Ethics, morality, and moralizing in anthropological research

John Borneman


In response to papers by Langlitz on the position of the devil’s advocate and Van Dinther on morality and advocacy, I try to parse ethics, morality, and moralizing in light of my two recent studies: of the rehabilitation of child sex molesters, and of the incorporation of Syrian refugees in Germany. I argue against any automatic politicizing or moralizing of our research objects, though this is not a categorical opposition. There are times when the anthropologist is thrust into a political advocacy role, and where avoidance in assuming this role would be unethical. That has indeed been the case for my work with and on refugees. However, ethical research with child sex molesters was possible only by depoliticizing and de-moralizing their location in contemporary culture. To study a subject widely assumed incorrigible and defined as evil, ethnographic research was possible only through empathetic understanding and the ability to situate the subject in a developmental frame to understand how he or she has arrived at the act of child molestation and what the possibilities for change of the self are.

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.1086/711714