The Encounter Never Ends

A Return to the Field of Tamil Rituals

By Isabelle Clark-Deces

Subjects: Anthropology Of Religion
Series: SUNY series in Hindu Studies
Paperback : 9780791471869, 156 pages, June 2008
Hardcover : 9780791471852, 156 pages, August 2007

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Table of contents

Introduction: Back to Fieldnotes
1. We Don’t Talk Anymore
2. Seeing is Everything
3. Some Things Never Change
4. Far from the Other World
Conclusion: There is Always Something More to Say

A reconsideration of the relationship between fieldwork and anthropological knowledge.


The Encounter Never Ends offers a thoughtful meditation on the relationship between fieldwork and anthropological knowledge through the analysis of Tamil ritual practice in a South Indian village. Isabelle Clark-Decès revisits field notes taken more than fifteen years earlier, and reveals what she intended when she took the notes, what she came to understand and record, and why she proceeded to ignore her ethnography until recently. Returning to these notes with fresh eyes and matured experience, Clark-Decès gains insight into Tamil rural society that complicates anthropological analyses of the Indian village. She realizes that the village she lived in was neither a community nor a "system" but rather a loose hodgepodge of caste groups and advises that the social order is not necessarily the best place to start looking for important insights into the ways in which cultures construe ritual action. Drawing on the recent work of Don Handelman to discuss the two Tamil ritual complexes recovered from her field notes, a drought "removal" ritual and a post-funeral ceremony, the author shows how they articulate complex notions regarding knowledge, reflexivity, and action. Throughout, the author shares her own story, including the mixture of frustration and fascination she felt while conducting fieldwork, illustrating how extraordinarily difficult ethnographic description is.

Isabelle Clark-Decès is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Princeton University and the author of No One Cries for the Dead: Tamil Dirges, Rowdy Songs, and Graveyard Petitions and Religion Against the Self: An Ethnography of Tamil Rituals.


"There is a bracing freshness to Clark-Decès's reflections that gets us closer to what is true, sociologically and psychologically, about the complex encounters made possible on both the ethnographic and ritual 'field.'" — History of Religions

"…this book succeeds remarkably well when [Clark-Decès] continues to explore that uncanny encounter with her notes and, through them, her younger self and the ethnographic process there in that village fifteen years earlier." — Journal of Anthropological Research

"…an engaging depiction of Tamil ritual in the context of historical change in South India, and should be of interest to scholars of ritual and the dynamics of Tamil society." — Ethos

"This is a fascinating excursion into reflexive anthropology." — Anne Mackenzie Pearson, author of "Because It Gives Me Peace of Mind": Ritual Fasts in the Religious Lives of Hindu Women