New insights into economic and social change

Researchers of the Max Planck Society and the University of Cambridge collaborate in the Max Planck - Cambridge Centre for Ethics, Economy and Social Change

How do moral and ethical convictions affect local economies and impact global capitalism? This is the fundamental question driving the projects of the Max Planck - Cambridge Centre for Ethics, Economy and Social Change, which was officially inaugurated this Tuesday. “Without any doubt, in today’s globalized world, the dynamics between ethics, religion and economy have reached an unprecedented complexity. This makes the research of the new Max Planck - Cambridge Centre very relevant for our times. This cooperation brings together the complementary skills of outstanding scientists of the Max Planck Society and the University of Cambridge. I am delighted that, in this period of uncertainty caused by Brexit, we have established another highly visible collaboration with top British scientists,” says Martin Stratmann, President of the Max Planck Society. He was together with Stephen Toope, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, and the four Co-Directors among the speakers during the official launch ceremony.

The way a society organizes its economy cannot be detached from its ethical concerns and values. In the long period before the emergence of industrial capitalism, accumulation of material goods was seldom the mark of the morally upright. How did the ownership of goods come to be seen as desirable and virtuous? Max Weber asked and answered this question in “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism” by connecting economic to religious and ethical change, suggesting that major transformations in society are always accompanied by profound changes in what it means to be a good person.

The institutional ramifications of Weber’s claims remain hotly debated in the contemporary social sciences. The new Max Planck - Cambridge Centre for Ethics, Economy and Social Change (Max-Cam) will join these debates by applying the ethnographic research methods of socio-cultural anthropology. Drawing inspiration not only from Weber but a range of classical and contemporary social theory, Max-Cam researchers have a particular interest in how ritual practices – from collective celebrations of success and achievement to routinized techniques of accountability and self-cultivation – facilitate the institutionalization of ethical and economic changes.

“In the wake of the global financial crash, when there is great public interest in the ethical  foundations of a capitalism dominated by transnational corporations, our goal is to develop new approaches to pressing social agendas,” emphasize the four co-Directors James Laidlaw and Joel Robbins (Department of Social Anthropology, University of Cambridge), Chris Hann (Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, Halle/Saale), and Peter van der Veer (Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity, Göttingen).

Cooperation beyond Brexit

The Max Planck - Cambridge Centre for Ethics, Economy and Social Change is a joint project of these institutions that started its operations in July 2017.  “The strengths of the Cambridge Department in the anthropology of ethics, the Göttingen Institute in the study of religion, and the Institute in Halle in economic anthropology, constitute a unique mix of skills with which to investigate contemporary social change,” say the Directors.  

The Centre is funded jointly by the University of Cambridge and the Max Planck Society and has an initial budget of £2,000,000 (circa 2,270,000 Euro). Six postdoctoral fellows will undertake field research at sites around the world. “We hope in the future to expand our activities , e.g. by offering positions for visiting scholars, and to make the Centre a hub for further creative initiatives beyond the life-span of the initial projects,” say the Directors.

Over the coming four years,  public lectures, workshops and larger conferences will be hosted both in Cambridge and the two German locations. In the wake of Brexit, the Centre will demonstrate the value of continued European collaboration in science and society.

19 Max Planck Centers worldwide

The Max Planck Centers constitute a major instrument in the Max Planck Society’s strategy for international cooperation.  The participating Max Planck Institutes and their international partners bundle their resources and typically draw on complementary theoretical traditions and methods to create added scientific value. With the newly inaugurated Max Planck - Cambridge Centre for Ethics, Economy and Social Change there are currently 19 Max Planck Centers worldwide.


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