Current Institutional Affiliation
Associate Professor, Anthropology, University of British Columbia

Award Information

International Dissertation Research Fellowship 2005
Institutional Affiliation (at time of award):
Anthropology, Cornell University
Rituals of Ethnicity: Mixing and Making Thangmi Identity Across Himalayan Borders

This project examines the relationship between political discourse and ritual practice in producing ethnic identity for the Thangmi, a largely unknown Himalayan community-whose population of approximately 40,000 is dispersed across border areas of Nepal, China, and India. In this age where the politics of identity encourage ethnic groups around the world to define themselves through discourses of purity and authenticity in order to gain recognition, rights, and benefits within discrete nation-states, the Thangmi are intriguing because they deploy cultural impurity, racial hybridity and religious syncretism as positive ethnic markers in a cross-border situation. These values are reproduced through a set of ritual practices that travel back and forth across multiple state borders in a series of what I have dubbed dynamic 'feedback loops'. Situated at the intersection of three distinct areas of anthropological inquiry-studies of ethnicity and nationalism, ritual and religious studies, and border studies-my dissertation considers how the Thangmi case, in which ethnic subjectivities are forged in a transnational dialectic between discursive statements of cultural absence and ritualized expressions of cultural presence, prompts us to reconceptualize how both ethnicity and ritual work. Just as geopolitical borders are key sites for understanding ideologies and policies emanating from nation-state centers, the Thangmi position of marginality-on academic, political, and religious levels-provides a productive vantage point from which to consider the complex formation of dominant identities and discourses in each of the countries in which they live. My research will therefore contribute to general anthropological debates, particularly on the topics of ethnicity and ritual, as well as to Himalayan, Tibetan, South Asian and East Asian area studies. The larger goal is to constructively challenge the boundaries between these areas of scholarship by documenting an empirical situation which defies easy categorization in the normative terms of any one of these fields.