13 May 2016 - 14 May 2016 All day CRASSH (SG1&2), Alison Richard Building, 7 West Road, CB3 9DT


Booking for this event has now closed.


Anastasia Piliavsky (University of Cambridge)
Joel Robbins (University of Cambridge)
Vita Peacock (University College London)




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

Accommodation for speakers selected through the call for papers and non-paper giving delegates

We are unable to arrange or book accommodation; however, the following websites may be of help:

Visit Cambridge
Cambridge Rooms
University of Cambridge accommodation webpage

Administrative assistance: events@crassh.cam.ac.uk


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


Coffee break


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


Coffee break


Chair: Caroline Humphrey (Cambridge)

Harri Englund (Cambridge) Liberalism and ethnography

James Laidlaw (Cambridge) Responsibility and the self: beyond holism and individualism


Coffee break


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


Coffee break


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


Coffee break


Chair: Vita Peacock (UCL)

André Iteanu (CNRS) The confusion of private and public violence

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Tel: +44 1223 766886
Email enquiries@crassh.cam.ac.uk