Dr. Ken David decided on Anthropology during his senior year at Wesleyan University of Connecticut. His major was the College of Letters (CoL). The CoL taught you to be a critic of literature, of historical accounts, and of philosophical works; this experience incited Dr. David to work quite directly with peoples’ thoughts and activities. He chose the University of Chicago’s Anthropology program for his graduate studies, and his major faculty influences there were Victor Turner, McKim Marriott, David Schneider, and Clifford Geertz.
Having studied South Indian Music at Wesleyan, Dr. David was attracted to South Asian studies. For doctoral fieldwork in the Jaffna Peninsula of northern Sri Lanka, he lived and learned from Tamil fishermen, artisans, and landowners. His dissertation questioned the prevailing monolithic view of rural South Asia as an aristocratic feudal order with an account of a complementary Mercantile order. Publications followed with articles in Man, book chapters, and a volume he edited for the ICAES in 1974, “The New Wind: Changing Identities in South Asia”. This last work intensified his interest in social movements.
Arriving at MSU in 1972, Dr. David was appointed jointly by the Anthropology Department and as Associate Director of the Asian Studies Center under Bill Ross. There, he developed the Certificate Program in Asian Studies, one of the first area studies programs. His teaching time was split between Anthropology and Justin-Morrill College, which is now established as the Residential College in the Arts and Humanities. The latter duty stirred his interest in teaching and mentoring Honors students and in developing an innovative teaching style that has been implemented at all levels from undergraduate to graduate courses as well as in seminars to outside organizations.
The first stage of his anthropology career emphasized theoretical revisions based on ethnographic, symbolic anthropology, and social movements studies in South Asia. His research focus shifted radically in the late 1970s as the Tamil people of Sri Lanka, an overachieving minority in a new nation were oppressed by the majority population; as in other countries, the resulting separatist social movement evolved into a civil war from 1983-2009. Dr. David exported his knowledge of social movements to the study of social mobilizations within or between organizations. He was an early proponent of Organizational Anthropology, which involves the study of how cultural, power and communications issues impact boundary-spanning relationships such as corporate acquisitions, “teamwork” among medical specialists, design projects linking engineers from different countries, communications between nano-research scientists and the wider public, and relations between the Dutch tertiary education system and employers. This collaborative research touched twelve countries in three continents. While the first career stage was entirely theoretical, this second stage has been a counter-point between theory and practice. His 2008 publication, “Analytic Introduction to What can Nanotechnology Learn from Biotechnology?”, exemplifies this merging of theory and practice.
Following retirement, Dr. David plans to return to his first intellectual love, the study of Jaffna as it evolved through three colonial rulers to post-colonial times. His goal is to recount a progressive construction of contrasting Tamil and Sinhalese ethnic identities, and to conduct cultural analyses of indigenous notions of settlement, language, and land to clarify notions of sovereignty and leadership. He will combine ethnographic accounts with previously unpublished historical research and an extensive audio-visual account. In a project is called “Jaffna Remembered”, he shall also remember the undulating stream of over 6,000 students he has taught and the changing parade of anthropology faculty known over the last 42 years. Both have taught him a great deal.
This article is in the Department of Anthropology’s Spring 2015 Newsletter, see the entire newsletter here.