2013 Clifford Geertz Prize in the Anthropology of Religion

2013 Clifford Geertz Prize in the Anthropology of Religion and Honorable Mention

The SAR is pleased to announce the winner of the seventh annual Clifford Geertz Prize in the Anthropology of Religion: Michael Lempert’s Discipline and Debate: The Language of Violence in a Tibetan Buddhist Monastery (University of California Press, 2012). Honorable mention is awarded to Sherine Hamdy for Our Bodies Belong to God: Organ Transplants, Islam, and the Struggle for Human Dignity in Egypt (University of California Press, 2012).

Following a rigorous competition of nearly 30 monographs, the SAR Prize Jury (Jordan Haug, Janet Hoskins, Paul Johnson, Tulasi Srinivas and ourselves) as well as prize coordinator, Lauren Leve, are pleased to award the Clifford Geertz prize that celebrates innovative recent books that integrate theory with ethnography and that connect the anthropology of religion to the larger world.

The Honorable Mention goes to Sherine Hamdy for her beautifully rendered ethnography Our Bodies Belong to God: Organ Transplants, Islam, and the Struggle for Human Dignity in Egypt. Sherine Hamdy is a medical anthropologist interested in notions of the body, health, and death among Muslims in Egypt. Drawing on fieldwork in Cairo and the Nile Delta, her book weaves ethnography among the sick in Egypt with insights regarding Islamic theological debates about organ donation. This highly readable and empathetic monograph shows how religious ethics are continuously made and remade in relation to socio-economic, political, and individual circumstances. The jury agreed that it was eye-opening, utterly engrossing, and hard to put down.

Our grand prize goes to Michael Lempert for Discipline and Debate: The Language of Violence in a Tibetan Buddhist Monastery. Lempert conducted fieldwork for several years in the late 1990s in Sera Mey, India at a large Tibetan monastery of 4,500 monks. His moving, compelling and highly original book vividly captures tensions in the disciplinary methods adopted in this Tibetan diasporic monastery and effectively deconstructs the Dalai Lama’s representation of Buddhism as inherently non-violent.

Lempert’s book offers vibrant insight into religious education and everyday life in Buddhist monasteries but also speaks to broader topics such as violence and non-violence, ritual, self-cultivation, and liberalism. He shows how reason is central to the tradition’s discursive diasporic pedagogy. The author employs meticulous ethnographic and linguistic-based methodologies to illustrate how in practice Tibetan Buddhist monks are shaping the tradition in ways that differ from its primary texts and from the promotional treatises of its leader to foreign audiences. How are theological abstractions materialized through embodied and interactive practices (2012: 10)? How are these rituals received? Are they effective in eliciting the sympathies of their audiences? Drawing on hundreds of hours of audio and video recordings of monastic assemblies, debate practices, and interviews, Lempert offers rich responses to these inquiries. He examines these semiotic interactions largely by referring to linguistic anthropology, without, as one jury member noted, “getting too technical.” While taking on these language-based issues, the book also comes to significant conclusions about the dynamism of Buddhism and the pragmatics of appropriation and emulation of beliefs outside of Tibet.

In sum, Discipline and Debate is well written and clear about its contribution to other literatures without being overburdened by them. Members of the jury agreed that this book is Geertzian in ambition and tone and tells a really good story.

Congratulations both to 2013 Clifford Geertz Prize winner Michael Lempert and to Sherine Hamdy.

By Amira Mittermaier and Jennifer Selby (SAR Book Prize Jury Members)