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233 Afterword. Galactic Polities, Radical Egalitarianism, and the Practice of Anthropology: Tambiah on Logical Paradoxes, Social Contradictions, and Cultural Oscillations Michael M. J. Fischer For Tambi . . . the richness of the forms of life of other societies, knowledge of which will deepen and illuminate our own lives and societies. This is the reason and justification for the practice of anthropology. —s. j. tambiah A Time, a World, a Voice, and an Anthropological Calling From the teardrop-shaped island, there once came a group of extraordinarily talented social anthropologists; they brought with them perspectives, questions, and empirical fieldwork that helped reshape the discipline, its calling, and its composition.1 They traversed the temporal and social seas from Ceylon/Sri Lanka’s position as the educated jewel and model democratic state of the British Commonwealth (where they were raised and educated) to its subsequent descent into a form of postcolonial violence.2 How could they not, then, also traverse the seas from the classical social anthropology in which they trained (in England and America), becoming some of its finest practitioners, to the battered landscapes of the late twentieth century, about which they also wrote with insight and passion?3 They attended to geographies, polities, and cultural formations well beyond that of their homeland. They attended to the larger South Asian and Southeast Asian scene, pre- and postcolonial relations, and to the work of theory in the inclusive, comparative, and transnational field science called anthropology. F5920.indb 233 F5920.indb 233 12/17/12 3:00:48 PM 12/17/12 3:00:48 PM 234 Michael M. J. Fischer In the case of Stanley Jeyaraja Tambiah (or “Tambi,” as he is known to his friends and students—literally “younger brother,” meaning affectionateuncle ,mother’syoungerbrother4 )—thebrotherandnephew of Justices of Sri Lanka’s Supreme Court who were trained in the transnational Anglo-colonial judiciary that sometimes rotated judges interchangeably from Asia to Africa, slowly building up a procedural system of adjudication between local conditions, traditional customary law,and codified statutes5 —one cannot help but read an enriching projection of concern about his homeland in his work on Buddhism in Thailand, on sources of charisma and legitimation, on ritual and cosmological action, and on ethnic violence across South Asia.6 Tambiah’s insistence that one should begin with a firm grasp of political economy and with local ethnographic grounding, rather than with cosmology and ritual, is rooted in his career trajectory. Trained originally as a sociologist at the University of Ceylon and at Cornell, Tambiah’s first efforts were quantitative surveys (The Disintegrating Village: Report of a Socio-Economic Survey, 1957), village studies of kinship , land tenure, and polyandry (“The Structure of Kinship and Its Relationship to Land Possession and Residence in Pata Dumbara, Central Ceylon,” 1958; “Polyandry in Ceylon,” 1966), and rural community development for a UNESCO-Thai technical assistance project in northeastern Thailand. His trajectory was redirected by engagements with the English social anthropologist Edmund R. Leach, who had originally been trained in engineering, and whom Tambiah first met in 1956 at the former University of Ceylon, renamed the University of Peradeniya. Tambiah had returned there to teach and Leach was making a second visit to Pul Eliya,a village in central Ceylon built around an irrigation tank, where Leach had done fieldwork in 1954.7 Leach was supportive and engaging but devastating about the quantitative survey approach, and he brought Tambiah to Cambridge for two years (1962–1964).8 There Tambiah transformed himself into a social anthropologist, later editing with Jack Goody a classic volume in kinship studies (Bridewealth and Dowry, 1973), and absorbing as well Leach’s incorporation of some of the then-new and intellectually challenging structuralist insights of Claude Levi-Strauss. Tambiah abandoned none of his earlier commitments; in his 1985 collection of essays (Culture, Thought, and Social Action) he continued to refer to himself as a development anthropologist and to invoke Sir E. B. Tylor ’s creed that anthropology is a reformer’s science. F5920.indb 234 F5920.indb 234 12/17/12 3:00:48 PM 12/17/12 3:00:48 PM Afterword 235 Much of Tambiah’s stress on oscillating and pulsating models of politics and on dialectical dynamics parallels that of Leach,as evident in the latter’s provocative work among the Kachin, Political Systems of Highland Burma (1954).9 Tambiah remained a close friend and eventually became Leach’s biographer (Edmund Leach: An Anthropological Life, 2002). Another of Leach’s students...


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