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Masterhood, Hospitality, and Mobility

Masterhood, Hospitality, and Mobility

The Mongolia and Inner Asia Studies Unit (MIASU) at Cambridge has partnered with the Centre of Ethnographic Theory (SOAS) for a Seminar series (2016-2017) titled "Masterhood, Hospitality, and Mobility."

The notion of the 'master/owner' (Mong. ezen, Tib. bdag) is extraordinarily prevalent across Inner Asia. It appears not only as a multi-scalar idea in social realms, as a way of conceptualising the ruler of a state, guardian of property, host, or manager of a household; it is also evidently a cosmological notion, spanning a vast range from spirit owner or master of a territory to the 'masters' of wild animal species, geological formations, or even human-made implements. This master/owner concept is relational, and it implies many of the positional switches found in hospitality: the generosity to others, including strangers, expected of the host, but on the cosmological plane something like a reversal, when offerings are made by a human host to an invited master or owning spirit to give thanks or in hope of gaining favour. The ambiguity about who (when) is a host/master/owner, and who the guest, may be related - we suggest for debate - to the nature of a mobile society, where both human and spirit masters/owners circulate. These alternating relations we suggest may bear on seemingly paradoxical concepts of landscape, in particular understandings of the sacred sites where spirit masters hold sway, such as the Mongolian oboo, the Tibetan lha-tse, the Tyvan ovaa or the Buriat barisa, where it is characteristic for such a site to be seen both as a centre and as a boundary marker. Following the idea that some regions provide the opportunity to pursue particular problems in anthropological theory, we would like this seminar to pose the idea of the 'master/owner' as a concept-cum-heuristic. We aim in this way to reflect on the wider potential of ethnographic theory emerging from Inner Asia as a path to reconfiguring debates on the relation between place and power, incorporation and exclusion, cosmology and action and examine how these concepts and subjectivities are reproduced or domesticated by gendered rituals practices and strategies of alliance in the region.


Seminars are held 4.30–6.00 pm in the Seminar Room, Division of Social Anthropology
The Mond Building, Free School Lane, Cambridge


  • Tuesday, 2nd May, 2017 
    The Mistress of the Hearth: female mobility, domestic divinities, and reproductive power in North Central China 
    Charlotte Bruckermann (Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology)
  • Tuesday, 16th May, 2017 
    The perils of stray men, or why everybody needs a master (in India, for example) 
    Anastasia Piliavsky (Girton College, Cambridge)
  • Tuesday, 30th May, 2017
    Master, Host, Demon, God
    Michael Puett (Harvard University)
  • Tuesday, 13th June, 2017
    Last Gift of the God-King: Negotiating Constitutional Ownership in the Wake of the Dalai Lama’s Resignation
    Martin Mills (University of Aberdeen)

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