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National Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics: The Ambiguous Ethicality of Applause: Ethnography’s Uncomfortable Challenge to the Ethical Subject

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This article received an honourable mention in the graduate category of the 2023 National Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics

Written by University of Manchester student Thomas Long


This essay presents, first and foremost, the recollections of a doctoral anthropologist as they attempt to make sense of a moment of embodied, ethical dissonance: a moment where the “familiar” of their own ethical positionality was suddenly and violently made very “strange” to them through participation in applause. Applause is one of the most practical ways we can perform our support for a cause, idea or individual within corporeal social space. Through a vignette, I examine the ethical challenge presented by my own, unexpected applause – applause for the Pro-Life movement – that occurred during fieldwork with Evangelical Christians in the U.S.A. I use this vignette to question the impact of the field on an anthropologist’s capacity to practice what they see as good ethics, and in doing so, consider the practical ethical limits of conducting ethnographic research with so called “repugnant cultural others” (Harding 1991). I argue that moments of uncomfortable alienation from one’s own perceived ethical positionality present not a moral, but a conceptual challenge, in that through this alienation the elasticity of our ethical selves is laid bare. I conclude by suggesting that the challenge presented by doing ethnography with ethically divergent interlocutors constitutes an “object dissolving critique” (Robbins, 2003, p.193) of our implicit conception of what it means to be a coherent ethical subject at all.

About a month before the Supreme Court went public with its decision to overturn Roe VS Wade, the legislature protecting the right to an abortion in the U.S.A, the Southern Baptist Convention was holding its annual meeting in California. As the largest and arguably most politically conservative denomination of Evangelical Christians in the U.S, the SBC boasts a spanning network of cultural and institutional infrastructure, extending deep roots that perforate the fabric of society in the North-American South. At this year’s annual meeting – along with a scandalous report exposing an endemic sexual abuse problem within the denomination – Roe vs Wade and the burgeoning gains of a galvanised Pro-Life movement dominated centre stage.

Some weeks prior, a draft opinion document detailing the Supreme Court’s plans to overturn the historic constitutional amendment had been leaked to news outlet Politico, re-energising evangelical anti-abortion crusaders for whom an, albeit troubled, political intimacy with the Trump administration was continuing to bear fruit. For Southern Baptists, who – quite literally – consider abortion to be murder, this signified a great “victory for life” in what for over half a century had been widely considered a losing battle with death. There was talk of widespread elation and even parties being held amongst the Baptist community in celebration of the leaked opinion draft, and the excitement in the air at the annual meeting was palpable.

“Just imagine”, expressed an impassioned speaker presenting a panel discussion on the future of the Pro-Life movement in “a post Roe-V-Wade world”, “how many babies this will save if Roe is in fact overturned. How many of Gods children will be allowed a chance at life”. Discussing potential legislative options, another speaker described plans to lobby government “to treat the abortion pill like illegal contraband”, reminding the audience that half of all abortions are chemical abortions and likening the import of the morning-after pill to drug trafficking. A third gave a run-down of the Psalm 139 (V13-14: For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb) project, an initiative with the goal of placing ultrasound machines in abortion clinics, in order to encourage potential mothers to “see their babies” before making the decision to terminate them. A smartly dressed attorney fiercely stated her pride at the readiness of Southern Baptists to “stand shoulder to shoulder in this fight for the dignity of women, the dignity of their children and the dignity of human life – God bless us all!”.

Having grown up in London and then moved to Manchester, bustling and politically liberal urban hubs where abortion remains a right and available for free on the NHS, this was the first time in my life that I had rubbed elbows with anti-abortionists, let alone hard-right “Christian nationalists”. Sitting there, engrossed and definitely a little shocked, I had my first encounter with the infamous political fervour that I had seen plastered all over newspapers and news stations since Trump’s election in 2016; The figure of the incandescent evangelical, inflamed by a fury and a fire conferred by God himself, draped, obtuse and unapologetic in red white and blue, and alive with a divine moral purpose that burned through the eyes and lashed off the tongue. Theirs was after all, a “moral majority”, an ideology powerfully infused and inseparable from an urgent ethical mission, to swim up the stream of a polluted and poisonous cultural swell, and save one nation-under-God from its own misguided modern circumstance.

It was, at once, everything that interested me about right wing Christian politics in the U.S, and everything that worried me about performing ethnographic research on it. With every new speaker, with every damning speech, and with every bout of growing applause for each, a paranoia was beginning to set in. I had begun to feel my presence as an ‘ideological outsider’ increasingly as the event went on, my sense of its perceived obviousness swelling like a balloon in the back of my head, giving me away to the rest of the room and to the big Other of the convention at large. I could say with some certainty that I disagreed quite strongly with almost everything the Baptists had to say, and the radical unfamiliarity of the lens through which they spoke about abortion had disturbed me in a visceral, discordant kind of way. This was that radical unfamiliarity distinctive of the ethnographic experience, in that it was as intrusive as it was intellectually invigorating. I could feel eyes upon me: lasers pointed at the back of my head that heated up my neck, to the point where I dared not turn lest the slightest movement somehow splinter and destroy whatever fragile façade of support I was still upholding, exposing me as an interloper to the entire room.

This was all, of course, completely in my mind. The Southern Baptists had been nothing but accommodating and friendly towards me the entire time I had been there, giving me a press pass, access to a break room and an unlimited supply of tea and coffee. They had welcomed me in as a university-based researcher knowing full well that I probably didn’t agree with their politics, and what’s more, I remember thinking that the idea someone was monitoring how I, a random observer in a sea of maybe four-hundred, was actively reacting to what was being said on stage, verged, quite frankly, on the schizophrenic. For whatever reason, this knowledge was powerless to relax me. I had expected when preparing for this project that my positionality would be challenged, that I would feel uncomfortable in the presence of “the repugnant cultural other” (Harding, 1991). I had not however, considered exactly what this would feel like in an embodied, practical sense. I had, in my naïve haste to intellectualise the field and my fieldwork, overlooked “the ethical as a modality of social action or of being in the world [more so] than as a modular component of society or mind” (Lambek, 2010, p.9); I had seen my own ethical positionality as something to be intellectualised also.

As the event came to a close, a final speaker expressed his gratitude for the other panellists, the audience, and for the work of the Pro-Life movement in general. “I just want to say that I am so, so proud to be a part of a community doing so much for life and for the unborn everywhere. We’ve had some great speakers tonight. Let’s now show our support for them, and their tireless work to make abortion not just illegal, but unnecessary and unthinkable! Amen people!”. The room erupted into thunderous applause, and it was only as the applause began to die down, that I realised that a pair of disembodied hands beneath my eyeline were applauding as well. The burning I had felt in the back of my neck remained but adopted new significance, as I realised that those hands – applauding a punitive ban on abortion – belonged to me. I felt guilt, shame, and inflaming both of these to the point where I broke out into a light sweat, a panicked sense of what I can best describe as alienation.

I had been in the field not three days, and felt as though I had already betrayed my own moral beliefs. I was, and remained, firmly pro-choice, not least because I felt my own gender disregarded me somewhat from any other kind of imposition. How on earth had I found myself in this situation, actively performing my support for a movement seeking to strip this choice from women? Applauding a ban on abortion? Really? When I had read in the past about “going native” – the moment in which “the anthropologist loses his supposed detachment, and throws over the world he was born into for the world he has found” (Wickham-Crowley, 2000, p.11) – I had never imagined this to be an exercise that would compromise my morality. I was not Pro-Life and was quite sure of this fact, so why did I feel so alienated from my own sense of morality?

The applause itself could be explained in a number of different ways. In an article about social production and shared ritual worship in Pentecostalism, for example, Joel Robbins (2009) uses Collins’ (2004) notion of “Interaction Ritual Chains” to explain the “emotional energy” (p.44) produced when acting as part of a group in a ritualised setting: a setting where a particular form of participation such as prayer – or indeed, applause (Remisiewicz & Rancew-Sikora, 2022, p.309) – is elicited as an aspect of an event’s sequence. Beginning from Durkheim’s (1995) argument “that major collective rituals produce a kind of effervescence that energizes people and leads them to feel empowered” (Robbins, 2009, p.60), Robbins suggests that the draw of shared participation in Pentecostal spaces lies less in their theology and more in their praxis: in their capacity for “emotional entrainment through bodily synchronization” (Ibid, p.61) that is difficult to resist and adept at interpolating the hesitant. It certainly seems a reasonable explanation to suggest that, given the affective power of the ritualised (and religious) emotional energy in the room – a powerful, politicised energy engendered by the Pro-Life movement’s envisioning of itself as a divinely commissioned “social crusade” to enhance women’s position (Ginsburg, 1998, p.218) – I had merely been swept up in an “Interaction Ritual Chain” of applause as it moved through the crowd. My participation was an arbitrary, physical response to stimuli rather than a practical ethical act in itself.

Also worth considering was the paranoid sense of otherness that I had felt so intensely preceding the moment of applause itself. Understanding the experience through a Foucauldian lens for example, renders the act less as an exposition of ethical subjectivity and more as the response to power of a disciplined body: “The body is also directly involved in a political field; power relations have an immediate hold upon it; they… force it to carry out tasks, to perform ceremonies, to emit signs” (1977, p.25). It could therefore be argued that applause here represented one such sign, its enactment engendered by my perceived “state of conscious and permanent visibility” (Ibid, p.201) located in the panoptic (Ibid) ideological gaze of some four-hundred Pro-Life advocates.

Both are sufficient explanations, and go some way as to explicating some of the practical ethical pressures that may be placed on an anthropologist during the ethnographic encounter. They do not, however, address the contradiction at the centre of my recollection: namely my guilt, panic and sense of moral alienation in light of the fact that I knew I was not Pro-Life. If I wasn’t feeling a sense of alienation from my own moral compass, then what exactly was I feeling? Perhaps the answer lies in the most basic and obviously disturbing element of the experience: that my surroundings had made my body act in a way my mind – and “heart” – did not condone. Perhaps what had disturbed me was the abrupt, practical demonstration of our environment’s power to alter our behaviour in immediate and unexpected ways, regardless of the moral ambiguity of that behaviour. And perhaps worse of all was the sense that I had been, in that moment, completely powerless to stop it.

As Lambek tells us, ethics often exists “in the movement or tension between the ostensible (manifest, explicit, conspicuous, declared, avowed, certain, normative, necessary) and the tacit (latent, implicit, ambiguous, subjunctive, aporetic, paradoxical, uncertain, transgressive, possible)” (Lambek, 2010, p.28). Bearing this in mind, the analytic potential of the ethnographic encounter for practical ethics thus becomes its ability to make poignantly visible the elasticity that this perpetual in-betweenness demands of the ethical subject. Being ostensibly pro-choice in an environment that demands (through interaction ritual chains or panoptic disciplinary power) a performance that is tacitly Pro-Life (namely, applause for the movement) indicates unequivocally a contradictory and elastic ethical self: an ethical self that is disembodied and impalpable enough to do both of these things simultaneously. It is here we find the locus of the alienation we have been seeking to root out.

In the sudden, dizzying realisation that the hands applauding one cause and the heart bound to another originate from the same subject, the formless contingency of the ethical subject is laid bare. At the absurd moment of this recognition, the illusion of our consistent ethical self is, for a brief moment, lost to us, and a sense of groundless, alienated dissonance creeps into our core. Not only does the field challenge our conceptual registers with radical forms of epistemological otherness and difference, it also pulls at the very substance of our ethical selves by situating them within an environment incongruent to their normative animation. Captured in my applause for the Pro-Life movement was thus not only a moment of moral slippage, nor a mere instance of participation in synchronised social activity. Neither can it be reduced to a simple concave to the (inferred) social pressure of my interlocutors. Instead, the event and its unsettling, introspective, alienating effect, represented a practical crystallisation of ethnography’s uncomfortable challenge to the ethical subject. The “object dissolving critique” (Robbins, 2003, p.193) of its own incoherence.


Reference List

Collins, R. 2004. Interaction Ritual Chains. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Harding, S. 1991. Representing Fundamentalism: The Problem of the Repugnant Cultural Other, Social Research, vol. 58, no. 2, pp.373–93.

Durkheim, E. 1995. The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. Trans. K. E. Fields. New York: Free Press.

Foucault, M. (ed.) 1977. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Pantheon Books.

Ginsburg, F. (ed.) 1998. Contested Lives: The Abortion Debate in an American Community. University of California Press.

Lambek, M. (ed.) 2010. Introduction. In Ordinary Ethics: Anthropology, Language and Action, pp.1–36. New York: Fordham University Press.

Remisiewicz, Ł., & Rancew-Sikora, D. 2022. A study of applause in family ritual. Discourse Studies, 24(3), pp.307–329.

Robbins, J. 2003. ‘What is a Christian? Notes Toward an Anthropology of Christianity’, Religion, vol. 33, no. 3, pp.191–199.

Robbins, J. 2009. Pentecostal Networks and the Spirit of Globalisation: On the Social Productivity of Ritual Form. Social Analysis, Volume 53, Issue 1, pp.55–66. Berghahn Journals.

The Bible: New International Version, Psalm 139, Verse 13-14. Accessed 01.02.23:

Wickham-Crowley, K. M. 2000. “Going Native”: Anthropological Lawman. Arthuriana, 10(2), pp.5–26.

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3 Comment on this post

  1. The world consists of conundrums. I am not terribly surprised by the courteous treatment you were accorded. The old adage goes something like: ‘keep your friends close and enemies closer’. These folks were trying, in their own minds, to assess which (if either) you were. I realize that who you are, what you are doing and what your goals are determine you will over-think some things. Try, if you can, to chalk it up to your understanding of human nature and behavior. You learned something, whether or not you believe humans HAVE a ‘nature’. Sure, applause can be sincere or sarcastic. It can also be out of irritation or boredom. This is but one wonderful example of the diversity of behavior among homo sapiens. Aren’t you glad you are here?

    1. Thanks so much for the thoughtful comment Paul. I think you are right, in that a lot of these confusing moments come about through ones mission as a ‘researcher’ to constantly bend complex behaviours into a sensical narrative, particularly in situations where outiside of this role we might not be so dedicated. As you point out, when humans are involved contradiction and diversity are common while coherence is often rare, and so I suppose feeling unsatisfied or confused by what we experience in the field can be simply symptomatic of this. A lot to think about – Thank you!

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