Beyond the suffering subject: toward an anthropology of the good



In the 1980s, anthropology set aside a focus on societies defined as radically ‘other’ to the anthropologists' own. There was little consensus at the time, however, about who might replace the other as the primary object of anthropological attention. In important respects, I argue, its replacement has been the suffering subject. Tracing this change, I consider how it addressed key problems of the anthropology of the other, but I also suggest that some strengths of earlier work – particularly some of its unique critical capacities – were lost in the transition. The conclusion considers how recent trends in anthropology might coalesce in a further shift, this one toward an anthropology of the good capable of recovering some of the critical force of an earlier anthropology without taking on its weaknesses.

Once, in the late 1980s, when I was early on in my graduate studies, I heard the well-known psychological anthropologist Ted Schwartz speak. Among other things he said, he observed that when he talked to psychologists about anthropology, he found that they had no difficulty grasping the cross-cultural point, but that it was almost impossible for them to understand the cultural one. He meant, I think, that it was easy for him to communicate to psychologists that many aspects of human life and thought differ from culture to culture, but that it was hard to sell them on the anthropological claim that those cultural differences are very deep, that they touch on fundamental aspects of human existence, and that even at such very deep levels the role of culture in explaining the various ways human beings live is a profound one. In this essay, I see myself as covering ground similar to that which Ted Schwartz mapped out with that comment twenty-five years ago. I too want to talk about the importance of the cultural point, and about the difficulty of getting it across. But my task is different from his in one respect – for I think it is no longer just psychologists who find the cultural point hard to fathom, but many anthropologists too. In this essay I want to explain how I think we anthropologists have lost hold of the cultural point and the critical potential of the notion of difference that it once allowed us to realize in our work, and I want to consider some disparate trends in cultural anthropology at present that taken together might allow us to regain our grip on it.

As a way in to my main topic, I want to recall an argument of Max Weber's. In his classic essay on objectivity, one of Weber's key points is that, regardless of the position one takes on the possibility of separating empirical observations from value judgements in the course of social-scientific analysis, one has to acknowledge that the choices social scientists make about what to study in the first place, and the way they define clear objects of study out of the ever-shifting reality of social life, are always driven by the values they hold to be most important. Most of the time, Weber says, we are unaware that values play this role in directing our attention and defining what we see as available for study. Instead, we focus simply on collecting and analysing our data in the usual ways and, as he puts it, ‘discontinue assessing the value of the individual facts in terms of their relationship to ultimate value-ideas’ (1949: 112). But occasionally, Weber continues,

there comes a moment when the atmosphere changes. The significance of the unreflectively utilized viewpoints becomes uncertain and the road is lost in the twilight. The light of the great cultural problems moves on. Then science too prepares to change its standpoint and its analytical apparatus and to view the streams of events from the heights of thought.

And it is from these heights that we are aware that it is the light our values shine down on the world that allows us to catch a meaningful glimpse of it at all (Weber 1949: 112).

My primary claim in this essay is that the light of the great cultural problems by which anthropology views the world moved on in this way in the last two decades and that there is some evidence that it might be preparing to move on again now. The shift that first took on momentum during the 1990s began with an earlier move away from a focus on the study of societies defined both as ‘other’ to the anthropologists' own and often as in some respects ‘primitive’. While the twilight of the anthropology of the other qua other was widely acknowledged by the end of the 1980s, there was at that point still a notable lack of self-conscious consensus about who might replace this figure as the primary object of anthropological attention. I argue here that from the early 1990s onward to an important extent it has been the suffering subject who has come to occupy its spot. The subject living in pain, in poverty, or under conditions of violence or oppression now very often stands at the centre of anthropological work. I want to trace here the rise of this new focus and show how neatly it solves some of the problems that anthropologists came to feel marked their work on the other. Yet I will also argue that some of the strengths of work focused on the other – particularly some of its unique critical capacities that were grounded in its grasp of the cultural point – were lost in the transition. Addressing this loss, in conclusion I consider how some diverse recent trends in anthropology focused on such topics as value, morality, well-being, imagination, empathy, care, the gift, hope, time, and change might in the future coalesce in another shift of anthropological attention, this one toward an anthropology of the good capable of recovering some of the distinctive critical force of an earlier anthropology without taking on many of its weaknesses. This is a lot of terrain to cover, and I will have to move over it quickly, but I hope that even so the journey might prove at least suggestive.1

From the savage to the suffering slot

In 1991, Michel-Rolph Trouillot published an essay entitled ‘Anthropology and the savage slot: the poetics and politics of otherness’ (cited here as Trouillot 2003). Although the essay is complex, it is not hard to read it on one level as making a fairly simple observation: anthropology has from its start been stuck studying the savage, the primitive, and the radically other, and it needs to break out of this confining slot quickly if it is to survive into the future. The impact of the piece was almost immediate. So quickly was the key phrase of its title on everyone's lips, in fact, that one had to suspect that its appearance was one of those cases of the owl of Minerva taking flight at dusk: the savage slot had surely already become all but uninhabitable some time before Trouillot gave us a language by which to talk about its collapsed condition.

Why, we might ask, was the slot already in near ruins even before Trouillot wrote? By way of an answer, we could point to the fact that throughout the 1980s a number of anthropologists and interested scholars from other fields began to subject anthropology to vigorous critique around its tendency to focus on the other, to misrepresent ‘the other’, and to deny others their own voice in anthropological writing. This was the era of Johannes Fabian's Time and the other (1983), with its critique of the way ethnographic writing denies the coeval nature of fieldwork and casts others out of the present; of James Clifford's (1983) critique of the way anthropologists manipulate their representations of others to construct their own ethnographic authority; and of Clifford and George Marcus's Writing culture (1986), which challenged the ability of anthropologists to say anything of empirical value about others at all. These voices were amplified as they joined the chorus of more general trends in the social sciences and humanities – trends inspired by Foucault and Said, among others – that came together in the new field of cultural studies. Scholars who embraced this field or its guiding ideas held that all claims about the otherness of persons or groups helped to foster their domination and exploitation. Soon, ‘to other’ became a verb, and one that kept company with other verbs like ‘to oppress’, ‘to marginalize’, ‘to racialize’, and ‘to discriminate against’. It was critical waves of this sort that had already begun to batter the walls of the savage slot by the time Trouillot wrote his essay.

Yet it is important to recognize that Trouillot does not see himself as standing with these critics of anthropology. He thinks they overestimate the contribution of their critical arguments to the passing of the savage slot. Moving beyond internal criticisms of anthropological practice, he suggests that the upheaval going on within anthropology needs to be understood in relation to broader cultural developments outside of it. ‘Our starting point’ in examining the fall of the savage, he argues, ‘cannot be “a crisis in anthropology” [citing Clifford 1986: 3], but the histories of the world’ (2003: 26). Trouillot argues that there are two histories of the world that are particularly relevant in this regard. One is the history by which ‘the differences between Western and non-Western societies’ had by the 1980s become ‘blurrier than ever before’ (2003: 9, see 24, 25). This is an ‘empirical’ history of the vanishing savage, and one that when Trouillot wrote was beginning to be taken up both in historical anthropology and in the anthropology of globalization. The second history Trouillot examines traces how the savage slot came to exist as a slot in the first place, and how the ‘geography of imagination’ which created it had begun to shift under anthropology's feet. In Trouillot's telling, this is a conceptual or symbolic history, a history of how the West became the West, and of how in the course of doing so it created the savage as both its antithesis and sometimes its promise. The changes anthropology was experiencing in the late 1980s, he argues, were rooted in transformations in this broader symbolic organization that defines the West and the savage, transformations by which the narratives of development and progress that had driven Western history were beginning to lose their power to organize our understanding of the world. It is only by recognizing these broad cultural changes and coming to understand how the symbolic field that gave birth to their discipline is changing, Trouillot argues, that anthropologists can find a productive way forward.

I have spent so much time on Trouillot because I think he was the first critical anthropologist to take us to the mountaintop – to the heights from which we could recognize that the passing of the savage was occurring not because, or at least not only because, we anthropologists were making progress in self-understanding or moral rectitude, but because the light of the great cultural problems was moving on. From the heights of his argument, we could see that the savage, the other, was now left in darkness (or should we say, back in darkness?) because it no longer answered to our own culture's most pressing concerns.

What was unclear in 1991 was where the light might settle next. Trouillot did not answer this question. Nor did other critical or reflexive anthropologists answer it either, for they were perhaps paradoxically too caught up in arguing against the anthropology of the other to move effectively beyond it. And maybe it was not for anthropologists to decide where the light should come to rest in any case – for the light belongs, remember, to the great cultural problems themselves, not to the anthropologists who answer their call. So, like the proverbial drunk searching for his or her lost keys under the streetlight because that is where it is brightest, we were destined to let the light settle on its own and then move to the spot it illuminated. And it settled, I want to argue, far from the old patch of the savage and the other, and on a new one occupied by the figure of humanity united in its shared vulnerability to suffering. Over the last twenty years or so, that is to say, it has often been the suffering subject who has replaced the savage one as a privileged object of our attention.

I have some confidence that this shift to what we might call the suffering slot has been a real one because my own anthropological coming of age in the 1990s was very much caught up in it. At the end of 1990, I left to carry out doctoral fieldwork among the Urapmin, a group of approximately 390 people living in the West Sepik province of Papua New Guinea. Swidden horticulturalists who are remote even by PNG standards and who barely participate in the cash economy, the Urapmin look very much like the kind of people who would fit snugly into the savage slot. Yet the fit is not perfect. Since 1977, the Urapmin have been very devoted and active charismatic Christians. Theirs is the kind of Christianity in which all believers can hope to receive gifts of the Holy Spirit such as those that allow one to speak in tongues, heal, and prophesy. It is also a very demonstrative form of Christianity that insists on its relevance to all domains of life, both public and private. It is therefore hard as an ethnographer to ignore the religion of charismatic Christians if one happens to live amongst them, and that is as true of the Urapmin as it is of other charismatics anywhere else in the world today.

So in the field I studied the Urapmin as Christians, and I came back from PNG early in 1993, after Trouillot's article had already been published. What makes my experience relevant to my present argument is the way audiences responded to the accounts I gave of Urapmin Christianity. Such a response was not on the surface of things easy to predict. On the one hand, the Urapmin did not work as savages, at least for anthropologists, because they were Christian2 – though, given the disappearance of the savage slot, for many younger anthropologists this was perhaps a point in their favour. But on the other hand, there was as yet no anthropology of Christianity into which they might be fit so as to tell us something about the global spread of this world religion. So how did people assimilate the Urapmin when I first began to present my work on them in the mid-1990s?

In order to answer this question, I should explain that there are a few features of Urapmin Christianity that I had to mention in every paper I delivered. They provide the basic background people needed to grasp any other data I might present or argument I might make. One such feature was the story of how all but the few previously converted Urapmin became Christian in 1977 when a charismatic Christian revival that was moving across Papua New Guinea was brought to their community by several local families who had been caught up in it while studying at a bush bible college elsewhere in their region. Almost immediately upon the arrival of these local emissaries of the revival, people in Urapmin began to become possessed, or, as they put it, ‘kicked’, by the Holy Spirit. They felt hot and came to understand that the Christian God really exists and that they were sinners who needed to convert to Christianity. Within a year, all Urapmin had had such possession experiences, or had watched others they were close to have them, and all of them converted. They quickly came to see themselves as an entirely Christian community. In response to what they took to be the dictates of their new faith, they tore down the cult houses and ‘threw out’ the ancestral bones that had been at the centre of what they came to call the religion of their ancestors, they abandoned the taboos that had once shaped most facets of their daily lives, and they built churches and began to pray regularly in their gardens and houses as well. Achieving salvation in what they understood to be Christian terms became their primary individual and collective project.

Another fundamental feature of Urapmin Christianity is the way it defines salvation as almost wholly dependent on moral self-regulation. People need to avoid sin as much as possible and to atone through confession and ritual cleansing for sins they do commit. The Christian moral code the Urapmin have adopted is a difficult one that not only forbids acts such as physical violence, theft, and adultery, but also interdicts all intense desires and strong emotions such as anger, which is never morally justified in any circumstances, and jealousy. Given this moral emphasis on emotional regulation, it is fitting that most Urapmin constantly monitor their hearts – the seat of all thought and feeling – and keep careful track of all of their moral breaches.

This constant self-monitoring is supported by a final key feature of Urapmin Christianity: its strong conviction that Jesus could return at any moment, and that people therefore have always to be morally ready for his arrival. To be caught in a state of sin when Jesus returns, or with sins one has not confessed and cleansed oneself of, would mean being left behind on earth as many of the people with whom one lives and who constitute one's family are taken to heaven. Urapmin remind each other every day, in church and out, that because no one knows the day or the hour of Jesus' second coming (Matt. 24:36), people need to control their sinful natures and the stakes for succeeding in this endeavour could not be higher. Speaking this message is what they call ‘strengthening each other's belief’. Through this strengthening discourse, they create a world in which everyone is aware that he or she does not want to be the kind of person the returned Jesus looks at and says, as the Urapmin sometimes put it, ‘No, not you’.

Perhaps I can provide a quick sense of what this kind of Christianity looks like in practice by telling you very briefly about two men I lived near during my fieldwork and came to know quite well. Timi3 was a man in early middle age. He was widely regarded as a hard worker and was well liked. He had four young children and was very involved in the church. Timi approached the Christian injunction against anger with great earnestness. His father, who had died only a few years before I arrived, had been a big man – a great leader. And being bright, skilled, and hard-working himself, Timi, who inherited his father's considerable relational network, might well have replaced him. But like a number of Urapmin men during the Christian era, Timi had forgone the chance to become a leader because he feared that taking on such a role would ‘ruin his Christian life’ by requiring him to get angry with those who ignored his importunings and then to act on his anger by ‘pushing’ them to do his will, a further sin of interactional violence. So Timi opted to lead a fairly quiet life, tending primarily to his family affairs and stepping up in public mostly to contribute to strengthening the belief of others by presenting moral jeremiads in church or public meetings.

I've already said enough about Timi, I hope, to make it clear that Urapmin Christianity profoundly shapes the way he leads his life. But this point was driven home to me even more forcefully one morning when he came to my house visibly agitated. He told me he had been up most of the night worried sick that he would be going to hell and would be separated from his family. He had even gone to the church in the middle of the night to pray. No one had ever mentioned doing such a thing before. In a community with no electric light, in which sorcerers are abroad at night, and in which people consequently mostly stay inside once the sun goes down, people would be more likely simply to pray in their houses when they woke up at night worried about the state of their souls. But this time, Timi felt this would not be enough – he needed to be in church. What had him worried, he explained, is that sometimes he simply could not help but feel angry at his children, all under age 11, when they did not mind him. On occasion, particularly recently, he even resorted to the standard Urapmin punishment of painfully twisting their ears. Given these lapses into anger and violence, he doubted he had much chance of being saved when Jesus returned, and this would mean separation from his family for eternity.

In my experience, Timi was not always so distraught, but our conversation that day gave me some sense about how easily moral watchfulness can become moral torment for many Urapmin. The plight of another man, Tankangnok, taught me that the feeling that one is a moral failure destined never to see heaven can even become something verging on a permanent condition. In 1990, Tankangnok was one of the oldest people in the community and still, even in his late seventies, a strong and vigorous man. He had already grown into a fierce warrior by the time the Urapmin were colonized and pacified in the late 1940s. Though he was, like all Urapmin, a devoted Christian, he had never been possessed by the Holy Spirit. On his reckoning this meant God did not consider him saved. The reason for this, he was sure, was that he had been such an angry and violent man in the past. Nothing he could do, he worried, would cleanse him of the sins he had committed in his youth or of the aggressiveness that was in his nature. Everyone who knew Tankangnok was well aware of his worries, for he expressed them regularly. People tried to comfort him by pointing out that the Spirit gave people many different kinds of gifts, not just those that took the form of possession. He had had dreams, hadn't he? These could be gifts of the Spirit, they suggested, proving his salvation. But on this issue Tankangnok was fundamentally inconsolable. It would not be a stretch to say he lived in near-constant fear of the damnation that would await him upon his death.

These two accounts are meant to put some flesh on my rather bare-bones discussion of Urapmin Christianity, a kind of Christianity that is wholly dismissive of Urapmin tradition, morally strict, and pervaded by a sense of millennial expectation and apprehension. No matter what else I wanted to say about Urapmin, when I began to write about them in the mid-1990s I had to tell people this much, so some account along these lines was part of almost every discussion I had about my research.

To return to our question about what came after the savage subject, it is interesting to note that after I would deliver talks in which I discussed Urapmin Christianity, people would very often tell me how sad the Urapmin were, how sorry they felt for them as they faced the difficulties of losing their tradition and coming to doubt their moral worth. As this happened more and more often, I realized that people told me this because it was a way of saying they felt connected to the Urapmin, that they felt empathically bonded to them. They did not have to reject the Urapmin as still savages in an anthropological world that had no place for savages, nor did they have to reject them as culturally debased Christians. Instead, they made meaningful sense of the Urapmin as people who suffered, who were living out the trauma of colonization and cultural loss through a constant preoccupation with the possibility of moral failure. That is to say, my audiences found a home for the Urapmin in the suffering slot.

At the very moment I was finding that people tended to engage the Urapmin as people who suffered, the literary critic Cathy Caruth suggested in the introduction to her landmark 1995 edited volume on trauma that ‘in a catastrophic age … trauma itself might provide the link between cultures’ (1995: 11). I cannot think of a more accurate description of what I was experiencing in presenting my work, and of how anthropology was in the early 1990s changing its relation to those it studied from one of analytic distance and critical comparison focused on difference to one of empathic connection and moral witnessing based on human unity. In this move, trauma was indeed becoming the bridge between cultures. With this observation, we enter the realm of very large cultural transformations in the way the West understands its relation to the wider world – transformations that include the rise of humanitarian and human rights discourses and institutions in their contemporary forms as well as the emergence of the NGO as a key feature of global social organization. While I cannot treat this whole cultural history here in detail, I will try to sketch at least a small part of it by way of considering how it came to bear on anthropology's turn to the study of the suffering subject.4

A good place to start is Didier Fassin and Richard Rechtman's 2009 book The empire of trauma. This book bears comparison with Trouillot's ‘savage slot’ article in that it similarly marks a profound moment of self-consciousness about a major shift in our key cultural problems. What comes to awareness in Fassin and Rechtman's book is the extent to which, in the 1990s, ‘the human being suffering from trauma … became the very embodiment of our common humanity’ (2009: 23). Over the last two decades, they tell us, ‘[t]rauma had become an essential human value, a mark of the humanity of those who suffered it and of those who cared for them’ (2009: 140). An important part of their argument is that it is the very commonness of trauma, its universal quality, that has made it so prominent as a lens through which to view the world. As trauma has come to be understood in the wake of the emergence of a widely shared cultural understanding of the shattering enormity of the Holocaust and then the establishment of the diagnostic category of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, they suggest, it represents ‘a suffering without borders, a suffering that knows no cultural barriers’ (2009: 239). This is the case because in our current understanding any person anywhere can be expected to suffer traumas of essentially the same kind in the face of certain kinds of violence and deprivation. And because of the universal qualities of trauma, we as observers and witnesses are secure in our abilities to know it when we see it and to feel empathy with those who suffer it in ‘a sort of communion in trauma’ (2009: 18).

Fassin and Rechtman are anthropologists, and their study of the development of the notion of trauma over the last two decades is thoroughly anthropological. They provide compelling ethnographies of psychiatric knowledge construction, medical and humanitarian practice, and the formation and enforcement of state and international organizational policies as they have come to cohere around the traumatized subject. They do not, however, focus on how suffering became important in anthropology itself. Yet it is not hard to situate anthropology's shift to the suffering slot within their story. I have in fact probably already said enough in this essay to have made that point in advance. But I want to add one key observation that Fassin and Rechtman's analysis allows us to make explicit in a way that was not possible before. Recall that the West lost interest in the savage because it lost a role for difference and the radically other in its intellectual life and its self-understanding. Anthropological critics of othering felt the force of this loss early and pressed the point home. But it was only when trauma became universal, when it came to define a humanity without borders, that anthropologists found a foundation for their science that allowed them to dispense with the notion of the other completely. Because of its universalistic quality, the suffering subject appeared to anthropologists not just as something new to study, but as a solution to a problem that had in the 1980s appeared ready to condemn their discipline to irrelevance.

E. Valentine Daniel's well-known article ‘Crushed glass, or, is there a counterpoint to culture?’ (1996) allows us to catch a glimpse of the way anthropologists began to discover the notion of the universality of suffering the rise of which Fassin and Rechtman trace. Based on fieldwork on the Sri Lankan civil war, this piece addresses the violence of the conflict – violence that confronted Daniel quite powerfully in the course of what he calls his ‘horror-story collecting’ with survivors of and witnesses to atrocity (1996: 371). First written as a lecture in 1991, near the very beginning of the period both Fassin and Rechtman and I are focused on, Daniel's article offers a theoretical plea to see violence and the suffering one endures as a victim or witness of it (Fassin and Rechtman discuss the commensurability of these two positions at length) as something that ‘resists the recuperative powers of culture’ by virtue of possessing a ‘culturally unrecuperable surplus’ (1996: 365). Not only is such suffering culturally unrecuperable, on Daniel's account anthropologists should not try to force such a recovery of it. We must acknowledge that it remains beyond culture so that it can

remind us that a) as scholars, intellectuals, and interpreters we need to be humble in the face of its magnitude; and b) as human beings we need to summon all the vigilance in our command so as never to stray toward it and be swallowed by its vortex into its unaccountable abyss (1996: 372, original emphasis).

Daniel's argument is noteworthy as a raw, still relatively unformed statement of the status of violence and suffering as realities beyond culture, and hence as realities with universal and in some ways obvious import that do not require cultural interpretation to render them sensible.

More than this, Daniel's article also gives us a glimpse of what the ethnography of the suffering subject might look like. It is organized around transcriptions of narratives provided by two brothers of what happened as they watched a gang of Sinhalese youth murder their older brother and father during anti-Tamil riots in a northeastern Sri Lankan village in 1983. The elder of the two surviving brothers regularly loses consciousness when telling this story, as he does when speaking with Daniel. The other brother usually has complete amnesia about the events and denies that he was present during them. Sometimes when waking from a nightmare or a loss of consciousness during the day, however, he begins to recount memories of the event before falling again into sleep. His elder brother has taped several of these episodes and given the tapes to Daniel, who presents transcribed and edited versions of them (1996: 366-9). These narratives are profoundly unsettling. I am sure that any of you who have read them remember them, or at least you remember how you felt as your read them. Were there space, I might reproduce them here. If I did, you would immediately accept Daniel's point that this kind of suffering and violence confronts you in your humanity and raises issues that you cannot help but feel are beyond culture. Indeed, it is hard not to notice that there is no particular cultural contextualization given in the telling – so in a sense your own response can be taken as proof of this point. One could, for purposes other than mine, try denaturalizing this response – pointing out how it is prepared for Western readers by their own cultural understandings of pain and suffering and artfully elicited by Daniel's considerable skill as a writer. Fassin and Rechtman would be a great help in making an argument like this, as would Marshall Sahlins' (1996) well-known discussion of the place of suffering in Western notions of human nature and some of Talal Asad's (1993; 2003) influential work on pain. But that is not an argument I want to make here. Let us accept for present purposes that traumatic suffering may truly be beyond culture. The point I want to make is that Daniel is showing us a new way of writing ethnography on the basis of this understanding. This is a way of writing ethnography in which we do not primarily provide cultural context so as to offer lessons in how lives are lived differently elsewhere, but in which we offer accounts of trauma that make us and our readers feel in our bones the vulnerability we as human beings all share.

One of the most celebrated anthropological works of the last decade, João Biehl's 2005 book Vita, provides an excellent example of a full-scale monograph built on the kind of anthropological address to readers that I have identified in Daniel's article. In Vita, Biehl recounts the life-story of Catarina, a Brazilian woman suffering from an inherited neurological disorder who is defined as mentally ill by her family and by the state, both of whom leave her to wither in an ‘ex-human’ condition in a squalid, privately run institution for those whom Biehl calls the socially abandoned. The book represents the anthropology of suffering come of age. Beautifully produced and outfitted with many striking professional photographs displaying what Tom Csordas (2007) in a review calls ‘a finely tuned aesthetic of misery’, the book is devoted in large measure to exploring the suffering of Catarina as a singular person. To be sure, Biehl has an important argument to make about how neoliberal states and their citizens come to abandon those who cannot productively regulate themselves. But this point is not developed in great ethnographic depth. And Catarina's story is told as a human one, not as a story about a someone who is in any significant respect Brazilian. There is in fact little about the specificity of Brazilian cultural life in the book, though there is much searing writing about the devastating effects of extreme poverty, medical maltreatment, and social abandonment on people anywhere who are subject to them. Like Daniel's recounted narratives, Biehl's telling of Catarina's story addresses its readers in their humanity – their ability to recognize suffering in its universal form. Responding to this quality of the work, Arthur Kleinman, in a blurb on the back of the book, rightly says that in it Catarina has ‘her humanity reaffirmed by the author’. I think this is true, and I would add that her humanity is reaffirmed by the book's readers as well – and that this is what the book asks of them. In its demand to be read as a book about the humanity of a single suffering person, and in the success it has had in having its readers meet that demand, Vita stands as a classic of a mature anthropology of suffering.

As readers of Biehl, Daniel, and other anthropologists of suffering, we come to realize the shared humanity that links us to others who suffer. We also realize how profoundly human beings can fail one another, and sometimes we gain insight into ways we might be complicit in this failure. It is clearly a hope of suffering slot anthropology that these lessons might become a motive for change. Such is the promise of work produced from within the suffering slot, and this kind of anthropology surely has important work to do in addressing the great cultural problems of our age.

But having said this, I would also like to register how different the horizon of work on suffering is from that which was produced from within the savage slot. Premised on the universality of trauma and the equal right all human beings possess to be free of its effects, suffering slot ethnography is secure in its knowledge of good and evil and works toward achieving progress in the direction of its already widely accepted models of the good. Savage slot ethnography, with its interest in otherness, had a different vocation. It is often forgotten that Trouillot argued that the savage slot was not invented on its own, but came into being only after the rise of the idea of utopia in the early 1500s, itself an outgrowth of the then newly arisen Renaissance interest in the question of socio-political order (see also Sacks 2007). As Trouillot puts it, from the outset ‘the Savage makes sense in terms of utopia’ (2003: 20, original emphasis; see also Graeber 2001: 252-3). The idea of the savage has always been closely tied to the question of what might constitute a perfect society. At its best, anthropology in the savage slot era held to this understanding, basing itself on the promise that the discovery of other ways of living might teach us the limits of our own, and might lead us to a vision of a world that was better than ours in ways we could not on our own imagine. As David Schneider once put it, ‘[O]ne of the fundamental fantasies of anthropology is that somewhere there must be a life really worth living’ (1967: viii). Since we had to go elsewhere if we had any hope of finding such a life, it stood to reason that it would be one that realized a good beyond our current hopes, or that if it realized goods we did know about, it did so in ways we did not.

With this embrace of the older anthropological idea of finding promise in different ways of life, we return to Ted Schwartz's cultural point: the idea that one important thing anthropology can teach us is that there are profound differences between human lives lived out in different cultural surroundings. Without this assumption, there would be little value in encountering other ways of life in the hopes of gaining a critical perspective on our own. I make this argument here, near the end of my remarks, because I see a number of trends in current anthropology that I think are reconsidering the power of work undertaken with the cultural point in mind. These trends are unfolding not as a critique of suffering slot anthropology, but rather as complements to it. In fact, many of the people whom I see as making important contributions to these strands of contemporary anthropology also study suffering, as will be clear from some of the citations that appear in the following section. But these kinds of work are none the less after something slightly different than their more established predecessor. I think this work might be brought together in an effort to construct an anthropology of the good, and I want to spend the last section of this essay making an argument to this effect.

Toward an anthropology of the good

If you look around anthropology today, it is hard to miss the importance of work on suffering. But it is also possible to spot a number of lines of inquiry that, while each still somewhat small or even marginal in themselves, may be poised to come together in a new focus on how people living in different societies strive to create the good in their lives. The point of this kind of work is not to define what might universally count as good, and its practitioners are neither so panglossian as to claim that any given society has in fact achieved the capital G Good, nor so Pollyannaish as to imagine that societies might achieve it on a regular basis if only we could identify what it is. Their more modest aim is to explore the different ways people organize their personal and collective lives in order to foster what they think of as good, and to study what it is like to live at least some of the time in light of such a project.

I have left myself very little space to lay out a vision of the anthropology of the good here, and I am in any case at an early stage of thinking about how best to conceptualize it. Yet I hope even a quick and preliminary account of what I have in mind might have some value.

Let me start by repeating from my introduction a simple and undoubtedly incomplete list of some of the emerging topics of anthropological concern that I see as contributing to a new focus on the good. I mentioned there studies of value, morality, imagination, well-being, empathy, care, the gift, hope, time and change. In order to elaborate on this list and give it some analytical structure, it makes sense to break it into three groups.

I take anthropological work on value, morality, and well-being to belong to a first group (see, e.g., Graeber 2001 and Robbins 2007b on value; Fassin 2012b, Laidlaw 2002, Lambek 2010, and Zigon 2008 on morality; and Corsín Jiménez 2008 and Mathews & Izquierdo 2009 on well-being).5 Each of these topics concerns the way people understand the good and define its proper pursuit. I am also going to put imagination in this group, because it signals the extent to which both the people we study and we as analysts have to recognize the good as something that at least sometimes goes beyond the given, the already there, taken for granted of social life and the world in which social life unfolds (on imagination, see Crapanzano 2004; Lohmann 2010, and Sneath, Holbraad & Pedersen 2009). The good in this respect is something that must be imaginatively conceived, not simply perceived. This means that to study the good as anthropologists, we need to be attentive to the way people orientate to and act in a world that outstrips the one most concretely present to them, and to avoid dismissing their ideals as unimportant or, worse, as bad-faith alibis for the worlds they actually create. It is not that imaginings of the good cannot sometimes be set aside in practice or put to use in ideological projects that support the continued existence of structures of violence and suffering, but if we assume that ideals always and only get either ignored or deployed in nefarious ways, then the anthropology of the good can never get off the ground. There are many current signs that anthropology is moving past such limited perspectives on people's imaginations of value, morality, and well-being, and research in this area – let us call it research on the cultural construction of the good – is growing particularly quickly at present.

In the second group of trends I want to collect into the anthropology of the good I have put the study of empathy, care, and the gift (see Hollan & Throop 2011 and Throop & Hollan 2008 on empathy; Garcia 2010 and Stasch 2009 on care; and Sykes 2005 on the gift). As I have constituted it here, this group is surely too small, but these three topics are meant to stand in for all the ways anthropologists are looking these days at how people work to create the good in social relationships. Much of the most important work that has already been done on the construction of the good, and on morality in particular, examines the ways people work on themselves so as to be able to realize the good in the creation of their moral selves, but it is equally necessary to explore the ways they foster the good in their real social relations. We have learned so much in the last few decades about how human beings can disregard and do violence to one another. A fully rounded anthropology of the good will have to throw light on other ways of relating. I take the renewed interest in the gift and in practices of care, along with the growing interest in empathy as an aspect of all kinds of social relations, not only those of witnessing to violence and suffering, as three indications that such an anthropology is coming into being.

In the final group I put the study of time, change, and hope (see Deeb 2009, Guyer 2007, Robbins 2007a, and Smid 2010 for works on time that attend also to issues of change; see Crapanzano 2004, Mattingly 2010, and Miyazaki 2004 on hope). These three belong together because they are about the ways people come to believe that they can successfully create a good beyond what is presently given in their lives. Recent work on cultural models of time that see it as a medium not just for the repetition of the same but for the accomplishment of the new joins with that on cultural models of change to show how people are at times able to construe the realization of the good as a genuine possibility. And sometimes such a construal finds itself worked up into a motivating programme for approaching the future under the sign of hope. This aspect of cultural life takes effort to study – you have to know where to look and what to listen for. As with the construction of the good, there is a strong temptation to dismiss people's investments in realizing the good in time as mere utopianism, to smother their hopes analytically with what Clifford has recently called our own ‘wet-blanket “realism” ’ (2009: 241). But if part of the point of the anthropology of the good is to return to our discipline its ability to challenge our own versions of the real, then we have to learn to give these aspirational and idealizing aspects of the lives of others a place in our accounts. As Douglas Rogers has nicely put it, it is a matter of some theoretical importance to insist that ‘for our understanding of human social and cultural life, striving matters’ (2009: 32).

The construction of notions of the good, the attempt to put them into practice in social relations, and the elaboration of models of time and change that support hopes for success in such endeavours – taken together, these areas of study give us a map for an anthropology of the good that highlights places anthropologists have already learned to locate. My hope is that if the light of the great cultural problems shines just a little more brightly on this terrain, we might be able to draw a route that connects them all, and that in doing so we might add a new way of doing anthropology to those we already have.

The point of developing this new kind of anthropology would not be to displace the anthropology of suffering, which will continue for the foreseeable future to address problems we need to face. It would be to help realize in a distinctively anthropological way the promise suffering slot anthropology always at least implicitly makes: that there must be better ways to live than the ones it documents.

Let me take a moment in conclusion to return to the Urapmin, to add just the smallest touch of concreteness to what has been an abstract final discussion. Earlier, I noted that in the mid-1990s people reacted to my presentations of Urapmin life by defining the Urapmin as people who suffered. I understood why one might respond to the Urapmin this way, and I came to recognize that, in step with the times, I must have in some unintentional ways helped to foster this response in the way I presented my material. But I never felt that this interpretation of the Urapmin situation was true to my experience of Urapmin lives. I would sometimes reply that I did not think the Urapmin were sad or suffering so much as they were struggling, working to construct a liveable world on the other side of their experiences of contact and colonialism – experiences that made their previous way of life appear to them hopelessly inadequate. The moral concerns that their Christianity pushed to the forefront of their awareness gave them, I would come to suggest, a language in which to argue about how best to construct a new liveable world, and their millenarianism gave them a complex temporal frame that supported both their near- and long-term hopes for succeeding in their efforts. Against this background, though their struggles were not easy, the Urapmin showed no signs of feeling defeated by them. Timi and Tankangnok, like most other Urapmin, were fully engaged in these struggles – Timi through his commitment to strengthening the belief of others and Tankangnok in the way he often led by example in matters of community work. The worries Timi and Yagapnok both felt about the state of their souls fuelled not withdrawal from but further engagement in Urapmin social life and its collective attempt to live in a way that would ensure the attainment of heaven for everyone in the community. I think there are lots of places where people live their personal and collective lives in similar terms – pitched forward toward what they take to be a better world. The better worlds they imagine and their ways of trying to get to them surely differ in significant ways – and I think Ted Schwartz's cultural point meant to remind us how important it is to learn from these differences. It is my hope that an anthropology of the good can take up that project, helping us do justice to the different ways people live for the good, and finding ways to let their efforts inform our own.


I took the first steps toward working out the argument of this article in one long and very helpful conversation with Tanya Luhrmann, another with Jukka Siikala and Harri Siikala, and a third with Holger Jebens. Many conversations along the way with Rupert Stasch have also been critical to its development. I thank them all for their help in getting this argument off the ground. A discussion of Trouillot's work with Joe Hankins, David Pedersen, and Rupert Stasch also helped me to launch into the writing, and a discussion of an early draft with these colleagues as well as Nancy Postero and Guillermo Algaze was likewise crucial in the writing process, as was a discussion with the TPO group at the University of California, San Diego. I have also been lucky enough to present the article to a number of audiences along the way. It was first given as a Plenary Lecture at the Society for Psychological Anthropology Biennial Meeting in 2011, and then later that year as a Munro Lecture at the University of Edinburgh and a Keynote Lecture at the Finnish Anthropological Society Annual Meeting. Vigorous responses in all those venues were crucial to the development of the argument, and I thank Doug Hollan, Magnus Course and Maya Mayblin, and Timo Kaartinen for their respective invitations to give these lectures. Responses from groups at Scripps College, the Culture Medicine and Psychiatry group at Stanford, Reed College, the University of Cambridge, and the University of Copenhagen also contributed significantly to the final form of the article and I thank in particular those who arranged for those talks: Anthony Shenodah, Tanya Luhrmann, Courtney Handman, James Laidlaw, and Morten Pedersen and Lotte Buch Segal. Finally, I thank JRAI editor Matthew Engelke and four anonymous reviewers for their very helpful critical comments. Having had so much help with this article, I feel even more compelled than one usually does to note that not everyone mentioned agrees with all the points I make here, and any outright errors are of course my own responsibility.

  1. 1

    Even as the terrain I hope to cover is a large one, I should make it clear that I do not mean to suggest that it encompasses all of anthropology over roughly the last thirty years. My remarks aim at an exploration of what I think is a very important stream of the discipline over that time, but there is no effort or claim to take note of every significant development during that period. Having said this, I should also mention that a majority of the peer reviewers of this article felt that the history of the anthropology of suffering it traces is primarily a North American one. In some respects this is a valid reading. But I have decided against modifying ‘anthropology’ with ‘North American’ throughout the piece for two reasons. The first is that I think that the deepest issues the essay treats – for example the tension between universalism and difference in contemporary anthropology – are broadly relevant in the discipline, and that they have arisen outside of North America as well, though perhaps sometimes in different forms in different places. The second reason is that even as I can accept that my account can be read at least in some respects as a North American one, I am not sure it is only that. If one takes a broad view of the nature of suffering, I think the focus on it has been more widespread. Thus, for example, Henrietta Moore (2011: 68-71), in a wide ranging discussion of contemporary theoretical developments in anthropology, and the human sciences more generally, has worried over the ways studies of ‘modernity/globalization/neoliberalism’ evidence an ‘overwhelming analytic focus on participation through exclusion, alienation and abjection’ (2011: 71). Furthermore, it is possible that the issues treated here have become important outside of North America, but at least initially in different scholarly settings. Fassin makes an argument along these lines, noting that the boom in discussions of ‘suffering, trauma, misfortune, poverty, and exclusion’ during the 1990s took off in the United States in ‘literary criticism and medical anthropology’ but in France in ‘sociology and psychology’ (2012a: 5). His point would lend support both to the claim that my own account has a North American inflection and to one that holds that it deals with issues that are none the less very prominently in play in many other places as well.

  2. 2

    To avoid any misunderstanding on this point, I should stress that I am writing about a time before the study of Christianity became mainstream in anthropology. From the vantage-point of the present, as responses to my argument have sometimes indicated, it can be hard to recognize how difficult anthropologists once found it to treat a group of people such as the Urapmin as at once meaningfully Papua New Guinean (or, in the terms of my argument here, meaningfully occupying the savage slot) and meaningfully Christian (see Bialecki, Haynes & Robbins 2008; Cannell 2006; Robbins 2003).

  3. 3

    I use pseudonyms for my informants to preserve anonymity.

  4. 4

    Two works that have decisively shaped my own understanding of the wider cultural history I cannot explore in detail here are Samuel Moyn's The last utopia: human rights in history (2010) and Didier Fassin's Humanitarian reason: a moral history of the present (2012a). Both books would be good starting-points for the development of a more extensive argument along the lines I have quickly set down in this paragraph.

  5. 5

    Throughout this concluding section, references are meant only to point to a few representative selections of growing bodies of literature. They are not meant to be exhaustive in the style of a review article.

Au-delà du sujet souffrant : vers une anthropologie du bien


Dans les années 1980, l'anthropologie a cessé de se concentrer sur les sociétés définies comme radicalement « autres » par rapport à celle de l'anthropologue lui-même, sans toutefois savoir quoi mettre à la place comme principal objet d'étude. L'auteur affirme ici que, à bien des égards, ce thème de remplacement est le sujet souffrant. En remontant aux sources de ce changement, il examine la manière dont ont ainsi été abordées des questions-clés de l'anthropologie du lointain, tout en suggérant que certains points forts des travaux antérieurs, notamment certaines de leurs capacités propres à la critique, ont fait les frais de ce changement. En conclusion, l'article examine comment les tendances récentes de l'anthropologie pourraient fusionner en donnant un nouveau changement de direction, cette fois vers une anthropologie du « bien » qui pourrait retrouver un peu de la force critique de l'anthropologie ancienne sans hériter de ses faiblesses.


  • Joel Robbins is Professor of Social Anthropology at the University of Cambridge. He is the author of the book Becoming sinners: Christianity and moral torment in a Papua New Guinea society (University of California Press, 2004) and co-editor of the journal Anthropological Theory.