By Ken Gewertz
To the outside world, ethnic violence can be a troubling and baffling occurrence.
The spectacle of a country tearing itself apart over what seem in essence to be petty feuds and jealousies may prompt some version of Rodney King's anguished question: "Can't we all just get along?"
A much smaller percentage of onlookers, unsatisfied with mere hand-wringing, probe beneath the surface to find the hidden meanings and mechanisms of such phenomena. One of these is Stanley Tambiah, the Esther and Sidney Rabb Professor of Anthropology in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.
Tambiah is a 1997 recipient of the Balzan Prize, considered by many to rival the Nobel Prize in prestige. Based in Italy and Switzerland, the Balzan Foundation awards three prizes annually, which include a substantial monetary award. The actual prizes will be presented on Nov. 18 in Berne, Switzerland.
The prize committee's citation reads: "For his penetrating social-anthropological analysis of the contemporary central problems of ethnic violence manifested in South East Asia, as well as for his original studies on the dynamics of Buddhist society, which have opened an innovative and disciplined social-anthropological approach to the internal dynamics of different civilizations."
In 1983 Tambiah, already highly regarded for his work on Thailand and his theoretical studies, made an abrupt decision to visit his native Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon), drawn there by the conflict that had broken out between the Tamils and the Sinhalese.
"It was very traumatic for me. I felt that it was necessary for my own therapy to come to terms with what was happening there by writing something about it."
The Sinhalese-speaking Buddhists constitute the majority in Sri Lanka, about 70 percent. The Tamils are the largest minority group, about 18 percent, and are largely Hindu. Tambiah, a Christian Tamil, grew up as a member of a minority within a minority.
Educated under the British system, Tambiah earned a B.A. from the University of Ceylon in 1951. He later came to the United States, receiving a Ph.D. from Cornell University in 1954.
The British granted Ceylon its independence in 1948, but many colonial institutions remained in place, including the use of English as an official language.
This was soon to change. By the end of the 1950s, violence had erupted over attempts by the Sinhalese to make their own language the only official language, and the Tamils responded by demanding a federal state. Since then, violence has flared periodically, with little hope of an immediate resolution. In all, an estimated 17,000 Sri Lankans have died.
Looking at Sri Lanka's ethnic travails as a social anthropologist, Tambiah wrote Sri Lanka: Ethnic Fratricide and the Dismantling of Democracy (1986), which described the Tamil-Sinhalese conflict and recounted its historical origins, showing how certain government responses to the crisis threatened democratic institutions.
A second book followed, Buddhism Betrayed? Religion, Politics and Violence in Sri Lanka (1992), aimed at the general reader. In this work, Tambiah tried to explain, through interviews with Sinhalese militants how adherents of a religion that espoused nonviolence could take part in a political movement marked by violent action.
This book has angered some Buddhist groups who have attempted to have it banned. Tambiah realizes that his own ethnic identity forces him to walk a fine line between objectivity and engagement, but he is willing to face this risk.
"I am trained as an anthropologist, and so far as I wear that hat, I try to examine the evidence and reach a conclusion. I'm not involved in pro-Tamil politics, I'm not in contact with the militants, but nevertheless I am a Tamil, and I cannot ignore the problems and sufferings they have endured. So I must take a position both as an anthropologist and as a minority member. This is a challenge today for Third World intellectuals."
In 1996, Tambiah published a longer, more ambitious book in which he took what he had learned about ethnic violence in Sri Lanka and compared it with other similar incidents across a broad geographic area, including the Sikh separatist movement, ethnic conflict in Pakistan, and Hindu-Muslim confrontations in the Indian city of Ayodhya.
In this book, Leveling Crowds: Ethnonationalist Conflicts and Collective Violence in South Asia, Tambiah's aim is to understand these events in the context of a worldwide crisis in which ethnonationalism and ethnic conflict threaten the integrity of the state and democratic elections are often transformed into arenas for violence.
"I was trying to write about the anthropology of ethnonationalism and the use of collective violence as a way of conducting politics. I think this is one of the most important issues in social science, with application to many different areas, such as Eastern Europe, for example."
It is this combination of careful ethnographic research with more sweeping theoretical views that has characterized Tambiah's work throughout his career. It is also the reason his colleagues agree that he is richly deserving of the Balzan Prize.
"For those who know the field, he is unquestionably one of the world's leading social anthropologists," said James Watson, the John King and Wilma Cannon Fairbank Professor of Chinese Society. "All of us are very pleased that he has received the prize. None of us is surprised."
Watson said that what is unique about Tambiah is that he is "a theorist who is able to bring it home. In other words, he brings a theoretical perspective to the serious, burning issues that are of importance to all of us who are concerned with the fate of the planet."
Professor of Anthropology Michael Herzfeld emphasizes Tambiah's intellectual scope and productivity.
"He's been a leading anthropologist from a very early point in his career, and he's maintained a level of productivity and a level of originality that is astounding. His work is both extremely local and extremely global."
Herzfeld points out that the prize was also given for Tambiah's many years of research and voluminous writings on Buddhist society in Thailand, including Buddhism and the Spirit Cults in Northeast Thailand (1970); World Conqueror and World Renouncer: A Study of Religion and Polity in Thailand Against a Historical Background (1976); and The Buddhist Saints of the Forest and the Cult of Amulets: A Study of Charisma, Hagiography, Sectarianism, and Millennial Buddhism (1984).
"He's shown us new ways of analyzing ritual, which may seem like a very esoteric concern, but his work has been extremely influential in redirecting the profession's approach to these issues and showing us why and how symbols become so powerful in the world today," Herzfeld said.
Recently Tambiah has been building on his studies of ethnic conflict and has involved himself in the search for solutions to these problems. As a member of the National Research Council's Committee for International Conflict Resolution, he is helping to explore new mechanisms for power sharing in plural societies.
"The threat of secession in these countries is very strong. This is why new forms of government must be developed that will allow minorities to have a meaningful voice in the political process," he said.
Copyright 1998 President and Fellows of Harvard College