1. University of Virginia
  2. Arts & Sciences

Peter Metcalf

Professor, Emeritus

Ph.D. Harvard University 1976


Before coming to the United States, I worked at the Universities of Singapore and Papua New Guinea, and conducted research in both of those countries. But most of what I now write and teach is motivated by the experience of living in longhouse communities in Borneo in the 1970's. It was the beginning of a period of rapid change; most obviously, the integrity of traditional world views were challenged by conversion to Christianity. Thinking about that led me into a century-old tradition of comparative religion in anthropology, which places emphasis on ritual. Ritual is, however, an infamously slippery category, so I was drawn into a wide range of semiotic or interpretive approaches, which have played a major part in anthropological theory in recent decades. These I applied to death rituals, in Borneo and elsewhere, and to the ethnopoetics of prayer.

In recent visits to Borneo I find that it is the integrity of the longhouse communities themselves that is now threatened. They were never static, but now the destruction of the rainforest has disrupted upriver life so much that people are migrating to the coast. New senses of identity are emerging. My current writing concerns the historical dynamics of community. It deals with the key institution of Bornean societies, the longhouse, and it continues the anthropological tradition of dealing with broad issues, such as community and identity, within a small compass.

In all of this, I am interested in assessing our ways of writing ethnography. Postmodern theory has directed attention to this, but I am glad to say that it has been a concern of our curriculum for many years.

Specializations

Southeast Asia, especially Borneo; anthropological approaches to comparative religion; relations between power, community and ideology.

Emeriti

Charles R. Kaut
Professor, Emeritus
Susan McKinnon
Professor, Emerita
Peter Metcalf
Professor, Emeritus
Marion Ross
Lecturer, Emerita
J. David Sapir
Professor, Emeritus
H. L. Seneviratne
Professor, Emeritus