Anthropology means critical scrutiny—an interview with Stephan Kloos

I should have met Stephan Kloos because we both work at the Austrian Academy of Sciences, but in fact we met at a common friend’s party and only later realised we had seen each other quite often before in the Academy. After that, I started having a look at his work. Departing from his wonderful website, all his work is dedicated to the anthropology of Tibetan medicine, especially of Tibetan medicine in exile. Kloos 2013, for instance, investigates on how it ended up being recognised, in India, in the West and in the Tibetan community as a “medical system” and how this concept involves a strategy and the self-construction of a new “Tibetan” identity —once the Tibetan identity could no longer be determined on a geographical basis— as related to Buddhist ethics, i.e., to one’s altruistic attitude towards the others.

Q1: What is your current project about?
SK: In 2013 I won an ERC grant to investigate about how “Tibetan Medicine” is now becoming a transnational industry. This will lead me for the first time away from my main focus on the Tibetan exile community, since the project will focus on four countries, namely India, China, Bhutan and Mongolia. Nepal could have also been taken into account, but the process of institutionalization and industrialization of Tibetan Medicine is not so advanced there.

Q2: In your works, I enjoy the blend of field work and history. Where did you learn it?
Nowhere really, but I think it is important. Early anthropologists tended to look at the present situation as if it were the last chance to look at disappearing cultures. Now, perhaps by contrast, anthropologists often emphasise how a certain phenomenon is “new” or “modern”, but if only one looks at history one quickly notices that there are continuities which should not be overlooked.
EF: Such continuities become evident in the case of your work on the Hanupa (Kloos 2006, about which see this post), which are now confronted with the influence of the Ladakh’s capital, Leh. But if one looks back at their history, one notices that in the 16th century they decided to give up their language and opted for Ladakhi under the influence of the political center…Thus, today’s challenges do not represent the first intrusion of a center in Hanu.

SK: This article is the result of the field work I did for my MA thesis. It was a difficult time, I spent 6 weeks staying at the place of the amchi [practitioner of traditional “Tibetan” medicine, ef] Tashi Bulu and I interviewed people about his social role. But the answers were always very elusive, like “He is a good doctor”. It was very frustrating.
EF: How did things turn out well at the end?
SK: First, I got a new interpreter, this time from a nearby village, who was a real research-assistant. In the morning, we would discuss my research-objectives for the day and he would ask the right questions in my place. I would only join the discussion if I caught something interesting. Second, I started getting interested in local stories and asked questions about them. I even traced the genealogies of all the families in the village (discovering many interesting things concerning polyandry, polygamy and openness of relations). To those questions, people started answering. And in the last ten days I could even receive more interesting answers concerning the controversial figure of Tashi Bulu. Thus, I understood that they had been reluctant to openly tell me their opinions of Tashi Buly precisely because of his controversial social role in the village. They were scared and jealous of him but also dependent, and were afraid that I would tell him what they said.

Q3: Reading your works, one gets the feeling that you are on the one hand quite sympathetic towards the Tibetan community (there is even a quote by the Dalai Lama on the home page of your website), while on the other hand you can be very analytic in your critical approach to their self-narratives…
Well, anthropology means critical scrutiny!
EF: Ok, this is the last stone on the graveyard of my prejudices against anthropology!
SK: Anyway, I am happy you mention it, because this is also what I expect from myself. For a long time Tibetan studies were either text-based, avoiding politics, or they were uncritical, taking the discourses of exile Tibetans at face value. The wave of post-colonial studies arrived quite late in the 1990s, and it entailed a more sophisticated approach. Scholars like Donald Lopez, Robert Barnett and Toni Huber wrote about the imagined “Tibetanness” in texts such as Prisoners of Shangri-la or Imagining Tibet. It was the first critical approach to Tibet and it —rightly— stated that “Tibet” is a construction, and a political one. It was the comeback of politics, which was left out of the picture by earlier scholars. It is left out even by some contemporary scholars like Melvyn Goldstein in The Snow Lion and the Dragon. There, he rigidly separates politics from culture and proposes a possible solution of the China-Tibet conflict by means of leaving politics to the former and culture or religion to the latter. But Lopez etc. are right in maintaining that culture is political. But it is even more pervasive than they think, because even they still distinguish between politics and ethics, between the Tibetans’ strategies and their “real identity”. Without reducing everything to politics, but there is really no domain that’s free from politics, least of all in the Tibetan exile community.
EF: I think this has to do with the Western quest for purity, as if it were at all possible. We look for “pure” love, one where interests should not play any role; “pure” religion, one where economics and politics should have nothing to say… and dismiss actual reality, which is always mixed. This is the reason for which we often fail to understand Middle Age religious attitudes in which so many different aspects are intertwined.
SK: Yes, this has to do with the Enlightenment and the expected separation between State and Church. This just does not apply to Tibet, which has a completely different history and political system. This is why I try instead to find a middle way between uncritically supporting the claims of the Tibetan exile community (I want to question and analyse what they say) and thinking that it is all just made up for strategic reasons, that it is all just a show.
EF: Then, what about the Dalai Lama’s quote (“Tibetan medicine is an asset that reasserts the truth and existence of the Tibetan nation”) on the home page of your website?
SK: I put it because it exactly represents what I am working on, i.e., the role of medicine in the self-representations about the identity of Tibetans in exile. Basically, Tibetans in exile could no longer identify themselves through geographic references and had to reinvent their Tibetanness in the context of nationalism and exile. For this purpose they chose Buddhist ethics, which they equate on the one hand with Tibetanness and on the other with altruism. And it is through Tibetan medicine that they can manifest – and prove the efficacy and relevance – of this ethics, this cultural identity.

Q4: How would you then characterise your approach, as distinct from those of other scholars?
The amchis told me directly what medicine represents for them. The only thing I did was to take them seriously. I tried to understand what that they meant and how it could work, rather than simply dismissing their claims as mere rhetoric. In this sense, I am following Foucault’s approach (rather than a hermeneutics of suspicion) and assume that people mean what they say, that what they say is significant, and try to understand how it makes sense. Moreover, the amchis themselves have usually reflected a lot about the topic.
EF: Possibly because, being in exile, they need to create a new narrative about their being Tibetan, their being doctors and the like. They just cannot disregard the topic.
SK: That’s right, and in this sense, it is interesting to observe how for centuries Tibetan medicine has used India as the source of its legitimation (“medical knowledge came from India together with Buddhism, and by that virtue it must be accorded highest authority and respect”).Nowadays, by contrast, Tibetans need to resist the Indian tendency to appropriate Tibetan medicine as “Indian”, and that’s why the Bon roots of Tibetan medicine are currently emphasised.

Q5: And how do you see the work of scholars working on the political aspects of Western medicine and denouncing its hegemonic claims? In your 2011 article you interestingly note that they are right, but that they risk to just want to substitute one hegemony through another, insofar as they would like to sweep aside Western sciences in favour of indigenous ones.

SK: Yes, moreover, “Tibetan medicine” is itself hegemonic in regard to the traditional amchis in Ladakh and the like!

Q6: We are often encouraged to have, for instance in the case of the Habilitation, more than one focus. Your example, however, shows how much deeper one can go if one does not step away from one topic. How did you manage to resist and specialise?
It was only towards the end of my PhD that I could finally ask meaningful questions, had access to interesting data, and contacts to the right people: it would have been counterproductive to change topic then! Also, I don’t feel a strong pressure to change my area of specialization for the Habilitation. Having said that, I’m happy to expand my scope to other areas where Tibetan medicine is practiced as part of my ERC project [see Q1].

EF: Do you think it had to do with the fact that you had chosen a topic of so great significance? Or does everything become significant, when one engages more deeply with it?
Some topics follow the Zeitgeist, but in general it is the depth and the quality of one’s research and research questions that make a topic interesting. Think of the founder of social anthropology, Bronisław Malinowski: who cares about the people of the Trobriand islands? But they became interesting and famous through his outstanding work.

Q7: You obtained a Fulbright fellowship, a Marie Curie fellowship and then even an ERC grant (success rate: less than 10%). How did you convince yourself that it was worth trying? And what would you suggest to younger colleagues working on their applications to the one or the other program?
Do you want the truth? My institute’s director, Andre Gingrich, who himself won a Wittgenstein price, insisted that I apply for a new, large grant within the Academy of Sciences, called “New Frontiers Group”.
EF: Well, he must have seen that you had the potentialities…
SK: I had won a Marie Curie fellowship before, that’s why. Anyway, I discussed with a colleague of mine, Calum Blaikie, about a possible topic and we decided that the transformation of Tibetan medicine into an industry was the topic worth investigating. The more we thought about this, the more enthusiastic we became. So I worked on the application for two months, and then found out that I could also submit it for a START prize from the Austrian FWF. This, in turn, required me to also submit the same project for an ERC Starting Grant. You could say I maximized my chances, but really I didn’t expect to get any of these grants. Surprisingly I did.

Q8: As already mentioned, your website is one among the best I have ever seen among scholars. Why did you invest time and energy in it?
I want to reach out to a wider public. And the website is also quite useful for my work in the Tibetan community. For those Tibetans who don’t know me yet, this is a good way to check me out, to see what I write about them. What I hope that they see, most of all, is that I take them seriously. I am sympathetic to them and their cause, but also critical. In my experience, this opens doors. In fact, I believe that to be truly critical, in the sense of Kant, one needs to seriously engage with one’s subject. And at least in anthropology, you cannot seriously engage with someone unless there is a good personal connection. I respect the Tibetans tremendously, and it is really a pleasure to work with them.

Q9: What would you recommend to younger colleagues wishing to specialise on the anthropology of Tibetan medicine?
Assuming they are in Austria or Germany, I would recommend to go abroad. At least to France or the UK, even better if one can manage to study in North America. I applied for a Fulbright and could study in San Francisco where there is a PhD program specifically on medical anthropology. I learnt a lot there. I decided to go there instead of UK because I had already been in UK with an Erasmus scholarship during my MA, and I chose San Francisco/Berkeley because five out of the eight scholars I found most important to my work were based there.
EF: This indirectly points also to the fact that one needs to have a clear idea about the people one wants to work with (I did not have it when I started my PhD).
SK: Well, one doesn’t need to, as your example shows, but it certainly makes things easier!

(this post is part of my series of Interviews. If there are additional questions you would like to ask or if there is someone, either a specific person (i.e., yourself), or a representative of a given category (e.g., “A scholar of Nyāya”) you would like me to interview, please let me know.)

Comments and discussions are welcome. Be sure you are making a point and contributing to the discussion.

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