Our first talk in 2013: Joel Robbins: Beyond the Suffering Subject: Anthropology, Rights, and the Comparative Study of the Good

The Anthropological Research Team is happy to announce the visit of Joel Robbins, one of the world’s leading scholars in the anthropology of religion and cultural change and soon-to-be professor at Cambridge to the Arctic Center. On Thursday 17 Jan. 14:30-16:00, in the Borealis lecture room 313, Joel Robbins will talk about his subject of the Comparative Study of the Good.

Joel Robbins is professor and chair of the Department of Anthropology at the University of California, San Diego and currently Jane and Aatos Erkko Visiting Professor in Studies on Contemporary Society at the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies. He is currently co-editor of the journal Anthropological Theory. His background is in symbolic, semiotic and structural anthropology. He has widely published on the anthropology of religion, ritual, morality, Christianity and conversion, and on ideas of culture, values, and secrecy in general. You can check his full list of publications here, or learn about his research through his website.

Robbins criticizes anthropology’s universalistic approach toward suffering over the last several decades. He suggests a departure from the focus on the subject living in pain, in poverty, or under conditions of oppression, which so long has been at the center of anthropological work. Robbins warns that anthropology has begun to risk relinquishing its special role of insisting on bringing questions of cultural difference to bear on all manner of intellectual discussions. He seeks to turn attention towards an anthropology of the good capable of recovering some of the critical force of an earlier anthropology without taking on many of its weaknesses.

In his lecture on Thursday, Robbins will explore how anthropology arrived at the point of considering the surrender of its place in Western conversation, and he will suggest that it may recover some of its former critical potential by turning to the cross-cultural study of different ways human beings living in diverse societies define and try to achieve the good. As an example of what an anthropological contribution to such a discussion might look like, he will illustrate how Melanesian ideas about the crucial role of relationships in human life-ideas about what we might call the rights of relationships-raise important issues relevant to contemporary discussions of the global applicability of the notion of human rights. Robbins will illustrate that if we can use such cross-cultural material about the diversity of human values, we can re-introduce a truly comparative component to currently vigorous and sometimes strident conversations about human rights. Then we will have a good indication of the promise of an emerging anthropology of the good.


You are all welcome to this event. We look forward to an interesting day with Joel Robbins.

8 thoughts on “Our first talk in 2013: Joel Robbins: Beyond the Suffering Subject: Anthropology, Rights, and the Comparative Study of the Good

  1. fstammle

    Dear tlilxochitl and other interested virtual audience
    we’ve got a positive reply by Joel Robbins for the podcast and will try to make it happen. But he decided it should not be completely open, rather for people who are really interested in it and connected to our work, our institute, our blog. Therefore, please write me an email and as a reply I can send you the link when it’s up. Best, fstammle(at)ulapland.fi

  2. fstammle

    The lecture was a full success and the discussion after it active. We spent close to 2 hours in the lecture hall with around 25 people. The discussion covered many different issues, but most prominently about the universiality of values, and the difference between analysing cultural diversity and cultural relativism. The anthropology of the good, as Robbins calls it, is in itself a challenging term to think of, as one might say ‘the good’ implies already a value judgement, a classification of what’s good and what’s bad. There Robbins made a very inspiring differentiation: “There is a difference between ‘good’ and ‘right’: good is what you want, right is what you have to”. It became clear that with his anthropology of the good, Robbins is not advocating the idea that anthropologists should judge universially the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ they see in the field. Rather, we should be looking at the good in terms of what people refuse to give up in their culture when confronted with radical change. For his case in Papua New Guinea, this was not the elaborate initiation rituals that earlier ethnographers had described as crucial for the culture. He found that they had given this up rather easily, but instead maintained their foundations for the relations between people.
    Those interested in this discussion can contact me for a link to the recorded talk. Please mention who you are and what your background is.

    1. I would very much appreciate having a link to the recorded talk. My name is Leslie R Lewis, and my background and teaching is in anthropology, social epidemiology, and health equity, among other topics. I teach at UCSD and another local college, and was actually taught by Joel years back (he was an innovative thinker and an outstanding teacher/mentor even then!). I am interested in this topic in particular because it calls to mind Amartya Sen’s ideas (on which Martha Nussbaum elaborated) about freedoms and capabilities, but brings in this interesting dimension of getting at the core of what people (groups, individuals) value and practice. I am thinking of heated discussions about FMG, the rights of women and children to bodily integrity, the perceived (and often very real) assault on cultural traditions and autonomy,…and recalling that the few examples of local communities ending this practice were situations in which the core “good” of the practice was retained (the relationships, as noted in Joel’s work in PNG, specifically the change in the structure and meaning of those relationships resulting from the ritual). Thanks much!

      1. fstammle

        Thank you for your comment on arcticanthropology.org and your interest. You have an email with the link to the video of the lecture.

  3. Laura Chinnery

    Dear all, if it’s still available I would also really appreciate a link to the Joel Robbin’s talk. My name is Laura and I’m doing an anthropology PhD on prisons in Central America. The ‘suffering subject’ is perhaps an obvious framework through which to approach a lot of my material – so I’m really keen to hear Robbin’s critque! Many thanks.

  4. Rebecca Popenoe

    Hello, If possible I would love a link to Joel Robbins talk. I am an anthropologist at Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, and teach and lecture widely about the application of anthropology to healthcare and in particular healthcare of immigrant populations. Helping healthcare workers understand that there can be different definitions of “the good” and in particular the contrast between a rights-oriented and a relationship-oriented understanding of “the good” and of health is a major theme in what I try to get across. Thanks! Rebecca Popenoe

  5. fstammle

    Dear Rebecca and Laura
    thank you for your interest. You have an email with the link to the podcast. Before further sharing, please get permission from Joel Robbins or myself. Enjoy the lecture!
    Florian Stammler

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