Significant differences

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © James Laidlaw. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau4.1.032


Significant differences

James LAIDLAW, University of Cambridge

Response to HAU Book Symposium on Laidlaw, James. 2014. The subject of virtue: An anthropology of ethics and freedom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

I am immensely grateful to this distinguished collection of scholars for the care they have taken with their impressively challenging comments (and to the editor for assembling them). They are challenging both individually, for the acuity and force of the arguments they advance, and collectively, in the range of directions from which they come. And although in one sense the positions they argue for are not so very distant—all seem to agree that developing a better understanding of the ethical dimension of social life is a significant and worthwhile anthropological challenge—this does not prevent the questions they raise from being deep and far reaching.

Veena Das, in a characteristically open and inquisitive spirit, asks me to consider why, given her sympathy for the ambitions of my book and her handsomely expressed praise of some of its qualities, she nevertheless at times finds it grating. In response to her thoughtful discussion, and in a similar spirit, I shall suggest what I think might be at least part of the answer.

Citing a passage in which I reflect on what my lay Jain friends in Jaipur told me about the difficulty of their religion, Das rightly hears echoes of ancient debates between Jains and Brahmins on the value of ascetic renunciation, and as her own comments exemplify, the disagreements recorded in the ancient texts have not gone away. If it is impossible to live in the world without causing harm to other living things, what should be one’s response? Is ascetic renunciation the only or even the most praiseworthy course?

I agree with Das that, faced with these questions, the reaction of the Jains I knew did not consist of “making a choice between one set of values versus another,” in this case heroic renunciation and domestic happiness. That indeed was my point. If one or the other value could readily be done without, so that choice between them were a reasonable or adequate response, then this would not be a case of genuine conflict and it would not be a conflict of values. The social forms of popular Jainism do make it possible, within limits, both to practice ascetic restraint to limit the violence one inflicts upon others and at the same time to embody domestic virtues that are strictly in conflict with nonviolence. These arrangements do help to prevent lay Jains from being presented with anything like a simple choice. But as I also wrote, in a passage shortly following one quoted by Das: “None of this eliminates the conflicts or provides a ready-made or stable equilibrium between them. Life, in this sense, is not a puzzle to which there can be a solution. The essential perplexity will always have to be lived with” (Laidlaw 2014: 127).

But Das wishes to go further than this. She asks, “[D]oes one not need to lower the pitch from something as grand as ‘conflict of values’ to the idea that one must learn to bear the knowledge that one’s very existence might harm the world, however carefully we tread on it?’ (my emphasis). She interprets my friends’ assertion that Jainism is impossible as an expression of this injunction, and more generally of “ordinary realism” and disappointment. She conjectures therefore that the lay Jains I knew, like authors of the ancient Brahminical texts she studied (and, it seems, like Das herself), want to “assert against the ascetic” that this attitude of acceptance is a deeper and truer response to the way the world is than the ascetic path followed by Jain renouncers. The householder’s moral predicament, Das asserts here, is the more challenging and the more difficult. I agree that my Jain friends were indeed describing an acceptance of their own imperfectibility, but I am quite sure this further assertion “against the ascetic” is not what they were saying to me.

They will have been acutely conscious that to do so would be to side with the Brahmin authors of those ancient texts and their Hindu equivalents today in sectarian dispute against all the saints and teachers of their own tradition. No doubt some may have thought something like this secretly from time to time, but this cannot account for the frequency with which or the tone in which these assertions were made to me. It is perhaps not sufficiently clear in The subject of virtue (2014: 126–28), where the matter is considered only briefly, but it is explicit in Riches and renunciation (Laidlaw 1995: 27), that in saying that Jainism is impossible my interlocutors were expressing not disappointment but pride. Their tradition is, they were telling me, more unblinkingly honest than either Hinduism, Christianity, or Islam about the human condition, and therefore requires and fosters more robust moral striving and self-reliance. It is incomparably more difficult, in fact it is impossible, but it is a truer and nobler path. Unlike Das, then, they were not asserting the profundity of their own lay moral predicament or point of view “against the ascetic,” but claiming, on the contrary, a dignity to their moral life based on the fact that they participate, albeit in a limited way, in the ascetic project. As Michael Lempert, in his piece, rightly conjectures, part of the point, then, in saying to me that “Jainism is impossible,” for those who did so, was to claim a certain moral standing for themselves (see, e.g., Laidlaw 1995: 80, 154–57).

In her essay in this symposium as elsewhere, Das draws from her ethnographic experience, as well as from her reading of Wittgenstein, Austin, Cavell, Diamond, and others, to propose subtle moral lessons about the challenges of human life. Her reading of the Mahabharata as proposing an ethic of noncruelty, her assertion of “ordinary realism” against ascetic withdrawal from the world, her discovery in the moving story of Manju and her daughter-in-law of an exemplary instance of living sanely in ethical attentiveness to the other—all are characteristic examples of this carefully normative mode of writing, as is her warning against making the “mistake” of seeing our relation to state, party, or religious authorities as answers to “our true need.” These are points of considerable force, ways in which Das seeks to join the philosophers she finds most helpful in looking for alternatives to “the usual paths that moral theory takes with its ‘ought’ and its ‘should.’” I appreciate the seriousness, sincerity, and care with which Das puts forward this moral vision, and the fact that it is grounded in her ethnographic experience, especially that of bearing witness to the endurance of chronic suffering. I can see, in light of it, why my efforts to pursue a different set of objectives might be experienced as falling short in certain respects. So Das remarks that the notion of conflict of values fails to “capture” the sense of melancholy she associates with “ordinary realism,” and by this I take her to mean both that it does not adequately convey its affective qualities and that it does not constitute a direct moral stance in relation to it, and to this, as Das anticipates, my reply is that these were not my objectives.

The notion of conflict of values is offered as part of something not so very far away but importantly different: an account of the structures of thought and feeling that give rise to what Das describes as melancholy and therefore an attempt, in part, to explain it. I do not claim that all of what Das refers to as “ordinary realism” or “disappointment” is accounted for by conflicts of values. She rightly points also to the simple facts of human finitude, the different ways in which “I am vulnerable to my body and to the world.” These are obviously of the first importance. What interests me about conflicts of values is that, unlike those other general facts, they are themselves specifically ethical. Understanding their form and effect is therefore necessary for an account of what is distinctive about the ethical dimension of our lives. It is not that Das’ writings on ethics are themselves moralist while mine are somehow “objective” (and objectivity is itself an ethical stance in any case). As I try to explain in The subject of virtue, there is a value to the anthropology of ethics being itself a form of ethical practice. There is, I think, then, an ethical component to the value pluralism that underlies the form of explanation I am trying to develop, but it is much more indirect than Das’ normative moral response to her ethnography. So in relation to those debates about ascetic renunciation and family life, my concern is more or less exclusively to try to describe and account for the form the debates take, and not myself to take a position for or against any party in them. Similarly, in relation to Manju’s story, I would want to point out that while her decision to take back her daughter-in-law did not consist in making a choice between multiple sets of values, but rather in finding a way to act in the light of them all at once, it was nevertheless a response to a situation of value conflict. This, I can see, is rather a detached observation in comparison with Das’ moral commendation of it as the wise and good thing to do (which as it happens I do not contest). I think these differences, in part at least, may account for the “rawness of nerves” that Das reports.

Reading Didier Fassin’s wide-ranging comments, I find myself agreeing with his suggestions of issues that are worth exploring further, though they have so far largely escaped the anthropology of ethics, but rather less with his characterization of what that approach has been. So he begins by asking whether people act as they do in obedience to rules and norms or whether, “conversely,” they do so as a result of reflection and aspiration, and he then suggests that “the new paradigm” in the anthropology of ethics asserts the reality of “free ethical subjects” against a mere appearance of their following socially sanctioned moral codes, and thus shifts from the collective and social to the individual and experiential. James Faubion’s powerful and persuasive contribution to this symposium seeks to drive home, as I hoped also to have done in my book, that no coherent anthropology of ethics could be based on those oppositions. One indispensable conceptual move on which a successful escape from “the science of unfreedom” must be based is the rejection of all of what I called in my book, following Richard Flathman (2003), “soaring” conceptions of freedom as absence of constraint (Laidlaw 2014: 96, 102, 108–9, 149). The power relations that constrain and enable, and weaken and empower, some in relation to others are emphatically not mere appearance in contrast with a reality of freedom. They give such freedoms as people are ever able to exercise both their shape and their scope (see also Laidlaw 2002: 323).

This is probably not the place to engage in detailed textual wrangling, but I will just register (a) that in my view the originality of Kenneth Read’s essay on Gahuku-Gama morality (1955) lay precisely in the fact that, far from having exemplified, he explicitly rejected the Durkheimian (and Boasian) paradigm equating morality with a society’s dominant norms and values; (b) that Durkheim’s assertion against Kant that for an act to be moral it must “interest our sensibility” must be read in the context of his claim to be able reductively to predict and explain what will interest people’s sensibilities in terms of the structure and evolutionary trajectory of the society of which they are part; and (c) that Foucault’s late decision to replace “assujettisement” with “subjectivation” was motivated precisely by his desire to clarify his meaning by escaping the implications of “subjugation” carried by the French word (for more on this see Faubion 2012), in light of which to read all his uses of the French word up to that point as carrying specifically the meaning he sought to repudiate does not seem very helpful.

All that said, I find much of interest and importance in the four cautions Fassin issues in the latter half of his remarks. It is indeed important not to expect to find ethics and/or morals as an empirically isolable set of acts or practices, which is why, like many others (e.g. Das and Mattingly, in this volume), I prefer to speak of ethics as a dimension of social life. Fassin is also right that consequentialist moral thought deserves more attention than anthropologists have hitherto given it, and this includes, despite some brief remarks (Laidlaw 2014: 41), in The subject of virtue. Weber’s insistence on the indispensability in political life of what he calls an ethic of responsibility is indeed salutary. It is not completely clear to me, however, whether Fassin’s interest in consequentialism (and specifically in utilitarianism?) is purely ethnographic—in the role of consequentialist reasoning in different social settings—or whether he also thinks (a tougher case to make) that anthropological thinking should be directly influenced or informed by consequentialist theory. Either way, the point is worth noting. Fassin’s third caution is against a focus on ethics at the expense of politics, and this would indeed be as unfortunate as the reverse. And finally, Fassin rightly calls for reflection on why anthropologists have been more receptive recently than in the past to calls for them to take ethics seriously. This will be a complex matter, and I am not sure that seeing the change as caused by a slightly sinister general zeitgeist will be very helpful. Explanation will have to be rather finer grained, taking into account “ethical turns” in other disciplines too. I have suggested that the development within Anglophone moral philosophy of styles of thought that are more congenial to anthropology will be part of the picture. In any case, if experience is any guide, enlightenment to any very significant degree will probably come only in retrospect.

Central to the overall argument of The subject of virtue, and running through the text (summarized on 2014: 179), are attempts to conceptualize character, freedom, and responsibility each as qualities that emerge in social interaction rather than being features in any sense internal to the individual, and equally central and associated with this is a rejection of the individual–society, part–whole dichotomy (e.g. 2014: 16–18, 22–23). The book follows both Adam Smith (2014: v) and Michel Foucault (2014: 115–16), who (very differently) assert that ethics cannot be other than dialogical, that the ethical subject can only ever view itself through the evaluations and reactions of others, that it comes into being as a subject only in its relations with others, and therefore that the qualities it takes on, including character, freedom, and responsibility, are relational and never, in Webb Keane’s words, “a voluntaristic condition of individual subjectivities.” Keane’s essay here also develops characteristically brilliant arguments for these positions, in somewhat different language and proceeding from different premises from my own, but reaching some very similar conclusions. By any standards, Keane’s ways of working out and reaching these conclusions for himself will be valuable to other readers. The puzzling thing for me is the extent to which his tone implies (and sometimes he asserts) that these positions are developed in contradistinction to mine, and it becomes inescapable for me (especially in the context of Das’ query) to wonder why this should be so. No doubt I have just not said what I wanted to say clearly or often enough. But in addition, I can think of three possible contributory factors.

My first, and in some ways trivial, suggestion is that Keane seems to have been impressed much more by a passing phrase used early in my first chapter (“whether or in what sense peoples’ actions are unconstrained and really their actions,” 2014: 5–6), not, as he imagines, used to “define” freedom, but as a gloss on the commonsense understanding of it (“any everyday notion of freedom”), in contrast with Bourdieu’s concept of agency, than he was by the admittedly lengthy derivation of the understanding of freedom I do propose, through discussions of Foucault, various liberal philosophers, and a selection of ethnographic cases (in Chapters 3 and 4). To the extent that Keane may have fixed on that phrasing, which he repeats more than once, he may have been misled in his reading of what follows in the book.

The second, more substantial, and no doubt related factor is that Keane clearly himself remains, as he puts it, “nervous” about using the language of freedom at all. He reports “an immediate instinct” to find it a “source of unease” and cites Joel Robbins (2007) as warning against baking a Western commonsense understanding of freedom into our social theory, without quoting the latter’s judgment, in the same piece, that this danger could and indeed had been avoided in my earlier work. I can only regretfully accept that I have clearly not said enough to allay Keane’s fears on this point, and while urging others to consider the range of steps I take in The subject of virtue to detach “freedom” from any specific local, modern, Western concept (rejecting the Kantian and other “soaring” notions of unconstrained autonomy, tracing with Foucault the genealogy of our concepts to an ancient Greek understanding that contrasts sharply with those that are dominant today, distinguishing various different understandings to be found within “liberal” thought about freedom and autonomy and stressing the divergences between them, and highlighting contrasting concepts of freedom from “non-Western” sources within the ethnographic record), I would just reiterate that I do not see how the ethical dimension of life can be made any sense of without thinking both about and with freedom.

The third factor that I think may have contributed to Keane misrecognizing (as I think he has) the similarities and differences between his position and my own is that he thinks a crucial role is played in my approach by the notion of reflexivity, and that in developing his own he places great stress on attending to what he calls “the nature of reflexivity.” I do not discuss the matter explicitly in The subject of virtue, so it understandable that Keane has not noticed the fact that I do not ever use this word, except when quoting other authors. I avoid it in favour of “reflection” and “reflective,” in part following Seigel’s observation (2005: 12–13) that while “reflex” implies an automatic or uncontrolled response to a stimulus, and therefore a passive state, “reflect” implies the self-direction, though not necessarily conscious awareness, that takes place in purposive action; and in part because “reflection” coheres with Smith’s notion ([1790] 1976: 110–11) that it is in the mirror provided by “the countenance and behaviour of those he lives with, which always mark when they enter into, and when they disapprove of his sentiments,” that the human creature first and always apprehends him- or herself. In other words, in my usage, “reflection” rather than “reflexivity” denotes the dialogical self-constitution of the subject in social relations, rather than either mechanical responses to external stimuli or a quality or capacity that might be imagined as internal to the individual.

To Michael Lempert I have little to say except, “Spot on!” He has identified with exceptional acuteness and precision both an ambiguity in some of my phrasing, and the rhetorical concern that led to that ambiguity, and he furthermore points to an important set of underaddressed questions which resolving the ambiguity brings into view. I begin The subject of virtue by arguing, against widespread forms of sociological determinism (what I call “the science of unfreedom”), that the ethical dimension of social life is “irreducible.” Lempert notes how easily this could be misunderstood as meaning that it is “immanent”: always and everywhere unproblematically present, coextensive because analytically identical with social life itself, and therefore requiring nothing more to be said. He notes that this would be entirely contrary to what I have said elsewhere, including elsewhere in the same book. So let me be clear, it is not what I meant. In saying that ethics is “irreducible,” I meant not that it cannot be analyzed further, but that analysis should not aim to translate its terms into some other, supposedly more basic, nonethical language. My objection was specifically to reductive materialist explanation, so against trying to explain ethics away. I am reasonably confident I never in fact used the word “immanent,” but Lempert is right that I was not sufficiently alive to the possibility that what I did write might be understood that way, and nor did I highlight sufficiently clearly the questions he raises here (and in Lempert 2013) of precisely which processes and circumstances bring ethical framing and questions to the fore, or push them into the background: the microdynamics, as it were, of problematization. Having read Lempert on this I would now wish to express much in Chapter 5 of The subject of virtue, on how attributions of responsibility are made, accepted, evaded, contested, or rejected in social interaction, and how ethical subjects are constituted in part through these processes, as answering just these questions.

One implication of comments by both Lempert and Faubion, against one reading at least of the claim that ethics are “ordinary,” is that not everything everyone ever does is ethical. This must be right. It is possible to argue that the ethical dimension of human life is pervasive—very widespread and sometimes unnoticed and implicit in routine everyday situations and interactions, and not just in religious or other specialist settings—without it following that it is equally present everywhere and at all times. Some things people do can be accounted for without recourse to ethical concepts. Faubion further suggests, and I think he is correct that I am also committed to this view, that there are forms of action that are value oriented, in Weber’s terms, yet not in any helpful sense ethical, or rather that they tend toward the anethical. So action framed by the thought that there is something it is better to be than an ethical agent (achieving mystical union with or absolute subjection to the divine, for example), and oriented toward achieving such an objective, might be said to take an ethical subject along a path on which the processes through which it is constituted in interaction with others are progressively halted and reversed.

On the question of what in the world might be an ethical subject, Eduardo Kohn and Cheryl Mattingly urge me to revise the position set out in The subject of virtue in diametrically opposite directions. Both make some compelling points, but I am not persuaded to go all the way with either.

Kohn wants to “expand” the notion of ethical life to include the nonhuman, but it remains unclear to me whether by this he is suggesting merely (and surely uncontentiously) that beings other than humans ought to receive our ethical consideration, whether they ought to be in some further unspecified way “involved” in humans’ ethical practice, or whether they are themselves ethical subjects, and, if the last of these, whether this is to include all nonhuman life equally (bacteria as much as forests in the same way as dogs?).

I agree with Kohn that it is important to recognize that the “social world” people live in consists of much more than other people, and if “humanism” ever required denying this, then that is one more reason to add to those I gave in my book (2014: 107–8) for avoiding the term. But it is worth noting that Kohn’s own account remains populated by ethical subjects who are exclusively human. He speaks of “the relations that the Quichua-speaking Runa … have to the many kinds of beings that people a complex rainforest” (not vice versa—my emphasis). Similarly, in order to hunt successfully, he tells us, the Runa need to (and we can) think with forests (again, not vice versa). If a collared peccary ever dreams about shooting a Runa man (rather than vice versa), Kohn apparently has no evidence for this; at any rate he does not tell us about it. This being said, I see no reason to construe the question of what might be an ethical subject as an ontological question at all: it is a matter of which entities or assemblages (which might in principle be made of anything) engage through their relations with others in reflective, evaluative self-constitution. Beyond the indubitable fact that humans do this, persistently and pervasively (though not immanently), this seems to me to remain an open question, not to be settled by fiat.

On one point I may be able to put Kohn’s mind at rest. I do not claim, as he seems to fear, that social and cultural differences are all small and insignificant (that “we are all at bottom more alike than we are different”), and my rejection of cultural relativism does not rest on any such conviction. I assert, on the contrary, that social and cultural differences are themselves varied, some subtle but nevertheless consequential, others more stark and obvious, and among which some are more important than others. The notion of bounded “cultures” does not help us to make sense of any of this, and I do not see that Boas’ unremarkable comments on linguistics (“the sources of philological assumptions … are … in the minds of philologists”— where else could they be?) in any way improve on his other pronouncements about culture. What I object to is a way of writing about these differences that flattens them out into all being instances of the same us/them opposition, which, whatever new language it is expressed in, always turns out to be the rediscovery of the same old Other, uncannily alike in such widely dispersed and as patently different parts of the world as Amazonia, Papua New Guinea, and northern Asia. (This is the kind of thinking whereby a fact about Inuit shamanism gets applied without further comment or apology to an argument about Amazonia.) And I want to reject also the thought that difference interpreted in this way, as “radical alterity,” is the only kind of difference on which a credible anthropology might be erected. Posited thus as a premise of the anthropological enterprise, the interminable rediscovery of “radical alterity” will of course be overdetermined.

In contrast to Kohn, Mattingly wants to emphasize the aspects of ethical life that are in her view capacities distinctively and exclusively of human individuals (see also Mattingly 2012), especially moral deliberation, complex moral emotions, creativity, and narrative self-understanding. I simply do not know which if any of these capacities might be able to be developed to some degree by which other species through which kinds of interactions. I am impressed enough by the extent to which human social life is composed of relations with things other than other humans, by the extent to which the imputation of some interactive capacities can be performative, and by the thought that there might be something to learn about such questions from ethnographic research in varied contexts, to want to leave the matter open, but I agree with Mattingly at least so far as to think that it would be perverse to contract and impoverish our understanding of what it is to be an ethical subject so as to be able further to populate the category, for extraneous ideological reasons.

The principal point Mattingly wishes to emphasize, in her exceptionally careful and generous reading, is that what she calls “the pedagogical model” of ethics, while important, has its limitations (see also Mattingly 2013). She suggests that as a complement we consider what she refers to (following Faubion 2011) as a further “primal scene” of ethics, namely the experimental laboratory. The story she tells of Tanya and Frank’s conflict over whether their disabled son Andy should play soccer does beautifully highlight how people frequently have to find a way with no available norm, rule, model, or exemplar to guide them. They have to improvise, find their way, and revise their ideas in light of experience. I do discuss one striking example (perhaps even a limit case) of this in The subject of virtue (2014: 135–37), Jonathan Lear’s remarkable account (2006) of the Crow chief Plenty Coups and his response to the radical loss of ethical intelligibility suffered by his people. Mattingly is absolutely right to insist that moral experimentation is also required of people very routinely in everyday contexts, and she is right too to seek to widen our understanding of the processes that make up ethical thought and practice in order to take account of this. I am not sure, however, that the model of a laboratory quite does the work she wants it to do. The implications of design and control of circumstances, and of replicability, seem both inappropriate to what she has in mind and yet essential to one’s idea of a laboratory, but at the same time it is true that Mattingly’s own perceptive discussions of moral improvisation seem unencumbered by them.

A connected idea Mattingly wishes to promote is the narrative coherence and consistency of people’s self-understandings. She adopts from Bernard Williams (1981) the term “ground projects” for commitments people have that are so essential to who they are that they could not very well go on living, or would scarcely know themselves if they did, without them. This is indeed an important phenomenon, and Mattingly is right to bring it to our attention. I have no reason or desire to deny that many people’s conduct would be quite incomprehensible without an appreciation of the hold such commitments have on them, and I agree that understanding the institutions and practices (and pedagogies!) that sustain such indispensable “ground projects” is an important focus for anthropological attention.

My reply would be to make the empirical claims that not everyone is to an equal degree single minded, that many find themselves indispensably committed to more than one such project, and those projects are not always accommodating to the demands of each other. So in practice, the undoubted importance of ground projects does not necessarily endow people’s lives with smooth narrative coherence. Indeed, the very urgency of their demands gives shape to the dilemmas and tragic conflicts they frequently have to contend with. I do not see any real conflict between Mattingly’s observation (also one of Das’ concerns) that people may work hard to achieve some kind of biographical integrity, and mine that there are systematic and structural aspects of social life, and not just contingencies, that can make this very difficult.

And secondly, I would wish to repeat my dissent (2014: 77–91) from MacIntyre’s normative insistence (which Mattingly does not defend) that only a life that achieves such overall narrative coherence counts as a moral life at all. It is necessary to insist on this, I think, because MacIntyre’s writings have been so path-breaking and exciting, and so many anthropologists, notable among them Mattingly herself, have drawn upon them to such creative and productive effect. As Mattingly notes, with characteristic thoughtfulness, it is precisely in relation to authors to whom we are closest that it is most important carefully to work out and try to be clear about where and why we differ. In scholarly discussion as in ethnographic description and in anthropological theory, radical alterity is not the only kind of difference that it is worth our while thinking hard about.


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———. 2012. “Foucault and the genealogy of ethics.” In Companion to moral anthropology, edited by Didier Fassin, 67–84. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

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———. 2002. “For an anthropology of ethics and freedom.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (N.S.) 8 (2): 311–32.

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———. 2013. “Moral selves and moral scenes: Narrative experiments in everyday life.” Ethnos 78 (3): 301–27.

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James Laidlaw
Social Anthropology
Faculty of Human, Social and Political Science
University of Cambridge
Free School Lane
Cambridge CB2 3RF, UK