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Accueil > Recherche > Axes de recherche

Normative systems and conflicts of values

Coordinated by : D. Berti, S. Gros ; Participants from CEH : O. Aubriot, P. Ramirez, J. Smadja ; Membres associés ; Barbara Berardi-Tadie, Serena Bindi, Véronique Bouiller, Blandine Ripert, Chiara Letizia

The peoples of Himalayan and Tibetan regions have experienced major social, political and economic upheavals due to more or less globalised forces, which provide the framework for research that opens up new directions in our understanding of the continuities and transformations that are at work. In this context, our research is fuelled by the emergence of situations where there are necessarily ethical or moral choices and negotiations that bring to light conflicts between different registers of values. Values are thus seen as part of a relational field that constitutes a privileged object in the study of forms of sociality and the conditions for building knowledge.

Several members of the our research unit study the workings of normative systems that derive from professional or expert circles in legal, medical, artistic or hydraulic domains. These systems, the categories and conceptual tools of which are supposed to have an international or universalist dimension, are articulated or come into conflict with practices or knowledge — ritual, therapeutic, technical — whose local and identity-based scope tends to be put forward and asserted. In these situations of encounters between different systems of knowledge and of value, as well as of the development of new categories, we study multiple forms of tension, articulation or osmosis.

To pursue the work we undertook in the previous five-year programme, we will continue to work on the question of the “judicialisation of nature”. In this collaborative project between anthropologists and geographers, we focus on court cases in which arguments for environmental or animal protection clash with local religious conceptions or ritual practices — for example, when a development project is carried out in a place said to be inhabited by a deity, or, conversely, when a ritual activity risks polluting the environment or is deemed to mistreat animals. These cases involve not only contrasting ideas or values (morality versus cruelty, religion versus superstition, tradition versus modernity or social progress), but also different “rights” (right to religious freedom, human rights, animal rights, customary rights), as well as different ’spheres of authority’.

These cases also raise the much-debated question of the redefinition of the category of personhood based on the idea of "legal personality" and the right of "non-human persons". This legal concept was recently introduced in India by a decision of the High Court of a Himalayan state to confer legal representation and therefore rights on animals and on natural entities — glaciers, waterfalls, rivers, and even the air.

These legal issues are intertwined with a range of political and economic considerations in debates about the ecological crisis. The major paradigms that carry a lot of weight in the Himalayan world — the theory of environmental degradation in the Himalayas, climate change — have direct consequences on the way human actions on the environment are perceived in relation to different types of knowledge (so-called local, indigenous, or traditional, as opposed to scientific). It has become necessary to methodologically reconsider the place of this knowledge as well as the place of the values that are put forward in the various relationships to the environment. These reconsiderations make it possible to go beyond the nature-society dichotomy and to take into account the interdependence of the material and the social. Another component of this axis focuses on the field of agricultural techniques and expertise. The analysis of the social, economic and political context in which technical choices are made necessarily attributes a lot of room to the conditions for building this knowledge, to the values that frame and influence technical and institutional choices, as well as to power relationships.

Various registers of knowledge that call upon multiple values are found not only in the confrontation between indigenous knowledge and scientific knowledge within the framework of development and nature protection policies, but also in their confrontation with modes of categorisation and apprehension of the world that are conveyed by political and religious projects. The question of conflicts over registers of values is particularly acute in the context of religious conversions. The destabilisation or even destruction of local institutions under the influence of profound socio-economic changes leads to a loss of bearings and an existential search for meaning. Thus, in the case of certain minorities in south-west China, conversions to Christianity as well as cases of suicide seem to be responses to an overall phenomenon of marginalisation.

Various registers of values are also mobilised in the heritage industry, whether in the context of the establishment of nature reserves (attributing intrinsic value to natural elements) or in the preservation of cultural practices. Thus, another line of research at the heart of this axis will focus on articulation between ritual practice and artistic performance, and will look at traditional theatre in the Kathmandu Valley in Nepal and possession rituals in the Indian Himalayas. Tensions emerge between rigid social affiliations and practices or expressions that allow for individual talent and creativity. Thus, in the context of possession rituals, processes of granting heritage status or of theatricalisation of these rituals accentuate the valorisation of their aesthetic components (music, song, dance) to the detriment of the valorisation of the ritual and therapeutic efficacy that is attributed to them.


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Gros, S. 2017. “Nature De-Naturalized : Modes of relation with the environment among the Drung of Yunnan (China).” Anthropological Forum 27 (4) : 32-339.

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