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Michael Lambek

Peter Loizos


Michael Lambek is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Toronto and is currently a Visiting Professor at the LSE (2007-2008).

Professor Lambek is primarily an Africanist. He has carried out fieldwork in the western Indian Ocean since 1975, among Malagasy speakers of Mayotte (Comoro Archipelago) and northwest Madagascar. He has taken various interpretive approaches to spirit possession as a system of communication, a medium for cultural creativity, and a mode of ethical, therapeutic, and historical practice, and has studied its articulation with traditions of divination, Islam, and kingship. His essays on kinship, gender, religion, exchange, fieldwork, and social change attempt to draw from philosophy and psychoanalysis in order to elucidate cultural patterns and social processes, such as the peculiar contemporary fascination with memory as well as questions of personal subjectivity.

Current and forthcoming projects include ethnographic work on alternative medicine and citizenship in Switzerland, analyzing social transformation in the western Indian Ocean, and preparing a portrait of anthropological theory.

The interview

Click on each question to watch Professor Lambek's reply.

  1. Can you say a little about your background, where you grew up and where you went to school?
  2. So you started out doing a degree in anthropology?
  3. How did you become interested in Madagascar and in Mayote and that part of the world? […] And so you were aware of Maurice Bloch’s work in Madagascar [at that time]?
  4. Who were your influences when you were doing your PhD and afterwards?
  5. Could you tell me a bit about your fieldwork experience?
  6. Did you know what you were looking for at that stage?

    Human Spirits
  7. So Human Spirits was the book that came out of that fieldwork…
  8. I just wanted to ask about the title of your book. In what way is a spirit human? Or not human?
  9. So that is a difference from the concept of god in Islam then?
  10. In the book, are the spirits something like humans in the way they interact?
  11. Can I ask you about your theoretical approach, because you describe possession as a system of communication and show that we can, in the manner of Geertz, analyze culture as a text. But then you also mention culture as a social system as well. I just wondered if you could clarify or comment on the theoretical approach in your book.
  12. Does spirit possession help us understand social structure and culture or is it somehow outside or separate?
  13. So in some ways it [spirit possession] is a privileged site [to gain insights into culture]?

    Knowledge and Practice in Mayote
  14. Could you say a couple of things about Knowledge and Practice in Mayote. What were your intentions behind writing the book?
  15. [In the book you describe] three traditions: Islam, cosmology and spirit possession…
  16. But ultimately the three traditions are incommensurable? […] Are the three traditions all speaking about knowledge, power and morality?
  17. If there is no overarching system of causality, is there a principal way in which misfortune is explained?

    The Weight of the Past
  18. In The Weight of the Past, you were talking about caring for shrines in the Sakalava monarchy. Could you tell me how that book came about?
  19. One of your critics talked about the romanticisation of history and a lack of focus on power and interest. Do you have any comment on that?
  20. But in some ways isn’t their version of modernity key to understanding their version of their past as well?
  21. If I could just ask you about your methods for a moment, I am interested in life histories, case studies and key informants and the kind of evidence that these represent. Could you say a bit about your use of life histories and case studies?
  22. What about future directions for anthropology and for your work? Do you have any thoughts on where anthropology is going and the shape of it in the future?
  23. What about your own work [in the future]?

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Last modified 24 November 2009