The “new anthropology of ethics” (Clarke 2012) starts from a unit of one: the self. Inspired by Aristotle and Foucault, it treats ethical living as a personal endeavour in which every person uses reason and introspection to determine their own best path. In this model, relationships appear kind of fuzzy – others are central to the work of being a good person, but it is not entirely clear how. In my field site, a neighbourhood of mixed incomes and mixed ethnicities in Amman, Jordan, the Foucauldian idea that one should cultivate a relationship toward one’s self is the ground on which friendships between women thrive. Promoting, protecting and encouraging one another’s self-development is what friends do. They do so most often with direct, sometimes harsh commentary on one another’s choices. No choice of paint colour, parenting technique, or brand of rice is safe from evaluation.

I arrived in Amman with a theoretical interest in the anthropology of ethics. In my grant applications, I asked how women negotiate the multiple, sometimes-conflicting moral standards that prevail in a rapidly modernising society heavily influenced by both so-called traditional values and by the region-wide “Islamic trend” (Starrett 1998). I imagined each woman in her own dizzying introspective universe of mutually contradictory thoughts. What in fact has emerged is that my research participants do confront the ostensibly unsolvable problem of contradiction, and do so through navigating their relationships with others.

The sophistication of Jordanian women’s approach to this work has emerged as friends increasingly incorporate me into this process, as someone to influence and be influenced. I say “friends” because to call the relationship otherwise would be to imply that I am watching and observing this exchange and not participating in it – a stance impossible to maintain. Developing a close friendship means following evolving levels of engagement, from giving advice to nudging certain outcomes along to, in certain cases, attempting to enforce one’s views on the other party. Ladies’ discussions over coffee, easily dismissed as idle chit-chat to pass time, in this context are a means of interpolating individuals into desirable roles. This makes friendship rather treacherous territory. To be a good friend, you cannot merely be kind and generous and a good listener; in fact, as I am learning in my attempts to be all of these things, to behave this way is to ward off true intimacy and to remain a stranger.

Women in this community agree that withholding the truth to spare a confidante’s feelings is no kindness. Still, they are no more immune to criticism than anyone else, and so take pains to conceal what they do not want evaluated. I know I am not the only person in my neighbourhood who is purposefully vague or even sometimes outright untruthful with people that I consider very close to me so that I can avoid hearing commentary on my spending, my clothing, my weight, my morals. To be honest about what you are doing is to submit yourself to judgement, and not everyone’s judgement is welcome.

This demonstrates the avoidance that is one way to subvert the enforcement mechanism of intimates’ oversight. Direct criticism of the mechanism itself is another mode of subversion. The everyday practice of interfering in one another’s lives has come under attack for two reasons. First, the road to material success is a solitary one. At the same time that people bemoan the moral degeneration of society (and they do), they complain about the tyranny of others’ opinions on them. Social cohesion (al tarabut al ijtima’iyeh) is equated with backwardness (takhalluf). Filling one’s time by paying condolences and congratulations and returning obligatory visits is an uphill path toward career success, which is as laudable here as anywhere else where capitalism exists.

The second reason is a derivative of the first. Presciently writing before the US invasion of Iraq, Geraldine Chatelard (2002) described Jordan as a transit country for Iraqi refugees. In the intervening years, the “transit country” concept has become applicable to more Iraqis, to Syrians, and Jordanians whose home is in Amman but whose studies or employment are elsewhere. And mobility is not just transnational: people move throughout the city, they cycle through jobs and move to different neighbourhoods, their financial situation goes from difficult to comfortable back to difficult. Practically, this means that most of the time, one is dealing with strangers, and friends are as likely to be new acquaintances as connections from childhood. Well-meaning advice has to be evaluated in light of the advisor’s credibility, and sometimes that can be tough to ascertain. Friends speak in the voice of “society” as well, and only a naïve person would take it without first looking critically to locate prejudices.

For the women I work with, friends are the primary source of everyday ethical guidance. Friends are also the primary embodiment of “society” with all of the multiple influences that it implies. Even the most trusted confidante could be espousing values that the person being advised might not share. Still, a loud and opinionated circle of friends is the best means of sifting through the multiple rubrics available. In this community, the relationship of the self to the self is one that all close friends get to comment on, and to refuse engagement in this commentary is to opt out of close relationships with others.

This research is generously supported by The Wenner-Gren Foundation.

Susan MacDougall is a DPhil student in social anthropology at Oxford University. She may be contacted at

Morag Kersel is contributing editor of Ethical Currents, the AN column of the AAA Committee on Ethics. She may be contacted at

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