Prof Karen Sykes

Professor of Anthropology

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Research interests

Area of Regional Expertise: Oceania; Papua New Guinea, North Queensland

Fields of Anthropological Expertise: Social and Cultural Anthropology, Anthropological Theory, History of Anthropology.

My research in anthropology has focused on the wider theme of moral economy, as distinguished by my earliest publications overviewing theories of gift exchange, Arguing with Anthropology:  a Critical Introduction to Theories of the Gift (Routledge 2005)  and Ethnographies of Moral Reason: Living Paradoxes of a Global Age (Palgrave 2008), and in special editions of journals, such as Interrogating Individuals: The Theory of Possessive Individualism in Oceania, Anthropological Forum, 2007 and two collections in Critique of Anthropology The Ethnography of Child and Youth Labour in the Era of Capital Restructuring.  From 2010 to the present, I have been carrying out research into the domestic moral economy, which is an ethnographic study of value that places moral reasoning about how people make a good life at the centre of theories of value creation today.


Research Collaborations  

The Domestic Moral Economy: An ethnographic study of value in the Asia-Pacific Region, 2011 - 2015.  Collaborators: Professor C.A. Gregory, Australian National University, Professor F. Magowan, Queens University Belfast, Professor Jon Altman, Australian National University, and two postgraduate researchers, who completed their doctorates as part of the ESRC project, and found employment as Dr. Rodolfo Maggio, Oxford, and Dr. Rachel Smith, Cambridge.

Money, long believed to be the destroyer of subsistence economies, has become a key instrument for the maintenance of national and transnational kin relations as costs of weddings, funerals and other rituals soar and new forms of sharing money between kin, neighbours and friends develop. The scope and limits of our study are defined by a new conceptual framework that employs the notion of the domestic moral economy (DME) through fieldwork in the Asia-Pacific region. The DME is domestic in that it is concerned with a 'kin orientation' to the modern world rather than with internally-coherent kinship systems set apart from it. We are particularly concerned with the ambiguous zone that separates kin from non-kin in economic transactions. The DME is moral in the sense that it consists of valuers who have values that inform their moral reasoning as they meet obligations to other people. Respect and familial love are key values in the DME. The problem is not to establish the generality of these values, but to understand the myriad ways that they are engendered and realised. Then, the DME is economy in the sense that is an integral part of the money economy at large, not apart from it. Finally, the word 'domestic' today no longer has the connotation of 'local' as the family has become transnational; families are maintained through remittances and life-cycle rituals in global flows of money now estimated to be greater in size than foreign aid. Each researcher in this study carried out fieldwork in a different setting, demonstrating that the project is not on the Asia-Pacific region, but from it in the sense that we strive to understand the 'point of view' of members in the DME as they negotiate the world at large.  


Planning for Later Life:  Aging and Value amongst Transnational Papua New Guineas in Far North Queensland, Australian Research Council, 2014 - present.  Professor Rosita Henry, Dr. Michael Wood, James Cook University, Queensland. 

This project addresses the global problem of ageing populations by looking at how transnational Papua New Guinean families plan for old age. We explore how Papua New Guineans resident in North Queensland, Australia, make specific decisions about later life that balance the value of relations with kin, friends, neighbours while also dealing with the social services provided by the state and the market. Our project asks how the descendants of societies in PNG - once famous for their use of ‘the gift’ - now use money to reproduce and care for themselves through a transnational moral economy. By examining the moral economy of ageing in the PNG transnational family, this project fills an empirical and conceptual gap in our knowledge of how people plan for later life. We then describe the tensions that emerge in transnational decision making concerning old age. The resulting knowledge of how Papua New Guineans prepare for old age will help to critically inform policies concerning the wellbeing of people engaged with ageing.