“Moral Economies: Work, Values and Economic Ethics” – a conference report

January 22, 2018

Chris Hann, Sylvia Terpe and Lale Yalçın-Heckmann of the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology organized the conference "Moral Economies: Work, Values and Economic Ethics" from 6 to 9 December 2017.

Held in Wittenberg, at the end of a year of celebrations to mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, this international conference was designed to involve all researchers of the MPI’s REALEURASIA project, together with a similar number of international presenters. The keynote lecture on Wednesday 6th December was given by one of Germany’s outstanding intellectuals, Hans Joas (Humboldt University, Berlin). Following a welcoming address by Udo Sträter, long-serving Rector of the Martin Luther University of Halle-Wittenberg, Joas delivered an elegant digest of the theses of his new book, Die Macht des Heiligen (The Power of the Sacred). Central concepts and themes of Max Weber were taken up again the next morning by a Panel of distinguished German sociologists coordinated by Sylvia Terpe. (For more, see Sylvia Terpe's text: Weber in Wittenberg: a Critical Debate on his Concepts)

Ethnographic case studies and Weber’s concept of value spheres
The rest of the conference was dominated by presentations that foregrounded ethnography, most of them by anthropologists. Max Weber continued to figure prominently, both on account of The Protestant Ethic and in connection with his conceptualization of value spheres (the focus of Terpe’s theoretical work). Seven papers were given by the REALEURASIA doctoral students. Sudeshna Chaki, Ceren Deniz and Luca Szücs all addressed the dynamics of family businesses with reference to kinship, in the context of state economic policies designed to promote marketization policies. The influence of religious (moral) ideals played a more significant role in the presentations by Lizhou Hao and Laura Hornig. While Daria Tereshina showed how some Russian Orthodox priests are shifting away from their Church’s traditional antipathy toward market capitalism, Anne-Erita Berta outlined the historical impact of Lutheran Protestantism on Danish society, in which successful entrepreneurs nowadays endorse massive state redistribution and are more concerned that their children should inherit values of fairness and frugality, rather than wealth.

In search of the meaning of moral economy today
The papers given by external participants covered a huge range. Alongside the Weberian themes, the concept of moral economy featured prominently, from autonomous militarized districts in Myanmar to agribusiness in Israel and Cuba’s dual currency system. There was no consensus concerning how best to define and use the concept launched by British historian E.P. Thompson half a century ago. The REALEURASIA team was privileged to be offered a wealth of comparative materials and theoretical approaches.

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