…for they know not what they do? An international workshop on “ordinary ethics” and personhood

Many anthropologists report about spirit possessions they witnessed in their respective field sites, often in the so called "global South". According to local understandings, if a person is possessed by a spirit, the actions he or she is seen to perform are not 'authored' by that person at all: It is the spirit who is acting, sometimes in asocial or even anti-social ways.. Such accounts are at odds with our western understanding of the person: are we not accountable for our actions, no matter under the influence of whatever or whoever we are?

A western notion of the person as continuous and coherent here stands in opposition to a notion of the person as interrupted and discontinuous, permeable by spirits and powers, hence not necessarily fully accountable for the actions he or she may appear to perform. From that insight about the variety of concepts of personhood a set of related questions arises, one of them particularly far-reaching: If a person is possessed by a spirit, according to which ethical standards may that person´s actions be judged? And what is the role of "ordinary ethics" in everyday life generally?

The department of Anthropology at the University of Konstanz invited an international group of social and cultural anthropologists to discuss "Ethics as Ideals of Practice" and issues of personhood on 14th and 15th November 2013. A full report on the background and results of the workshop can be found here.