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David Lehmann

BORN  1944


David Lehmann is a social scientist: part sociologist, part anthropologist, dedicated to ethnography and comparison. His first fieldwork was in Chile in the late 1960s – a country and a time in which there prevailed a wonderful atmosphere of free debate, ferocious social criticism and a cult of youthful irresponsibility. It all ended in tears, but a generation of Chilean, Latin American, European and North American social scientists were shaped by the experience. Lehmann’s experience with agricultural workers, their organizations and their asentamientos in different parts of the Central Valley and in the Mapuche areas near Temuco, and his participation in Chilean intellectual and social life, were a new education after 6 years in Oxford.

Lehmann’s research from 1968 to about 1984 was on development and especially on agricultural development. He worked at the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex and then moved to Cambridge to teach in Development Studies. He worked extensively on Land Reform, starting with Chile, and pursuing the theme comparatively in his first edited book Agrarian Reform and Agrarian Reformism(1974).  But he also published a paper entitled ‘The Death of Land Reform’ (1978) which cast doubt on the value of pursuing that policy in a period of triumphant capitalism. It was therefore logical that his next big project, with the Argentine sociologist Miguel Murmis, was to study proto-capitalist farmers  - ‘rich peasants’ as they used to be called, like the kulaks who had so exercised the Soviet regime that it set about their mass extermination. This was an extremely instructive experience which taught him much about markets and risk and perhaps marked the beginning of a distancing from an already rather dogma-free marxism. It produced articles on sharecropping (1982) and small scale capitalism (1986) which could (if one chose) be read as a defence of both. Of course, in Northern Ecuador sharecropping was far from the oppressive institution it was in North India and which it had been in the Northeast of Brazil.

One might have thought that the ideologies of the right would be discredited after the Chilean coup, the Argentine dirty war, the fierce violence against anything associated with left-wing politics in Uruguay,  the Nicaraguan contras’ war, the massacres in El Salvador, not to speak of the economic disasters brought about in Argentina and Brazil in the 1980s. Yet it was the left which underwent a collective reappraisal. This was marked by a growing influence of Liberation Theology, a shift towards social democracy and a very strong commitment to liberal democracy in several places. (Years later, especially in the wake of the disappointments of Lain America’s version of neo-liberal economics, in some places the pendulum would swing again, not back to Marxism, but even further back to a primordial, irreflective  populism.)   And so Lehmann’s focus also shifted, to Brazil and to the role of the Catholic Church, and especially of Catholic intellectuals and activists, in carrying the torch of popular movements in the name of Liberation Theology, the People’s Church and what he termed basismo (Democracy and development in Latin America: economics, politics and religion in the postwar period, 1990).

Yet what was interesting about this was not so much the politics as the religion - the mystery of belief - and so he gradually distanced himself from Development Studies and pursued his research by extending it to evangelical Protestantism, notably in Brazil, with the support of a Leverhulme Fellowship. The experience of fieldwork in churches in Bahia was at first quite a shock, yet it did not take long for instant divine healing and apparently exhibitionist trances and possession scenes to seem as routine to him as to the participants themselves. His book Struggle for the spirit (1996) was among the first to draw attention to this apparent revolution in Latin American culture, though still today we await its results in the economic and political spheres.

Meanwhile, in Cambridge, he spent ten wonderful years (1990-2000) as Director of the University’s Centre for Latin American Studies, working with the best people ever, both the locals who sustained the atmosphere of togetherness and creativity, and the cosmopolitans who came as Visitors, as Professors, or just as tourists. One high point was the holding of the meeting of BRASA, the Brazilian Studies Association, in Cambridge in 1996, and that of SLAS, the UK’s Society for Latin American Studies, in 1999.  At the same time he began a gradual shift away from Development Studies to his present full commitment to the University’s Department of Sociology. In between he had been a Visiting Professor at various times in Brazil, in Ecuador, and in Paris.

It was not hard in the late 90s to realize that charismatic or evangelical religious movements, and their cousins the fundamentalists, were not limited to Brazil or to Christianity, and comparisons were crying out for attention (‘Fundamentalism and globalism’, 1997). And so, after years in search of the exotic in Latin America, he finally found what seemed to him the most exotic he had ever encountered, in a Chassidic yeshiva a couple of miles from his birthplace in London.

Thus began a seven or eight-year involvement in the study of ultra-Orthodox Judaism which is only now giving way to something new.  But it became fairly clear quite early on that for a person of his background and position it was not possible to do ethnography on this subject in his own country: his mere presence as an inquisitive outsider aroused too many suspicions of hidden agendas and touched on delicate nerves of intra-communal ideological differences. At that point a friend in Rio de Janeiro suggested that he look at Shas, the Israeli Sephardi movement of ethnic and religious renewal. For this he was lucky enough to be generously granted another Leverhulme Fellowship, and so, scarcely able to speak Hebrew, in 1999 he arrived in Israel and tried to find a way forward. Providentially, Israel’s latino network came to his rescue and one of them, Batia Sebzehner joined the project. And so started a venture which eventually led to the production of their joint book Remaking Israeli Judaism: the challenge of Shas (2006) which provides an interpretation of Israeli society and places this highly political religious revival in the context of the history and social situation of Israel’s Jews of North African and Middle Eastern descent, and also in the context of the religious revival worldwide. All this of course has happened in the thick of an apparently unending political crisis in the Middle East which is getting worse and worse in 2006; yet in a surreal sort of way, the research seemed unaffected by the crisis.

The Shas work has also yielded a secondary project (funded by the British Academy) on ultra-Orthodox Jewish marriage, which turns out to be interesting not only in itself, but also as a study in how, through a combination of pressures from above – the leadership – and below – the suffocating atmosphere of gossip and competition - a group’s boundaries can grow ever thicker. At the same time the researchers are repeatedly amazed at the ability of these communities to adapt to external conditions which their leaders see as a mortal threat. Proof perhaps of the modernity of at least some kinds of fundamentalism.

In 2006, however, the time has come for a return ‘home’ to Latin America, and Lehmann is now starting a new project on multiculturalism in Latin America, funded again by the British Academy. This brings together an underlying theme of his religious research, which had repeatedly touched on issues of ethnicity and identity both in Latin America (‘Charisma and possession in Africa and Brazil’, 2001)  and of course in Israel, which is a wildly multi-racial society. The purpose of the project is not just to document and understand developments in Latin America, but also to look from a Latin American standpoint at Europe’s struggle with this deeply and essentially contested issue (contested from the start since it has opposed meanings for different people and factions). The project can be described as an ‘epidemiology’, not because it regards its subject as a disease but because like an epidemic the idea has spread in lateral and incidental ways. This may be something new when contrasted with the ways in which earlier ideological waves, like ‘dependencia’ and Marxism, or Liberation Theology, developed from an intellectual platform.

In some ways Latin America looks like a bastion of civilized modernity. For all the violence and inequality and racial discrimination, the region has so far managed to avoid the emotional, religious and identity-based conflicts which being immune to rational settlement, threaten to undermine the basis of social co-existence elsewhere. Latin America’s conflicts seem to have been more about money, power and citizenship. This, however, may now change, as political leaders and the ideologues of identity and authenticity, notably but not exclusively in Venezuela, discover the political advantages to be gained from whipping up racial distrust and even xenophobic feelings among followers disenfranchised and disinherited by the region’s polarizing development path.