Navigation – Plan du site

AccueilNuméros77IntroductionThinking through troubled relatio...


Thinking through troubled relationships

Everyone complicit?
Émir Mahieddin et Jérôme Soldani
Traduction de Anthony Stavrianakis
Cet article est une traduction de :
Tous complices ? [fr]


Figurations of complicity occupy a highly visible place in our contemporary political and moral imaginations. But what does it mean exactly to be “complicit”? Behind its apparently intuitive character, complicity turns out to be a complex notion, involving theories of mind and action, conceptions of responsibility, of the person, as well as ideas about intention. In the field of law as well as in operations of moral judgment, complicity takes different forms according to different contexts and situations, raising fundamental anthropological questions about which this introduction intends to give an overview.

Haut de page

Texte intégral

Thinking through troubled relationshipsAfficher l’image
Crédits : Alix Aubert-Pérocheau

1The name Knutby is probably unknown to most readers, yet it refers to the most publicized event in Swedish history (Novak 2006). At the beginning of January 2004, this small village, located 60 kilometers north of Stockholm, was the scene of a drama that continues to fuel press and book publications, as well as radio and television broadcasts, to this day. For Swedes, “Knutby” has become a site of the uncanny, intimately associated with the dangers of religious fanaticism.

2On the morning of January 10, 2004, the police responded to a scene at two family homes in Knutby. They found a man with serious injuries to his face and chest, Daniel Linde, and in the neighboring house, the body of a woman lying in bed, Alexandra Fossmo, who died after being shot several times. She was the wife of the pastor of the local Pentecostal church, Helge Fossmo. Soon the nanny who worked for the Fossmo couple, Sara Svensson, was arrested for murder and attempted murder, charges to which she admitted to the police a fortnight later.

3Things could have ended there. However, since Pastor Fossmo’s first wife had died under strange circumstances in 1999, circumstances that were originally considered accidental, and since the police had found the atmosphere of the small town rather intriguing, the investigation continued. Indeed, the reactions of neighbors in the village, and of the faithful in their church, raised questions. They seemed hardly surprised, or even moved, by the tragedy, compared to what investigators observed at the scenes of other traumatic events. Moreover, during the interrogations, Sara Svensson confessed that she had already tried to kill Alexandra Fossmo a few months earlier, in the autumn of 2003, by hitting her with a hammer, without the event having been reported to the police. She simply claimed to have been the instrument of God, who, it was claimed, enjoined her to commit the crime; a divine command that she is said to have received by SMS on her cell phone. It would thus appear that she hadn’t acted out of her own volition, and would have acted without motive. Another person must have been involved.

4Eyes turned next to the pastor, Helge Fossmo, suspected of being behind the messages. After a few days of hesitation, testimonies from the faithful suddenly converged against him. They described Fossmo as a man greedy for power, under demonic influence, having made himself the instrument of the Devil. It turns out that he had an affair with Sara Svensson, as well as with the wife of his neighbor Daniel Linde. On January 28, 2004, he was arrested for incitement to murder and attempted murder. Daniel Linde’s wife was also arrested the next day for complicity in murder, before being released two weeks later owing to lack of evidence. Fossmo, quickly nicknamed “Sexpastorn” (the sex pastor) in the Swedish tabloid press, was also indicted by investigators for the murder of his first wife in 1999. Sara Svensson ended up being portrayed as a victim; the pastor had a hold on her. In love, she hoped to become his next companion after Alexandra Fossmo’s death.

5In May 2004, Helge Fossmo was sentenced to life imprisonment for inciting the murder of his second wife and his neighbor. Sara Svensson was diagnosed with a psychotic disorder after a review of her case by mental health experts and was confined to a psychiatric institution.

6During the trial, Fossmo himself claimed to have been under the control of yet another person, accusing Åsa Waldau, another pastor of the local Pentecostal congregation, who was also the sister of his wife, Alexandra Fossmo, of being the real mastermind. Media attention thus focused on the small congregation of Knutby, of which all the protagonists of the case were members. Their beliefs, their sexual practices, their relationship with money and their regular use of physical violence to correct disobedient members kept on shocking the Swedish public, which would avidly follow the progress of the investigation in the manner of a crime drama. Little by little, all the constituent elements of the “cult imaginary” were paraded on the screens of the Swedish public: “the isolation and confinement of followers, mental manipulation, financial exploitation, and infiltration into all areas of society” (Luca 2008: 243).

7Åsa Waldau was, in point of fact, considered the “bride of Christ” (Kristi Brud) by her congregation. Whilst in Christian theologies the expression “bride of Christ” is traditionally seen as a metaphorical way of referring to the church of which Jesus is the “bridegroom,” in the small community the idea arose that this “bride” referred to a person in the flesh, an individual, who could only be Waldau. Even though this doctrine seems to have been shared by only a small circle of insiders, there was little doubt as to Waldau’s importance and authority locally.

8While collecting testimonies from former followers, journalists discovered, years later, the submission of a group of ephebes to Waldau’s carnal desires, and the widespread acceptance of her violent impulses. Helge Fossmo confided that he himself had performed the engagement ceremony with the Messiah, on March 29, 1999, having been the mediator of the act that was to unite Christ with Waldau, whose “sex slave” he claimed to be, which Waldau firmly denied. The only certainty was that this charismatic woman had charmed many young men from all walks of life to replenish the contingent faithful of the small church, over which she had taken power after marrying the son of the former pastor. Investigations by journalists, who had besieged the small town, would soon reveal the rhetoric of Waldau’s preaching, described as a hybrid style, somewhere between encouragement and threat, a direct descendant of “prosperity theology,” which strongly links the accumulation of money and good health to the believer’s faith in God (Coleman 2007 [2000]). The amount of money amassed during collections had exploded under the pastorate of the “bride of Christ,” and its use seemed to be at her full discretion. The press reported on her repeated trips to London and Seoul, as well as her shopping sprees in luxury boutiques.

9The investigation was based mainly on testimonies, which were sometimes contradictory, and which were not always consistent with the material evidence found by the police. Rumors and allegations were given free rein and have continued to circulate to this day, in Pentecostal circles and beyond. Some elements that have resurfaced several years after the events, notably the reopening of the investigation following the 2017 confession of another repentant Knutby pastor, Peter Gembäck, and a new public interview of Sara Svensson in 2021, suggest that Alexandra Fossmo was already dead in her bed before she was shot.

10Is it a matter of putting the blame on a weak-minded person? Was the entire congregation involved in the murder? Did Åsa Waldau have accomplices in the congregation, given her status amongst them, concealing her involvement so as to protect her by testifying unanimously against Fossmo? Was each of the faithful in the congregation, who were victims of a psychological coercion, nevertheless complicit? Moreover, Fossmo had met Waldau in 1993, through another pastor who had invited him to preach in his congregation in southern Sweden. When they began their pastoral work in 1997, they initiated a Bible study that attracted Pentecostal believers from all over the country, some of whom settled in Knutby. This appeal and attraction, operating nationally, raised many questions. Was the rest of the Pentecostal movement in Sweden aware of what was happening in this congregation? Were they afraid of the devastating effects of a public accusation on the public image of the Pentecostal movement, such that they might have been complicit with it, covering up for the deviant congregation? Did they all believe in the doctrine of the “bride of Christ”? In short, how far did the circle of potential leaders and accomplices extend?

11The already negative image of the Pentecostal movement in Sweden – negative to the point that the term “pentephobia” (pentefobi) has been used, by analogy with Islamophobia (Alvarsson 2021: 55-61) – was further degraded. In the weeks following the tragedy, many people throughout the country who had recently begun to attend the Pentecostal Church deserted the pews for fear of falling victim to this kind of abuse. By a chain of successive generalizations, the suspicion of complicity extended beyond the initial crime scene. From a murder, and an attempted murder, by one individual, what could have been a trial about a local incident in a small village became an event that took on national proportions. The responsibility of the entire Pentecostal movement was put in question, and the whole affair was scrutinized by multiple authorities: the domestic and private sphere, street-level opinion, the press and various judicial authorities, outlining the contours of an “affair” (see Boltanski & Claverie 2007).

12Many Swedish Pentecostals say they suffered from the magnitude that this event took on, waking up that morning in January 2004 in a new landscape, in which they had suddenly become “national monsters.” The world was talking about them and enjoining them, through the media, to clear themselves of accusations about their weakness of mind, on the one hand, and their power over the weak, on the other. The story clouded the Pentecostal movement’s already difficult relationship with the national press and had a lasting impact on the movement’s image, including the self-image of its members. The headlines, debates and rumors about their sexuality and their relationship to money or authority had the effect of repeated insults and caricatures. Pentecostals were equated with and reduced to Knutby, despite their best efforts to speak out against this reductive merger, underscoring the autonomy of each local congregation. The strongest measure taken was the exclusion of the Knutby congregation from the federation of Pentecostal congregations in Sweden in April 2004. However, suspicions of general collusion, of secret networks within the religious movement, did not completely disappear. Many Pentecostals thus experienced the unfolding of this chain of events as a heavy injustice of which they considered themselves victims (Mahieddin 2018).

13The “Knutby affair” provided all the elements of a good detective story, with its twists and turns, the rhythm of its suspenseful scenario being written week after week, year after year, as the investigation progressed, following the revelations of each of the characters in this story, mixing death, sex, money and religion. It has also given rise to several essays, a play, novels, films, documentary and fictional series, the latest of which were released in late 2021, nearly twenty years after the events, allowing us to reconstruct what happened (see Lundgren 2019 [2008]). At this point in time, the narrative of the drama seems barely stabilized and the game of attributions and qualifications not fully over. In a way, the case remains open.

14The Knutby case condenses several aspects of the shared indetermination that animates the contributors to this issue: the uncertainty about the definition of complicity, whether legal or moral, and its contours; the interplay of scales that connects a local crime scene to national outrage; and finally, the turmoil surrounding those who may be accused, as well as the ambivalent nature of the relationships they maintain. Lastly, the notion of complicity is not self-evident. It involves complex theories of action, of the person, but also of responsibility. Complicity is thus good to think with, especially as the figure of the accomplice has become a commonplace in the everyday theater in which current events agitate.

15Indeed, one does not have to look very far to see how it is used in situations ranging from the aftermath of wars or mass violence – sometimes decades after the events – to suspicions of collusion with forms of domination considered to be systemic or with minorities considered to be threatening, which taint certain individuals or certain groups. The notion of complicity has recently emerged at the heart of high-profile international court cases, bringing its very definition into play. In the 2010s, cases were brought against German nonagenarians for complicity in Holocaust murder (Kiesow 2017). More recently, the cement manufacturer Lafarge was sued for complicity in war crimes with the so-called “Islamic State.” The notion has also been summoned in relation to scandals that have targeted secretive institutions such as the Catholic Church or the nuclear industry.

16In the months that accompanied the development of this issue of Terrain, the Russian-Ukrainian conflict gave rise to multiple accusations of complicity in war crimes, targeting both Russian political and military leaders and economic actors from third countries, from the major energy producers to gas consumers in France, who were enjoined to lower their heating by two degrees in order to be a little less “complicit” in the violent acts imputed to the Kremlin. A few months earlier, academics, especially anthropologists and sociologists, were accused of “Islamoleftism” (islamogauchism), a term that carries with it a charge of complicity: researchers, by definition “leftists,” who were said to be complicit with Islamists. Whilst we could congratulate ourselves on the desire for truth manifested by this search for those responsible and those sharing responsibility, or else be indignant at its sometimes arbitrary character, we have chosen instead to make it an anthropological question. It is not a matter of denunciation, deciding on real or supposed complicity, or passing moral judgment on it. With the aim of understanding its logic, our way of taking up complicity as an object is rather to be interested in its opacity, the confusion and the complexity that complicity, and accusations of complicity, bring to the fore.

17Contrary to what the frequency of its use might suggest, the term offers no guarantee of simplicity, and as such it can only arouse the curiosity of anthropologists. It is indeed a particularly complex object. Since it is possible to be an accomplice by not having done anything when faced with a crime, the notion of complicity confronts us with a vast spectrum ranging from action, including assistance, to inaction. What, then, does it mean to be an accomplice, or to act as one, when it is possible to become one by acting indirectly, or even without acting at all? As Rainer Maria Kiesow notes, the “field between nothing and the act” in which complicity operates “is the field of responsibility of many, perhaps all, people” (2017: 163). What, then, are its logical limits and the mechanisms of its imputation? Doing nothing or working from afar, are we all complicit with someone or something? Are we always and everywhere accomplices in the same way? What exactly are we complicit in doing? What situations are the conditions for the attribution of complicity?

18Despite the clarifications of the notion of complicity that the law is supposed to provide, there is no mechanics of the law that could tell us unequivocally what it means to be “complicit.” Indeed, it is one of the legal categories that gives legal scholars the most trouble, through the interpretive complexities to which it gives rise, in that it involves “positing a normative and nominalist difference between nothing and the beginning of something” (Kiesow 2017: 162). Law is eminently casuistic and subject to interpretation, which gives a certain lability to its judgments. Its different branches do not, moreover, consider complicity in the same way. While collective involvement in murderous violence is always a crime under national criminal law, it may be permissible under international law. Indeed, there are acts of war that are considered legal and legitimate: that soldiers kill enemy soldiers in combat, under the orders of a general staff, does not constitute complicity in murder as in criminal law. Some international jurists go so far as to challenge its very relevance and the possibility of its practical application (Aust 2011; Corten 2011). Indeed, complicity is as much a matter of law as it is a political and moral issue.

19Following Deborah Puccio-Den’s work on responsibility (2017), of which complicity is a particular mode, it is precisely the tension between these two registers that interests us, both in terms of the differences between the logics of imputation of responsibility that preside over one register or the other, and in terms of the way in which the notion of complicity itself bears on the actors concerned. It is therefore also essential to look at the way in which an accusation of complicity generates new forms of relations, as much as it undoes them, being able, for example, to transform enmity into solidarity or vice versa.

Judicial procedures in the face of political and moral indignation

20The disappearance of charges of “complicity” in the legal translation of a chain of events in which it seems to be omnipresent takes us back to the fact that the law is constrained by very precise nomenclatures of incrimination and a precise regime of proof. These juridical categorizations correspond only imperfectly to what the notion of complicity refers to in the broader sphere of moral judgment, and its forms of imputation of responsibility. The judicial procedure transforms witness accounts, the most obvious, in the case of Knutby, that God and demons, agents of the scene described by the witnesses and the accused, are not considered by Swedish law as capable of acting, which re-translates these accounts into the language of psychiatry.

21If complicity is a particular mode of criminal participation, from the point of view of law, there is, however, no consistent conventional definition. Its study therefore gives rise to difficulties and differences in interpretation. It has been part of international law since the Nuremberg trials, and can be accepted as long as the person in question is declared to be “concerned” by the massacre (Dormoy & Yetongon 2007: 92). It is a form of responsibility that implies that an individual is associated with a crime without performing the constituent acts themselves (ibid.: 82): it can be complicity by instigation, by aid and assistance or by provision of means (ibid.: 90-91). Its complexity is clearly apparent in international jurisprudence for cases of genocide, for example. The statutes of the international criminal tribunals distinguish between the charge of “complicity in genocide” and that of “participation in a joint criminal enterprise,” which earns the accused the title of “co-perpetrator,” complicity then possibly being considered only as a form of “accessory responsibility,” or of “borrowed criminality” (criminalité d’emprunt). In the absence of a clear definition, these charges give rise to difficulties of interpretation which it is up to the judges to decide, since an accused cannot be accused of both “acts constituting genocide” and “complicity in genocide.”

22The notion of “complicity” can thus be qualified in law in various ways that refer to different occurrences and ways of having participated in them, the seriousness of which is assessed according to the degree of involvement. The gradation of responsibility established by the law can leave witnesses heard by international investigators rather perplexed, as Elisabeth CLAVERIE mentions in the interview published in this issue. There is thus a gap between the language of legal actors and the language of other actors, which implies operations of translation, and therefore of shifts, of transformation of empirical facts into operative legal categories. In order to do this, a whole apparatus is put in place aiming at producing meticulous descriptions of the crime scenes, in order to find evidence of complicity that might be hidden in the details. In the Knutby trial, the material trace of this translation work is no fewer than 1,085 pages of transcripts of defendant and witness interrogations.

23Pauline JARROUX, in her article on the legal proceedings against the terrorists who perpetrated the 2015 attacks in France, shows that the actors involved became socialized in the language of law, and learned over the course of the trial to reason in terms of “facts,” “evidence” and legal categories of incrimination. The anthropologist shows how the polemical context agitating society at the time of the trial weighs on the judicial scene, suggesting that justice, politics and morality are not closed off, one from the other. This is what allows the porosity between the trial and the event as a whole constituting the “Affair.”

24Properly legal conceptions of complicity are based on precise material elements, collected during investigations following individual accusations. The political and moral registers of complicity, generally those relayed by the press, are much vaguer. They are based on rumors and allegations, which can cover collective accusations. We characterize this other register as political and moral because it is based on “public accusations” and the “denunciation of evil.” It also “emphasizes the gap between a normative ideal and situations where this ideal is flouted” (Boltanski & Claverie 2007: 414-415).

25Criminal law instead lays down principles for thinking about complicity, including the accessory character of the accomplice’s act in relation to the main act, causality and, above all, immediacy and proximity, which must be concretely proven (Kiesow 2017: 162). As for public denunciation, it is freed from such constraints by the mediation and distance that are fundamental dimensions of the political. Since one of its tasks is to overcome dispersion, the political works to bring particular situations together in such a way as to render them equivalent (Boltanski 2007: 28-29).

26The language of law, and the language of political and moral indignation, are also distinguished by a difference in focus: criminal investigations and judicial proceedings do not work on spatial and temporal scales in the same way as political and moral judgments. They also have quite distinct normative expectations.

Between descriptive and classificatory logics

27Complicity is partly linked to issues of scale. In the case of the international trials described by Elisabeth Claverie, it allows us to inject some intelligibility into mass crimes by reducing collective dramas to individual responsibilities. In doing so, it refers a multitude of actions by “small actors” back to a sum of reasoned decisions by “big leaders.” It is a matter of identifying “the small cogs” that “are actually committing the big crimes,” to use Hannah Arendt’s expression (2003: 30). In the one case, as in the other, examining complicity at a level of detail at which it manifests itself allows us to shed light on large-scale phenomena.

28The different ways of playing with scale in legal and political practices, however, seem to go in opposite directions. While the law operates according to a descriptive logic so as to designate accomplices, public indignation seems to follow a classificatory logic. The law seeks to describe actors and their involvement in a meticulous manner by individualizing them, by restricting the circle of punishable persons (Marchal 2011). Public indignation classifies sets and series according to common properties, or enrollment in sequences of inference whose conniving effect is decreed by analogical approximations. Marianne CELKA describes this type of controversial reasoning in militant anti-speciesist imagery, which endeavors to provoke the guilt of complicity, for viewers of these images, by linking meat consumption to the crime of genocide.

29In the context of international justice, searching for complicity involves selecting from vast ensembles (a state, a national territory, populations, etc.), producing a movement from the general to the particular. The aim is to extract precise categories, predetermined by legal nomenclatures, on the basis of which to think and work: zones of operation, military or paramilitary organizations and their chains of command, graves, human remains and the transcription of detailed individual testimonies. So many elements, material or otherwise, make it possible to pass, by successive reductions, from the general to the particular in order to legally characterize the forms of involvement in the crime, and only in the form of the individual accusation. This is because in order for judicial sentences to be applicable, responsibilities must be circumscribed. Only recently has the jurisprudence of charges for complicity in Nazi crimes opened up the legal domain of complicity, by including individuals who kept a relative distance from the crimes (camp guards, accountants, cooks, etc.). It expands the base of those liable to prosecution to all those who were mere “cogs in the machine,” at the risk of condemning the entire German people of the time. Kiesow notes, however, that this was only conceivable once the majority of those who should be made legally accountable were no longer alive (2017: 167-168).

30The search for complicity, when it occurs beyond the formal and procedural framework of the law, in episodes of public indignation or moral panic, can, on the contrary, go from the particular to the general. In such a movement, a mechanism of aggregation works by successive associations, without the need for the material element to be invoked or summoned. This is in line with the analogical scheme of what Marilyn Strathern calls “merographic relations”: each thing is part, by way of analogy, of a whole or set larger than itself (1992: 73). A crime scene can thus become a symbol of the workings of systems of domination that produce injustice: here religion, elsewhere finance, justice, police, politics, capitalism or the corporate world.

31Passive spectators, those who do not act, or do not act enough to counter the effects of another action, become “accomplices.” The fact of not acting is referred to as consent, or silent approval, and can thus be made equivalent to a form of co-responsibility. A localized crime involving two or three actors can ultimately engage the whole nation through the involvement of politicians, journalists, businessmen, migrants or intellectuals, if not all of them. Contrary to the law, which favors individual accusations, these are collective accusations, aimed at large groups of anonymous people, of whom the criminal may become a figurehead. It is within this same logic of association and aggregation that, in France, sociologists and anthropologists, individually or collectively, can be accused of complicity with Islamist terrorists, even in the absence of even the slightest evidence of their presence at the scene of an attack, of their connection with its protagonists, of their proximity to the acts in question, or even of their approval of them.

32In the interplay of scale, the summoning of “context,” shedding light on the intentions and actions of the individuals involved, appears to be eminently problematic. The context is in fact never given and its contours must be worked over so that the accusation of complicity makes sense, whether it be individual or collective. In the descriptive logic of the investigation carried out by the justice system, the context must be mastered and narrowed so as to circumscribe a space and a time of inquiry that meet criteria for the validation of proof. This space-time of the investigation also requires the delimitation of the space-time of the action in question: when and where does it begin? One must know how to stop along the chain of small actions that lead on to the crime so as not to end up incriminating the whole world.

33Responsibility is thus inscribed not in a causal logic, but rather in a fully social mechanism (Kozakaï 2008), pointing to moral responsibility. It is held by the one who, at the end of the deliberations, is designated as having intentionally caused the suffering (the murderer) and not to those who could passively be the remote cause of it (the arms dealer, the citizens of the country, or those who vote in it, which by way of its laws allows the production and export of lethal weapons, etc.). In political and moral accusations, the context can then be stretched to make sense of the facts, whose significance is quickly translated into global social and moral issues. An argumentative use of the context, which presents the social conditions of possibility and actualization of a given crime and that can generate variations in the definition of complicity, is in contrast with a rhetorical and interpretative use, which produces an anchoring effect in reality without always empirically connecting the levels of observation (see Revel 1996: 25). In any case, the procedures for imputing responsibility by way of complicity are thus presented as “categorical operations”: that is, they are moments of definition, or redefinition, of the contours between beings, individuals and collectives, human and non-human, and of their capacity to act and the potential causal links that unite them in action (Puccio-Den 2017: 9-10).

34There remains the difficulty of interpretation left by the intrinsic indeterminacy of the link that unites a subject to its action, a real mystery to which collectives provide different answers. Moreover, the notion of complicity highlights the troubled character of the fundamentally ambivalent relations that are simultaneously desired and constrained, interested and disinterested, sought and repressed. Complicities are played out between zones of transparency and opacity, and question the distinction, at the heart of modern thought, between interpersonal or intimate relationships, on the one hand, and impersonal relations, even anonymous ones, on the other (see Strathern 2020). They can be the product of affinities and yet remain under tension, marked, for example, by the seal of competition. Relationships are thus always potentially constructive and constitutive for the subject, just as they can be destructive and troubling (Caillé & Chanial 2016). This fundamental ambivalence of relations is, moreover, at the origin of the ethical and political interest in distancing, separation and detachment, which, far from always being considered negative, can be desired and desirable: it is possible to reject relations in order to avoid compromise (Candea et al. 2015). A question then arises for anthropology: how do subjects inhabit these worlds of troubled relations?

Ethics and politics of the complicit subject: impurity and opacity of intentions

35For anthropologists, complicity has mostly been the subject of ethical and methodological reflections concerning the situation of inquiry, as well as, for example, the ethnographer’s relationship to his or her informants and interlocutors in more or less sensitive fields (Marcus 1998; Gustavsson & Cytrynbaum 2003; Pettigrew, Schneiderman & Harper 2004; Zilberg 2016). The focus here is on other situations, although we do not neglect the reflexive and methodological implications of complicity on inquiry.

36The account given by Beatrice ZANI in this issue takes up the discomfort of the relationships of complicity and duplicity that she had to both establish and undo, in different encounters, in order to maintain her position in her field site, a brothel in Taipei. In the same way, Pauline Jarroux shows that her ethical and political positioning behind the scenes of the trial of the 2015 attacks, played a crucial role in her relations with her interlocutors, against the backdrop of a series of national polemics in which academics and journalists were suspected of naive connivance with Islamist terrorists.

37These reflections are far from anecdotal and touch, beyond their methodological dimension, on the anthropology of the person and of responsibility. The notion of responsibility – of which complicity is a particular modality – has received particular attention from anthropologists in recent years, thanks to the work of moral anthropology – or the anthropology of ethics – which this issue extends. Like its related category, responsibility, complicity can be considered as “a practice aimed at establishing a link between an individual and the acts” of another. It is the “nature” of this link, which has precisely nothing “natural” about it, that is the object of anthropological interrogation, since it varies from one society to another, from one era to another, and can be the subject of controversy within the same society (Puccio-Den 2017: 7).

38Insofar as it corresponds to a necessarily collective action and involves an indirect responsibility that is partially independent of the causal chains that link a decision or an act to a consequence (Kutz 2000), complicity poses as many difficulties for anthropologists as for legal scholars. It poses methodological challenges identical to those posed by corruption or occult practices, or even witchcraft, since it presupposes secrets hidden from the public or solidarity established in silence (Goffman 1959), as Magali DEMANGET points out in her ethnography of a Mexican town over which a nefarious criminal, nicknamed El Diablo, rules.

39The opacity of the chains of decision-making, or responsibility, in a society creates social spaces invisible to the naked eye, all the more so if they refer to networks unfolding on vast scales; all fertile ground for accusations of complicity, which find their paroxysmal expression in conspiracy rhetoric (Fassin 2022). The work of artist Mark Lombardi was dedicated to making visible these occult topographies of political and financial affairs and scandals, through multi-entry diagrams, drawing arcs of influence converging on nodes from which concentrations of lines radiate. Lombardi’s diagrams thus give a view of rhizomic structures existing in relational, flexible and expandable space-time (Casemajor Loustau 2013).

40In cases of complicity, the ethics of the subject is inevitably political, crossed by ambiguity and doubt. It links the individual to the collective and transforms distance into proximity. In a remarkable political essay, the journalist and decolonial activist Louisa Yousfi (2022) evokes the inner questioning of many European Muslims, wondering if they were not, in fact, intimately complicit with the terrorists of the World Trade Center attack. They would, however, have repressed this terrible thought, induced by the fact that they were perceived as such from the outside.

41Similarly, in her monograph on the Israeli radical left, anthropologist Fiona Wright (2018) emphasizes that the political and moral subject is not constituted around a coherent project of shaping the self, but in the tug-of-war, and contradictions, in which its different relational attachments place it, at the crossroads between imposed allotments of identity, and the demand for an impossible shouldering of political responsibility. Just like the Israeli pro-Palestinian activists, considered as dominant, on the one hand, and resistant to the established order, on the other, figures of complicity emerge and multiply in violent and polarized political situations, in which the subject is required to take a position, “neutrality” often leading to accusations of complicity or betrayal.

42It is important to note that the unity of the texts in this issue of Terrain, without having been sought out in advance, revolves around situations of violence – physical, moral or both – and especially of collective violence. These are critical configurations in which the application of moral principles appears more problematic than usual (Kutz 2005), revealing their deeply unstable aspects. The making of law inevitably becomes political; an economic actor can be judged responsible for military actions; a sports competitor can be sanctioned by an international federation for competing under the banner of a state that has committed war crimes. These are moments of fusion, where conventional boundaries become blurred, and the logics of direct and individual responsibility, at the heart of the myth of modernity, can give way to logics of honor in which the worth of an individual is tied to his or her group.

43In these social and historical situations, uncertainty and turmoil hover over the intentions of some people, fluctuating according to the alliances of circumstance around shared interests, in the hope of breaking the determinations of the established order, or simply for the purpose of survival. In this vein, Kamel BOUKIR, who works on drug trafficking in the Parisian suburbs, considers complicity as a degraded form of friendship, and describes the turpitude of his interlocutors plunged into a generalized form of paranoia, always anticipating betrayal by an accomplice through violence and preventive demonstrations of force. He thus underlines the precarious character of complicity, a temporary relationship of interest in which trust cannot be established in the long term.

44In radically polarized political situations, whether in theaters of war, revolutionary episodes or the periods that follow in their wake, in addition to complicity, it can be just as much a matter of being stained or sullied. Through their moving portrait of Lâleh, a young Iranian woman questioning her own worth, Sepideh PARSAPAJOUH and Sedighe YAGOOBI-FAZ describe the condition of the children of martyrs of the 1979 revolution in Iran. Beyond the singularity of the case of Lâleh, they reveal how this honorary title, which transforms the heirs of those who shed their blood for the country into children pampered by the state, can on the contrary be experienced as an ignominious category. The privileges of access to education and employment granted to them make them complicit with the Iranian regime, considered co-responsible for the decadence of the institutions in which they occupy positions that they do not deserve. This tacit accusation of complicity is carried like a stigma, with and against which Lâleh tries to build herself.

45In a similar vein, Waed AL-KALLAS and Emma AUBIN-BOLTANSKI describe the avoidance tactics of Syrian exiles in Europe. Following the dramatic situation in their country of origin, ongoing since 2011, they try to navigate the dualistic conception that opposes the supporters of the regime, on the one hand, and the militants behind the 2011 uprising, on the other. Making ambivalence a third way, through their strategies of self-presentation and the words they use to talk about “what happened,” they deliberately place themselves in a “grey zone” that gives them their name: the “greys,” those who are complicit with no one, and thus are in fact always potentially the enemy’s hidden accomplices.

46Matthew CAREY takes up related problems in his article on the collective oath (tagallit) in the Moroccan Atlas. His concern is with the legibility and visibility of the subject and the problem of the opacity of the minds and intentions of others, which is crucial to the questions raised by the notion of complicity. He sees this practice as a manifestation of legal conceptions that differ from those that prevail in Western legal framings. According to him, Amazigh customary law exemplifies another possible form of imputation of co-responsibility, which is situated not in the field of intention, the seat of which would be the interiority of the individual, which is to say, an invisible part of the subject, but in that of social identity, which can be seen in the practices of revenge and vendetta. Carey thus suggests an opposition between a psychologically readable subject, on the one hand, and a socially visible subject, on the other.

47To return to the case of Knutby, who can really say what was going through Sara Svensson’s mind at the moment when she received cryptic text messages, which she claims to have identified as messages from God, instructing her to kill? Does the state of her mental health make it possible to establish her full criminal responsibility? If so, how can the validity of her testimony be used to justify the incrimination of a third party? Is Helge Fossmo fully in control of himself in this sequence of events, or is he, like the other believers, under the influence of Åsa Waldau? Is he himself completely sane? What about Waldau’s lucidity about the influence she had over her flock? The Knutby case thus questions a dimension underlying any accusation of complicity, that of the intentionality of the subject. For law as for other forms of judgment (including ethnographic observation), nothing is more problematic than defining and proving an “intention,” which is intrinsically opaque.

48In her reflections on attempts to establish the crime of “mafia association,” introduced into the Italian Penal Code in 1982, and involving ruling on “intent to harm society” through mere membership in the criminal organization, Puccio-Den (2016) highlights the prosecutors’ difficulties when attempting to build charges to indict perpetrators of “mafia acts.” Accused parties would display “conniving attitudes” or “supportive behaviors” towards the Cosa Nostra association, without being perpetrators themselves. The Sicilian mafia selects and shapes obedient subjects capable of performing “actions without intentions or reason” and “without question” (ibid.: 22). In this framework, the anthropologist explains, “in which the initiative of the criminal action always comes from above, the subject dissociates himself from his action, alleging as a justification for his acts the fact that he did not act in his own interest,” but in the interest of the organization and its ideals (ibid.: 24).

49In the course of criminal proceedings, the subject, questioned by the justice system as a “responsible individual,” is thus summoned to answer for acts that he or she has performed “without intention” (ibid.). The subject thus acts by delegation from a higher authority. In these cases, the relationship between action and intention is far from given and must be proven, which implies a real hermeneutic and interactive work of attribution of meaning and distribution of responsibility. This leads to a conception of human beings as subjects in full possession of their critical capacities, conscious of their involvement and their contribution to a collective enterprise. But does this conception correspond to the subjects shaped by a criminal organization (ibid.)?

50Even outside the criminal framework, situations or suspicions of complicity with criminal organizations disturb interpersonal relations on many levels. The game-fixing cases that have plagued Taiwanese professional baseball since the 1990s are a good example of this problem. Corrupt players and coaches, known as “white gloves,” secretly try to bribe some of their teammates in turn, on behalf of mafia bookmakers. Living in close quarters throughout the season but not knowing who is corrupt and who is not, when suspicions of complicity emerge, the club members become suspicious of each other, so that a poisonous, even paranoid, atmosphere is created. When scandals come to light, supporters may be asked by the club to come forward with information that they have witnessed and that may point to a member’s complicity with a criminal organization. Many supporters see this complicity with criminal organizations as a form of unforgivable betrayal, a definitive break in the relationship of trust between them. But some may also qualify the scope of this complicity by arguing that it was primarily motivated not for personal gain but to provide for the needs of parents often living in precarious conditions, which corresponds to the value of filial piety, which is highly valued locally (Soldani 2015).

51The question of complicity thus arises all the more strongly in this uncertain space where the contours of responsibility become blurred, especially when the imputation is aimed at collective entities. The questioning of the mafia could easily be transposed to other organizations, military and paramilitary, or even to certain types of religious organizations, such as those of the Pentecostal community of Knutby, where God ultimately becomes the primary cause of the inspiration to kill; a case in which the ritual logic of “putting a part of oneself in abeyance,” out of deference to the collective or to a supernatural entity, can be made to merge with the logic of an organization labeled as criminal, leading to processes of disempowerment (Puccio-Den 2016, 2017) : think of the famous sentence “I only obeyed orders,” which gets repeated like an antiphon in all major mass crime trials.

52Law, moral philosophy and the social sciences agree on many aspects when they think about the complexity of the notions of responsibility and complicity, but they differ on the objective. For the anthropologist, it is not a matter of judging. Complicity is of anthropological interest because it reveals the moral and legal life of societies, to the degree that it is incomplete, uncertain and sometimes unresolved, by highlighting the profoundly impure nature of politics and morality in lived situations, the actors maneuvering in perpetually grey areas where the borders between “good” and “bad faith,” the intentional and the unintentional, remain blurred. The aim, then, is to describe the discomfort and ambivalence of subjects as they inhabit political norms and commitments, experience their relationships and question them, entangled in contradictions and opacity (Wright 2018). Investigations of complicity thus emphasize that relationships cannot be reduced to simple, univocal motivations or stabilized in well-marked typologies, like those proposed in classical sociology of a bygone time. In the logics of complicity, the individual and community relationship, interests and affects, the positions of the dominant and the dominated, even of executioner and victim, never cease being brought into connection, overlapping and sometimes merging to the point of troubling those who are engaged in them.

Haut de page


“Pentekostalismens bakgrund i Sverige”
, in Jan-Åke Alvarsson (ed.), Pentekostalismen i Sverige på 2020-talet, Skellefteå, Artos & Norma, pp. 29-70.

Responsibility and Judgement
, New York, Schocken Books.

Complicity and the Law of State Responsibility
, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

La souffrance à distance
, Paris, Gallimard.

“Du monde social en tant que scène d’un procès”, in Nicolas Offenstadt & Stéphane Van Damme (eds), Affaires, scandales et grandes causes : de Socrate à Pinochet, Paris, Stock, pp. 395-452.

“Au commencement était la relation … mais après?”, Revue du MAUSS no. 47/1, pp. 5-25.

Detachment: Essays on the Limits of Relational Thinking, Manchester, Manchester University Press.

“Les topographies du pouvoir de Mark Lombardi”, Espace nos 103-104, pp. 12-16. Online :

COLEMAN SIMON, 2007 [2000].
The Globalization of Charismatic Christianity: Spreading the Gospel of Prosperity, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

“La ‘complicité’ dans le droit de la responsabilité internationale: un concept utile?”, Annuaire français de droit international no. 57, pp. 57-84.

“La complicité de génocide dans la jurisprudence des TPI”, Revue québécoise de droit international, Hors-Série, pp. 81-94.

“Complotisme”, in Didier Fassin (ed.), La société qui vient, Paris, Seuil, pp. 132-149.

The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, New York, Anchor Doubleday.

“Illuminating Spaces: Relational Spaces, Complicity, and Multisited Ethnography”,
Field Methods no. 15/3, pp. 252-270.

“‘Le peuple est mort, vive le peuple!’ Réflexions sur la responsabilité individuelle et collective des crimes nazis”, L’Homme nos 223-224/3-4, pp. 161-168.

“De la responsabilité collective", Bulletin de psychologie no. 494/2, pp. 131-144.

Complicity: Ethics and Law for a Collective Age
, New York, Cambridge University Press.

“The Difference Uniforms Make: Collective Violence in Criminal Law and War”,
Philosophy and Public Affairs no. 33/2, pp. 148-180. Online:

“Entre l’ethnie et la secte: les dérives de l’essentialisme”, Archives de sciences sociales des religions no.143, pp. 235-251. Online :

LUNDGREN EVA, 2019 [2008].
, Stockholm, Modernista.

Faire le travail de Dieu. Une anthropologie morale du pentecôtisme en Suède, Paris, Karthala.

“Complicité en droit pénal canonique: questions d’actualité”, L’année canonique tome LIII no 1, pp. 163-182.

Ethnography through Thick and Thin
, Princeton, Princeton University Press.

“Religionsfaktorn i pressens hantering av Knutby”,
in Göran Larsson, Mia Lövheim & Alf Linderman (eds), Religion och medier, Stockholm, Studentlitteratur, pp. 185-202.

“L’intentionnalité dans le crime de mafia”, Cahiers d’anthropologie sociale 13/1, pp. 21-39. Online :

“De la responsabilité”, L’Homme nos 223-224, pp. 5-32. Online :

“Relationships, Complicity and Representation: Conducting Research in Nepal during the Maoist Insurgency”,
Anthropology Today, no. 20/1, pp. 20-25.

REVEL JACQUES (ed.), 1996.
Jeux d’échelles. La micro-analyse à l’expérience
, Paris, Gallimard/Seuil.

Le cimetière des ‘Éléphants noirs’: une étude anthropologique des matchs truqués relatifs aux Paris dans le baseball taïwanais », Anthropologie & Sociétés no. 39/3, pp. 217-235. Online :

After Nature
, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Relations: An Anthropological Account, Durham, NC, Duke University Press.

The Israeli Radical Left: An Ethics of Complicity
, Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press.

Rester barbare
, Paris, La Fabrique.

“Disquieting Complicities: The Double Binds of Anthropology, Advocacy and Activism”,
Journal of Contemporary Ethnography no. 45/6, pp. 716-740. Online:

Haut de page

Pour citer cet article

Référence électronique

Émir Mahieddin et Jérôme Soldani, « Thinking through troubled relationships »Terrain [En ligne], 77 | 2022, mis en ligne le 20 décembre 2022, consulté le 13 juin 2024. URL : ; DOI :

Haut de page


Émir Mahieddin

Émir Mahieddin is an anthropologist, CNRS researcher, member of the research center CéSor (Centre d’études en sciences sociales du religieux, UMR 8216 EHESS/CNRS) and associate researcher at the CRS (Centrum för mångvetenskaplig forskning om religion och samhälle), Uppsala University. His work is located at the crossroads between political and moral anthropology and the anthropology of religion. He specializes in evangelical and Pentecostal Christian movements in Northern Europe. He is the author of Faire le travail de Dieu. Une anthropologie morale du pentecôtisme en Suède (Karthala, 2018). In 2022, he received the bronze medal of the CNRS.

Articles du même auteur

Jérôme Soldani

Jérôme Soldani is an anthropologist, an adjunct teacher at the University Paul-Valéry Montpellier 3 and member of the research center SENS (Savoirs, Environnement, Sociétés, CIRAD, l’IRD et l’Université Paul-Valéry Montpellier 3). He works in the domain of political anthropology, drawing on his field experiences in Taiwan, mainly on games and sports. His work addresses issues related to identity, autochthony, education, ethics, corruption and the body.

Haut de page

Droits d’auteur


Le texte seul est utilisable sous licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Les autres éléments (illustrations, fichiers annexes importés) sont « Tous droits réservés », sauf mention contraire.

Haut de page
Rechercher dans OpenEdition Search

Vous allez être redirigé vers OpenEdition Search