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Arjun Guneratne

Professor of Anthropology and Chair
Socio-cultural anthropology, ethnic identities, globalization, environmentalism, South Asia (Sri Lanka and Nepal)

Carnegie Hall, 04e


Fall 2024
Ethnographic Interviewing
Cultural Anthropology: Asian Societies and Cultures

Spring 2024

Ethno-Ornithology: Science, Birds & Culture
Caste and Race in India and the United States


Many Tongues, One
People: The Making
of Tharu Identity in

Arjun Guneratne is Professor of Anthropology at Macalester College. He was born in Sri Lanka and studied law for a year at the University of Colombo, before enrolling at Dartmouth College to study anthropology. He developed a keen interest in development problems while a student at Dartmouth, and spent his senior year in Dartmouth’s Senior Fellows program where, excused from completing his anthropology major, he could devote his time and energy to studying development problems in Sri Lanka’s peasant resettlement projects. This work resulted in a thesis, Water, Rice and People: Problems and Constraints of Peasant Colonization in the Dry Zone of Sri Lanka.

After Dartmouth, he entered the PhD program in anthropology at the University of Chicago, intending to continue his interest in development. However, ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka between the Sinhala-dominated state and Tamil separatist rebels kindled an interest in how ethnic identities emerge. He pursued this interest in Nepal, a country where the literature about ethnicity suggested it was a fluid process rather than a fixed identity derived from the past. He focused on the Tarai, the narrow strip of once malarial land abutting the mountains; not many foreign scholars had worked there and the main ethnic group inhabiting the region, the Tharu, had been little described. His dissertation was a study of the development of ethnic consciousness among the Tharu of Nepal and its relation to class stratification, processes of state building and the cultural and socio-economic transformation of the Tarai that followed on the success of the Malaria Eradication Program in Nepal. The dissertation became the basis of his first book, Many Tongues, One People: The Making of Tharu identity in Nepal (Cornell 2002).

Since then, he has expanded his research to other areas, particularly having to do with environmental issue in Nepal and Sri Lanka. He is the editor of a collection of essays examining how different social groups in the Himalaya conceptualize “environment” (Culture and the Environment in the Himalaya, Routledge 2010) and is currently working on two related projects: a study of biodiversity conservation in Sri Lanka from colonial times to the present and a history of Sri Lankan ornithology (he is a former committee member of the Field Ornithology Group of Sri Lanka, once served as the Secretary of the Sri Lanka Natural History Society, and helped to establish a Sri Lankan environmental NGO, Environmental Foundation Ltd). In addition to the books referred to above, he is editor of three collections of essays on Nepal. His latest book, co-edited with Anita Weiss, is an introduction to South Asian politics, Pathways to Power: The Domestic Politics of South Asia (Rowman & Littlefield, 2014).

Professor Guneratne was formerly editor of Himalaya, the journal of the Association for Nepal and Himalayan Studies. He teaches courses on ethnographic methods, the Anthropology of Development, Environmental Anthropology, Anthropology through Science Fiction, and on the Peoples and Cultures of South Asia. He is also an avid birder, as shown in MacTalks Season Two: Birdwatching 101.