Old Predicaments, New Directions

Panel to be held at the
12th Seminar of the International Association for Tibetan Studies
University of British Columbia, Vancouver

Sunday August 15th – Saturday August 21st 2010


Giovanni da Col
(Mongolia and Inner Asia Studies Unit (MIASU), Cambridge and
Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, Germany)

Charlene Makley
(Reed College, US)

This panel will consider the contribution of ethnographic studies of Tibetan societies in relation to the fields of social and cultural anthropology. In the last decade, a few ethnographic monographs of Tibetan societies have been published although most pertain to Tibetan communities in India and Nepal Nonetheless, even considering the political restrictions in conducting long-term fieldwork among ethnic Tibetans in China, Tibetan anthropology remains constrained within regionalist issues and concerns. Thus ethnographic studies of Tibet have not made significant theoretical contributions to the broader field of social/cultural anthropology. Indeed, the presence of Tibetanists in major anthropological journals remains scant. Classic themes in anthropological inquiry such as taboo, witchcraft and sorcery, kinship, ritual, gifts and exchange, honour and shame are barely addressed. Apart from a few ethnographies of polyandry, marriage and fierce ethno-historical debates about serfdom, the domain of Tibetan kinship is still in its infancy.

The geographical and ethnic extension of the ´Tibetan´ ethnographic context in Asia is also at stake and needs careful scrutiny. Outside the study of the historical and political connections between Tibet, India and Nepal, research in Tibetan regions has not been systematically integrated with larger regional histories, discourses and ethnographies of Chinese, Central and especially Southeast Asian societies.

For this session we welcome all anthropologists who have conducted long-term fieldwork among ´Tibetan´ or Tibeto-Burman linguistic/ethnic groups. We invite theoretical reflections drawing on larger geographical frameworks that attempt to establish comparisons and connections with past ethnographic insights and suggest future directions aiming to engage and challenge current anthropological theories and debates.

Themes which may be relevant for this session include:

1. Ideas of causation and the consequent social practices and indigenous responses to moral dilemmas, theodicy and evil, including ethnographies of misfortune, magic, witchcraft, sorcery, ontologies of luck, fortune, auspiciousness and chance.
2. New paradigms of kinship. Idioms of affinity and relationality, friendship, hospitality, love and gender. Kinship relationships with non-humans. Accounts of kinship relationships beyond the ‘flesh and bone’ descent model and in particular the applicability of Levi-Strauss´ concept of house societies in the light of the Southeast Asian and Chinese material.
3. Economic anthropology and indigenous idioms of transactions and exchange, including theories of gift-giving, personhood, trust, trade and value.
4. Anthropology of religion, including theories of ritual and myths, concepts of taboo and pollution, sacrifice, possession and agency, local cosmologies and their connection with larger social issues.
5. Political and legal anthropology including notions of equality and hierarchy, class and status, patron-client relationships, indigenous concepts of authority including honour and reputation, folk concepts of justice and ethnographies of legal systems.

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