Article Highlight: Vol. 41, Issue 2, “The Tipping of the Big Stone—And Life itself. Obesity, Moral Work and Responsive Selves Over Time”

This week we explore Lone Grøn’s The Tipping of the Big Stone—And Life itself. Obesity, Moral Work and Responsive Selves Over Time. Grøn explores moral work and moral selves in the context of the obesity epidemic and weight loss processes. Cheryl Mattingly’s notions of “moral laboratories” (Moral Laboratories: Family Peril and the Struggle for a Good Life, University of California Press, Berkeley, 2014, available here) explore moral cultivation over time that cannot be disconnected from notions of biographical and narrative self. Building off Mattingly’s concepts, as well as philosopher Bernhard Waldenfels’ phenomenology, Grøn proposes the notion of a responsive self.


Grøn begins by introducing Rita, a participant in the obesity program at The Lifestyle Center, a Danish patient school which teaches self-care, diet, and exercise practices to people suffering from or at risk of what is termed “lifestyle-related diseases.” Grøn explores Rita’s reflections on obesity and weight loss, with specific attention to the transformation in notions of self, agency, and morality from fieldwork between 2001-2003 and 2014-2015.

Rita asks herself questions about her weight loss struggles, such as, “Why don’t I grow-up enough to take responsibility for my own well-being? Why is what I know to be the right thing to do a million miles removed from what I do in reality?” References to fighting the evil will or desire of your body, to sinning and backsliding, are plentiful and situate weight loss in the domain of morality. This places the concerns and reflections on weight-loss within broader historical and cultural ideas on self, agency, and morality, asking what kind of self one is able to be in the face of conflicting wills and moral demands.

Grøn takes up an argument that Mattingly put forward and developed, namely that moral cultivation over time cannot be disconnected from a notion of self.  Up until the last decade of the second millennium, attention to the relationships between body weight, food, and health were scarce in a Danish setting marked by cultural practices and values of “hygge,” that is, socializing by sharing food and alcohol, often to excess. Over the past two decades, this relationship has changed dramatically, and the consumption of food and drink have become morally charged in all corners of Danish society, from family spaces to the widespread network of institutions constituting the Danish welfare system. Further, a politically announced “paradigm shift” in the beginning of the second millennium in Danish health care services shifts attention from the treatment of acute diseases to the prevention of chronic diseases.

Grøn states that in many ways being obese has become an uninhabitable position. What used to be big and cozy (“hyggelig”) has become obese and alien. In the face of overwhelming personal and family histories of unsuccessful attempts at weight loss, temporary success is usually followed by increasing weight gain in a pattern widely documented in the scientific literature on weight loss processes over time. Both personal and family experience and scientific evidence define success as improbable, yet families struggling with obesity continue to experiment against the odds all the same. Thus, for Grøn, life itself becomes a laboratory.

Taking the experienced and biographical self seriously has allowed acknowledgement of the immense work of moral experimentation that Rita has engaged in over a lifetime. Furthermore, many other events and projects make up her life, including the cultivation of healing powers, of a garden of flowers, as well as of a home, family, and work life. This picture of Rita’s moral self could easily be lost if we were only concerned with the “obese” self, which can be constituted through workings of the bio-power and governmentality techniques of the Danish welfare state.

Grøn concludes by detailing the characteristics of the responsive self, emerging within the demand response dynamic. The responsive self displays both an event form that persists over the years (“I respond, therefore I am”), but also changes in terms of the content of the response. Thus, the notion of the responsive self stresses equally the suffering and the agentive dimensions of action—”an active passivity and passive activity.”


Lone Grøn is a Senior Researcher at VIVE The Danish Centre of Applied Social Science in Denmark, as well as a Senior Project Manager at KORA. She has done extensive anthropological research and ethnographic fieldwork on patient perspectives on chronic diseases, obesity, and behavioral change, highlighting the complexities of health work in the contexts of everyday lives. Her recent areas of research concern include social contagion in epidemics of non-communicable diseases and conditions, specifically in relation to kinship, relatedness and obesity; vulnerability and inequality in old age and the search for the good old life; and theoretical developments within philosophical and moral anthropology as well as phenomenological approaches in anthropology, which serve as the epistemological ground for experience-near and close-up studies of patients, citizens and families.

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SPA 2017 Biennial Meeting: Breakfast Lecture with Richard Shweder and Byron Good

This week we’re featuring a summary of The 2017 Biennial Meeting of The Society for Psychological Anthropology Breakfast Lecture. This year, the Breakfast Lecture presented a conversation with the 2016 Lifetime Achievement Awardee, Richard Shweder, and the 2017 Lifetime Achievement Awardee, Byron Good. In this event, Dr. Shweder and Dr. Good reflect on morality and “the mental” in both Cultural Psychology and Psychological Anthropology, discussing how profoundly different worlds still share some moralities and orientations. They also discuss some critical challenges and opportunities for psychological anthropology. By interviewing each other, a foundational technique in anthropology itself, Dr. Shweder and Dr. Good explore their past works, theoretical orientations, and their anticipation of where anthropological explorations of psychological processes are heading.

2016 SPA Lifetime Achievement Awardee Richard Shweder

The conversation begins with Dr. Good asking Dr. Shweder to “tell us about your history.” Dr. Shweder delves into his upbringing in Great Neck on the north shore of Long Island, at the time an emerging suburb with a very progressive, left-wing population. He discusses the first time he heard the word anthropology in his 11th grade English class when “Mr. Beal” said, “for any of you who don’t know what to do in life, there’s this thing called anthropology.” After graduation Dr. Shweder went to the University of Pittsburgh where Dr. Arthur Tuden, an Africanist and Cultural Anthropologist, taught his Introduction to Anthropology class, bringing in the study of culture with current events and ultimately solidifying Dr. Shweder’s path in Anthropology. From Pittsburgh, Dr. Shweder progressed to Harvard, where he states several figures had an impact on his intellectual growth, including Cora DuBois and John Whiting. After finishing his Ph.D. at Harvard, Dr. Shweder taught at the University of Nairobi in Kenya before finally landing at the University of Chicago.

Dr. Shweder then, discussing approaches and schools of thought in Cultural Psychology, defines Cultural Psychology as “the study of differences in mentalities across human populations.” Psychological Anthropology, for Dr. Shweder, has been more interested in taking universal psychological schemes and applying them to particular cultures to see whether or not different practices or beliefs were essentially manifestations of a broader psychological concept, such as a variation on an Oedipus complex. There is not a denial of universals in Cultural Psychology, however, since, to Dr. Shweder, there is not a way of studying differences without also studying universals. Dr. Shweder describes his way of defining the Cultural Psychology of Morality as “investigating the fates of moral absolutes in history and to show the way they get transformed, take on different content, and lead to different judgments.” To Dr. Shweder, behind a culture or individual is a set of moral absolutes, or rules of moral reason. Yet these moral absolutes and rules are abstract concepts which do not present determinations of actual cases, histories, or cultural contexts. Cultural Psychology is not about looking for likenesses, but looking for the differentiations and local adaptations that have taken place. For Dr. Shweder, the psychological means looking at differences in “the mental.” “The mental” refers to what people know, think, feel, want, and value as good and bad. Dr. Shweder states, “Anywhere you look in the world you’re going to find that people know, think, feel, want, and value things as good and bad. In some sense, that’s what it means to be a person.”

Dr. Shweder follows up with a discussion that anthropologists are supposed to fairly represent the groups they study; to try to portray their way of life in a way that the people the anthropologist is writing for might see them not as “exotic aliens,” but as morally sensitive persons who do things for recognizable reasons. Dr. Shweder proposes the conspicuous use of the notion of “oppression,” or seeing the social order as oppressive, combined with the now popular term “agency,” suggests that to have agency was to be opposed to culture. Thus, for Dr. Shweder, the concept that there might be people whose agency was used to carry forward a cultural tradition which was in a framework where they felt they could be fulfilled, was gone. “When I went to India I was in a world where if I approached it as ‘a good liberal,’ assuming everything is free choice and the world is there to satisfy my preferences, I would have seen it as an oppressive order. Yet the people who live there, for the most part, feel quite at home with rich, meaningful lives,” Dr. Shweder states.

Building off the discussion of morality, Dr. Good then engages with concepts of morality and oppression. Dr. Good states that for him, the experience of morality is often an experience of oppression. He expresses that many people spend at least parts of their lives resisting or fighting against morality, feeling that the moral system around them is actually an oppressive system causing them to live their lives “wrongly” within it. It seems to Dr. Good that reading ethics with a grand “they” or a grand “we” misses, ethnographically, another side of the story. Dr. Shweder responds that there is a multiplicity of the moral world. The moral world has many goods and desires that are in conflict with each other, and one cannot have them all. This sets up the dynamic of resistance since the system of conflict and prioritization pushes alternatives to the side. Dr. Shweder states that within any society there is the orthodox and the heterodox, that which is center stage and that which is done covertly. The mistake is to privilege one ethic over another, to act as if that privileging itself is not a choice or commitment, or to label the ethic of autonomy as the “natural way” in which anyone who is fully enlightened will ultimately go. Dr. Shweder cautions against the view of “liberalism as destiny,” where there are stages of moral development, the height of moral development being an autonomous, individualized person or society.

2017 SPA Lifetime Achievement Awardee Byron Good

Dr. Good then discusses his personal and academic history. He starts by commenting that his childhood and upbringing couldn’t have been more different than Dr. Shweder’s, growing up on a Mennonite farm in the Republican mid-west. Dr. Good spent much of his life feeling that religion and divinity grounded and oriented aspects of his academic life. “I don’t romanticize ethical norms if they, over time, have become more and more interested in controlling our lives in ways that we have very little direct knowledge of,” Dr. Good states. “I don’t romanticize suffering.” While at Goshen College in Goshen, Indiana, Dr. Good started studying mathematics before spending a year at the University of Nigeria. Dr. Good expressed this time as having a powerful impact which changed his life. “My worldview became profoundly different,” he states. Coming back from Africa convinced that there had to be something more than mathematics, Dr. Good decided to go to Harvard Divinity School. It was there that he began taking courses in anthropology and religion. Attending the University of Chicago for his Ph.D., Dr. Good states his first year at Chicago was Clifford Geertz’s last year. Yet even after Geertz left, Dr. Good still considered him a mentor and inspiration. This was also a very political moment for universities and the country in general. Dr. Good describes how he came of age in anthropology in a time of the Vietnam War, in a time of activism, and in the time of the Civil Rights Movement. These were all very powerful influences on how Dr. Good conceptualized the importance of anthropology.

Discussing his research, Dr. Good describes the time he spent in a genuinely post-colonial conflict setting of Aceh, Indonesia.  He became very aware of colonialism and its colonial history and how it had impacted political life along with a diverse set of religious and cultural influences. It was a setting that had a history of tremendous violence. “It was my first experience of working in areas of really intensive conflict,” Dr. Good states, “and I have to say that I went home from that experience very affected by listening to stories of violence.” Terms like “post-colonialism” and “post-colonial subjectivity,” and even terms like “haunting” and “hauntology” became central to his vision of what Psychological Anthropology can be today. Dr. Good poses the question of how one does Psychological Anthropology in settings of violence. “My thinking about hauntology started off with being in Aceh, and thinking about what Aceh was like post-tsunami and post-conflict,” Dr. Good remarks. Aceh was a place where ghosts and spirits of the dead were everywhere, alongside the ghosts of the recent violence and the emergence of political gorillas who had been previously hidden away. “Suddenly Aceh was no longer in the midst of a war and people who had been fighting were coming back and appearing in everyday life,” Dr. Good explains, “and I began thinking about post-authoritarian Indonesia and why it is that there are certain moments in a society that ghosts begin to appear in a very powerful way, and ghosts that are related to historical violence.” Dr. Good became fascinated with the relationship between historical memory, histories of violence, how they make themselves present, and how they reintroduce themselves in psychological experience.

To wrap up the Breakfast Lecture, Dr. Shweder discusses how the issue of nationalism is front and center in a very powerful way at the moment. He suggests that anthropologists should be qualified to talk about the ethno-national impulses people are facing and examine why it is that some people feel like their way of life, or their control over their life, is being threatened by globalization, for example. He calls on anthropologists to give a native point of view instead of simply reacting with fear and mainstream ideology. “This is anthropology. There are in-groups and there are out-groups. People have ways of life and traditions; they want to exercise control over their way of life. This has to be examined,” Dr. Shweder states. He further discusses that one of the things that’s exceptional to the United States is that we are a nation in which constitutional patriotism is the binding feature. In principle, that means there is space for cultural diversity. “The ways in which tyranny can be built up and balanced through distribution of power are all rich topics right now. Immigration. Making sure we represent minority views in a way that majority groups understand them and why the way they live is both meaningful and justifiable.” Dr. Shweder finishes by stating that there are also threats to anthropology from within. He warns against a “liberal tyranny” which can be compared to a “white-man’s-burden-style” of thinking with regard to cultural differences. Dr. Shweder sees this as using the notion of oppression or exploitation as an excuse for interventions into other people’s ways of life rather than starting by seeing whether or not one can understand other practices and social organizations in a morally-motivated way. Dr. Good closes the conversation session by encouraging anthropologists to be engaged in both theoretical debates within the discipline as well as policy and implementation projects and practices which can benefit the people in the communities we study.


Richard Shweder is the Harold H. Swift Distinguished Service Professor of Human Development in the Department of Comparative Human Development at the University of Chicago. He is the author of Thinking Through Cultures: Expeditions in Cultural Psychology (1991) and Why Do Men Barbecue? Recipes for Cultural Psychology (2003), both published by Harvard University Press. Dr. Shweder is also an editor or co-editor of many books in the areas of cultural psychology, psychological anthropology, and comparative human development. For more information on Dr. Shweder, visit his page at the University of Chicago here, as well as the Society for Psychological Anthropology 2017 Biennial Conference Breakfast Lecture website, available here.

Byron Good is a Professor of Medical Anthropology at, and former Chair (2000-2006) of, the Department of Social Medicine, Harvard Medical School, and Professor in the Department of Anthropology, Harvard University. Dr. Good is director of the International Mental Health Training Program, funded by the Fogarty International Center to train psychiatrists from China in mental health services research. Dr. Good’s broader interests focus on the theorization of subjectivity in contemporary societies, focusing on the relation of political, cultural, and psychological renderings of the subject and experience, with a special interest in Indonesia. He is the editor or co-editor of many significant volumes, books, and is a former editor-in-chief of our Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry journal (1986-2004). For more information on Dr. Good, visit the Harvard Medical School Department of Global Health and Social Medicine website here, as well as the Society for Psychological Anthropology 2017 Biennial Conference Breakfast Lecture website, available here.