Multivocal morality: Narrative, sentiment, and Zambia’s radio grandfathers

Harri Englund


Multivocal morality concentrates attention on the ideologies of voice in efforts to narrate boundary-crossing moral dilemmas. This article’s focus on the relationship between narrative and sentiment in moral transgression brings together two distinct bodies of literature. One is anthropologists’ recent statements about a disciplinary shift from the study of law-like morality to ethical reasoning. The other is literary scholars’ emphasis on the novel as the privileged genre of narrative in generating moral sentiments such as sympathy and compassion. While anthropologists risk turning a blind eye to their discipline’s past achievements in understanding the complex interplay between customary obligation and moral sentiment, literary scholars foreclose an open discussion about the genres and media by which narrative may generate moral sentiments. The importance of attending to the notion of voice is elaborated through the work of two self-styled grandfathers on Zambian radio who, thirty years apart, performed the same story about strangers within. Despite the different eras of broadcast, they both assembled multiple voices in order to generate the moral sentiment of sympathy. The customary codes of elderhood informed multivocality not by giving others their voices as an act of charity or justice but by having moral authority to assemble those voices in the first place.


morality, narrative, sentiment, radio, voice, Zambia

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.14318/hau5.2.015