Monism, pluralism and the structure of value relations: A Dumontian contribution to the contemporary study of value

Joel Robbins


Although the topic of values has not been a central focus of discussion in anthropology in recent decades, during this period questions concerning values have continued to be important in philosophy. One key debate surrounding values in that field takes up the question of whether monist or pluralist accounts best describe the way values relate to one another in the world. Reviewing some of the philosophical literature on this topic, I argue that it is primarily concerned not with how many values exist in any given society, but with the nature of the relations between them. Drawing on Dumont’s theoretical work, I suggest that ethnographic research demonstrates that both monist and pluralist tendencies exist in the value relations of all societies and that the key analytic task thus becomes not determining whether a society is monist or pluralist, but rather documenting which kinds of configurations of monist and pluralist relations we tend to find in actually existing societies. I present four ethnographic sketches of different configurations, demonstrating the promise of this kind of research for contributing to both anthropological research and philosophical debates about value.

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DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau3.1.008