Detailed Research Statement

The history of the concept

The concept of 'moral economy' dates back to Edward P. Thompson's seminal studies on the moral economy of eighteenth-century English crowds (Thompson 1971, 1991). Since then, it has gained currency in history as well as in social and political science, while at the same time broadening its scope. Initially, it was used to depict the moral resources of those social groups and strata that rebelled and revolted against impending changes to society’s economic and social fabric. Thompson, for a start, introduced it to grasp the "complexities of motive, behaviour, and function" of those who protested against rising food prices in pre- and proto-industrial England. Instead of reacting in a "spasmodic" and irrational way, rioters were guided by a "moral economy", "grounded upon a consistent traditional view of social norms and obligations". This view, he added, was "passionately held" (Thompson 1971: 76-79). James Scott, in his anthropological work on Southeast Asian rice farmers in the 1930s, employed the term to explore their "fears, values, and habits". By examining their "indignation and rage", he tried to embrace their "moral economy" and unravel the "normative roots of peasant politics" (Scott 1976: 2-4). More recently, historian Laurence Fontaine has used the concept to analyse pre-industrial modes of giving and receiving credit (and confidence) in Europe. Just as Thompson and Scott did earlier, she places economic activities firmly within a web of religious, political and social relations (Fontaine 2008).

Breaking this close link to economics, historian of science Lorraine Daston broadened the concept by relating it to the production of modern science. Furthermore, she stressed the intimate connection between 'affects' and 'values' and defined a moral economy as "a balanced system of emotional forces, with equilibrium points and constraints" (Daston 1995: 4). In her footsteps, cultural anthropologist Didier Fassin refers to "l'économie morale comme la production, la repartition, la circulation et l'utilisation des sentiments moraux, des émotions et des valeurs, des normes et des obligations dans l’espace social", and applies it to analyse immigration policy in France since 1950 (Fassin 2009: 1257; 2005).

The term 'moral economy' as used by the IMPRS

With regard to how the term 'moral economy' was introduced and initially employed, the School offers an innovative approach which continues the aforementioned attempts to broaden the concept. It diverges from the traditional usage in three important ways:

  • firstly, 'moral economy' refers to modern societies rather than pre-modern ones;
  • secondly, 'moral economies' are perceived as dynamic and contested instead of static and harmonious; as a consequence, the term is used in plural rather than in singular;
  • thirdly, the primary focus is not what today is called 'economy', but encompasses broader societal spheres and systems.

As to the first issue, regarding the modernity of 'moral economies', we diverge from Thompson and Scott who introduced the concept to describe pre-modern and pre- or proto-capitalist ways of feeling, judging, and acting. Instead, we deliberately extend it to encompass modern societies (in their manifold shapes and modes). We hold that modern societies, too, are based on values and morals that refer to ideas of justice, fairness, reciprocity, and solidarity (Rawls 1971, 2001). Those ideas and the related emotions, whether positive or negative, are crucial for the way in which citizens lead their private and public lives. The question regarding their origins has generated several, though not sufficiently convincing debates. The famous, so-called "Böckenförde dilemma" states that the modern (democratic, secular) state "lives on and off preconditions that it cannot guarantee itself". As a liberal state, it is unable to regulate freedom by authoritative means; instead, it depends on citizens to perform the work of regulation "internally, by the moral substance of each and everyone" (Böckenförde 1976: 60). But how exactly is this to be accomplished? What constitutes and nourishes this "moral substance"? Is there just one "substance" or many which might even diverge and contradict each other? How are they upheld and negotiated "internally"? How do citizens acquire "moral substance", both individually and collectively, and what causes its destruction? Which institutions contribute to its formation, and through which social practices is it sustained and protected, or, alternatively, challenged and undermined?

As to what modern societies actually are and which form they take, the School proceeds from a historical notion of modernity which pays close attention to its long-term development including rifts, shifts, changes, and variations. Starting from what Thompson described as the transitional phase of emerging capitalism, we are particularly interested in relating the ensuing phases of capitalist development (conventionally described as early, high, and post-industrial modernity) to patterns of morality. We assume, however, that those patterns do not simply follow new types of capitalist production and organization, but can themselves instigate further changes and variations, as the history of social movements (from socialism to feminism and ecology) amply demonstrates. Furthermore, we take into account the impact of experiences such as modern (total and civil) wars and genocides on changing people’s values and emotions. It has not yet been established to what extent they have participated in bringing about a 'moralisation' of politics, believed by some to have been gaining momentum since the second half of the twentieth century (Hoffmann 2011). However, this might also be attributed to what Reinhart Koselleck traced back to the eighteenth century formation of civil society (Koselleck 1959).

Modern societies are not just chronologically in flux; they also display distinct territorial/geographical/national variations. Taking advantage of the regional variety covered by the School’s principal researchers, we intend to shed light on the crucial question of whether the moral economies of modern societies are a European invention and what impact they bear on non-European, e.g. Indian societies, which experienced long periods of colonial rule. With regard to the latter's theory and practice, we aim at investigating how moral norms, values, and emotions were implicated in the construction of 'modernity' and its model of historical time as a linear succession of stages of development (from the lower to the higher, from barbarity to civilization, from the simple to the complex). Harbouring certain values and emotions not only marked a society (and its members) as 'modern'; it also endowed them with superiority and buttressed their claim to rule over those who were viewed as lacking both in modernity and in moral values.

Secondly, attributing 'moral economies' to modern societies, groups, and individuals invites us to consider them as dynamic, plural, and contested, rather than as inherently stable, and balanced. In modern, highly differentiated societies, social actors and movements constantly work to define a fresh understanding of what constitutes 'good' or 'bad' citizens, what they should feel/do and not feel/do, and why all this matters. On the one hand, different communities develop different values and value different emotions; on the other hand, shared emotions contribute to the formation of social groups and movements, creating feelings of belonging within the groups' or movements' boundaries and excluding others. Issues perceived as moral in a given historical setting usually serve as rallying cries. They motivate people to cooperate with others and/or to follow a charismatic leader. At the same time, they can instigate individuals as well as social groups to exclude or discriminate against others. They can be imposed or negotiated; in both cases, they have to be supported and defended, either by deliberation or by force. Ideas about what is just, fair or moral in a given society are thus highly volatile and debated between social classes, between men and women, between in- and out-groups. How do they gather momentum? How do new concepts enter the agenda, like, for example, the issue of universal human rights? To what extent are modern societies increasingly shaped by a political vocabulary based on moral and humanitarian concerns? Moreover, what are the consequences of this 'moralization' of the political, for instance in cases of humanitarian emergencies? How do these concepts interact with other concepts like empathy and compassion heralded by the Scottish Enlightenment? And how are they translated into social practices, habits, and institutions?

The notions of fluidity, conflict, and contestation allow for a plural understanding of 'moral economies'. Instead of proclaiming one moral economy that fits all societies, we assume that there have been many. As societies vary according to different experiences and structures in the past and present, their moral and emotional regimes vary, too. Besides, societies are by no means monolithic systems which follow a single moral principle or rule. They consist of institutions serving different purposes and embodying different criteria of rationality. Families function differently from armies; situations such as being at the workplace or appearing in court give rise to different emotions and moral considerations. Even within a given society, there are different moral economies in different (emotional) spaces at work and at stake.

Thirdly, employing the term 'moral economies' demands a clarification regarding what we mean by 'economy'. Although we do use it in its modern sense referring to the production and distribution of resources, we abstain from defining those resources in material terms. Instead, we perceive them as moral and emotional. We thus follow the intellectual example of Francis Hutcheson who in 1728 considered a "just Ballance and Oeconomy" of passions and moral inclinations as constitutive of personal happiness, social cohesion, and political stability (Hutcheson 2002: 47). In this vein, we understand morality to follow certain patterns or calculi of human behaviour that can be studied like any other resource or capital, be it social or cultural, symbolic or real.

This understanding allows us to move beyond the narrow realm of the modern economic system when asking about the specific structure and dynamics of motivating passions and moral inclinations. 'Moral economies' are thought to govern and integrate different spheres – the political as much as the social, cultural and economic – and imbue them with special moral concerns and emotional demands.

Using the term 'economy' to address the complex calculus of human behaviour as patterned by moral concerns, ethics, and emotions invites us to consider, moreover, conflicts and tensions. 'Moral economies' may embody different concepts of morality and give credence to divergent claims. They are linked to different resources and connected to different sources of power. How is it that certain concepts turned out to be more successful and influential than other ones? How did moral hierarchies develop, placing certain norms and values at the top and establishing them as the most important behavioural guides (Letztwert)? And what does this reveal about the mechanisms of power and power relations?

Moral economies and emotions

As (Scottish) Enlightenment thinkers like Hutcheson were well aware, moral economies are not just about values, norms, and obligations (as Thompson thought). Norms and values have to be felt in order for them to be enacted and followed. Emotions are part and parcel of moral economies on two levels: firstly, they are needed to buttress (or, for that matter, to undermine) norms, values, and obligations. Emotions here serve as driving forces and stabilizing elements of moral and immoral behaviour. As an example, we may point towards shame as an emotion inherent in types of social interaction that follows upon strong moral concepts being violated. Emotions like resentment and greed, envy or compassion also inspire social practices and behaviours which pose a challenge to existing or prevailing patterns of social order. There is a reason that such protests are called émeutes in French, showing the close linguistic relation to emotions.

Secondly, emotions do not just support and sustain certain values deemed conducive to modern societies in their various shapes and formats. Instead, they are themselves constitutive elements of value systems. Harbouring particular emotions (and not other ones) defines people in a given historical setting as morally good or bad, as productive or destructive citizens, as civilized or barbarous. Values and emotions, therefore, are not only conducive to social harmony and bonding; they are also deeply involved in constructing social, gender, and racial hierarchies, both at the level of individual societies and globally. Within societies, middle-class feelings could be pitched against the alleged decadence of the nobility and what was believed to be the 'sliminess' of Jewish merchants or the 'brutishness' of subalterns; at the global level, 'civilized' nations confronted 'barbarians', and morally armed freedom activists declared war on exploitative imperialism. All sides generally considered themselves not only as champions of morality, but also as bearers of a certain set of habitual emotions. Feeling compassion, for example, is valued highly in modern societies; interestingly, however, each society has its own definitions of how strongly one should feel it and, most importantly, towards whom.

Research Fields

On the level of knowledge, concepts, and ideas, we pose questions regarding the origins of moral values and the sources on which they draw. Those values are to be traced and analysed in different arenas: in the political as well as in the economic, social, and cultural realm. They inform how people view political power and how it should be structured, legitimized, and shared; they feed ideas of how political and social conflicts should be handled within a given society and between states; they are relevant to how economic orders are set up and resources distributed; they underlie notions of citizens' trust and solidarity and they inspire perceptions of the 'self' and the 'other'. As crucial sources of moral concepts, we identify a) philosophy and religion, b) science/'nature', and c) history/'tradition'. How do, for instance, religious notions tie into secular norms? What about the scientific evolutionary logic binding morality to questions of (racial) survival and reproduction? How do religious and secular-scientific arguments interact historically? When and in which circumstances do moral concepts, as they are elaborated by major intellectual and social actors, quote tradition and history as their main point of reference?

On the level of social relations and institutions, we explore how moral ideas and emotional concepts are transferred to practices and programs, for example, of human development and character formation or institution building. In what ways do they inform social movements like the labour movement or anti-Semitic organizations? How do ideas of international solidarity or Jewish world conspiracy become plausible and believed by great numbers of people? On which emotions do they thrive, what kind of feelings do they produce, and how is this translated into shared world views and political practices? Apart from social movements, institutions are a prominent site for moral values and emotions to be incorporated, mediated, socialized, and enacted. Family, schools, the church, political parties, health and justice systems, the army, and numerous other institutions all embody specific morals and emotional codes which they ask/force their members to accept and appropriate. In certain cases, these codes are agreed on, and converge; in others, they are contested and fought over. Since one of the School’s major aims is to pluralize the notion of moral economy, it pursues questions as to how moral economies come to terms with each other, within and without a given society. Which tensions arise from divergent moral-institutional claims, and how are these tensions solved? Under which circumstances can moral economies be transferred from one institution to another, from one society to another? What kind of appropriation takes place here and how are these transferrals embedded in, and have an impact on, power relations? A case in point is the Holocaust: (how) has it come to serve as a universal paradigm inspiring global human rights policies infused by universal moral values? Or is it the opposite: in order to be accepted as morally important and legitimate, does a given political issue or project have to refer to a specific (Western) historical past imbued with the highest possible moral meaning?

Regional scope

The School’s research and teaching program focuses on three regions and the way in which these have developed since the eighteenth century: Europe, North America, and India, with a potential to broaden its scope to Latin America in the future. The transition to modernity and the shape it took was closely linked throughout these regions, without, however, being uniform. It was informed by intimate mutual knowledge and close interaction. In each region, colonialism and its system of knowledge was central to the creation of modernity. Still, its role and impact were different in eighteenth-century North America and nineteenth- and twentieth-century India. It also developed differently for those European nations whose empire was largely imaginary, compared to those that boasted an overseas empire for an extended period of time. Moral economies structured not only the interaction within societies, but also between them. It can be argued that they were central to the creation of a new global world order after the eighteenth century.

Enlarging the scope beyond European history allows us to address the relation between practices of colonialism and the production of new emotion knowledge that was inextricably tied to the body. To what degree do we witness a global movement towards founding moral economies on categories of race that replaced the enlightenment faith in universal values and universal emotions during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries? How did other categories – like sympathy/empathy, solidarity or dignity – fare and how did they relate to different political regimes and policies that evolved in countries like Germany, France, Britain, Spain or the US? How did India integrate these concepts into local thinking about ethnic diversity and caste?


Selected and quoted references

Ernst-Wolfgang Böckenförde, Staat, Gesellschaft, Freiheit. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1976.

Lorraine Daston, The Moral Economy of Science, in: Osiris 10 (1995), pp. 2-24.

Didier Fassin, Compassion and Repression: The Moral economy of immigration polities in France, in: Cultural Anthropology 20 (2005), pp. 363-387.

Didier Fassin, Les économies morales revisitées, in: Annales HSS 64 (2009), pp. 1237-1266.

Laurence Fontaine, L’économie morale. Pauvreté, credit et confiance dans l’Europe préindustrielle. Paris: Gallimard, 2008.

Stefan-Ludwig Hoffmann (Ed.), Human Rights in the Twentieth Century. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2011.

Francis Hutcheson, An Essay on the Nature and conduct of the Passions and Affections, with Illustrations on the Moral Sense, ed. Aaron Garrett. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2002.

Reinhart Koselleck, Kritik und Krise: Ein Beitrag zur Pathogenese der bürgerlichen Welt. Freiburg: Alber, 1959.

John Rawls, A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press of Harvard UP: 1971.

John Rawls, Justice as Fairness: A Restatement. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP 2001.

James C. Scott, The Moral Economy of the Peasant: Rebellion and subsistence in Southeast Asia. New Haven: Yale UP, 1976.

Edward P. Thompson, The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century, in: Past & Present 50 (1971), pp. 76-136.

Edward P. Thompson, The Moral Economy reviewed, in: idem, Customs in Common, London 1991, pp. 259-351.