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Steven E. Kemper

Charles A. Dana Professor of Anthropology

Charles A. Dana Professor



Pettengill Hall, Room 161

Asian Studies


B.A. Dartmouth College; Ph.D. The University of Chicago

Steven Kemper came to Bates in 1973 with a B.A. from Dartmouth and a Ph.D. in Anthropology from the University of Chicago.  He left graduate school as a South Asianist with an interest in religion and politics.

His dissertation research was based on two years of fieldwork in southern Sri Lanka on Buddhist monks who trace their ordination to Burmese monks themselves known for their reformed practices.  That initial interest in Buddhism led to research on the oldest historical literature in south Asia which chronicles the relationship of the Buddhist monkhood to the Sri Lankan state.  First compiled in the sixth century, the Mahavamsa has been updated on several occasions, most recently during the administration of J.R. Jayewardene in the 1970’s and 80’s. The Presence of the Past (Cornell, 1991) is Kemper’s attempt to understand the contradictions involved in textualizing the recent history of a new nation struggling with growing problems of ethnic conflict and political instability.

That project led to a second on the advertising industry in Sri Lanka and Malaysia, leaving the temple behind for the marketplace.  One day Kemper was seated on a small stool, talking to Buddhist monks in a village monastery; the next, he was waiting in an air-conditioned office, hoping for a few minutes of an advertising executive’s time.  He has no adequate explanation of the transition from religion to commerce other than to say that advertising as a Western practice with a fifty year history in Asia is as much a part of what makes Sri Lanka the place it is as the 2500 year history of Buddhist practice in the island.  That project produced Buying and Believing (Chicago, 2001), a study of the complicated process by which commodities and culture flow from Europe and Japan to Sri Lanka where the local advertising business domesticates them for local consumption.

Kemper’s most recent book was an account of Anagarika Dharmapala and the creation of a world Buddhism, a community of all Buddhists as distinct from the various regional and sectarian Buddhist communities that have dominated Buddhist history.  Rescued from the Nation: Anagarika Dharmapala and the Buddhist World (Chicago, 2015) concentrates on Dharmapala’s life beyond Sri Lanka, where he is revered by Sinhala Buddhists for reviving both their religion and culture and despised by others for initiating the island’s descent into ethnic chauvinism and civil war.  The irony is that he spent the majority of his adult life abroad–establishing the Maha Bodhi Society in Calcutta, fighting for control of the place where the Buddha had his Enlightenment, and circling the globe regularly. In that context he lived a life unrecognizable at home in Sri Lanka.

As those research interests suggest, his teaching focuses on religion, nationalism, and modernity.  He has led Short Term trips to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Burma, India, Nepal, and Indonesia in 1976, 1983, 1994, and 1995 and directed the ISLE program in Sri Lanka in 1985-6.