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The Politics of Social Death: Buddhism, Impermanence, and Family in Tibet

Carol McGranahan
Professor of Anthropology, University of Colorado, Boulder
Date and Time: 
Friday, December 6, 2019 - 15:30

Department of Anthropology
Main Quad - Building 50
Room 51A (Colloquium Room)


Nothing is permanent. The idea of impermanence, or mi rtag pa, is a core idea in Tibetan Buddhism. Meditating on impermanence helps individuals comprehend the transitory nature of reality, and thus prepare for death. Grappling with this philosophical idea is the responsibility of Buddhist monks and nuns, whose lives are devoted to the practice of religion. But, as with all religious concepts, impermanence also shapes the lives and ideas of lay people. For ordinary Tibetans, what does it mean to live impermanence, for this notion to ground your understanding of being and possibility? Specifically, if meditations on impermanence prepare one for death, can they also be useful for something less predictable, for the possibility of social death? In this talk I consider the social death of the powerful, but controversial Pangdatsang family. The story of their rise and fall, and of the familial and communal repercussions of social death, offers a window into the conceptual place of impermanence in Tibetan society and beyond. As a practice of exclusion and dehumanization, social death has both locally specific and globally shared forms, not all of which are permanent. What possibilities are there, for example, to challenge the terms of social death? And what might this tell us about the grounds for life as much as for death?


Carole McGranahan is professor of anthropology at the University of Colorado. She is author of Arrested Histories: Tibet, the CIA, and Memories of a Forgotten War (Duke University Press, 2010), and co-editor with Ann Laura Stoler and Peter Perdue of Imperial Formations (SAR Press, 2007), and with John Collins of Ethnographies of U.S. Empire (Duke University Press, 2018). Her volume Writing Anthropology: Essays on Craft and Commitment is due out in May 2020.