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Rex It was with a genuine sense of loss that I read over the weekend that Stanley Tambiah had passed away. Tambiah was a model anthropologist, a person whose personal life and work exemplified everything that our discipline can and should be. He was an area studies specialist whose monographs on life in rural Thailand expanded our ethnography of this area. He was a theorist who knit together British and American theories of symbolism and ritual at a key point in anthropological theory.

And he also became a public intellectual who published substantive work on pressing issues of the day in books and articles about ethnic violence in India and Sri Lanka.

Above all, he will be remembered by his colleagues as role model of the generous scholar and human being. His generosity, kindness, and humility seemed to combine the best of all the different cultures he lived in, from English gentleman to humble Buddhist to Sri Lankan Christian. His loss gives us a chance to reflect on the values he lived and that we, in turn, ought to continue to follow. I only met Tambiah once, when I was a graduate student at the University of Chicago. Although Tambiah had taught there for only three years a quarter century ago, I was shocked by how well he was remembered.

I was voluntold as they say to organize a dinner for him to have with the graduate students. It ended up being an incredibly punishing task for me, I had to find the restaurant where we would eat and drive Tambiah there. I had no car, had not driven regularly in a decade, and had never driven in a big city like Chicago. The department secretary lent me hers yes, Chicago people, another good deed by Herself and I had ended up navigating traffic, sweating profusely, with a Luminary sitting contentedly in the car with me.

Throughout all of this, one of the biggest problems was Tambiah himself. Although I attempted to cater to his needs, this proved almost impossible: in his presence I could do nothing wrong.

Any kind of food would be acceptable. We could have wine, or not, depending on what the students preferred. He was more interested in what we were studying than his own work. But until a fuller appreciate comes along, this is what I will try to do.

He eventually found his way to Cornell, an area studies center, and earned a Ph. Tambiah worked with many anthropologists on his Ph. Lauriston Sharp, Morris Opler, etc. But I think a real turning point in his intellectual development came in , when he began a ten-year stint as a reader of anthropology at Cambridge. It was there that he became influenced by Edmund Leach. In Tambiah came to the University of Chicago, as I mentioned, where he taught for three years. At the same time, I think Tambiah was influenced by the linguistic-anthropological focus at Chicago, and American versions of symbolic anthropology.

It also meant understanding how people deployed classificatory systems and cosmologies in the course of everyday life, and how those shaped action. He never achieved the fame of Victor Turner or Marshall Sahlins — I think he was too interested in ethnography to engage in high-level theorizing. What commanded attention was his powerful ethnographic analysis: not what he said about theory, but how he employed it.

In Tambiah moved to Harvard, where he worked until he retired in There, his interest turned back towards South Asia and ethnic violence, a long-standing preoccupation of his. He produced books in , , and on this subjects, working in both Sri Lanka and India. As he grew closer to retirement he also began work memorializing Edmund Leach, producing an exhaustive biography of his teacher in


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Proceedings of the British Academy, Volume 65 - A Performative Approach to Ritual


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