Anthropology of Tibet and Tibeto-Burman societies


Anthropology of Tibet and Tibeto-Burman societies

A forum for anthropologists who did (or intend to) conduct long-term fieldwork in Tibetan societies and Tibeto-Burman language-speaking groups ranging from Nepal (Tamang, Gurung, Limbu, etc.) to Southwest China (Naxi, Mosuo, Yi, etc.).

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In guise of introduction to the forum, I wish to propose two potentially “hot” lines of discussion:


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.


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. 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 ( 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

Discussion Forum


Started by Giovanni da Col Nov 3, 2009.

Comment Wall


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Comment by Giovanni da Col on October 13, 2010 at 4:09pm
Dear Cameron,

this forum has been active since August 2009 and aside of a brief comment of approval by Maria Luisa Nodari, it's been quite hushed notwithstanding the enrollment of 30 members. Re: your training. Again you have a tendency for twisting people's argument. My comment was not qualitative (and I find quite gaudy to flag the Harvard name) but genealogical: your training being in Sanskrit/Tibetan/Religious Studies and mine in Social Anthropology). Kinship matters. To close the debate on the SE Asian connection, I can only add that Geoffrey's point was not merely about historical formation of the subject but invited in exploring ethnographic similarities. As far as deconstruction goes, I didn't want to run an exegesis of the term. Suffices to say that we have hundreds of papers and studies on 'representations' of Tibet/Tibetans and just a handful of ethnographies. I wish this forum could be an arena for discussing ethnographic and social anthropological material. There are tens of blogs and websites dealing with other (equally crucial) Tibetan-related matters.

Glad you like perspectivism, talk to Morten and Rane in Aarhus, they are excellent guides!


Comment by Cameron David Warner on October 13, 2010 at 3:27pm
Dear Geoffrey and Giovanni,
First, let me say I'm enjoying the discussion quite a bit. Since missing IATS, I have little opportunity to regularly engage with other anthropologists of Tibet, which is why I was so happy to discover Giovanni started this forum.

Giovanni- your comments regularly address my interests (or lack thereof) and training (or lack thereof). But I haven't said anything about what I am interested in. And I like to think my training at Harvard was excellent, but I guess that is a matter of personal opinion. ;)

I also assume your training was excellent and if your interests are contiguous to those expressed in your article "The View from Somewhen," then we have much more in common than difference, especially perspectivism and the relations between human and non-human agents among the peoples of the Tibetan plateau.

First, let's all agree these forums are not the best place to exchange ideas. Giovanni is right, that is best done face to face over beer. But to expand and clarify one point, because it intersects with Geoffrey's response- my questions (not really provocations) for Giovanni have nothing at all to do with deconstruction in the way you took them. They are much more in line with what Geoffrey is talking about. That is to say, I'm thinking about Dru Gladney's work on the historical formation of the terms "Hui" "Uighur" "Han" and "minzu" in socialist China. Makley commented on this a bit in "The Violence of Liberation" but I suspect the study of the peoples of northern Yunnan with the adjective Tibetan removed, would not only change our perspective on other peoples of the plateau, but would make that work of even greater relevance to Sinologists, SE Asianists, etc.

It is exciting to me Giovanni that you chose Dechen for your fieldwork. And your ambitions to make Tibetology of greater relevance echo those of Janet Gyatso at both the Oxford and Bonn IATS meetings. But if we are to achieve those goals as a group, I hope the topics on this forum develop beyond the two smart ones you proposed. Thirty people have joined thus far and there is much more to discuss.
Comment by Geoffrey Samuel on October 13, 2010 at 11:59am
Dear Cameron and Giovanni

Since I seem to be getting drawn into the argument, I'll add a couple of comments.

(1) I don't have any problems with deconstruction - my original Fagernes piece was largely concerned with trying to critique taken for granted assumptions and positions in the state of Tibetan studies at that time - but I think we need a constructive phase to the process as well as the deconstructive one.

(2) I think the situation is improving, but my impression, despite Cameron's comment, is that many Tibetologists - whether worth their stripes or not - still do give the "context around the plateau and the secondary literature on those areas" much less attention than they could.

One of the reasons I was attracted to Scott is that his Zomia book is encouraging anthropologists of Tibet and the Himalayas to make more connections of that kind (cf Pat Giersch and Sara Shneiderman's recent articles in J Global History). It also provides a large, ambitious if obviously at one level too simple model for how politics, ethnic and linguistic identity operate in the wider region.

But I'm pretty over-committed at present too, so I'll leave it at that.

Best wishes to all

Comment by Giovanni da Col on October 12, 2010 at 3:53pm
Dear Cameron,
you have a fantastic department up there in Aarhus, you are lucky to be there. Thanks for your second provocation but again you are twisting my post and may be the one creating and attacking a straw man. Where the hell I did write that Dechen should be considered as part of Southeast Asia rather than the plateau? Regarding your comments, it is obvious that we have received different trainings. I honestly have no energy to respond to your provocations which I frankly find one of the innumerable attempts of deconstructing ethnic categories, terms and identities and escape other crucial issues which animated the anthropological enterprise since its inception. I am simply NOT interested to write on the debate of what is Tibetan or not, what 'ethnic' Tibet is nor where is located, whether Tibetans in Dharamsala vs. Jyekundo or Zhongdian are 'real' Tibetans, neither about uncovering the ideology behind any 'imagined' or 'constructed' Shangri-la. Not my cup of tea. We can resume this in front of a beer in Aarhus at some point and talk Foucault, Anderson, Hobsbawn, Adams and even Zizek or Sloterdjik if you like (I better be tipsy at that point). Time to drop notions of authenticity and think beyond the cynical reason. (Seriously, I am not writing about native conceptions of truth or irony but on humor and especially the episteme of 'bullshitting'). In this venue, I'd rather discuss: matrilinear components of Dechen kinship or whether the Omaha skewing system applies there (and its relation with Moso and Naxi kinship terms), whether the Himalayan unilineal (rus-oriented) model makes sense among contemporary Tibetans in China, how egalitarian (Woodburn-like), hierarchical or oscillatory political forms equivalent of Leach's gumlao/gumsa model apply to Southern Khams Tibetan (and what we can make of Charles' brilliant insights on the ‘randomized’ system of chieftanship in Mustang ), whether Descola's analogism makes sense among my informants or the presence and/or variation of the flesh and bone idiom among Han Chinese, Na and Tibetans or why the hell there's is still no work comparing SE and 'Tibetan' conceptions of the house (both as residential and container of 'immaterial' energies) or hearth. Just throwing some thoughts on the floor here. That's my cup of tea. Sorry for disappointing you. For the reasons above, I don't think you got clear Geoffrey's original invitation. If you wish to keep arguing on this or the relation between Tibet and SE Asia you may want to take up the matter with him from now on, he is also a member of this forum. In our Vancouver panel, Geoffrey presented a great paper on the applicability of James Scott's concept of Zomia to Tibetan societies. All best wishes, Giovanni

PS This is going to be my last post for a while I am afraid, I have too many deadlines upon me!
Comment by Cameron David Warner on October 12, 2010 at 10:42am
Dear Giovanni,
Small world. Just as I discover your post I also discover two of my colleagues have worked closely with you!

I'm glad you took my comments in the spirit in which I intended them- to be provocative and spur more discussion of the topics you proposed. Your proposed topics are straw men, are they not? The textual vs. field work debate is quite old and as you confirm, everyone now generally agrees we cannot ignore the texts. As for the regional affinities, I don't think any Tibetologist worth his stripes ignores the context around the plateau or the secondary literature on those areas.

But I also wanted to lure you in a slightly new direction. If you are looking for inspiration outside of Tibetan studies and desire for your work to be relevant to a larger readership, then at times you might want to break up Tibet into smaller bits. And at the same time I agree with you. For example, Rebkong is radically different than Jyekundo. A careful study of the lha rol in Rebkong could participate in larger theoretical discussions regarding spirit possession. Just as Jyekundo post-earthquake could be a model case for development studies, especially in comparison with Chinese development projects elsewhere. So here are two options:
a) if you want to relate to "larger regional discourses" than break-up "Tibet" into Southeast Asian, Chinese, Mongolian, Himalayan, etc. spheres, or
b) ignore regional discourses altogether; there is no reason you can't draw theoretical insights from anywhere you please.

Which gets me back to my earlier question, what can you tell us about how Dechen differs from the rest of the plateau? Can you construct an argument for considering it as the uniquely Southeast Asian part of Tibet? What kind of analytical insight would that regional argument provide Tibetanists who specialize in other areas? And how might it free you from regionally-specific discourses? For example, why call Khawa Karpo a "Tibetan" sacred mountain in Yunnan?
Comment by Giovanni da Col on October 9, 2010 at 1:47pm
Hi Cameron, glad to know the post attracted your interest. Forgive the brevity of my reply but seems your misgivings are unwarranted and you might be barking at the wrong tree. My argument doesn’t boil down to a naïve rejection of previous scholarship on Tibet or textual-based approaches. Neither I cast aspersions on the work of scholars like Diemberger and Ramble, (who are actually two of my mentors) and never denied the importance of incorporating of textual and historical material in anthropological analysis. I merely suggested that since Ortner, Tibetan ethnography have been unable to provide a significant impact on the field of socio/cultural anthropology. Tibetans may have written on subjects like witchcraft or sorcery in the pre-modern or modern age but Tibetanists have not, neither they have engaged with debates in our discipline (anthropology). Critical anthropological topics such as Tibetan kinship remains theoretically undeveloped. You may not be concerned with anthropological debates but Charlene Makley and I are (as the scholars who joined our panel in Vancouver and responded to our agenda were).

Also you seem to neglect that the invitation to escape regionalist concern and compare Tibetan societies with Southeast Asian ones was not originally mine but Geoffrey Samuel’s. Are you familiar with the anthropological literature on Southeast Asia (i.e. Leach)? If you would, the pertinence of Geoffrey’s argument would be self-evident. Your point on the relevance of alternative spatial interfaces (cf. Mongolia-Tibet Interface by Bulag and Diemberger) is correct but gratuitous. Indeed, such interfaces are relevant and ontologically-aware comparisons between Tibetan and neighbor societies (Mongolia, SE Asia and last but not least China) are precisely what we need!
Neither I see the pertinence of the analogy between Dechen and Turkey, sorry!. Thanks for the provocations but the agenda stands!
Comment by Cameron David Warner on October 8, 2010 at 2:00pm
Hi Giovanni,
I apologize that I missed the panel at IATS and I would greatly appreciate you or someone else giving a little report on the discussions. I was in Tibetan areas of China doing field-work at the time. I imagine that what I have to say here might duplicate what was said there but...

I can't help but say that in response to your first proposed topic, let's focus on the problems in Ortner's work and why you would choose to use it to prove your point. Tibet is a literate society. Per capita, maybe one of the most literate societies of the pre-modern world. If you pick almost any topic and your bibliographic knowledge is deep and broad enough, you can find something a Tibetan wrote on the subject before. Those written ideas haunt in the background and sometimes in the foreground of the classical anthropological topics you list in this post and in the panel abstract. And therefore, one response would be to say that it should be necessary but certainly not sufficient to include data obtained from texts and field experiences when working on most topics related to Tibet. This would be the strength, not the weakness, of Ramble, Diemberger, etc. I could make other arguments, but in the spirit of discussion, one at a time serves for a better dialogue.

In response to your second topic, I'll be provocative and just raise one argument against thinking of Tibetan as part of Southeast Asia: the Tibetan plateau is huge and your field-site is Dechen in Yunnan. It might work for you, but if we make an analogy to Europe, this would be like saying Europe should be considered part of the Middle East because your field site is Turkey. But if I study Estonia, then what does your proposal do for me? There are much better arguments for combining Tibet with Mongolia than anything else around it, including Southeast Asia.

Lastly, and in a totally speculative fashion, I think you could construct an argument than Dechen is more different than the rest of Tibet than it is the same. Analytically, you could use its difference to change perspectives on other Tibets rather than try to convince me or others to see my Tibet (primarily Lhasa) as being like Dechen. Maybe that argument could include something about considering Dechen uniquely a Tibetan piece of Southeast Asia or a uniquely Southeast Asian piece of Tibet....
Comment by Maria Luisa Nodari on July 23, 2009 at 10:48am
Ciao Gio, thank you for proposing the topics above and for posting the excellent article of Geoffrey Samuel. As a sinologist, I just would like to point out the ‘almost total lack of integration between Tibetanist and Sinological discourses’ (Samuel 1994:195)...

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