Tracing spiritual and affective relatedness in Tibetan and Inner Asian societies

The annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association, which took place in Montreal (16-21 November), brought together several thousands of scholars to talk and exchange about their research. Himalayanists were surely present, but hard to find—“Himalayas” is not listed in the Index of the 483 pages-long program.

Among other panels of interest for those curious about the Himalayan region broadly speaking, one was remarkably focused on comparing Inner Asian societies through the lense of kinship, taking several Tibetan and Tibeto-Burman speaking groups as case studies. The panel was organized by Giovanni da Col (University of Cambridge) and Nancy Levine (University of California, Los Angeles), and was entitled “Intimate cosmologies of kinship: tracing spiritual and affective relatedness in Tibetan and Inner Asian societies.”

The laudable aim of this panel was to lay the ground for (re)conceptualizing kinship in Inner Asian Buddhist and non-Buddhist societies in a comparative perspective. Bringing together specialists of Tibetan societies and anthropologists working with Tibeto-Burman speaking people in Nepal or Southwest China, the panel questionned the diverse modes of kinship reckoning and the role of transmission of knowledge, craft, power, as well as operators of conviviality such as hospitality, sharing, caring, loving, naming, and joking in generating forms of relatedness.

The idea of the panel arose from the fact that in the study of kinship among Inner Asian societies, anthropological categories of descent, as based on transmission of biogenetic substances, seem inadequate to encompass a domain of sociality crossed by supplementary flows of spiritual and affective qualities transcending biological boundaries.

Relatedness is predicated upon the circulation of fortunate-energies, via religious knowledge and reputation: clearly, the erasure of the material and mystical divide is called for when merit and fortune are transferred with property. (Re)conceptualizing kinship in Inner Asian Buddhist societies involves scrutiny into the modes of partitioning a virtually infinite karmic kinship and analogic relatedness (Wagner 19711 ), a transpecific domain of universal agency encompassing humans and non-humans, interwoven in non-linear temporalities extending beyond one’s physical lifetime and dwelling beyond the familial domain. Reincarnated lamas are thought to maintain three bodies on diverse planes of existence and beget a multiplicity of ‘children’ by transmitting Tantric knowledge and apportioning bodily substances and merit. Reproductive vitality and material abundance rely on the maintenance of affective relationships with mountain-deities and household gods, who marry, generate offspring, establish affinal relationships with other deities and, as allies, guests, or dangerous strangers, need to be cajoled. (da Col and Levine, panel abstract).

By focusing on the trajectories and transformations of spiritual and affective qualities of relatedness, this panel called for a broadly based re-examination of cross-regional similarities and differences in Tibeto-Burman kinship. As a collaborative endeavour bringing together anthropologists working in various settings and regions of the Himalayas and Inner Asia, this panel was a refreshing call for a reconceptualization of the materialities of kinship and types of “consubstantiality” involved, and new definitions of what a body can do, and how it is assembled.

The comparative approach was sketched out in an introduction by Giovanni da Col (University of Cambridge): “Cosmoeconomies of Vitality and Intimacy in Tibetan and Inner Asian Societies.” The panel itself was divided into two sessions, and included contributions from nine researchers.

  • Hildegard Diemberger (University of Cambridge): “Paradoxes of Tibetan Parenthood: Spiritual Relatedness, Biogenetic Kinship, and the Production of the Human Being In Pre-Modern and Contemporary Tibetan Society”
  • Anna (Anya) Bernstein (University of Michigan): “Tibetan Bodies, Buryat ‘roots’: Negotiating Relatedness In the Transnational Terrain”
  • Timm Lau (University of Calgary): “Transnational Reincarnations: Rebirth, Kinship, and Exchange In the Tibetan Diaspora”
  • Heidi E. Fjeld (University of Oslo): “Gifts and Returns: Adoption and Inter-House Relations In Central Tibet”
  • Martin Alwin Mills (University of Aberdeen): “Willing Disciples and Reluctant Teachers: Tibetan Narratives of Relatedness and Ritual Exchange”
  • Nancy E Levine (UCLA): “Of Gifts, Gods, and the Perils of Marriage In Tibetan Society”
  • Kathryn S March (Cornell-Nepal Study Program): “Shifting Subjectivities In Tamang Conjugal Relations”
  • Stéphane Gros (CNRS): “Transversal Relatedness and the Embodiment of Kinship: Drung Women Facial Tattooing Between Genealogy and Alliance”
  • Ann Maxwell Hill (Dickinson College): “Kinship and the Making of Outsiders within Nuosu Society”


Cite this blog post
Stéphane Gros (2011, November 24). Tracing spiritual and affective relatedness in Tibetan and Inner Asian societies. The Himalayas and beyond. Retrieved May 25, 2024, from

  1. Wagner, Roy. 1977. “Analogic kinship: a Daribi example.” American Ethnologist 4: 623–642. []

Stéphane Gros

Stéphane Gros is a social anthropologist at the CNRS (France), Centre for South Asian and Himalayan Studies (CESAH). He is the author of a monograph on the Drung of Northwest Yunnan province in China (La Part manquante, 2012), and has written numerous articles and book chapters on issues of interethnic relations and representations of ethnic minorities, poverty and categorization, as well as rituals and cosmology. He has edited or co-edited four collections of relevance to ethnographic theory, Chinese studies, and area studies. For 2012-2016, he was the Principal Investigator for a collaborative project titled "Territories, Communities, and Exchanges in the Kham Sino-Tibetan Borderlands", funded by a ERC (European Research Council) Starting Grant. His personal research currently investigates aspects of kinship and social organization, conversion to Christianity, as well as heritage politics and environmental discourses.

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