Anthropology Anthropology of Liberalism
Aaron Ansell
  • LAST REVIEWED: 03 May 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 April 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0216


Anthropology has long had a love-hate relationship to liberalism. As the disciplinary proponents of other cultures’ dignity, anthropologists laid the groundwork for multiculturalism and affirmed a pluralist public sphere. On the other hand, ethnographic translations of other cultures are implicitly written in defiance of their readership’s liberal “commonsense,” e.g., the presumed universality of the self-maximizing individual (homo economicus). Inspired by either perspective, anthropologists constituted their field as the study of all that is illiberal “out there” in the world. When they found among their ethnographic subjects those who talked a liberal game, they probably tried to ignore them, much as they did the missionaries (or native converts) whose Christianity placed them outside the frame of “traditional culture.” Liberalism became an object of anthropological study only after the unit of ethnographic analysis shifted (during the 1980s) from that of the bounded cultural group to that of the globally intertwined locus (with the concomitant advent of “studying up” in the developed world). Around the same time, a new theoretical armature came to such studies from Michel Foucault’s later lectures on “governmentality,” in which he exposed individual freedom’s complicity with projects of rule. And there was a third influence: the sea changes of globalization associated with the diminution of Keynesian welfare states, the loosening of regulations on capital flows, and the ascendancy of market fundamentalism signaled the rebirth of an economic liberalism—“neoliberalism”—that altered many ethnographic landscapes. Indeed, it is a disciplinary irony that interest in neoliberal generally preceded interest in liberalism. And yet the irony makes sense in light of the increasingly visible contradiction between the deepening of market-driven inequalities and the continued hegemony of classical liberalism’s premises (rationality, universalism, progress, etc.). In the early 21st century, the anthropology of liberalism falls between two ideal types. Comprising one type are the relatively few inquiries for which liberalism is the central object of study, those presented under the headings “late liberalism” and “the liberal subject.” Comprising the second type are those lines of inquiry—“humanitarianism,” “secularism,” “human rights,” “civil society and the public sphere,” “citizenship,” “democracy,” “multiculturalism,” and “governmentality”—in which liberalism figures as one among other key analytics. Within these literatures, one finds more or less attention to liberalism per se. At times, it appears to be only the philosophical or historical backdrop to the ethnographic frame, while at others, liberalism’s diaspora and contradictions are named as the most salient precipitate of the social activity under description. In sum, anthropology, proceeding on a number of fronts (and not always in coordination), has begun to ambush liberalism as a belated object of study.


While many lines of anthropological inquiry are concerned with the manifestation, spread, and contradictions of liberal premises, there has been little concerted effort within the field to rehearse the many contributions scholars have made to the study of liberalism in general. Instead, one finds myriad review essays within those topical fields (human rights, secularism, humanitarianism, etc.) comprising the anthropology of liberalism. The main exception is Schiller’s pithy encyclopedia entry. The paucity of such comprehensive overviews may be due to the relatively recent emergence of liberalism as a distinct and explicit topic of disciplinary investigation, as in the “late liberalism” literature (Schiller 2015, pp. 115–116). Moreover, because the critical study of liberalism is so pervasive throughout many topics of anthropological inquiry, a summary of the discipline’s interventions into “liberalism” risks becoming a summary of the state of the discipline as a whole.

  • Schiller, Naomi. 2015. Liberalism, anthropology of. In International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences. Vol. 14. 2d ed. Edited by N. J. Smelser and P. B. Baltes, 11–17. Amsterdam: Elsevier.

    Schiller’s review essay summarizes anthropological approaches to liberalism as a set of “everyday effects, lived contradictions, impasses, and potentialities” that are constantly renegotiated, rather than as a fixed, much less a coherent, set of moral principles or institutions (p. 11). She traces the discipline’s interest in liberalism to Foucault’s arguments concerning the role of human freedom in governance, as well as to older disciplinary discussions concerning relativism and universalism. The overview also teases apart inquiries into the liberal law, the liberal diaspora, neoliberalism, civil society, human rights, etc.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.