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Anthropological knowledge and its entanglements in a globalised world: the excavation of a hair splitting religious controversy - 30 November 2022

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Throughout his lengthy career, M. N. Srinivas advocated for an anthropology that blended sociological analysis with empathetic understanding, that privileged what he called the ‘field view’ and that retained its independence from direct policy making. He also called for anthropologists and sociologists to take the study of religion seriously rather than contesting or defending it or reducing it to politics.

Interrogating these themes, this lecture explores the shape-shifting nature of both anthropological knowledge and religious practice in a globalised world where the ‘field’ extends beyond conventional spatial units of village, city or nation and where the subject and object of research often blur.

These themes are explored through a focus on an international controversy and its aftermath concerning the status of tonsured hair collected from the famous Hindu pilgrimage site near Tirupati, sold on the global market and commonly used by orthodox Jewish women in their sheitels (wigs) until its use was banned by a prominent rabbi in Israel in 2004 owing to its perceived associations with idolatry.

It is a controversy which brought together an unlikely range of actors from Hindu pilgrims, barbers, priests and hair traders in India to orthodox Jewish women, wig makers, rabbis and businessmen around the world as well as anthropologists and South Asia scholars whose knowledge and expertise were sought at different moments in the controversy with notable effects.

It is argued that hair with its conceptual and material slipperiness, capable of being perceived as body part, organic waste, raw fibre, polluting filth or sacred offering and slipping between heads and across national and religious borders, is a productive site for investigating the complexities of anthropological methods and knowledge production as well as the instability of the distinction between the religious and the secular. The lecture ends by considering which elements of Srinivas’ vision for anthropology have continuing relevance today.

About the speaker

Professor Emma Tarlo, Emeritus Professor of Anthropology, Goldsmiths

Emma Tarlo is Professor Emerita of Anthropology at Goldsmiths.  Much of her research revolves around material culture and body politics in transnational contexts in which India was a starting point. She is author of several publications including Clothing Matters: dress and identity in India (winner of the Coomaraswamy Prize 1998), Unsettling Memories: Narratives of the Emergency in Delhi (2003) and Visibly Muslim: Fashion, Politics, Faith (2010).

For the last ten years she has been involved in a multi-cited project about human hair and its entanglement in personal lives, religious practice and global commerce. Her book Entanglement: the Secret Lives of hair (2016) experimented with new ways of writing anthropological non-fiction and was awarded the Victor Turner Prize for Ethnographic Writing in 2017. She has since curated a number of exhibitions about hair.

Her most recent exhibition, Hair, Untold Stories was co-curated with Sarah Byrne at the Horniman Museum and is currently touring in Carlisle (October- December 2022) followed Sheffield (February – October 2023).


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