My research has always focused on the intersection of religion, politics, communication technology, journalism, the state and nationalism among the Tamil speaking people of Eastern Sri Lanka. My initial work, a historical and ethnographic study of a temple political system, culminated in my first book, Amiable Incoherence: Manipulating Histories and Modernities in a Batticaloa Hindu Temple (1998), describing how temple elites there inveigled their temple's political system into a relationship of mutually incoherent yet somehow supportive (hence 'amiable') interaction with the very state that (over course of a hundred years) has been trying to subsume and destroy it.
My second book, Learning Politics from Sivaram: The Life and Death of a Revolutionary Tamil Journalist in Sri Lanka (2007), is an intellectual biography of a Sri Lankan Tamil journalist and nationalist intellectual. On one level, this project was an exercise in cultural history. Sivaram Dharmeratnam came from a family of downwardly mobile, provincial elites in a recently postcolonial Sri Lanka. His journey, therefore, from crumbling fortunes to national prominence as a journalist illustrated the complex realities of life in South Asia at the end of the last century. Sivaram Dharmeratnam, eventually became a columnist well known in his own country for his acute analyses of Sri lanka’s military and political affairs. His tragic murder, in April 2005, became for many hence, a sad reiteration of Sri Lanka’s violent politics. However, at another level, Dharmeratnam’s life and work was a much international as local because, over the years, he developed a radically distinctive view of the relationship between nationalism and modern nation-states (or, as he termed them, ‘national security states’), a view that took into account how the use of internationally distributed discourses of counterinsurgency (or ‘CI doctrines’) such as those utilized by the US in Iraq, transform states internally and change international interactions. Because of his theories, Dharmeratnam’s work (dispersed over the Internet) became well known to scholars of nationalism and experts on ‘low intensity warfare’ – as well as to interested members of the Sri Lankan Tamil Diapsora – all over the world.
Since the Sri Lankan civil war launched many Tamils into exile, my work has also concerned the Tamil diaspora. In this regard, I have written about Internet journalism and Tamil nationalism, the strategic use of human rights discourse in and out of Sri Lanka, the formation and persistence of multi-national diasporic families, and the effects of individual and collective trauma both in and out of Sri Lanka. One theme, here, is the extent to which modem communication technology has increased the speed with which collective traumas can be communicated and politically operationalized. A new concern has emerged in the wake of the defeat in of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in May 2009. With the end of the civil war, and any hope that Eelam might be won militarily, Tamils in and out of Sri Lanka have had to confront this seemingly final defeat of their dreams. At issue are the various ways Sri Lankan Tamils in and out of Sri Lanka must try to adjust themselves to a new reality in which hope of a triumphant national future may have to be abandoned, and some Tamils fear that perhaps permanent exile or, in Sri Lanka, second class citizenship may have to be accepted. In effect, the Sri Lankan Tamil community is being forced to reimagine its community. My current research, thus, is aimed at capturing some sense of this 'reimagining'. In this regard I have been following the political fortunes and internal politics of the Canadian Tamil Congress.
At the same time, I am returning to the study of temples and, perhaps, more generally, of religious institutions. This time I want to gauge how people are using (or avoiding) these ubiquitous institutions during the current struggles of the Sri Lankan Tamil community. Specifically, I am starting to conduct a comparison of Tamil Hindu temple use in Toronto, Canada (the greater Toronto area boasts 38 temples) and in eastern Sri Lanka. My tentative hypothesis is that Hindu temples in both places serve now, as they did in the past, to protect Tamil people both from the war (while it was being waged) and from the actions of the various 'state-level' entities Tamils must contend with (i.e., both the Sri Lankan and Canadian state governments and, when it still existed, the insurgent LTTE), all while also acting to ameliorate cultural tensions and psychological stress (and PTSD, in Canada at least) in various, locally contingent, ways. At the same time, my preliminary findings indicate that temples in Toronto and Sri Lanka exhibit some profound differences as institutions, especially with regard to their structural relationship to contemporary, media-driven, market capitalism. Lately, I have also been envisioning the need for a parallel project involving Tamil language Pentecostal churches in Toronto since they have been growing recently, as one informant put it, “like mushrooms” among the refugee Tami community. I should add that these interconnected new projects, as well as my earlier work, are all part of a larger interest in using a neo-Wittgensteinian approach to questions of power with an eye toward working out how people often weave incoherent cultural practices together to achieve certainty, or at least livability, in complex times.
Finally, in the future, I want to turn my attention to an abstract problem in hopes of making it more concrete. “Relativism’ is what philosophers call the (self-refuting) philosophical view that the verification of truth is always dependent upon or ‘relative to’ local context rather than other invariant, universal truths (or ‘givens’). Though an abstract philosophical issue, relativism fires the ire of many in our society: preachers preach against it, the Pope has condemned it, creationists claim it is at the core of Darwinian evolution, Human rights activists worry that it undermines their efforts, and some scholars say it is a threat to scientific discourse as such. But since ‘relativism’ stated as a universal epistemological principle (rather than as a practical ‘when in Rome do as the Romans do’ rule of thumb) is obviously self-refuting, all this worry seems odd and has got my anthropological antennae twitching. That many Sri Lankans – who worry about truth in some ways (like about the truth of claims of ethnic identity) do not, for the most part, worry about ‘relativism’ at all is even more intriguing. So my next project should be a ‘comparative’ (or contrastive) ethnography of ‘relativism’. It will look, that is, at how, and if, ‘relativism’ or ‘relativisim-like’ cultural anxieties are dealt with – or ignored – in the local practice of supposedly universalizing, international cultural practices such as, for example, Human Rights discourse when such practices are used and, sometimes, abused in Sri Lanka and the United States. I will be looking especially hard at circumstances of high, perceived risk where the universality of such discourses are especially likely to be both asserted and called into question (sometimes, as I have documented, both, and often by the same ‘side’). A foretaste of this work can be seen in my paper “Human rights and ‘Practical Rationality’ among Sri Lankan Tamils and Americans” (2009).