Papers of Professor Lionel Caplan

Scope and Content

The collection contains a wide range of materials connected with the principal anthropological projects Caplan undertook during a career at SOAS from the mid-1960s to the mid-1990s. It comprises his field notes, comprehensive census data, questionnaires, genealogical charts, and extensive details on economic, kinship, ritual and other everyday activities concerning the subjects of research. In addition, it includes a large selection of unpublished documents - official and unofficial, personal and general, and mainly in languages other than English - which reveal many aspects of life in the populations studied. Apart from the detailed information gathered through his own 'participant observation' during fieldwork in these communities, the archive also encompasses an extensive collection of unpublished historical and contemporary records on the areas and groups examined, most not available outside the local context under investigation, which serve to provide the wider background to his specific investigations. These include local maps, newspaper and magazine articles, administration reports and publications, court records, and pamphlets or other printed materials distributed by individuals and organisations. There are also a number of recordings - mainly of interviews, rituals and ceremonies - on both magnetic tape and, latterly, cassettes. Finally, the collection includes funding applications and preliminary correspondence connected with his research projects, final reports on fieldwork and publications (journal articles and book chapters) arising from these studies.

Administrative / Biographical History

Lionel Caplan was born in Montreal in November, 1931 and attended schools in the same city before entering McGill University, where he completed a BCom degree in 1952. After a spell in the commercial world he returned to academic life, choosing the discipline of Social Anthropology, and completed MA and PhD degrees at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. He joined the SOAS staff in 1965 as a Lecturer, was promoted to Reader in 1975 and to Professor in 1987, retiring in 1997.

Caplan's research focused largely on the complex politico-cultural encounters between dominant and dominated sectors of society in diverse South Asian settings. In 1964-65, as part of his doctoral programme, he examined the relations between a marginalised tribal population in east Nepal and members of high Hindu castes who had entered their territory and taken control of their land. The thesis and subsequent book which emerged from this research placed the study of conflict over land at the centre of anthropological understanding of tribal peoples in South Asia. In 1969 he returned to Nepal, this time to the western hills to conduct a study of the links between a small administrative centre and its rural hinterland, paying special attention to the ways in which a largely disenfranchised local population seeks to engage with the representatives of central power in their midst.

In 1974-75, and again in 1981-82, Caplan undertook a major research project on Christians in Madras, south India in which he showed that the emergence of 'fundamentalist' forms of religiosity, especially among the less advantaged members of the community, challenged the liberal doctrines and practices originally introduced by Protestant missionaries and still preferred by contemporary indigenous church leaders and community elites. Religious views and behaviours were thus understood as part of a wider dynamic in which dominance and resistance to dominance were as much a cultural as a material struggle.

In the context of a growing interest in how non-Western peoples had been and were being depicted in the literatures of the West, Caplan's next project involved an analysis of popular writings on the 'Gurkhas' - a category drawn from marginalised populations of Nepal - who have served in Britain's Imperial and post-Imperial armies for close to two centuries. He demonstrated that these portrayals, most by British officer-writers, needed to be examined in their particular historical, military and political settings.

Caplan's latest study was of the Anglo-Indian community in urban south India, a "mixed race" [dual or multiple heritage] group descended from the colonial encounter between European males and Indian women, and alternately favoured and victimised in the wake of changing political currents. This research enabled him to address issues of postcoloniality and cultural hybridity.

His main publications are: Land and Social Change in East Nepal: a study of Hindu-tribal relations (Routledge & Kegan Paul, University of California Press, 1970), Administration and Politics in a Nepalese Town: the study of a district capital and its environs (Oxford University Press, 1975) and Class and Culture in Urban India: fundamentalism in a Christian community (Clarendon Press, 1987)

In 1967 he married the anthropologist Pat (nee Bailey) Caplan, a graduate of SOAS, who was for over twenty-five years, until her retirement in 2003, on the staff of Goldsmiths College, London. She has also conducted research in West Nepal and urban south India, as well as in her principal field of East Africa. They have two children.

Access Information

Some restrictions on use of materials referring to named individuals. Anonymity of informants/subjects/interviewees to be guaranteed.


Acquisition Information

Donated by Professor Caplan in 2003.

Other Finding Aids

Handlist available.

Related Material

C. von Furer-Haimendorf Archive (SOAS); Digital Himalaya Project (University of Cambridge and; India Office Collections of the British Library (London); Departement des Manuscrits Orientaux, Bibliotheque Nationale (Paris); Department of Ethnomusicology, Musee de l'Homme (Paris); Photographic Library, Musee de l'Homme (Paris); Photographic Library, Royal Anthropological Institute (London); Archives for Visual Anthropology, The Voelkerkundemuseum (Zurich).