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 as the production, circulation, appropriation, and confrontation of values and affects with regard to a significant social object, such as immigration or punishment, rather than to a social group. This new approach allows us to address some of the issues raised by R. H. Tawney’s analysis of religion and by Marcel Mauss’s interpretation of the gift. Particular examples are drawn from the capitalist devaluation of human lives and the humanitarian asymmetrical relation of obligation.

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About Didier Fassin

Didier Fassin is the James D. Wolfensohn Professor at the Institute for Advanced Study and a director of studies at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales. In 2019, he was elected professor at the Collège de France on an annual chair. Anthropologist, sociologist, and physician, he has conducted research in Senegal, Congo, South Africa, Ecuador, and France, focusing on moral and political issues. He gave the Tanner Lectures at Berkeley on punishment, the Adorno Lectures in Frankfurt on life, and the Eric Wolf Lecture in Vienna on conspiracy theories. Recipient of the Gold Medal in anthropology and the Nomis Distinguished Scientist Award, he recently authored The Will to Punish (Oxford, 2018) and Life: A Critical User’s Manual (Polity, 2018).