Sean Dowdy

Collegiate Assistant Professor, Social Sciences
Core: Self, Culture and Society

Gates-Blake 330

Sean M. Dowdy received his PhD in anthropology from the University of Chicago in 2017. His research examines the intersections of kinship, myth, political ritual, and the semiotics of “the tribe” in rural Assam (Northeast India). His dissertation, entitled “Goroka: Cosmography and the Shared Account,” explores these themes through an ethnography of accounting repertoires in the erstwhile “baby kingdom” of Mayong. Material based on this dissertation has been published by SAMAJ and Cambridge University Press, and presented at conferences around the world. The book project to follow will reframe the dissertation’s ethnography around an analysis of a single myth and its present ritual instantiations: the uxorilocal foundation of the Mayong kingdom by a Kachari stranger king and the political-religious cult inaugurated by his third son. Drawing on psychoanalysis as well as alliance theory in kinship studies, the monograph unveils the kinship-centric structures that mediate political life in contemporary Assam. Scaling up, it also proposes to rethink political theory from the vantage of kinship as “mutual being” and “affective participation”—an alternative to conceiving of politics as war, commerce, or translation.

Beyond this, Dowdy has begun research on two new projects that focus on kinship and the semiotics of indigeneity. The first reflects on the alliance-politics of “Purum kinship,” once described as the most “over-analyzed topic in anthropology” in the 1960s and 1970s. It will culminate in a short monograph, tentatively titled Death by Analysis, or What Happened to the Purum? Serving as a cautionary tale for ethnographic theory, the monograph revists the agonizing debates of Rodney Needham, Claude Lévi-Strauss, David Schneider, Edmund Leach, and others on this topic with an ethnographic counterpoint about what really happened to the Purum people—i.e., why there was no existing “Purum tribe” after 1960, how they “became” other tribes, and how the politics of their kinship structure—once thought to be the clearest recorded example of a circulating connubium—may have contributed to this fate. The second project will focus on the genealogical-politics of the “Manmasi” movement—a political federation of sorts that seeks to unite the Zo-Kuki-Chin tribes in Mizoram, Manipur, and Assam through the argument that they are all members of a Lost Tribe of Israel (the “Bnei Menashe”). This movement, which began as a political offshoot of Protestant Revivalism, has gained popularity in recent years as many Manmasi identitarians have acquired Israeli citizenship after their formal conversion to Judaism in 2005. For this project, ethnographic research will be conducted in both Israel and Northeast India in order to theorize how theology, myth, global political economy, the plasticity of the genealogical imagination, and genetic technologies have altered the ritual, racial, and conceptual coordinates for how the political category of “tribe” is now being conceived and acted upon in Northeast India as well as in Israel.

Dowdy is also an active participant in open-access publishing initiatives. He has been a manager for Prickly Paradigm Press since 2009. From 2014-2016 he was the Managing Editor at HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory and HAU Books. Most recently, Dowdy has been invited to sit on the editorial board of The Highlander Press, an open-access initiative for works in the humanities and social sciences that focus on Northeast India and the wider “Zomia” region.