James Laidlaw


Research interests: south Asia (India) and east Asia (Taiwan and Inner Mongolia); the interface between anthropological and ethical theory; and religion and ritual; Jainism, Hinduism, and Buddhism, theoretical approaches to religion including cognitive psychology, and contemporary transformations in religions in Asia, including new forms of Buddhist self-formation.

I have several different research interests. First, I have been working on the Anthropological Study of Ethics for some time now. I began this in earnest with my 2001 Malinowski Lecture, ‘For an Anthropology of Ethics and Freedom’ (published in the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 2002), but the research had its origins in my attempts to understand ethnographically how the apparently impossibly austere ethics of Jainism could play a part in the lives of lay Jain families and communities, the results of which are set out in Riches and Renunciation (1995). My objective now is to review critically the anthropological resources for the study of ethics, and to develop grounds for dialogue with moral philosophy and the development of a form of reflection on ethics that is intrinsically ethnographical. Read more

My second main area of interest is a study of Buddhist ethics of self-cultivation, in the context of increasing exchange of religious ideas and practices across Buddhist Asia. Research is planned in Taiwan, Thailand, and northern China, informed both by ethical and psychological theory, drawn both from western and Buddhist traditions. Read more

Thirdly, I am continuing my long-standing interest in Jainism, which I have been researching since 1983. Jainism is a first-cousin to Buddhism, having been founded at roughly the same time in the same region of north India, and like Buddhism it is a tradition of monastic renunciation that is also the popular religion of a larger lay population. Jains make up a small but highly influential section of the Indian population, with growing overseas communities inmany parts of the world. Mahatma Gandhi’s mother was born a Jain; its ideas of non-violence have had very profound influence in Indian civilisation; and Jains are prominent in trade, commerce, and the professions in India. Overseas, the worldwide Jain community is a dynamic presence in the environmentalist and ecological movements. Read more

Fourthly, in collaboration with Prof H. Whitehouse of Oxford University and others, I am interested in exploring whether and how anthropology can learn from, inform, and influence the intellectual agenda of the developing field of cognitive science of religion, and collaborate in developing new forms of empirical research practices. Two books have been edited jointly with Harvey Whitehouse, Ritual and Memory (2004) and Religion, Anthropology, and Cognitive Science (2007). Finally, I am involved in a project with Stephen Hugh-Jones, Hildegard Diemberger and Dr Karma Phuntsho, which is studying the Pad gling traditon, one of the two major Buddhist traditions in the Kingdom of Bhutan. Read more

​For more information, please see Dr Laidlaw's faculty website.