Professor Michael Lambek's research has taken him from a Swiss canton to a small island in the Indian Ocean (photo by Ken Jones)

Ethics and ethnography: Canada Research Chair Michael Lambek

What do spirit possession on a small Indian Ocean island and alternative medicine in Switzerland have in common?

To anthropologist Michael Lambek, they both hold fascinating clues to how humans live, the choices they make and how they deal with the people around them.

Professor Lambek, chair of University of Toronto Scarborough’s Department of Anthropology, first visited the French island of Mayotte, just north of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean, in 1975. There he observed the Malagasy-speaking local people go into trances as they talked in the voices and styles of long-dead kings and queens. Fascinated, he has returned to Mayotte and a nearby area of Madagascar many times.

“A lot of my work has been about what you can call spirit possession, trying to understand what is going on there and what it tells us about the human person,” says Lambek. “It raises philosophical questions about the relation between the mind and the body, questions about what it means to be a person in society, about how people situate themselves in history, and also what we might mean by religion and religious practices.”

Lambek says his interest in ethical life – the broad title he gave his CRC – stems “partly from seeing how, in displacing oneself and becoming someone else [during spirit possession], one can still be an ethical agent and participate in moral ways with other people.”

For a few years Lambek added the German-speaking Swiss canton of Appenzell as a research destination. Here he studied the widespread use of alternative, or complementary medicine, in which people often visit non-biomedical healers, including some who use prayer.

For Lambek there is a theme that links Mayotte and Appenzell. In Mayotte, he notes, the people involved in spirit possession are also Muslims and have a French education. “They live with traditions of knowledge and ideas about what’s true and authoritative that differ from one another, and they alternate in their practice among them.”

In Switzerland, he says, “…people may be practising alternative medicine, may be going to biomedical hospitals and doctors, and they may be practising Christians or atheists or whatever. But they can hold these different practices together.

“So the idea that commitments to particular traditions are rigidly bound, and one either believes one set of ideas or another set of ideas, is not true when you look at people close up,” says Lambek. “Not all the ideas and practises we draw upon fit together logically and consistently.”

Lambek has just had his Canada Research Chair (CRC) in Ethical Life renewed. A Tier One chair, the appointment will provide federal funding of $200,000 annually to his area of research for another seven years. It means Lambek will be able to continue his life’s work as well as help support his department’s Centre for Ethnography.

Along with his research, Lambek has earmarked part of his CRC funds for distinguished guest speakers at the Centre for Ethnography. On March 3rd, the Centre will host University of Edinburgh social anthropologist Janet Carsten, speaking on The Stuff of Life: Mysteries of Blood and Connection from Malaysian Clinical Pathology Labs. On March 4th, Carsten’s husband Jonathan Spencer, also a University of Edinburgh social anthropologist, will address UTSC’s Tamil Worlds Initiative on the politics of the urban poor in postwar Colombo.

Lambek’s CRC funding has also supported fellowships and additional faculty in the Department of Anthropology.

Berton Woodward is a writer with the University of Toronto Scarborough.

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