Vale Stanley Tambiah

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. People — even the persnickety people who filled Chicago’s halls — were enthusiastic about his returning to the campus. 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. Problems began immediately: we were given ‘more money than usual’ to take him out, but not enough to actually take him out somewhere nice. 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. It didn’t matter if we got to the restaurant on time. 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. Gracious, quiet, and polite, Tambiah was almost too much of a gentleman. So you can see: I don’t study Buddhism, South Asia, or Southeast Asia, so I feel like I am not the right person to write a remembrance of him. But until a fuller appreciate comes along, this is what I will try to do.

The outlines of Tambiah’s career have been convered by most of the googleable sources: he was born in 1929 in the Christian community in Sri Lanka and grew interested in anthropology there. He eventually found his way to Cornell, an area studies center, and earned a Ph.D. in 1954 by writing a dissertation on peasant communities in what was then Ceylon. After graduating, Tambiah began doing work with UNESCO in Thailand (1960-1963), and he eventually became a specialist in this area.

Tambiah worked with many anthropologists on his Ph.D. (Lauriston Sharp, Morris Opler, etc.) in the course of his Ph.D., which dealt with issues raised by Robert Redfield. But I think a real turning point in his intellectual development came in 1963, when he began a ten-year stint as a reader of anthropology at Cambridge. It was there that he became influenced by Edmund Leach. At this point in his career Leach had finished up Pul Eliya, his ethnography of Sri Lanka, and was turning towards Lévi-Strauss. Leach was producing the essays that would later go into Genesis as Myth and Other Essays, and edit The Structural Study of Myth and Totemism. I think we can see Leach’s influence on Tambiah in Tambiah’s essays on classification, ritual, magic, and symbolism.

In 1973 Tambiah came to the University of Chicago, as I mentioned, where he taught for three years. I think these years were also highly influential for him, since he helped contribute to the University’s strength in South Asian studies and conveyed a sense of the social-anthropological encounter with structuralism. At the same time, I think Tambiah was influenced by the linguistic-anthropological focus at Chicago, and American versions of symbolic anthropology. This influence is evident in his 1985 volume of collected essays Culture, Thought, and Social Action. His Morgan lectures of the previous year were eventually published in 1990 as Magic, Science, and Religion and the Scope of Rationality. Tambiah’s project was, roughly, to understand how it was that ritual was efficacious — this meant understanding how words did not just describe the world, but change it (how they were ‘performative’). It also meant understanding how people deployed classificatory systems and cosmologies in the course of everyday life, and how those shaped action. At the time, Tambiah was one of the many people creating what Sherry Ortner would call, in 1984, ‘practice theory’ by examining how cultural categories were used in 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. He would take this awareness of the cultural/symbolic/cosmological dimension of action with him to his analysis of the religious dimensions of ethnic tensions and mass actions in South Asia.

In 1976 Tambiah moved to Harvard, where he worked until he retired in 2001. There, his interest turned back towards South Asia and ethnic violence, a long-standing preoccupation of his. He produced books in 1986, 1992, and 1996 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 2002.

As I said, I don’t feel confident about my ability to speak about Tambiah’s work in South or Southeast Asia. But if you are interested in learning more about Tambiah, I highly recommend watching Alan MacFarlane’s 1983 interview with Tambiah. The good people at HAU have made one of his most well-known pieces, “The Galactic Polity in Southeast Asia” available in golden (completely free to read) open access — an important way to salvage his legacy, since much of his work was published in obscure journals and collected in edited volumes that are not easily (or cheaply) accessible. I would also recommend Tambiah’s memoir of Edmund Leach, which is, frankly, so well-done that it is the only thing you will ever need to read about Leach, a small masterpiece of rigorous intellectual history. For those of you with access to Culture, Thought, and Social Action, I’d recommend… well, really there aren’t any bad essays in that book. But “A Performative Approach to Ritual”, “Animals Are Good to Think and Good to Prohibit”, and “On Flying Witches and Flying Canoes” are good places to start.

Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at

4 thoughts on “Vale Stanley Tambiah

  1. Hear, hear. With one small niggle. In “A Performative Approach to Ritual” Tambiah failed to notice the difference between performance and performative, the ritual drama and the social conditions under which a performative act is effective. A point of some concern to me, since I dealt with it in the only piece I ever published in american ethnologist. Only a niggle, however, given the scope of Tambiah’s accomplishments and the character that Rex describes.

  2. Failure is for the living. There is no longer reason to pay it any mind after we pass on. All potential energy we had has already turned to what kinetic energy it could. What we leave behind is infinitely more than what we didn’t. “Failure” requires potential, but potential requires an undetermined future. It lives only in those odd moments of indeterminancy or liminality. When you opened the lid the Shrodinger’s cat that lived, by definition, did not fail to die. From my perspective, at this point in time Tambiah did not “fail” to do anything, he simply “didn’t.” I think it may be best to focus on the infinitely more things he did: how his existence echoes onward in large and small ways.

    Thanks for sharing how your paths met, Rex.

  3. Thanks for that Matthew. I think (hope?) you and John will both agree that we face a difficult task when someone like this passes away. On the one hand, we feel like it is the right time to take a look back on that person and assess their work. On the other hand, assessment can often lead us to recognize the truth about people’s lives — that no one is perfect and all of our lives have high and low points.

    When I wrote this piece, I thought about talking more about where Tambiah did and didn’t fit in with the history of anthropology, but ultimately decided to pass over it because I just felt I couldn’t do him credit, and writing up an evaluation of his work so close to his passing just wasn’t fully appropriate (its one thing to leave a comment as John did, another thing to feature it in my blog post!)

    I think it would be great if someone seized this opportunity to do for Tambiah what he did for Leach: take the time to begin a reasonably-sized reflection on his career that is polished and will come out sometime in the near future, but not right this minute.

  4. John’s comment on Tambiah’s article prompts me to point out that when I took Tambiah’s seminar on “Ritual and Performance” at Chicago 40 years ago he was very much aware of precisely that distinction. I haven’t read his subsequent article in many years, so I hesitate to comment on what may have been included and/or ignored in that publication, but I don’t think it would be accurate to suggest that Tambi was unaware of the distinction between ‘performance’ and ‘performative’. Goodness, so many semioticians in the class, including Val Daniel, would never have let him make such a obvious mistake!

    Thanks, though, to Rex for the nice biographical note. I remember Tambiah as an impressive intellect and a model anthropologist. When Meyer Fortes was on campus for one quarter, it was fascinating to listen to them discuss and debate, especially with their shared experience at Cambridge and mastery of an OxBridge style that made our own Chicago mode look anemic.

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