Skip to main content Accessibility help

Collective Violence and Everyday Practice in Sri Lanka

  • Jonathan Spencer (a1)

In July 1983 communal violence in the southern towns of Sri Lanka left between 300 and 3,000 people dead, nearly all of them members of the minority Tamil population. While such a disturbing manifestation of social pathology would seem to demand a response from concerned social scientists, there are special difficulties in confronting such events. Dominant trends in the historical study of popular disturbance, for example the concern to recover the rationality and dignity of participants in food riots (Thompson 1971), or the current interest in manifestations of ‘resistance’, may look altogether inappropriate in this context. Explanation can all too often look like apologetic, and this may explain why much of the existing writing on communal violence in South Asia deals with virtually everything except the violence itself. One recent study in Sri Lanka, Bruce Kapferer's Legends of People, Myths of State (Kapferer 1988), has recently tackled this question head on, arguing that there is a clear link between collective violence in Sri Lanka and what the author describes as a ‘logic of being in the world’, or ‘ontology’ to be found in everyday Sinhala life. While Kapferer has earned our gratitude for even raising the issue of the connection between collective violence and everyday life, his specific argument, as I shall show below, is based on a limited reading of the available evidence.

Hide All
Alexander, P. 1981Shared Fantasies and Elite Politics: The Sri Lankan“Insurrection” of 1971Mankind XII 2113–32
Amunugama, S. and Meyer, E. 1984Remarques sur la violence dans l'idéologie bouddhique et la pratique sociale à Sri Lanka (Ceylan)Etudes Rurales 95–6 4762
Anon. 1988 ‘A note on the present situation: Sri Lanka, October 1988’ Typescript.
Carrithers, M. B. 1982 ‘Hell Fire and Urinal Stones: An Essay on Buddhist Purity and Authority’ in Krishna, G. (ed.) Contributions to South Asian Studies 2 Delhi: Oxford University Press
Das, V., Das, R. K., Mohanty, M., Nandy, A. 1984A New Kind of RiotingIllustrated Weekly of India 23 12 1984 20–3
Davis, N. Z. 1975 ‘The Rites of Violence’ in Society and Culture in Early Modern France Stanford: Stanford University Press
De Silva, K. M. 1986 Managing Ethnic Tensions in Multiethnic Societies: Sri Lanka 1880–1985, Lanham: University Press of America
De Silva, K. M. 1988Political Crisis and Ethnic Conflicts in Sri Lanka: A Rejoinder to RobertsEthnic Studies Report VI 163–74
Gombrich, R. F. 1971 Precept and Practice Oxford: Clarendon Press
Gombrich, R. F. 1988 Theravada Buddhism: A Social History from Ancient Benares to Modern Colombo London: Routledge and Kegan Paul
Goonetileke, H. A. I. 1984July 1983 and the National Question in Sri Lanka: A Bibliographical GuideRace and Class XXVI 1159–93
Hellman-Rajanayagam, D. 1986The Tamil “Tigers” in Northern Sri Lanka: Origins, Factions, ProgrammesInternationales Asienforum XVII 1/2 6385
Juergensmeyer, M. 1988The Logic of Religious Violence: The Case of the PunjabContributions to Indian Sociology n.s. XXII 16588
Kannangara, A. P. 1984The Riots of 1915 in Sri Lanka: A Study of the Roots of Communal ViolencePast and Present 102 130–65
Kapferer, B. 1983 A Celebration of Demons Bloomington: Indiana University Press
Kapferer, B. 1988 Legends of People, Myths of State Washington and London: Smithsonian Institution Press
Kearney, R. N. and Miller, B. 1985The Spiral of Suicide and Social Change in Sri LankaJournal of Asian Studies XLIV 181101
Malalgoda, K. 1972Sinhalese Buddhism: Orthodox and Syncretistic, Traditional and ModernCeylon Journal of Historical and Social Studies n.s. II 2156–69
Manor, J. 1983Sri Lanka: Explaining the DisasterThe World Today XXXIX 11450–9
Manor, J. (ed.) 1984 Sri Lanka in Change and Crisis London: Croom Helm
Meyer, E. 1983 ‘The Plantation System and Village Structure in British Ceylon: Involution or Evolution?’ in Robb, P. (ed.) Rural South Asia Linkages, Change and Development London: Curzon
Meyer, E. 1984 ‘Seeking the Roots of the Tragedy’ in Manor, J. (ed.) Sri Lanka in Change and Crisis London: Croom Helm
Nairn, T. 1981 ‘The Modern Janus’ in The Break-up of Britain 2nd ednLondon: New Left Books
Nissan, E. 1984 ‘Some Thoughts on Sinhalese Justifications for the Violence’ in Manor, J. (ed.) Sri Lanka in Change and Crisis London: Croom Helm
Nissan, E. and Stirrat, R. L. 1987State, Nation and the Representation of EvilSussex Research Papers in Social Anthropology I
Obeyesekere, G. 1970Religious Symbolism and Political Change in Sri LankaModern Ceylon Studies I 14363
Obeyesekere, G. 1974Some Comments on the Social Backgrounds of the April 1971 Insurgency in Sri Lanka (Ceylon)Journal of Asian Studies XXXIII 367–82
Obeyesekere, G. 1975Sorcery, Premeditated Murder and the Canalization of Aggression in Sri LankaEthnology XIV 1123
Obeyesekere, G. 1981 Medusa's Hair Chicago: University of Chicago Press
Obeyesekere, G. 1984a The Cult of the Goddess Pattini Chicago: University of Chicago Press
Obeyesekere, G. 1984b ‘The Origins and Institutionalisation of Political Violence’ in Manor, J. (ed.) Sri Lanka in Change and Crisis London: Croom Helm
Piyadasa, L. 1984 Sri Lanka: The Holocaust and Afler London: Marran
Roberts, M. 1988Sri Lanka: Ethnic Conflict and Political CrisisEthnic Studies Report VI 14062
Rogers, J. D. 1987a ‘Social Mobility, Popular Ideology, and Collective Violence in Modern Sri LankaJournal of Asian Studies XLVI 3583602
Rogers, J. D. 1987b Crime, Justice and Society in Colonial Sri Lanka London: Curzon
Samarakone, P.1984 ‘The Conduct of the Referendum’ in Manor, J. (ed.) Sri Lanka in Change and Crisis London: Croom Helm
Selvadurai, A. J. 1976Land, Personhood, and Sorcery in a Sinhalese VillageJournal of African and Asian Studies XI 128296
Spencer, J. R. 1984 ‘Popular Perceptions of the Violence: A Provincial View’ in Manor, J. (ed.) Sri Lanka in Change and Crisis London: Croom Helm
Spencer, J. R. n.d. A Sinhala Village in a Time of Trouble Delhi: Oxford University Press (forthcoming)
Tambiah, S. J. 1986 Sri Lanka Ethnic Fratricide and the Dismantling of Democracy London: I.B. Tauris
Thompson, E. P. 1971The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth CenturyPast and Present L 76136
Warnapala, W. A. Wiswa and Dias Hewagama, L. 1984 Recent Politics in Sri Lanka Delhi: Navrang
Wood, A. L. 1961Crime and Aggression in Changing Ceylon. A Sociological Analysis of Homicide, Suicide, and Economic CrimeTransactions of the American Philosophical Society n.s. LI8
Wriggins, W. H. 1960 Ceylon: Dilemmas of a New Nation Princeton: Princeton University Press
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Modern Asian Studies
  • ISSN: 0026-749X
  • EISSN: 1469-8099
  • URL: /core/journals/modern-asian-studies
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed