Book Review: Cheryl Mattingly’s Moral Laboratories (Chris Sanacore)

Cheryl Mattingly’s Moral Laboratories (2014) is an ethnography into the ordinary. Documenting the lives of impoverished members of L.A. County’s African American communities, Mattingly’s book works to reveal the unacknowledged power of the quotidian in its capacity to reshape individuals on small-scale levels, with revelatory effects. While at times she reveals the transformative reorganization of moral selves through mundane activities (such as household chores or a neighborhood soccer match), there are moments of terrible loss and human suffering that present an account of how individuals navigate the complexities of the human condition. Mattingly’s ethnographic triumph succeeds by arguing for a unique anthropological perspective that emphasizes the profound maintenance, experimentation and prescription of moral codes initiated by both the most trivial of activities and the most tragic cases of human loss (p. 9). In its intricate detail of life, death and what remains afterwards, Mattingly constructs a powerful image of individuals cultivating their moral selves to contest and give meaning to their social circumstances.

Mattingly’s first chapter “Experimental Soccer in the Good Life” sets the precedent for how she wants readers to interpret her work, meaning the lives of the participants with whom she engages. It is important to note the distinction made between engage and observe, a more familiar piece of ethnographic terminology. Mattingly was not just an outsider peering into her participants’ lives, but rather was actively engaged with them to the point of close friendship. For over ten years, she attended family dinners, doctor visits, birthdays, and funerals (p. 6). Hence, part of Mattingly’s ethnographic practice is her unique awareness of her role in her participants’ lives where she accounts for her experiences rather than removing herself. Mattingly’s transparent presence functions not as an impediment but rather as an authenticating disclosure substantiating the validity of her participants’ narratives and her analyses of them.

The opening, which focuses on a mother named Tanya and her wheelchair bound son, reflects Mattingly’s aims to limn the transformative nature of seemingly miniscule events. For Tanya, her anxiety over allowing her son to play in a neighborhood soccer match due to her fear of injury induces a reflection upon her values as a mother, her relationship to her son, her local community and the type of person she wants to become (p. 12). Such reflective, psychological processes are what Mattingly coins as moral laboratories which act as “. . . a metaphorical realm in which experiments are conducted in all kinds of places and where participants are . . . researchers or experimenters of their own lives” (p. 16). The way in which Tanya experiments with her values, her past experiences, and her future consequences situates her as an ethical diagnostician, delineating her mental and social conduct in search of a meaningful and morally good life. Thus, Mattingly details the ostensibly insignificant moments where individuals enter a potent state of becoming.

Within this schema of moral work, Mattingly projects a human essence onto the motives of her participants and to the philosophical underpinnings utilized throughout the book. When referring to Tanya and her relationship to her son, Mattingly states, “Her stance of ‘care’ is a manifestation of something very basic to human experience. To be human is to care about who we are, what we do, what happens to us. Existence just is care . . .” (p. 12). Such statements deeply connect to Moral Laboratories’ approach as to how individuals shape their inner-moral configurations. One such example is how Delores, a grandmother and matriarchal figure to a financially struggling family, serves a maternal role to provide a foundation for “moral work” by the way in which she prepares her grandchildren for school and is able to make sense of doctor visits and medical instructions for her grandson with a disability (p. 70). Active processes of care for others and oneself reflect an inherent compassion for existence.

Moral Laboratories explores intimate human moments and their transcendence over time and space to produce new subjectivities in a tumultuous field of political, medical and social conflicts. This intersectional space that forces individuals to mediate between unstable ground and interpersonal relationships is known as life. What Mattingly has accomplished is a view into the ordinary, revealing its capacity for change that cannot be seen from the surface. Moral laboratories posit the ways we are shaped into ourselves and we can begin “. . . unmasking the profoundness that lies beneath the surface of the ordinary (p. 205). This frame is not just a construction of the self but a revelatory concept linking our founding stories to each other. Mattingly puts it perfectly, “We humans simply would not exist individually or collectively without being, at times in our lives, a central ground project for significant others” (p. 204).


*Chris Sanacore is a first year MA student in Anthropology and Education 


Spring Term Updates and Announcements

This past Wednesday, students returned to campus for the spring semester. As we enter the new term, we wanted to provide some updates on what our readers can expect from this blog. We have some exciting changes in the works, as well as a few series that will be introduced in the coming months.

We are moving to a new posting schedule that will allow us to provide profiles, articles, and insights on a regular basis. Beginning next week, you can expect to see a new post on this blog every other Monday, with a few special additions sprinkled throughout the term. Our students will be submitting book reviews, thought pieces, and advice columns geared toward prospective graduate applicants and new members of the department. We will also provide updates and features on various alumni of our Masters and Doctoral programs.

In addition, we will soon kick off two topical series. The first series will feature short posts inspired by movies, television shows, and magazine articles that consider how contemporary anthropologists engage with popular culture. Meanwhile, our second series, entitled “Divided Country,” will use political anthropology to consider the ramifications of narratives of difference brought forth by the recent election and inauguration of Donald Trump.

We welcome any feedback from our readers, and we hope to see your responses in the comments. If there is something you would like to see on the blog, please let us know! Comment below, or send your pitch to under the subject line “TC Anthropology Blog.”

Anthropology Department Welcomes Faculty Candidates to Campus

Last month, the Anthropology Department welcomed four guest speakers to campus as part of the final stage of the search for a new faculty member. Each candidate met with current students and presented a talk inspired by her original ethnographic research. The following summaries were compiled by first year students in the program and provide a brief review of the various events.


Thursday, December 1st: Ilana Gershon

Summary by Miranda Hansen-Hunt, First Year Ph.D Student in Anthropology and Education

Ilana Gershon presented the first talk on Thursday, December 1st. Professor Gershon is an associate professor in the Department of Anthropology at Indiana University. She is interested in how new media affects highly charged social tasks, such as “breaking up” or hiring new employees. She has written about how college students use new media to end romantic relationships in her book The Breakup 2.0: Disconnecting over New Media. Her current research addresses how new media has changed hiring workshops for the contemporary US workplace.  Her other books include an edited volume, A World of Work: Imagined Manuals for Real Jobs, and No Family Is an Island: Cultural Expertise among Samoans in Diaspora.

Professor Gershon’s talk was entitled “Logged in and Let Down: Hiring Workshops in the Digital Age.” In it, she discussed her recent ethnographic work on the hiring process in San Francisco companies. Her thesis focused on how the standardization of potential hires reduces the individuality of the candidates and can make it more difficult for them to express what it is about their background that makes them especially suitable for a job.

Professor Gershon began her talk by discussing how  the concept of neoliberalism interacts with capitalism to create the kind of free-market pressures currently found in the San Francisco job market. As part of her research, Professor Gershon met with HR representatives, boss’, job seekers, and workshop facilitators. She found that, oftentimes, the HR representatives doing the hiring had been through the same process of job counseling as the job seekers and workshop runners, which resulted in a measure of standardization. Those doing the hiring recalled the standards they had been told to adhere to when they sought out particular jobs, and looked to replicate those same standards within the current group of job seekers. The sort of information provided in the workshops had to be generalized in order to give information that would be helpful to people applying for a range of different positions. What this process of replication leads to, Gershon argued, is the creation of a formulaic “genre repertoire to prove employability” that fails to provide HR representatives with the information they need to properly assess a candidate. The fact that all actors are drawing from the same set of acceptable practices means that all candidates sound similar on paper, and any candidates who provide information in a format that breaks with the genre repertoire risks being rejected for failing to meet the standards. Those who strictly adhere to the standards, on the other hand, risk sounding so similar to the other candidates that they are also rejected. Dr. Gershon expressed her desire to continue exploring the impact that these standards have on job seekers in the free market.


Thursday, December 8th: Ritty Lukose

Summary by Miranda Hansen-Hunt, First Year Ph.D Student in Anthropology and Education

Professor Lukose is Associate Professor at The Gallatin School of New York University. Her teaching and research interests explore culture, politics, and economy as they intersect with discourses and practices of gender across the varied terrain of globalization, especially as they impact contemporary South Asia. As an anthropologist, she has researched and published on education, youth, gender, development, globalization and culture. Professor Lukose has published several book chapters and articles in journals such as Cultural Anthropology, Social History, Social Analysis, and Anthropology, and Education Quarterly among others. Her books include Liberalization’s Children: Gender, Youth and Consumer Citizenship in Globalizing India (Duke, 2009) and a co-edited book, South Asian Feminisms (Duke, 2012).

Professor Lukose’s talk was entitled “Modeling Development: Kerala on the Global Stage.” In it, she followed the rise of the “Kerala Model” for development, which gets its name from an area of India. In India, the Kerala Model is contrasted against the Gujarat Model of development. The Kerala Model invests in social development, whereas the Gujarat Model invests in economic development.

Despite being a mainly remittance based economy with 48% percent of its citizens falling below the extreme poverty line, Kerala has one of the highest rates of literacy and one of the longest life expectancies in all of India. Especially important in this model of development is the economic empowerment of and investment in women. Throughout her research, Professor Lukose tracked how a specific document entitled “Poverty, Unemployment and Development Policy: a Case Study of Selected Issues with Reference to Kerala” began to circulate in the United Nations about the efficacy of the Kerala Model, with the idea that what had proven effective in Kerala could be replicated in other similar circumstances.

The India Human Development Report showed Kerala as one of the top regions in terms of quality of life. That a model which stressed activism and economic redistribution could prove so successful was exciting to many in the United Nations, who looked towards the tactics found in Kerala to plan development projects in other locales. There is not, however, a consensus among Indians that this model has been entirely successful, as many of the people in Kerala continue to live in poverty. Professor Lukose expressed her desire to continue to explore what this model of development means for the larger picture of development in India.


Tuesday, December 13th: Erica Caple James

Summary by Chris Sanacore, First Year MA Student in Anthropology and Education

Professor James is a medical and psychiatric anthropologist and currently serves as an associate professor of Anthropology within MIT’s graduate program for the social sciences. She received her B.A. in anthropology from Princeton University (1992) and, along with a Masters of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School (1995), she earned her M.A. and Ph.D. in social anthropology from Harvard University (1998, 2003).

Professor James’ research interests include (but are not limited to) violence, trauma, global health, gender, religion and the democratization process in post-conflict situations. Her work also caters to a regional interest in Haiti, and she continues to work with Haitian immigrants in the United States. Her first book, Democratic Insecurities: Violence Trauma and Intervention in Haiti (2010), follows the psychological trauma of Haitian survivors during the 1991-1994 coup and explores Haiti’s post-conflict transition to democracy. Her second project, Wounds of Charity: Corporate Catholicism in the Archdiocese of Boston, focuses on a critical investigation into Catholic-based and other publicly funded social service organizations that provide health and education programs for Haitian immigrants and refugees.

Professor James’ lecture was an enlightening dive into the politics of charity in Boston, Massachusetts. Drawing on Michel Foucault’s concept of biopolitics and Michel de Certeau’s notion of the scriptural economy, Professor James detailed an extensive structuring of religious power and logocentric trends which dictate the ways these agencies operate. Her introduction described the challenges Catholic charities must navigate on federal and state levels in order for their religious agencies to successfully and legally provide social services.

Professor James’ research centers on a charity group dedicated to assisting Haitian immigrants. Professor James not only conducted research with this agency but has also acted as a volunteer and has been a part of the social landscape she observed for her work. She notes the way written word is hierarchized within a field of power relations which shape how social workers are able to conduct their services. Thus, documentary procedures in which social workers must take note of all the details of client meetings become a highly valued, scriptural product that is strictly used as the sole means of documenting an official truth of client-worker proceedings. Specifically, Professor James notes maternal and child health education by which charity employees are faced with constraints in terms of what they should document and what they should omit from their interactions with clients. In this juggling of truth, documentation, and the constraints from religious and state regulations, Professor James details how social workers find themselves navigating a nexus of conflicting ideologies and practices.

Professor James also detailed adult education programs for Haitian immigrants. Here too, the power of documented word superseded other categories of validity and educational success for Haitian students. In particular, Professor James explained the way that state regulations require adult education instructors to document “objectives” and other superficial success-related goals which had to be designed by both instructor and student. This became increasingly difficult when not only was it expected that these objectives were uploaded into a computer system but these goals were also quantified into data in which the success or failure to meet these objective demands dictated whether or not the charity group would be able to receive funding in the future.


Thursday, December 15th: Fida Adely

Summary by Bridget Bartolini, Academic Secretary for the Department of Anthropology; Corinne Kentor, first year Ph.D Student in Anthropology and Education; and Chris Sanacore, First Year MA Student in Anthropology and Education

Fida Adely presented the final faculty candidate talk on December 15th. Professor Adely is an Associate Professor at the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University and the Clovis and Hala Salaam Maksoud Chair in Arab Studies. Her primary research site has been Jordan and currently she is completing a book manuscript on the internal labor migration of Jordanian women. Since 2013, she has been an associate editor for Anthropology and Education Quarterly. Selected publications by Dr. Adely include: Gendered Paradoxes: Educating Jordanian Women in Nation, Faith & Progress (University of Chicago Press, 2012); “God Made Beautiful Things”, American Ethnologist (2012); “Educating Women for Development” International Journal for Middle East Studies (2009). Dr. Adely received her Ph.D in 2007 at Teachers College (Columbia University) in Comparative Education and Anthropology.

Professor Adely’s talk focused on how and why women pursue schooling in various parts of Jordan, where she has conducted much of her ethnographic research. The lecture described Professor Adely’s efforts to map domestic migration patterns in order to better understand how moving from a rural environment to an urban center affects academic achievement among Jordanian women. Professor Adely’s talk included several bright anecdotes, including the story of a highly educated woman who entered suddenly into a domestic partnership and found different challenges and opportunities as a married woman.

Throughout her lecture, Professor Adely considered how different forms of schooling reflect the shifting values placed on education in Jordan. She briefly considered the development of private sector “power couples” and discussed how domestic relationships interface with educational achievement. Her lecture reflected many of the dominant themes represented in her book, Gendered Paradoxes, which is based on research she began while pursuing her Ph.D in the Anthropology Department at Teachers College.