Michael Lambek

Michael Lambek
Department Chair

Research Interests: 

During 2006-2008 Professor Lambek holds a split appointment between U of T Scarborough and the London School of Economics. At U of T Scarborough he has begun a Canada Research Chair in the Anthropology of Ethical Life. He conducts ethnographic research in Switzerland as well as long-term fieldwork in the Indian Ocean islands of Mayotte and Madagascar. He has carried out research and written on spirit possession, Islam, the anthropology of knowledge, therapeutic practice, memory, and historicity, among other topics. He is currently interested in the intersection of anthropology with philosophy and especially in articulating the moral basis of action. In 2003-2005 Professor Lambek served as President of the Society for the Anthropology of Religion. His presidential address, also delivered as inaugural lecture at the LSE, was on "Sacrifice and the Problem of Beginning." He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada in 2000.

Awards and Grants: 

Professor Lambek holds a SSHRC standard research grant on Heterodoxy and the Ethical Imagination. He is also a participant in a RESET-project funded by the Open Society (Soros) Foundation on Anthropological Approaches to Religion and Secularism for scholars from post-Soviet societies; recipient of a residency at the Rockefeller Foundation Center at Bellagio, to be taken up in Spring 2011; and affiliated with a KITVL (Leiden, Netherlands) project on Ordinary Muslims in Asia and the West.


Professor Lambek’s books have been short-listed for the Innis Book Prize, the Herskovits Award, and the Victor Turner Prize. He is also the founding editor of Anthropological Horizons: Ethnography, Culture, Theory at University of Toronto Press; has served as co-editor of Social Analysis; and on the international advisory board of the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO) research programme on the Future of the Religious Past; sits on the editorial board of New Departures in Social and Cultural Anthropology at Cambridge University Press, Anthropologica, JRAI, Africa, and Religion and Society. Professor Lambek has numerous publications in American Ethnologist, Culture, Comparative Studies in Society and History, etc. Publications since 2006-07 include an essay on anthropology for the Oxford Handbook of Religion and Science, book chapters on learning religion, kinship and memory, deixis and deity, and Sakalava mythopraxis, travelling spirits, models of mind in the University of Toronto Quarterly, and an Afterword to The Trauma Controversy: Philosophical and Interdisciplinary Dialogues (Kristen Brown and Bettina Bergo, eds.)

  • Ordinary Ethics: Anthropology, Language and Action (edited, Fordham University Press, forthcoming)
  • Human Spirits: A Cultural Account of Trance in Mayotte (Cambridge University Press, 1981, reissued 2009)
  • Knowledge and Practice in Mayotte; Local Discourses of Islam, Sorcery and Spirit Possession, (University of Toronto Press, 1993)
  • Tense Past: Cultural Essays in Trauma and Memory (edited with Paul Antze, Routledge, 1996)
  • Bodies and Persons: Comparative Perspectives from Africa and Melanesia (edited with Andrew Strathern, Cambridge 1998)
  • Ecology and the Sacred (edited with Ellen Messer, Univ. of Michigan Press, 2001)
  • A Reader in the Anthropology of Religion (Blackwell, 2002; 2nd edition 2008)
  • The Weight of the Past: Living with History in Mahajanga, Madagascar (Palgrave, 2002)
  • Illness and Irony (edited with Paul Antze, Berghahn, 2003)

2015 The Ethical Condition: Essays on Action, Person, and Value.
University of Chicago Press. 361 pages.

From the back cover: The essays in this collection point with definitive force toward a single central truth: ethics is intrinsic to social life. As Lambek shows through rich ethnographic accounts and multiple theoretical traditions, our human condition is at heart an ethical one. Detailing his trajectory as one anthropologist thinking deeply throughout his career on the nature of ethical life, the essays offer a vibrant demonstration of the relevance of ethics as practice and its crucial importance to ethnography, social theory, and philosophy.


2015  with Veena Das, Didier Fassin, and Webb Keane. Four Lectures on Ethics: Anthropological Perspectives.
HAU Books, University of Chicago Press. 219 pages


This is a book in the Hau Masterclass series. Charles Taylor writes:  “These four remarkable lectures make us aware, in different ways, of the complexity and variety of what we call ethics. . . . They masterfully demonstrate, on one side, how our ethical action is embedded in everyday life, and on the other, how our moral standards can be the object of willed and conscious historical change. . . . a path-breaking book full of fascinating insights, new approaches, and suggestive lines of research.”

Teaching Interests: 

Professor Lambek has taught courses on medical anthropology, religion, the gift, and introduction to sociocultural anthropology. Recent assignments include Anthropology and Psychology (2009), Ritual and Religious Action (2010), as well as the MA course Critical Issues in Ethnography.