Straddling Disciplines & Crossing Boundaries  

Michael Roberts

In presenting an article published in Comparative Studies in Society & History in Thuppahi,[1] I have introduced quite a few readers to the issue of the boundaries that have prevailed between the disciplines of History on the one hand and Anthropology and/or Sociology on the other. In its day the CSSH was a high-quality journal which straddled these boundaries and exercised a regime that demanded great skill from those seeking to cross its threshold and gain acceptance for an article within its pages. Kitsiri Malalgoda was one of those who had satisfied its Editors with his essay “Millennialism in relation to Buddhism” which appeared in CSSH, volume 12 in 1970.

Kapferer’s Study of Exorcism Rites in Sri Lanka … & paceman Hogg seeking to remove batsmen



In telling the world how I stumbled upon a verbal clash while enjoying a cricket match with my young daughters in tow, I am pointing to the fact that deep meaning can be associated within everyday intercourse and everyday squabbles.

However, this tale serves up more: it marks my journey from studentship in the Discipline of History to studentship in that of Anthropology. In this ‘travel tale’ an anthropologist named Bruce Kapferer was a central force: he was a catalyst in my progress. Kapferer was/is an Australian who had received his postgrad training at the University of Manchester and pursued his initial fieldwork in Zimbabwe. However, he shifted his interests in the early 1970s to the enterprises pursued by Karava Sinhala merchants in Galle with trading posts in Zanzibar, Malacca, Singapore and Broome. For this research work Kapferer engaged a young Sinhalese named Chandra Vitarana as his assistant. Vitarana was a marvellous aide and between the two of them their research interests shifted in focus and focused upon the healing rituals in the southern regions of Sri Lanka known as tovil.[2]

Since Galle had been my hometown and my research interests included a focus on the Karava personnel who had progressed into the middle-to-upper strata of society, Kapferer’s path coalesced with mine. I had received a History-degree from Peradeniya University in 1959 and completed my postgraduate degree in Oxford in 1965 before returning to my teaching post in the History Department at Peradeniya.  The quality and range of the teaching staff at Peradeniya in the 1960s and 1970s – supported by the physical environment and layout of buildings encouraged cross-fertilization across disciplines. One outcome was the Ceylon Studies Seminar which brought resident scholars as well as literati from Colombo and abroad together in addressing researched topics in a wide range of fields.[3] While Kapferer did not present a seminar, he was aware of my central role in this enterprise and its cross-disciplinary style.

As it happened, Kapferer and Garbett moved to the University of Adelaide in the mid-1970s to launch a new Department of Anthropology as head and deputy-head. While anthropology had been associated for decades with studies in rural and/or outlying primitive arenas, they came up with the idea of a multi-faceted study of urban life in Colombo. I was blissfully unaware of this scheme. But our family’s economic circumstances were such that my eyes and ears were open to other opportunities. When Kapferer asked me[4] if I was prepared to rise to the challenge of teaching anthropology, I answered in the affirmative. I received an appointment in that department in 1976 and moved to Adelaide in February 1977.

Bruce Kapferer today

Kingsley Garbett in the 1980s

Adjusting to life in Adelaide and to the challenges of teaching in an unfamiliar field were not facile paths. But the academic environment in the University of Adelaide was congenial and recreational activity was considerable.  When the Colombo project designed by Kapferer & Garbett got going, moreover, I was pitch-forked into Colombo in the vacation months of December-January 1978/79 (and maybe 1979/80?) as local mediator in supervising the young men and women assembled to conduct household surveys.** In the meanwhile, Garbett and Lee Sackett spent 10-12 months in Colombo during their sabbatical years in 1979 and 1980 working on their urban anthropology projects.

My sabbatical research year came in 1981 — which year could commence in December 1980. Shona, Kim, Maya and I moved to a rented house off Nawala road in Nugegoda. We purchased a Morris Mini and the girls were enrolled at a girl’s school in Bambalapitiya. We had the advantage of support from three ‘lots’ of sisters living in different parts of Colombo South; while the beaches at Wellawatte and Mount Lavinia served as recreational havens. My main research focus centred on (A) the lifeworld of the households in a shanty town at Kirulapona and (B) the antecedents and activities of the spare-part traders in Panchikawatte.

And, then, there was CRICKET ….. to watch and savour. When the Australians passed through and played three 45-over ODI matches at Moratuwa, the SSC grounds and the Tamil Union grounds, I was not going to miss these events.[5] My daughters Kim and Maya joined me at the match at the SSC grounds – our location being on the upper floor of a temporary two-storey building to the left of the main pavilion with an angle of vision from behind fine-leg. That was where paceman Rodney Hogg (one of Australia’s spearheads) was usually placed when not bowling. That was where he was befriended by a spectator whom I have ‘marked’ as “SINHA;” …. änd …. where he was also subject to persistent heckling from an ardent Sri Lankan barracker whom I have tagged as “Laddie.”

The verbal exchanges between Laddie and Sinha are the crux of my ethnographic account. I penned notes on this set of exchanges that evening …. and eventually spun out an article that analysed the relationship between the disciplines of HISTORY and those of ANTHROPOLOGY & SOCIOLOGY that had prevailed in the ‘high literature’ over the course of the 20th century.  That the final version of this article breached the fortress known as Comparative Studies in Society and History was a feather in my cap.

Readers of the article in its lengthy entirety will have to decide if I was making a mountain out of a molehill; and if the CSSH had joined me in this edifice.

Susan Barham (extreme left) & Tom Ernst in the early 1980s: among those who rendered my adjustment to the ádventure in Anthropology feasible


Ernst …..

Bruce Kapferer 1983 A Celebration of Demons. Exorcism and the Aesthetics of Healing in Sri Lanka, Bloomington, Indiana University Press.

Bruce Kapferer 1988 Legends of People, Myths of State: Violence, Intolerance and Political Culture in Sri Lanka and Australia, Washington, Smithsonian Institution Press.

Bruce Kapferer 1997 The Feast of the Sorceror: Practices of Consciousness and Power, University of Chicago Press.

Kitsiri Malalgoda 1970 ” Millennialism in Relation to Buddhism,” Comparative Studies in Society and History, vol. 12, 424-441.

Kitsiri Malalgoda 1976 Buddhism in Sinhalese Society, 1760-1900 (Berkeley California: University of California Press, 1976)

Roberts …..

Roberts 2018Nationalist Studies and the Ceylon Studies Seminar at Peradeniya, 1968-1970s,” 2 October 2018,

Cricinfo ….


ACCESS to the 1985 CSSH version of the article = try


[1] See

[2] Some among the many outcomes can be studied in Kapferer 1983 Kapferer 1988 and Kapferer 1997.

[3] See Roberts 2018.

[4] I was then engaged in a full-year research fellowship (courtesy of the Humboldt Foundation) in Heidelberg University.

[5] The Australian squad for the tour of England was as follows: KJ Hughes (capt) RW Marsh (vice-capt) TM Alderman, GR Beard, AR Border, RJ Bright, TM Chappell, J Dyson, RM Hogg, MF Kent, GF Lawson, DK Lillee, SJ Rixon, DM Wellham, GM Wood, GN Yallop.



Filed under accountability, art & allure bewitching, Australian culture, centre-periphery relations, Colombo and Its Spaces, cricket for amity, cultural transmission, ethnicity, historical interpretation, landscape wondrous, life stories, nationalism, patriotism, performance, politIcal discourse, self-reflexivity, Sri Lankan cricket, sri lankan society, the imaginary and the real, tolerance, unusual people, world events & processes

2 responses to “Straddling Disciplines & Crossing Boundaries  

  1. Lam Seneviratne

    The barracker who you name as Laddie, was probably Percy. He used doggeral to heckle our opponents. His favourite is against David Boon. When Boon walked out to bat, Percy shouted ” David Boon come back soon”.

    • No. LADDIE was clearly a Burgher in appearance …as were his companions (female). Besides I know PERCY …. He was one of the Aloysian cheerleaders in the early 1950s when I joined that cluster at matches. Subsequently we met every now and thenat Cricket matches …. And Percy has even featured in some of my articles and also in my book INCURSIONS & EXCURSIONS IN AND AROUND CRICKET, Colombo Karunarane& sons, 2011, …. Plates 9a,12a, and last but not least in PLATES 41a to 41d where PISSU PERCY is captured in his varying best.

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