Issue 11.2


The cover of Humanity volume eleven issue two.Our new issue features a dossier on the moral economy. It includes essays on the history of ethics as part of economic life, economic justice in early modern Europe, land arrangements in Mexico, and debates over religion, the gift, social rights, and land reform. We also include an essay on Nicholas Kristof’s savior narratives on sex trafficking in Cambodia and an essay reflecting on the limits of humanitarian logics for refugee camp volunteers in Greece and France.



Live-Tweeting and Distant Suffering: Nicholas Kristof as Global Savior

Abstract: This essay interrogates Nicholas Kristof’s reporting on sex trafficking in Cambodia, examining the New York Times columnist’s narrative self-fashioning in the context of the neoimperialist rescue fantasies his writing perpetuates. It explores the intersections between Kristof’s writing and the various media he employs, and considers the effects of both on the audience he wishes to interpellate in the name of action. In his reporting, Kristof disseminates a set of truth claims about sex, work, and mobility; he presents himself as a global savior figure Read More »

Beyond Humanitarian Logics: Volunteer-Refugee Encounters in Chios and Paris

Abstract: Since 2015, grassroots volunteers have emerged as key actors in the humanitarian response to Europe’s “refugee crisis.” Based on ethnographic research on the Greek island of Chios and in Paris, this essay explores how volunteers navigate the ethical and political dilemmas inherent to humanitarian action in their everyday encounters with refugees. We argue that while volunteers sometimes mimic disciplinary humanitarian practices, the exchange of “biographical life” in and beyond camps allows volunteers to reimagine a more dignified provision of care and for creative solidarities Read More »

Introduction: The Moral Economy, The Careers of a Concept

Abstract: This essay explores the history of the idea of the moral economy—and the moral economy as an idea. It shows the ways in which debates about the market since the eighteenth century have been shadowed by debates and concerns about the ethical foundations of economic life. The history of capitalism has contained within it an internal tension between a romance with the market and nostalgia for worlds it dissolved. Moral economy has been a concept with many, global origins and different temporalities, depending on Read More »

The Moral Economies of Early Modern Europe

Abstract: Scholars as diverse as E. P. Thompson and Thomas Piketty posit a clear break between pre-industrial, status-based economies and modern, contract-based capitalism. This essay revisits this standard account of the transition from feudalism to capitalism by focusing on a central and yet rarely discussed tenet of economic justice in early modern Europe: the need to balance individuals’ contractual freedom with the privileges assigned to different groups in any hierarchical society of status. In so doing, it reconstructs the pre-history of contemporary debates about the Read More »

R. H. Tawney

Abstract: R. H. Tawney is readily mistaken for an uncompromising moralist for whom the return of a Christian ethics of medieval intensity was the only way forward. Tawney never used the term “moral economy,” but he initiated the critical tradition that later gave that term currency. The term today bears the marks of these origins and is frequently seen as doctrinaire and retrograde. What put Tawney ahead of his own time, however, was his perception that the economists’ spiritual blindness was spreading. His concern was Read More »

The Imperfect Promise of The Gift

Abstract: This essay analyzes the moral economy of the gift in the seminal and eponymous work by Marcel Mauss. I present Mauss’s argument and discuss the gift as a moral, or psychosocial, achievement. I conclude on the promises and pitfalls of the gift as an anchor to social solidarity.Read More »

Are the Two Approaches to Moral Economy Irreconcilable?

Abstract: The concept of moral economy stems from two theoretical traditions: that of E. P. Thompson, which corresponds to the norms and obligations involved in traditional economies, and has nourished the works of social historians and political anthropologists; and that of Lorraine Daston, which characterizes the values and affects regulating the activity of a given group in a given time, and has inspired historians and anthropologists of science. This essay offers a third reading attempting to reconnect these irreconcilable approaches by considering a moral economy Read More »

On the Mexican Ejido

Abstract: Mexico’s indigenous villages (pueblos) have long been held as examples of functioning moral economies, spaces governed by principles of relative equity, reciprocity, communal landholding and collective responsibility. Guided by this enduring representation, the massive agrarian reform that followed the Revolution of 1910 created thousands of collective land grant communities (ejidos). This essay argues that the conception of pueblos and ejidos as natural, culturally-bound moral economies is founded on a longstanding historical mischaracterization of village social relations, and it outlines the complex intellectual and historiographic Read More »

The Moral Economy of the Capitalist Crowd: Utopianism, the Reality of Society, and the Market as a Morally Instituted Process in Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation

Abstract: In an age of egregious inequality and rising authoritarian, many call for a new “moral economy” and turn to Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation for inspiration. Yet Polanyi’s great insight is that those who cannot reckon with the moral economy of “market justice”—the claim that market outcomes, however unequal, are morally just—fail to understand the power of capitalism. Justified by its original claim to rest on natural science, market justice laid the predicate for democracy as mortal threat. Polanyi reveals market justice as based Read More »

T. H. Marshall, the Moral Economy, and Social Rights

Abstract: At a crucial juncture in his famous lectures on “Citizenship and Social Class,” English sociologist T. H. Marshall explained that the new social rights he associated with the invention of the twentieth-century welfare state were in fact a blast from the past—a bequest from the moral economy to a later age grappling with political economy run amok. Marshall’s celebrated theory of social rights that followed provides one aperture from which to intervene in a dispute brewing between starkly alternative views of the relevance today Read More »

“I Am No Longer Answerable for Its Actions”: E. P. Thompson After Moral Economy

Abstract: E. P. Thompson’s classic 1971 article “The Moral Economy of the English Crowd” turned a forgotten locution into a cottage industry. But Thompson was surprisingly ambivalent about this academic success story. As discussion of “moral economy” burgeoned within the humanities, he watched grimly as talk of the “market economy” flourished in the wider world. His language had survived, but he took little consolation in the popularity of a concept that, stripped of its context, threatened to become a catchphrase.Read More »

Moral Economy in Its Place: The Contribution of James C. Scott

Abstract: Despite appearances, James Scott doesn’t have much to tell us about the concept of moral economy. When he invoked the idea in his famous book The Moral Economy of the Peasant, Scott used it as a label of convenience, and he found it easy to drop in later work. Scott wanted a theory of peasant behavior that tracked actual peasant beliefs about fairness, reciprocity, and legitimacy. Only a genuine attempt to interpret peasant beliefs about their situation could hope to explain peasants’ acceptance or Read More »