Photo taken by: Efrat Shvily.

After ten years in English boarding schools and six years in Oxford, my education only got going when I went to Chile in 1968 to start fieldwork for my doctoral studies.  The openness, tolerance and freedom I found there, and the enthusiasm, energy and idealism of the Chilean intelligentsia – not to speak of the social life – have been fixed in my memory ever since.  So too has the manner of its ending. My immaturity encountered a severe shock when in 1973 the Unidad Popular government was overthrown by a military coup that initiated a ferocious campaign of repression, including forced disappearances and murders, as well as exile for thousands and a pitiless attack on the living standards of the people, on trade unions and campesino organizations, and on the popular movements. When in 2012 I returned to the scene of that first field research experience, the agricultural asentamientos (cooperatives) I had studied in 1968-70 and 1972 had literally disappeared: campesino dwellings had been erased and the once extensively cultivated wheat fields and pastures were replaced by ultra-modern vineyards and elegantly curated wineries.  Who knows what happened to some of the campesino leaders who had welcomed me so generously.

The Chilean coup had a traumatic effect on perhaps millions whose lives were turned upside down: the society had been deeply divided along class lines as the parties of the Unidad Popular coalition tried to drive a redistribution of income, to accelerate the expropriation of great estates that had started before their period in office, and to nationalize mining and industry. But its coalition was divided and the advocates of revolution inside and outside government did not fully gauge the panic that took hold of the propertied classes and much of the middle class, while the ultra-right fanned the flames of fascistic and quasi-fascistic currents in civil society and, as it turned out, in the armed forces.

The tragedy of Chile inspired the reappraisal on the orthodox left that came to be known as Eurocommunism, and taught me that politics is a more serious business than my self-confident generation had realized.  It was paralleled by dirty wars in Argentina and Uruguay, coordinated with the Chilean repression under the notorious Plan Condor. I recall a meeting in December 1976 in Cambridge, attended by some of the leading social scientists of the region (Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Guillermo O’Donnell, Ernesto Laclau) and many refugees and exiles: it was midwinter and we really felt the world was falling down around us. But the meeting also reflected the change of mood within the prevailing marxisant atmosphere: maybe there was something to be said for the much-derided bourgeois comforts of democracy after all… 

In 1973 I had come to teach at Cambridge, in Development Studies, but my later move, in about 2000, to Social and Political Sciences enabled me to develop the two fields where I was most ‘at home’ –  Religion and Latin America. I had lost interest in development studies as an intellectual enterprise, and was fortunate to find another home in an atmosphere defined by analytical rather than policy considerations.  Throughout the 1990s I was also privileged to direct the Centre for Latin American Studies, a unique locus of cosmopolitanism, conviviality, intellectual creativity and multidisciplinary exploration, and during that time we hosted numerous stimulating events (including the 1996 Conference of the Brazilian Studies Association and the 1999 conference of the Society of Latin American Studies). Already in 1979 we had run one of the first big conferences on Amazonia.

A list of my doctoral students can be found here. They have been the pride of my teaching life and have taught me more than I ever taught them. The relationship between supervisor and doctoral student is a delicate one and I am proud that people entrusted themselves to me even (perhaps especially) when through them I discovered subjects and ideas which otherwise I would never have touched or of whose very existence I was unaware.

Although my research has inevitably had political implications, I am drawn more to the grass roots than to high politics. My studies of the Chilean Land Reform dissected the incentives that underpinned the cooperatives it established; in Ecuador in the early 1980s, working with the Argentine sociologist Miguel Murmis, I learnt all about sharecropping and the risks of potato production in the highland province of Carchi, disentangling empirically the theory of peasant economy. Then in the mid 1980s, following the disappointments of marxist and marxist-inspired ventures and misadventures, I was drawn to Liberation Theology as a basista alternative. This gave rise to a book entitled ambitiously Democracy and Development in Latin America: Economics, Politics and Religion in the postwar period (1990). Astonishingly, no one pointed out at the time that Pentecostalism, which was growing fast everywhere in the region, had received no mention at all. I then worked to remedy this error with Struggle for the Spirit ( 1996, focussing heavily on Brazil, with the support of the Leverhulme Trust.

Doing research on Liberation Theology and the comunidades de base it inspires is a much more comfortable business than inquiring into Pentecostal churches. The secularized priests and religious of Liberation Theology and their grass roots collaborators fuse their faith with campaigns for social change and view supernatural beliefs with some suspicion, whereas for the pastors of Pentecostal churches and their followers the explanation of religion is more spiritual or even supernatural, so they tend to look on social scientists with distrust, if not incomprehension. We write about them on the comfortable assumption that they do not read our works and we give papers to seminars in which we ‘other’ them in ways we would not dare to do if, for example, we were talking of excluded ethnic or racial groups. I struggle to find the right tone when writing of evangelicals, and I try to avoid labelling Pentecostal preachers as manipulative, or implying that their followers are people without, so to speak, minds of their own.

In the early 2000s I had the opportunity to study what appeared to be a similar ‘born again’ phenomenon in Israel, again with the support of the Leverhulme Trust. This was the Sephardic movement and political party Shas, which brought together the themes of ethnic and class resentment and religious revival (The Remaking of Israeli Judaism, 2006). Coming to the study of Israel with little knowledge of the country, though with a decent religious grounding in Judaism, I had to rely totally on the collaboration of the Argentine-born sociologist Batia Siebzehner, who rescued a project that I had naively started. Shas had a remarkably swift rise, but eventually lost its ‘revolutionary’ élan and so the result was a study both of political incorporation and of religious revival.

Returning to Latin America, my engagement with ethnicity developed further with an ambitious project I called informally an ‘epidemiology of multiculturalism’, funded by the British Academy. The irreverence of the phrase betrays a certain distance vis-à-vis multiculturalism which, while founded on an undeniable vocation of anti-racism and a drive to recognize the unrecognized, can also verge on racial or cultural essentialism and an over-emphasis on race compared to other demands (often on the part of the same groups) for social justice. I wanted to unravel the meaning of ‘multiculturalism’, and its cousin interculturalidad, in Latin American theory and practise.  In this venture I benefited from collaboration with colleagues such as Véronique Boyer and the late Luis Vazquez, and from dialogue with the educationalist Gunther Dietz. The project generated an edited book entitled, perhaps over-dramatically The Crisis of Multiculturalism in Latin America  (2016), as well as The Prism of Race: the Politics and Ideology of Affirmative Action in Brazil (2018). One unexpected aspect of this research was its incursion into a sociology of academia. I interviewed academics at intercultural universities in Mexico, and in Brazil I spoke to numerous professors who had been involved in the campaign to persuade state universities and the country’s National Congress and Supreme Court, to adopt affirmative actions – Brazil’s version of affirmative action. These are not the same: Brazil’s affirmative actions are more wide-ranging and less intricately targeted than the North American approach. They are also more generous. As I came to understand the difference between the race relations regimes of Brazil and the Andean and Mesoamerican countries, and the different purposes of intercultural policies and affirmative action, I found reasons to appreciate the benefits of both, both as avenues of access to higher education and professional employment and as a politics of recognition. Nonetheless I retain a residue of scepticism: these anti-racist policies are no substitute for a universalist approach to social justice, the basic elements of which are large scale and very expensive reform of public education and health supporting people from the very earliest years of life, paying teachers, doctors and nurses in public schools and health services,  decent salaries, and funding it all through taxation of incomes while reducing reliance on primary commodity exports which damage the environment and distort social and economic structures. No major Latin American country has attempted to build such a system, let alone in sustaining it over a long period.

The confluence of these doubts and my scepticism vis-à-vis the over-reliance on race and ethnicity in Latin Americanist interpretations of the region’s history and social structures, led me to write my recent book:  After the Decolonial: Ethnicity, Gender and Social Justice in Latin America (2022). It is a more personal text than the others mentioned here. My concerns with the superficiality and oversimplification of decolonial scholarship go back to the 1990s, but only now did I undertake close readings of its precursors, including Frantz Fanon, (some of) Emmanuel Levinas, and Edward Said, plus contemporaries such as Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui and the decolonial gurus themselves (notably Walter Mignolo, Aníbal Quijano, and Boaventura de Sousa Santos). The book recounts the genealogy of the idea of modern colonialism in Latin America and confronts decolonial historical and ethnohistoric interpretations with classic ethnohistories and ethnographies from the Andes. I also bring into the picture the movements and the politics they inspire. The result has not always been as expected.  After a closer reading of their history, I became more sympathetic to Mexico’s Zapatistas and I came to admire the role of Evo Morales in saving the Bolivian state from collapse in the early years of the century. But the most striking revelation has been the decolonial feminists – who have little in common with the male theorists other than the name – whose theorizing is less rhetorical and their critique more visceral. Extending the cultural emphasis of the decolonial, I undertake an extensive discussion of the distinctive nature of Latin American popular religion and popular culture and of the upending of those centuries-old habits in a few decades by evangelical Protestantism.

So now I have returned to the Pentecostals and the neo-Pentecostals, for it is a central weakness of the decolonial that its followers are unwilling to deal descriptively or analytically with a phenomenon that, like it or not, has become a world-conquering movement. Neo-Pentecostalism may embody the ‘repugnant other’, as Susan Harding described the initiators of the Scopes trial that was a Protestant fundamentalist milestone in the Southern United States, but that is no reason to ignore it. My current project is to produce an account of the church that, starting from its base in Brazil, pioneered the model of neo-Pentecostalism: the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God.  The Universal Church is a worldwide organization that inspires three hundred bishops, thousands of pastors, tens of thousands of lay assistants and millions of followers to do much more than pray and pay their tithes. It is involved in youth work, in skills training, in providing management training to small businesspeople. It runs soup kitchens for the homeless and intervenes in crises by, for example, offering basic services to striking Brazilian lorry drivers. It can be thought of as a ‘motivational apparatus’: restless and constantly innovative. Its leader, Edir Macedo, owns the second biggest free-to-air TV network in Brazil, which also produces telenovela versions of Biblical epics in Portuguese, Spanish and English. As if to rival the monuments of the Catholic Church, It has built landmark churches and cathedrals in São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Cape Town and elsewhere.

But there are of course hints of a darker side. Pastors claim, discreetly but without medical evidence, to help sufferers recover from drug addiction and even psychological disorders. They inveigh against Brazil’s Africa-originating religious heritage as if it was the source of diabolic forces that poison private and public life.  Investigative journalists have cast doubt on the propriety of the church’s accounting practices and finances and have documented its many legal imbroglios. And finally, of course, Macedo is a powerful player in the jungle of Brazilian politics. How to assemble a portrait out of such complicated material is a challenge.

This story has understated the extent to which it is the product of my immersion in networks of friendship and formal and informal collaboration, and it also understates my reliance on the goodwill of innumerable people.  Crucial ideas can emerge from a casual conversation, from an acute remark in a seminar, from an article noticed in passing, and from the creative buzz in forums ranging from chance encounters to large scale conferences. My debt to those who have given me their time and told me their stories from the seminar room to the grass roots, is incalculable.

I have been lucky to receive Visiting Professorships or Fellowships in São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Bahia, Jerusalem and Paris, always enjoyable and intellectually stimulating. I cannot deny, either, that my luck has included an Oxford training and a Cambridge position that have given me the confidence, for example, to engage in polemics that others might have avoided (and that maybe I should have avoided…). In early years my comfortable background and the climate of the times also blinded me to habits of male privilege. Whether I ever succeeded in shaking them off is for others to judge.

Close-up of dried, cracked earth.


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). 

Featured Publications

After the Decolonial

  May 4, 2022
Polemical in some parts, exegetically and ethnographically detailed in others, ‘After the Decolonial’ retraces the ancestry of contemporary Latin American decolonial theories, discussing Mexican anthropologists

The Prism of Race

  Mar 28, 2022
A study of how the Brazilian black intelligentsia and their allies organized a movement to promote the idea of affirmative action in public universities, culminating

Academic Celebrity

  Mar 28, 2022
This article examines the institution of celebrity within academia. Academic Celebrity has parallels with the celebrity seen in the wider world, though it is born of conditions