Stanley Tambiah

Interviewed by Alan Macfarlane
Filmed by Alan Macfarlane
Interview Length: 44 minutes, and 49 seconds

Interviewed on July 8, 1983
Supported by the Leverhulme Trust

Description of Interview

In this interview, Stanley Tambiah speaks mostly of his experiences working as an anthropologist. Tambiah became interested in anthropology during his undergraduate studies at the University of Ceylon. At the time, sociologist Bryce Ryan was setting up the first anthropology and sociology department at the university. Tambiah explains that what caught his interest most about the discipline of anthropology was the importance of conducting fieldwork. For Tambiah, fieldwork was inspirational because it allowed him to learn about a world he lived in but knew very little about. Having attended a British-type public school in Colombo, learning more English history than of Ceylon, and Latin “rather than my own tongue,” Tambiah saw in anthropology a chance to learn about his own society. He says, “we didn’t know our own past or what to make of our lives other than becoming civil servants.” It was during fieldwork with Bryce Ryan that Tambiah, along with fellow students, began to learn about villages and culture in Ceylon.

After obtaining his degree in economics, with anthropology and sociology as special subjects, Tambiah worked as an assistant lecturer at the University of Ceylon until he went to Cornell to write a PhD in sociology (with anthropology and social psychology as secondary subjects). At the time of his PhD, the foremost sociologists were Talcott Parsons and Robert Merton. He returned to Sri Lanka to conduct fieldwork and to study kinship in villages around Kandy. After meeting Edmund Leach and Nur Yalman, Tambiah began to feel more intellectually close to anthropology and even more convinced of the importance of “the fieldwork method for gaining deep understanding of village people.” Tambiah goes onto talk about his fieldwork experience in Thailand and Sri Lanka.

Partial Video Index

:00:05 Became an anthropologist because a sociologist, Bryce Ryan, set up first department of sociology and anthropology at University of Ceylon, enthusiast who introduced students to fieldwork at weekends; had been at St Thomas’s College, Colombo, modelled on English public school where learnt more English history than own history, and Latin rather than own tongue, so no grounding in own society, culture and traditions; Bryce Ryan introduced him and fellow students to own villages and culture through field trips; therefore read economics with anthropology and sociology as special subject; after degree became an assistant lecturer at University of Ceylon and went to Cornell to do a PhD; trained in sociology primarily, with anthropology and social psychology as secondary subjects, then returned to Ceylon. 

0:04:30 At time, foremost sociologists were Talcott Parsons and Robert Merton, worked with Robin Williams at Cornell and Lauriston Sharp; read Weber, Durkheim, Pareto and Marx, also some anthropology – Mead, Kluckhohn, Radcliffe-Brown, Malinowski; returned to Sri Lanka to do fieldwork and started studying kinship in villages around Kandy and then met Edmund Leach, and also Nur Yalman; became an anthropologist as believed in the fieldwork method for gaining deep understanding of village people. 

0:08:30 Went to Thailand, partly by accident, through an Australian friend, an educationalist, who became a director of a research centre in Thailand and invited him to become the resident anthropologist to collect information from villagers and to teach students in fieldwork methods. 

0:12:00 In Sri Lanka wanted to do fieldwork but very little funding; with friend Gananath Obeyesekere tried to raise funding for work in remote Tamil village but no tradition of supporting social science research in University of Ceylon; in 1956 political upheaval changed the fortunes of Tamils and Christians in favour of Singalese Buddhists; as a Tamil from a professional background this challenged own identity; wanted to understand Buddhism but needed to study it elsewhere and Thailand gave this opportunity. 

0:20:13 First impressions of Thailand; joined Bangkok Institute for Child Studies, run by UNESCO; 1960-63 took Thai students from the teachers’ college to work in three different rural areas; differences between the areas; fieldwork a surprise for him and students and had to learn a lot; realized the need to understand kinship, economics, and Buddhism, and to see how they were interrelated; first book ‘Buddhism and the Spirit Cults in North-East Thailand’; opposite view to Melford Spiro’s conclusions on Buddhism in Burma and the ‘Great Tradition’ debate. 

0:29:20 Did more work in Thailand than has written about; ‘World Conqueror and World Renouncer’ looked at macro view of Buddhism, polity and society in Thailand; continuities and transformations. 

0:36:10 Sequel in press ‘Buddhist Saints of the Forest and the Cult of Amulets’, a study of concepts of sainthood and charisma, sectarianism, hagiography, millenium Buddhism; based on work done 1971, 1973 and 1979-80 on forest monks wandering on the borders of Laos, Burma, claimed as saints, and attracted powerful people and institutions from the city who wanted amulets which radiated power of the saints; investigated hagiographies on saints and the writers; charisma and fetichism of objects. 

0:43:16 Cambridge, influenced by Edmund Leach who brought him here as Smuts visiting fellow; Meyer Fortes.