Cultivating ambivalence: Methodological considerations for anthropology

Ciara Kierans, Kirsten Bell

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Anthropologists’ longstanding ambivalence toward political advocacy has, in recent years, come under sustained fire—a shift that is often framed in terms of the discipline’s “moral turn.” In this essay, we make a case for the value of ambivalence, asking what lessons it yields as a methodological heuristic. Tracing the history of the concept, we argue that anthropology was founded on an epistemological ambivalence regarding its orientation to social problems. Thus, the moral turn implies a fundamental transformation in the ways that ethnography is conceived. Although the possibility of conflating moral evaluation with anthropological interpretation is a recognized danger of this shift, we don’t believe that the problem can be resolved by being reflexive, or that all ethnographers confront it. Instead, we suggest that cultivating an analytic of ambivalence is our best strategy for understanding what is going on around us, and teaches us more about the character of social relations than prefigured moral stances can.

Ciara Kierans is Reader of Anthropology at the University of Liverpool. Her research
focuses on studies of medical knowledge and practice with emphases on the
biopolitical arrangements of organ transplantation and kidney disease—the subject
of her forthcoming book The transplant complex: Sickness, poverty and medicine in
Mexico. She is currently working on the topic of “unexplained” kidney disease in

Kirsten Bell is Professor of Social Anthropology at the University of Roehampton.
She has published widely in the anthropology of public health and is the author of
Health and other unassailable values: Reconfigurations of health, evidence and ethics
(Routledge, 2017).
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)23
Number of pages44
JournalHAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 1 Oct 2017


  • Morality
  • Ethics
  • Moral Anthropology
  • Ambivalence
  • Methodology

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