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Transnational Communities Programme

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The Indian Ocean: Trans-regional creation of societies and cultures
A seminar series run by the Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology (University of Oxford)

Seminar 1 Islam along the Indian Ocean littoral: the social organisation of prayer as a mobilising force of contact.
Date: 21st March 1998
Seminar 2 Ships and the development of maritime technology. Date: Friday 15 and Saturday 16 May 1998
Seminar 3 Textiles and changing developments in fashion and status. A two-day seminar in January 1999
Seminar 4 Spices and aromatics: an economy of aesthetics and health. A two-day seminar in May 1999
Seminar 5 Architecture and social space. A two-day seminar in July 1999
Seminar 6 Language and its dissemination. A two-day seminar in December 1999

Islam along the Indian Ocean littoral: the social organisation of prayer as a mobilising force of contact. Date: 21st March 1998
Inside and outside the Mosque: Anthropology of Muslim prayer across teh Indian Ocean. A one day workshop to be held at the Maison Franšaise in Oxford organised by Professor David Parkin (ISCA, Oxford) and Dr Stephen Headley (UniversitÚ de Provence and Oxford).

Wider social and politico-economic processes impinge on the kinds of 'invocation' and oral rites practised in particular communities. Local, customary modes of prayer mingle with those of Islamic orthodoxy in an increasingly reduplicated manner. Yet differences remain in the view of believers, including contrasting ideas concerning the social and personal consequences of, and responsibilities entailed in, the performance of Muslim and non-Muslim prayer. How do such differences compare serially if one considers Muslim communities as a whole across the Indian Ocean, and how do similiarities create further Islam consciousness?

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Ships and the development of maritime technology. Date: Friday 15 and Saturday 16 May 1998
A two-day workshop in Oxford organised by Professor Davide Parkin (ISCA, Oxford) and Dr Ruth Barnes (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford).

Boats and navigation skills are of couse the necessary means for establishing contact between communities and geographic regions of the Indian Ocean littoral, and therefore, constitute an appropriate subject for the first meeting.

Especially interesting are:

  1. the transmission across regions and between generations of ship building techniques; types of ships and boats used; methods of navigation and of carrying goods and people.
  2. the role played by ethnic and religious identities in the resultant division of labour.
  3. local attitudes to shipping communities and outsiders including emerging diasporas arising from the maritime movement and settlement of peoples.

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Textiles and changing developments in fashion and status. A two-day seminar in January 1999
Textiles have been a major commodity transacted in the Indian Ocean from early historical times to the present day. The trade from India has been particularly important, but cloth from the Yemen (more recently) Indonesia, and (most recently) East Africa and China, as well as Europe and America, have been sought at different times and in different areas of the Ocean regions. While cloth is fragile in the long term, it is initially far more portable than either glass or ceramics, and is likely to have been a major distributor of artistic patterns.

The following issues can be investigated:

  1. the extent to which, in dressing the body, textiles are major, if variable and shifting, markers of gender and ethnic, religious and economic status, and of changing concepts of the person.
  2. the different local interpretations of imported design and their effect on indigenous designs: for example, Indian designs had a formative effect on those of South-East Asia, while those of East Africa have been subject to European as well as Asian influences.
  3. the changing social functions of cloth designs, styles and methods of adornment through mutual impact of imported and local dress forms.

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Spices and aromatics: an economy of aesthetics and health. A two-day seminar in May 1999
A major economic drive in Indian Ocean contacts has been the trade with aromatics, resins adn spices. The past and present use of these commodities is of particular interest in understanding the region. They are of importance in cooking, in herbal medicine and healing, and as contributing to bodily well-being. They have contributed considerably to the creation of wealth, and therefore to the economic and social history of virtually all areas of the Indean Ocean rim. Their often very localised areas of production have encouraged maritime movements from early times. Their consumption, for reasons of taste, smell, mental or physical health, and social well-being is relevant to all Indian Ocean cultures. An important overarching factor is the extent to which their use and distribution highlight hierarchies of medical and aesthetic expertise and the development of authoritative texts and orally transmitted knowledge.

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Architecture and social space. A two-day seminar in July 1999
We may investigate the relationship between changing social processes in the region and distinctions made by its various peoples between domestic, communal and religious buildings. For example, one approach might be to survey comparatively how Islamic religious building requirements are variously accommodated in the different areas, and how far these are reflected in (changing) building techniques. Attitudes to open or closed space may be relevant, as may also be the orientation towards a specific location or cardinal point. The relationship between space and gender is important in Islamic, Indian and indigenous South-East Asian houses. Language and spatial orientation may be relevant as it certainly is in South-East Asia. Also important is the relationship between designers, builders and labourers within and between regions and the extent to which their varying uses of buildings challenge existing social assumptions about place an status.

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Language and its dissemination. A two-day seminar in December 1999.
We would look at three analytically distinctive domains of use and change: public/private, written/spoken and interpersonal code-switching/macro language shifts. Arabic, Malay and Sanskrit have been used over large parts of the Indian Ocean littoral since early times, with Gujarati and Swahili also of long-established usage. As international and intercommunity languages which are nevertheless regarded as the distinctive property of particular groups, these languages will be examined in a variety of contexts of usage: everyday; rhetorical and political; ritual and religious; elite adn non-elite; gender differentiation; relationship to local vernaculators.

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