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.


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

Department Faculty

Sonia Alconini
David A. Harrison III Professor of American Archaeology
Ira Bashkow
Associate Professor
Frederick H. Damon
Eve Danziger
Professor and Chair; Affiliated Faculty: Linguistics Program; Cognitive Science Program
Lise Dobrin
Associate Professor & Director of the Interdepartmental Program in Linguistics
Gertrude Fraser
Associate Professor
Richard Handler
Professor & Director of Global Development Studies Program
James Igoe
Kasey Jernigan
Assistant Professor of Anthropology and American Studies
Adria LaViolette
Professor, Director of Undergraduate Studies
Daniel Lefkowitz
Associate Professor
George Mentore
Associate Professor
Rachel Most
Associate Dean for Undergraduate Academic Programs & Professor
Fraser D. Neiman
China Scherz
Associate Professor, Director of Graduate Studies
John Shepherd
Mark Sicoli
Assistant Professor
Margaret Smith
Director & Curator, The Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection
Sylvia Tidey
Assistant Professor
Patricia Wattenmaker
Associate Professor
Kath Weston
Jarrett Zigon
William & Linda Porterfield Chair in Biomedical Ethics and Professor of Anthropology