USA/Sri Lanka

Stanley Jeyaraja Tambiah

1997 Balzan Prize for Social Anthropology

For his penetrating social-anthropological analysis of the fundamental problems of ethnic violence in South East Asia and the original studies on the dynamics of Buddhist societies, which have opened the way to an innovative and rigorous social-anthropological approach to the internal dynamics of different civilizations.

Professor Tambiah (1929 – 2014) is one of the most outstanding contemporary social anthropologists whose research covers a wide range of very central topics in socialanthropology, and who has made numerous contributions to each of these topics. His work spans from the classic English social anthropology of the fifties and early sixties, embracing structuralism as developed by Lévi-Strauss, but going far beyond it by combining, in an unusually innovative way, structuralist with historical analysis, as well as the analysis of relations between culture, social structure and human endeavour at the same time. On this basis, he analysed one of the most central classical problems in anthropology and social scenes in general – mainly that of the relations between rational and other modes of thought, of a religious and magical nature. Recently, he has been focusing on the analysis of the contemporary problems of ethnic violence. The first phases of his work were devoted to the study of Buddhist societies and traditions, especially in Thailand.

His first work, Buddhism and the Spirit Cults in Nontheast Thailand (1970), constitutes one of the most incisive field works and analyses of religious folk culture – an analysis which combines ethnographic work with historical research, especially the history of religions. In his third work, The Buddhist Saints of the Forest and the Cult of Amulets. A Study in Charism, Hagiography, Sectarianism and Millennial Buddhism (1984), the cult of amulets and spirit cults are linked to the much broader problems of sectarianism and millennial Buddhism, and with the construction of the dynamics of Buddhist society. Between these two books, he published World Conqueror and World Renouncer. A Study of Religion and Polity in Thailand Against a Historical Background (1976), which is probably one of the most important contributions to the analysis of the relations between structure polity and historical political dynamics in Buddhist societies, the significance of which ranges far beyond the specific area. This work serves as a model of such analysis for other societies.

The next area of his studies dealt with problems of rationality, culture and thought to which his work on Culture, Thought and Social Action (1985). and continuing with Magic, Science, Religion and the Scope of Rationality (1990) belong. These works take up some of the most central ideas, problems, and controversies in contemporary social anthropology, indeed social science in general. The way in which he addresses these problems and solves them is one of the most original and singly disciplined, wherein he very successfully overcomes the dilemmas of relationality and of simple evolutionary rationalisms.
Almost all these works and numerous articles constitute one of the most important rebuttals of the simple ‘Orientalist’ approach, and he demonstrates how it is possible to merge the analysis of internal dynamics of different civilizations on their own terms, without falling into the pitfalls of either simple historicism or of schematic evoiutionary comparison.

In the last few years, Professor Tambiah devoted most of his work to a central problem of contemporary social Sciences, namely that of ethnic conflict. In his books Sri Lanka: Ethnic Fratricide and the Dismantling of Democracy (1986), Buddhism Betrayed? Religion, Politics and Violence in Sri Lanka (1992), and above all in his recent work on Leveling Crowds: Ethnonationalist Conflict and Collective Violence in South Asia (1996), he was able to avoid the dangers of politization and to present one of the most important contributions to this field, in which he combines social-anthropological analysis and ethnographic and historical study. He puts them in an analytical comparative framework, and successfully connects them with the rather neglected, but central problems of sociological analysis – mainly, crowd behaviour.

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