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 

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