Robert P. Weller writes on topics ranging from religion and resistance to urban unemployment, and from numerous field sites around China (Nanjing, Tianjin, Anqing, Leshan) as well as Hong Kong and Taiwan. A broad concern with the workings and limits on the exercise of power in daily life—the power of spirits and of states, of local elites and of global flows—runs through much of his work.
His early research began with the problem of religious meaning and authority: Who has the power to impose an interpretation? Could you impose one across a land as vast and a history as long as China’s? In Resistance, Chaos, and Control (1994), for example, he compared cases of resistance in an analysis that hinged on the unusual moments when it becomes possible to impose a unified interpretation. This appears to be the crucial process in converting “cultural resistance” (like smoking in the high-school bathroom) into a political movement.
A second broad area of interest has been the problem of culture change in its global context, with all its flows and stoppages, appropriations and resistances. Discovering Nature (2006) examined the ways that varied Western ideas about culture and nature entered China and interacted with indigenous understandings to create something new with important consequences for the environment. Alternate Civilities (1999) similarly looked at the influx of ideas about governance and social organization and their long-term consequences, arguing that something like a civil society can be built without looking quite like any place in the West. That interest in the relationship between state and society also informs one of his current projects, on the new role of religions in delivering a wide range of secular services to people in Chinese societies—building hospitals, offering scholarships, providing emergency aid, taking care of the elderly, and so on.
His project as a Guggenheim Fellow grows in part out of more theoretical work over the past few years. This was explored most recently in Rethinking Pluralism (2012), which is the result of a long collaboration with Adam Seligman. That book examines how it can be possible to recognize fundamental differences between one group and another, yet still interact peacefully across the boundary. The book looks especially at the ways in which the ambiguities inherent to all boundaries can be thought about and moves away from the assumption that drawing ever clearer lines of categorization is the only or the best answer. His new project explores, challenges, and further develops those ideas more empirically in eastern China. He will focus on the ability to tolerate ambiguity and the formal acceptance of both religious and political conventions over interpretation—of ritual and shared experience over policy and theology.
Weller is Professor of Anthropology and Research Associate in the Institute on Culture, Religion, and World Affairs at Boston University.
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