The Battle for Fortune

Prof. Charlene Makley's new anthropology of Tibetans in developing China.

By Katie Pelletier ’03 | September 6, 2018

During the year leading up to the Beijing Olympics (2007–08) Prof. Charlene Makley [anthropology 2000–] was living among Tibetans in western China conducting field research on the effects of state-led development programs. One evening, her hostess told her that she had had some disturbing dreams. So, disturbing, she consulted with her natal village temple about them, and had come to the conclusion that the deity Palden Lhamo was angered by some offering scarves Makley had brought into the hostess’s home, which had been gifted to Makley by upriver villages—villages with different divine supporters than the hostess. Makley was abruptly sent out into the night to rid the household of these scarves.

Makley knew that there were other anxieties at play. As the nation was preparing for its first Olympic Games, Tibetans’ resentment about westward state-led development had come to a head, resulting in demonstrations and a crackdown by the state that was shocking and violent. Once-busy streets in Qinghai were now empty, and people became guarded and wary of foreigners. Soon after the incident with the scarves, Makley moved from her hostesses’ home, found accommodations where she would not put anyone at risk, and began to try to understand why, after so many years of fieldwork in the region, she hadn’t seen this turmoil coming. The results challenged and deepened her anthropological methods, the result of which is her latest book, The Battle for Fortune.

Primarily an academic book, it also contains much to offer a non-academic audience interested in the experiences and culture of Tibetans living in China. Makley’s approach is a dialogic ethnography in which, as the story of the scarves demonstrates, she includes her “ethnographic self”-—not to dwell on her own experiences or “‘give voice’ to Tibetans” but rather to show and examine what sort of understanding can arise from her observations and experiences of her subject. Makley’s work is a reminder of the importance of anthropology’s qualitative analysis, especially when it comes to development stories, which, with their frequent emphasis on quantities and percentages, too frequently reduce and flatten the richness of human striving and creative adaptation. 

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