In guise of introduction to the forum, I wish to propose two potentially “hot” lines of discussion:
1. THE CURRENT RELEVANCE OF THE ANTHROPOLOGY OF TIBETAN SOCIETIES
What is the place of Tibet in the general field of socio-cultural anthropology?
During an interview for a post in a major anthropology department in the UK I was asked: how could Tibetan ethnography contribute to the more general field of social anthropology? The person who interviewed me continued by arguing that people involved in Tibetan studies are usually focused in understanding archaic texts and so far did not make any significant theoretical contribution to the field of social anthropology. I am sure the statements were aimed to provoke and challenge me but my interviewer had a point. To take an example, after 1960 only five articles on “Tibetan” societies appeared in the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (former Man): two authored by Levine (Nymba of Nepal) and the rest by Mills (Ladakh), Pirie (Ladakh), Huber and Pedersen (a theoretical article on meteorological and environmental knowledge among Tibetans). In the last ten years, the field has been enriched by only a few ethnographic monographs: Adams (Nepal), Mills (Ladakh), Aggarwal (Ladakh), Pirie (Ladakh), Makley (Amdo/Qinghai) and last but not least the monumental (and decennial) work by Charles Ramble on Tibetan Buddhism and Civil religion in Highland Nepal.
There have been obvious political restrictions in conducting fieldwork in China (Makley's book on Amdo Tibetans is probably the only monographs on Tibetans in China - correct me if I'm wrong) but the truth is that even theoretical contributions to the field of social/cultural anthropology from “ethnic” Tibetan areas outside China (Nepal, India, Bhutan) are quite absent. Classic themes such as taboo, witchcraft and sorcery, kinship, economic anthropology (and gifts, to quote a few) remains barely touched.
There are other issues which may be included in this discussion such as the old struggle between textual vs. fieldwork-based approaches which still haunts anthropologists. This critical divide is probably epitomised by the bitter reply that Sherry Ortner published on JRAI (Man) following N. J. Allen's review of her "High Religion" (1989).
"Things must be getting pretty dull in Post-Thatcherland if Nick Allen is reduced to trashing High Religion in the name of higher textology (AA 94: 967’968, 1992). His position - that Sherpa Buddhism primarily exists in Tibetan texts (even though most Sherpas neither read nor write classical Tibetan) rather that in texts and social practices - is clearly too archaic to qualify him to review the book. Allen’s fieldwork among the Sherpa is virtually nonexistent, and his "review" suggests that his acquaintance with cultural theory can be contained in less space that this response (Ortner 1993: 726)"
Sherry Ortner’s work is still popular among anthropologists and “Sherpa and their rituals” may still remain the only “Tibetan” ethnography employed in an introductory course to the anthropology of religion. Nevertheless, in several occasions I have met a harsh criticism of Ortner’s work (and a disrespect for her anthropological knowledge) among Tibetologists proud of their linguistic and historical knowledge. As an anthropologists who spent two years with Tibetan communities in NW Yunnan, I very much believe that Ortner’s insights in her ritual book remains very perceptive, especially in relation to conceptions of hospitality, ritual and reciprocity. I certainly notice some shortcomings in her knowledge of Tibetan language and historical/doctrinal sources yet her anthropological analysis remains very useful for future fieldworkers and should not be so easily discarded.
2. THE MAGNITUDE OF THE FIELD
Under this headline I wish to address the geographical extension of the "Tibetan" context in Asia outside the historical (and political) Tibet-India connection. For this purpose, I wish to draw your attention to a neglected article by Geoffrey Samuel, titled "Tibet and the Southeast Asian Context: Rethinking the Intellectual Context of Tibetan Studies", originally published in 1994 in the Proceedings to the 6th Seminar of the International Association of Tibetan Studies (IATS) and recently reprinted in his collection of essays "Tantric Revisionings" (2005, Motilai Banarsidass: Delhi). I have been drawn to this article after I had the chance to witness the similarities between Tibetans and Naxi in NW Yunnan. In this excellent article, Samuel points to the problem in Tibetan studies to consider Tibetan societies as an isolate case and avoid relating it to larger regional discourses. Samuel continues by criticizing the lack of integration between Tibetanists and Sinologist discourses and the predominance of studies of monastic-oriented religious studies. Samuel invites Tibetanists to have a closer look at the anthropological literature on Southeast Asia. According to the author, much of the research at that time was either Sherpa-centric or Lhasa/U-Tsang-centric (Goldstein, Aziz, Dargyay, Cassinelli and Ekvall). Samuel proceeds by arguing that: a) we should include in the anthropology of Tibetan societies other Tibeto-Burman speaking groups of Nepal such as the Tamang (Holmberg), Gurung (Mumford), Magar (Oppitz, de Sales) and Lepcha; b) we should take a closer look at the literature on Southeast asia which is characterized by being anthropologically very strong (e.g. Edmund Leach’s “Political Systems of Highland Burma”) and presents striking similarities with the Tibetan context. Samuel lists a few themes, common to both Tibetan and Southeast Asian societies which may be relevant for future analysis (201-2):
1. The oscillation between egalitarian and hierarchical political forms.
2. The fluidity of ethnic identity. Having lived in a place where Naxi pretend to be Tibetan in order to obtain government benefits in Diqing Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture (to my knowledge the only Prefecture where an ethnic Tibetan is both governor AND Party Secretary) I feel this comment is very insightful.
3. The role of shamanism and soul-loss theories and the relevance of ideas of auspiciousness and fortune (the most interesting aspect for me since I have been witnessing a major concern for ideas of luck and prosperity (g.yang) in NW Yunnan (cf. www.economiesoffortune.net
and the forthcoming volume I am editing with Caroline Humphrey; cf. also Da Col G. (2007), "The View from Somewhen: Events, Bodies and the Perspective of Fortune among Tibetans around Khawa Karpo, a Tibetan sacred mountain in Yunnan Province”, Inner Asia 9/2: 215-235.
4. The question of kinship and social structure. Samuel mentions the fact that both Tibetan villages and many communities in Southeast Asia are composed of equal households with ritual and other communal responsibilities rotating among them. This leads me to what I regard to be an unexplored concept among Tibetanists which I found incredibly relevant in my ethnographic case: the idea of Tibetan societies as Levi-Straussian’s ‘house societies’ and especially houses as topological containers of compounding and contradictory forces (e.g. fortune and prosperity). Matei Candea and I have explored the issue of households as ‘containers’ in a recent panel with Michael Herzfeld at the ASA 09 conference in Bristol (http://www.nomadit.co.uk/asa/asa09/panels.php5?PanelID=550
). Readers of Southeast Asian material will know that the concept of house-society has been widely employed in that context (e.g. Janet Carsten’s work). I wonder if anyone else has some suggestion on this theme or is working on Tibetan kinship. Samuel and recently Ramble in his book remarked how kinship studies among Tibetans remain scant.
5. The question of the relative primacy of economics, power and ritual and their relationships. In particular, Samuel emphasizes a lack of anthropological studies on the connection between Buddhism and trade.
To conclude, in 1992 Samuel argued that the anthropology of Tibetan societies needed a shift in perspective and advocated that Tibetanists might want to look at Tibetan societies as part of Southeast Asia.
Could such a shift in the geographical perspective bring new life to Tibetan anthropology?
To quote Samuel’s conclusion:
“What I hope to have suggested in this chapter, however, is that the frameworks to which Tibetanists have become attached for historical reasons are not necessarily the most appropriate, and that the kind of shift in perspective which I have described may be a valuable supplement and corrective to our established practices. Making such shifts in perspectives may, I hope, both helps to expand Tibetan studies beyond the parochial concerns to which it has so often been restricted, and lead us into real dialogue with the wider community of Asian scholars” (2008)
[Interestingly enough, in the same volume where Samuel’s article was first published, Anne de Sales proposed a comparison between Magars (Nepal) and Naxi (SW China) - de Sales, A. 1994 “Magar Songs, Naxi Pictograms and Dunhuang Texts” in P. Kvaerne (Ed.) Tibetan Studies: Proceedings of the 6th Seminar of the International Association for Tibetan Studies, Fagernes, 1992. Oslo: Institute for Comparative Research in Human Culture, pp. 682-695.)]
P.S. I thank Geoffrey Samuel for being so kind in making his article available to this forum. Please download it from here: SAMUEL-TantricRevisionings-ch9.pdf