990s, the centuries old system of social estates (soslovie) has been re-established. In this system there is no inviolable property and there are no citizens as understood in the West - there are only members of estates (e.g. officials and deputies, police, army, pensioners, state-paid teachers and doctors, a myriad of bureaucratic departments, Cossacks, or Orthodox priests), the prey of the estates (businesses) and a substantial number of diverse avoiders and ‘renouncers’ of the state. Established in a rough ranking according to the value attributed to their function, the estates are legally credited with different ‘due-ness’ with regard to the pie (of state resources), their liabilities, and their right to appropriate resources from other, lower estates (in the form of kickbacks – otkat - received over and above payment for services performed). The numerous estates of the army and security services do well in this system. The responsibility of estates is to perform the duties expected of them by Russians at large and fairness consists of each receiving their expected due and not appropriating wildly more. Thus there is no corruption in Russia, Simon Kordonskii argues, since the populace accepts hierarchy and differential rights, and it places higher value on fairness than on equality before the law. In the pre-Revolutionary Tsarist version of this system, the estates were hereditary, which invites comparison with ‘castes’ in India; but Kordonskii argues that the Russian case is sui generis. It cannot be changed by reform from above, but only by its own slow movements. Since the present mood is to revive imperial greatness and the current version of the future takes the form of ‘a better version of the past’, no bouleversement can be expected soon.
What are the prospects for a responsible egalitarianism? Melanesian configurations of value, responsibility and shame
Joel Robbins (Cambridge)
This paper takes off from recent work linking hierarchy with the clear assignment of responsibility and egalitarianism with its absence, as well as from other current studies from a number of world regions that have argued that people positively value hierarchy precisely for its ability to create responsible relationships of obligation. Against the background of this recent work, I revisit by now mostly abandoned debates over the possibility of defining many of the societies of Melanesia as egalitarian. Drawing on recent work in philosophy on the related distinctions between institutional and personal egalitarianism, on the one hand, and distributive and relational egalitarianism on the other, I suggest that if we think of many Melanesian societies as valuing personal and relational equality, then we can define them as egalitarian in a meaningful sense. But what does this egalitarianism mean for their handling of responsibility? Does responsibility play little clear role of their social life? I argue that the converse is true – in some sense, in these kinds of egalitarian societies responsibility is spread very widely and its dictates rigorously enforced. I support this claim by examining complex Melanesian notions of shame and exploring both their links to egalitarian values and the ways they articulate dense networks of responsibility in virtually all fields of social interaction.
Hierarchies in world politics
Ayçe Zarakol (Cambridge)
In this paper I argue that hierarchy-centered approaches to IR promise to deliver what anarchy-centered approaches have not: a framework for theorizing and empirically analyzing world politics as a global system—rather than just an international one. At the core of this proposition are three features of hierarchical systems as they are represented across the growing IR literature on the topic. First, the structures of differentiation at the core of hierarchical systems are deeply implicated with power. Hierarchical systems are thus intrinsically political. Second, in world politics, hierarchies stratify, rank, and organize the relations not only among states but also among other kinds of actors as well, and often even a mix of different actors within a single structure of differentiation. Third, there are many different kinds of hierarchical relations in world politics, each of which generate different ‘logics’ influencing social, moral, and behavioral outcomes. This essay illustrates the promise of hierarchy-centered approaches through review and analysis of key IR scholarship. We show, first, that hierarchy has been understood in the IR literature in two ways: narrowly, i.e. as a relationship of legitimate authority; and broadly, i.e. as intersubjective manifestations of organized inequality. The scholarship also reveals that hierarchy operates in a variety of different ways that range from ordering solutions to deep structures. We identify three such ‘logics’ that have been fruitfully explored in IR scholarship and that can form the basis of a future research agenda: hierarchy as an institutionalized functional bargain between actors (a logic of trade-offs); hierarchy as differentiated social and political roles shaping behavior (a logic of positionality); and hierarchy as a productive political space or structure (a logic of productivity). In doing so, we also show how hierarchy promises a more integrated theoretical framework for IR from which will follow more cohesive analytical and empirical insights into contemporary world politics.
Spirits and systems: The shape of hierarchies and the distribution of responsibility in Southeast Asia and ‘Western modernity’
Guido Sprenger (Heidelberg)
While “Western-modern” societies are supposed to feature an individualist and egalitarian ideology, Southeast Asian societies are often portrayed as oriented towards hierarchies. Delegation of responsibility occurs in both of them, albeit in different ways. One form common in Southeast Asia is to delegate responsibility for some dysfunctional behavior or state to beings temporarily overtaking one’s personhood, e.g. spirits. Western-modern society, on the other hand, provides the option to delegate responsibility to hierarchical, functional wholes – the “system”, the “society”, the “market” etc. The difference in delegation types indicates a shift in the concept of personhood. In cases of spirit possession, this logic becomes quite clear. There is a perceived difference between what a person would deliberately do and what she actually did. Accounting for this produces a “spirit” whose personhood thus emerges from the difference. The form person, as Luhrmann argued, is dependent on what it is not – a potential of non-personhood that might possibly move into personhood. In spirit attacks or possession, this potential might turn into its own, separate person when realized. In modernity, however, often-abstract notions of “system” etc. are endowed with agency in order to delegate responsibility. This begs the question in how far such systems themselves approach personhood and which rules for the production of personhood might be shared in both the modern and the Southeast Asian context. Both cases involve the opportunity to selectively acknowledge hierarchy or deny it. However, the relative abstraction, the demonstrated non-personhood of “systems” in modernity might stem from a denial of interpersonal hierarchies.
Anthropology, Hierarchy and the Evaporation of Aristocracy
Anthropological notions of hierarchy and egalitarianism reflect the historical displacement of the aristocratic order of the ancien regime by the commercial and industrial elites of Europe and the Americas. Emerging as it did in the era of colonial expansion, anthropology specialised in the theorization of ‘primitive society.’ For much of the twentieth century the discipline was preoccupied with theories of kinship and exchange rooted in the evolutionist thought of the previous century in which primitive cultures were organized by the principles of kinship and were less hierarchical than state societies. Anthropologists rarely analysed their objects of study in terms of aristocracy since the term was associated with the later stages of the evolution and suggested exploitative class relations. As Weiner (1992) noted, the notion of reciprocity, derived from the practices of emerging mercantile elites of early-modern Europe, dominated anthropological analysis at the expense of considering older aristocratic forms of agonistic exchange and, we might add, relations of obligation. A re-examination of classic texts reveals the importance of aristocracy and hierarchy, even in iconic accounts of ‘egalitarian society’ such as Evans-Pritchard’s study of the Nuer. This provides an opportunity to reflect upon the impact of colonial egalitarianism on anthropological accounts that tended to take features of the elite as characteristic of general social wholes, and to discover points of comparison between colonial and colonized elites by making use of a common analytical strategy. We see a number of comparabilities between contemporary post-aristocratic societies around the world: even after the demise of this form of hierarchy as a political system, its imprint remains in public culture, shaping aspirations, value systems and notions of the good life.
Hierarchy, egalitarianism, and chiefly authority in Samoa
Harri Siikala (University of Virginia)
In anthropological literature on Samoa the contrast between hierarchy and egalitarianism, or between holism and individualism, is frequently brought up in two contexts. These oppositions articulate a tension between two modes of authority in contemporary Samoan politics: traditional councils of chiefly titleholders who preside over village affairs and matters of extended families, and the legal-rational system of modern parliamentary democracy. The two systems entail sometimes radically opposed notions of responsibility. The juxtaposition of hierarchy to some other contrasting system of value has been central to debates about the nature of traditional chiefly authority in Samoa. In comparative historical context, Samoan politico-ceremonial structure has often been seen as anomalous or a deviation from a common Polynesian pattern. It has been described as populist rather than kingly, democratic or elective rather than stratified or prescriptive, loosely integrated and flexible rather than centralized and stable. Yet others have insisted that the traditional system was unified and bestowed god-like status on highest chiefs. These opposing positions are given a historical context by more recent research that has taken into account pre-contact transformations of Samoan culture, which allegedly resulted in a levelling of social rank as the older notion of sacred chiefs merged with a more egalitarian notion of a household head. Hierarchy and individualism are even claimed by some researches to represent two dissonant psychological schemas within Samoan culture. To the extent that stable hierarchy can be identified with what Roy Wagner called ‘collectivizing symbolization’, since it involves an encompassing or a totalising ideology, and individualistic social mobility with differentiating symbolization, since it involves flexible self-making rather than set relations between statuses or values, the tension between the two articulates a tension between structure and individual agency. One way to deal with this tension is to separate the messy and the mundane from the clear articulation of value, to separate power and status. But hierarchy as a performative structure also entails differentiation just as individualistic egalitarianism may entail a kind of collectivising that diffuses responsibility. In my paper I will use these controversies to examine how we might rethink the opposition between hierarchy and egalitarianism, and the concomitant notions of responsibility, in a way that neither cordons off power from status, nor falls back on narrow notions of agency or loose structures to account for a seeming discrepancy between practice and structure.
The confusion of private and public violence
André Iteanu (CNRS)
Although certain societies are reputedly holistic (India) or relational (Melanesia) – i.e. they value society as a whole or relations, above the individual, seen as a closed autonomous unit, they do not exclusively impute responsibility to social groups. On the contrary, both individuals and groups are, alternatively or at once, held responsible, in a complex and subtle arrangement, that never turns into a contradiction. To show this, my paper will firstly explore legal practices among the Kallar of southern India and secondly, some procedures of violence and gift among the Orokaiva of Papua New Guinea. To conclude this section, I will further argue that comparable complexities are at work in many individualistic societies that are faced with new social phenomena associated to what we call globalization. The case I have in mind is that of the tragic terrorist attacks that have recently multiplied around the world. In France, blame was at once imputed, in these circumstances, to both the individual young people who lead the attacks and also to certain social configurations, like the new Caliphate, reputed to have brainwashed them. However, these two competing imputations are considered as partly contradictory and therefore pose an ethical problem that was absent from the Indian and Melanesian cases. Finally, in a second section, I will claim that only individualistic societies that have adopted a totalitarian ideology lay charges exclusively on social groups, and not on individuals. I will illustrate this assertion drawing on a case from the French Revolution and extend it with allusions to the German Nazi regime and to the Marxist concept of alienation. In conclusion, I will contrast the notion of the group used in the totalitarian configurations with that known in Melanesia or India and show that in the former cases the distinction between the individual and the group were merged into a compound that mixes private and public violence, or to put it in Arendt’s terms, a compound created when political power abolishes the distinction between public and private.