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P.T. (Patrick) McKearney

Assistant professor
Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences
Programme group: Anthropology of Health, Care and the Body
Photographer: Patrick McKearney

Visiting address
  • Nieuwe Achtergracht 166
  • Room number: C5.11
Postal address
  • Postbus 15509
    1001 NA Amsterdam
  • Profile

    Patrick McKearney is a social anthropologist researching intellectual disability across cultures. His teaching at the University of Amsterdam concentrates on the contribution of anthropological theory and research to debates about religion, health, disability, psychology, and ethics. He runs ethnographic projects with adults with intellectual disabilities in India, the UK, and Italy. His written work addresses the questions raised by the lives of these people for our thinking about care, ethics, and the mind. His current research has four foci:

    1. creating a systematic and psychologically-informed anthropology of intellectual disability
    2. developing an anthropological ethics of care
    3. comparing the relationship between care of dependents and intimacy across cultures
    4. researching and developing solutions to the care-deficits for adults with intellectual disabilities in the Global South   

    Fields of expertise

    Intellectual disability, care, religion, ethics, psychological anthropology, medical anthropology, anthropology of religion, anthropology of care, anthropology of ethics, anthropology of disability

  • Research

    Research methods

    • Ethnography
    • Interview cohort-study
    • Participant-observation

    Current research projects

    Regional projects

    i) Care and Adulthood in the UK

    Why does depending on long-term care create so many obstacles for people with intellectual disabilities achieving adulthood in the UK? And how can they be overcome? This 15-month ethnographic study of the unusually communal care provided by the L’Arche community in the UK, investigates the ethical difficulties of giving and receiving care, demonstrating how and why they create barriers to people with intellectual disabilities accessing adult rights, opportunities, and recognition. As the first long-term ethnographic study of a L’Arche community, it showcases how this alternative model of care reconfigures the relationship between care and intimacy within the British context to open up new ways for people with intellectual disabilities to be adults even as they remain heavily dependent on others.

    ii) Sex and Disability in Italy (with Dr Virginia de Silva)

    Why do people with disabilities, on average, have fewer sexual encounters than others? Across the cities of Rome and Bologna, this research investigates pioneering projects to reshape the relationship between sex and disability in Italy that include reforming the law on sex-work, public education campaigns, and training people to become ’sexual assistants’. What happens when you try to open up sexual opportunities through the idea of ‘access’ and ‘rights’? What happens to people’s understanding of intimacy when professionals in the worlds of education, sex-therapy, and tantric massage are trained to offer these encounters? 

    iii) The Future of Care in India (with Dr Jarayaj MK)

    Who cares for people with intellectual disabilities when the state offers next to no support? This research project follows 30 families in the city of Kozhikode in the South Indian state of Kerala as they develop solutions from within their diverse kinship groups to the challenges posed by supporting an adult family member with intellectually disabilities. It investigates how Muslim, Christian, and Hindu families of diverse soci-economic statuses find the resources, develop networks of support, and fashion new life-courses for people with intellectual disabilities in the rapidly changing context of Kerala’s diverse society, developing economy, and fragmented health and welfare provision. It explores, in particular, the ways that parents attempt to create safe, valued, and meaningful futures for their children through siblings, inheritance, marriage, and peer-created residential villages.

    Thematic projects 

    i) The Anthropology of Intellectual Disability

    How does intellectual disability manifest, develop, and work out differently for people in different societies around the world? We do not know because anthropology has next to no tradition of research on people with intellectual disabilities, and the research conducted in medicine, psychology, social science, disability studies and social work has rarely ventured outside of European and Anglophone contexts. The nascent cross-cultural ethnographic study of intellectual disability attends to the full range of social factors in order to advance our understanding of the diverse causes, manifestation, and development of intellectual disability across the life course. This research project identifies and explores the intellectual questions within anthropology, and in its intersection with psychiatry, that need addressing to make this possible, as well as draws together extant and emerging cross-cultural ethnographic research to begin the work of comparison. 

    ii) An Anthropological Ethics of Care

    What light can social-science research shed on the ethical difficulties that givers and receivers of care face on a daily basis? This project explores how cultural values and social structures determine the kinds of ethical conflicts people involved in care encounter and the possible solutions they find to them. It demonstrates how Euro-American values shape a vast array of care practices in the contemporary world that repeatedly meet the same difficulties. And it investigates how alternative cultural patterns of care evade these problems, generate different sorts of ethical concerns in their place, and offer rival models for the construction of care within society.

    iii) Care, Disability, and Intimacy

    Depending upon the care of others is often associated with neediness and childhood - and thus imagined as the opposite to adult relationships. How, then, can people with disabilities who rely upon care in their adult lives have intimate relationships? This project investigates how dependency and intimacy are differently related in the lives of people with disabilities in the starkly different settings of professional care homes in the UK, familial homes in India, and sexual encounters in Italy. It explores how givers and receivers of care transform situations of dependence into opportunities for adult forms of intimacy such as friendship, romance, work, and sex.

    iv) Care-deficits for adults with intellectual disabilities in the Global South

    The dominant models of care for people with intellectual disabilities have all been developed in the Global North, in nations with developed economies, state infrastructures, and public health systems. These societies also have culturally particular understandings of mental development, the life-course, and the role of the family in it. Due to the paucity of research on intellectual disability in the Global South, it has rarely been noted that the dominant professional models translate very poorly into the context in which the majority of the world’s population actually live. Across the diverse political, economic, and social contexts in the Global South, state and professional interventions around intellectual disability are rare, patchy, and under-researched. Furthermore, in these contexts, the vast majority of support is provided by families and communities in ways that are poorly understood or supported. This research, still currently in its initial stages, through long-term fieldwork in Kerala and comparative work across the world, contributes to movements across the Global South to bring recognition to the challenges that people with intellectual disabilities, and their care networks, face. It joins these movements in building upon local patterns of care and resources to support them in order to innovate new solutions that are effective in these situations. 

  • Teaching & PhD supervision

    Master's in Medical Anthropology and Sociology

    • Contemporary Topics in Medical Anthropology
    • Research Design

    Inter-disicplinary social-science Bachelor’s

    • Contemporary Debates: Health

    Bachelor’s in Anthropology

    • Interpreting Religious Thought and Behaviour


  • Publications


    • McKearney, P. (2023). Relational Akrasia: Care and the distribution of action. In P. McKearney , & N. H. A. Evans (Eds.), Against Better Judgment: Akrasia in Anthropological Perspectives (pp. 169-188). (WYSE Series in Social Anthropology; Vol. 14). Berghahn Books. [details]
    • McKearney, P., & Evans, N. H. A. (Eds.) (2023). Against better judgment: Akrasia in anthropological perspectives. (WYSE Series in Social Anthropology; Vol. 14). Berghahn Books. [details]





    • McKearney, P. T. (2019). Everyday Ethics: A Bibliographic Review. In M. Lamb, & B. Williams (Eds.), Everyday Ethics: Moral Theology and the Practices of Ordinary Life (pp. 221-241). Georgetown University Press.



    • Mckearney, P. (2017). L'Arche, Learning Disability, and Domestic Citizenship: Dependent Political Belonging in a Contemporary British City. City and Society, 29(2), 260-280.


    • McKearney, P. (2016). The Genre of Judgment: Description and Difficulty in the Anthropology of Ethics. Journal of Religious Ethics, 44(3), 544-573.


    • McKearney, P., & Evans, N. H. A. (2023). Introduction. In P. McKearney, & N. H. A. Evans (Eds.), Against Better Judgment: Akrasia in Anthropological Perspectives (pp. 1-33). (WYSE Series in Social Anthropology; Vol. 14). Berghahn Books. [details]
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  • Ancillary activities
    No ancillary activities