by Cheryl Mattingly

This guest post is part of a series published in conjunction with the meeting of the American Anthropological Association in Washington DC. UC Press authors share insight into their research and stories that reflect this year’s conference theme “Producing Anthropology.” We hope these personal glimpses into their scholarship will inspire a broad community of readers. Come back for new posts every day between now and December 5th.

It could be one of a thousand soccer fields scattered throughout America. Grade school children in their uniforms running up and down the grass shouting to one another as parents cheer them on. An ordinary Saturday afternoon event repeated in countless towns and cities across the United States. Except that in the center of this field, surrounded by screaming children who fly by him, is a boy in a wheelchair propelled madly by another boy and they, too, head in the direction of the ball. His father and mother stand at the sidelines watching the action. The boy’s parents, Tanya and Frank, have three children, two girls and a son, who is her oldest. Their son Andy was born with cerebral palsy, an extremely severe case which not only leaves him physically disabled but very cognitively impaired as well. Tanya is one of those women determined to fight for her son’s rights to good schooling and she is fierce in her determination to stand up to school board members, principals and other public officials to try to get good care for her son. “It’s my Jamaican blood,” she laughs in justifying her willingness to battle authorities.

But she credits her husband Frank for opening her eyes about her son’s capabilities to participate in everyday children’s activities that she would have shielded him from. Her husband is an athlete, a natural at many sports.  A son, his son, should love sports as much as he does, he maintained. Frank decided that he should get Andy involved in the local children’s soccer team. Tanya was terrified and absolutely refused. They fought about this for several years. But finally Frank prevailed and she let her son go on the field. During one of those games, just as she feared, children accidentally knocked his wheelchair over and he toppled down.   But, to her great surprise, he didn’t even act frightened. This is a story she has told more than once. It moves her every time; it catches her up short, this realization that despite all her determination that others see her son as capable, she herself underestimated him and the community around him.

I came to know Tanya and Frank as part of a long-term research study among African American families in Los Angeles raising children with significant illnesses and disabilities. I have repeatedly been struck by how often parents respond to the suffering of their children by trying to transform not only themselves but also the social and material spaces in which they live. Parents like Tanya struggle to cultivate more morally worthy characteristics, to become better parents, in the face of the immense demands that illness and suffering can bring—to “step up to the plate,” as one father put it, in order to care for medically fragile children.  These practices of care are undertaken in circumstances that are always fraught and sometimes seem impossible spaces in which to find any “best good” that is worth acting upon. Parents may even carry out moral experiments, like the re-invention of a local soccer game, as part of raising their children.

How might we represent and theorize moral experience, including its experimental side? Anthropologists have relied upon a host of powerful intellectual voices to give analytic depth to accounts of suffering, especially as connected to widely (even globally) dispersed institutional forms of governance, knowledge generation and control. But what about the aspirational aspects of life, moral striving? What truths might we uncover when attending not only to suffering but also to people’s attempts to realize good lives even in unpromising circumstances? How might we look at the inventive qualities of moral striving?  What analytic frameworks might be useful? In my new book, Moral Laboratories: Family Peril and the Struggle for a Good Life, I outline a virtue ethics approach, drawn from moral philosophy, to explore the promises and perils of moral becoming as connected to family practices of care.

Cheryl Mattingly is Professor in the Department of Anthropology and the Division of Occupational Science at the University of Southern California.


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