James Boon

Professor Emeritus
(609) 258-2896
Email Address: 
Office Location: 
41 Williams Street, Room 114

Ph.D. University of Chicago, 1973

comparative hierarchies and heterodoxies, history of anthropological ideas, language and culture, ritual and literature, discourses of interrelated arts

short bio
James Boon has done fieldwork in Java and Bali and library research on the history of Indonesian studies and anthropological representations. His work bridges comparative studies of societies and institutions; colonialist ethnology; literary analysis and the history of ideas; and approaches to kinship, ritual, myth, music, and media. His teaching has addressed cultural practice and critical theory; the art of reading hybrid texts in ethnology; language and culture in endless translation; and dramatically cross-cultural studies.


Abbreviated CV



B.A. Princeton University, 1968
(French Language and Literature and Cultural Anthropology)

Ph.D. University of Chicago, 1973
(Social Anthropology)

After teaching at Duke, Jim moved to Cornell where he was Professor of Anthropology and Asian Studies; also served on the Comparative Literature Department faculty and the executive committees of the Southeast Asia Program and the Western Societies Program. Acting Director of Cornell’s Society for the Humanities in 1984; chaired Cornell’s Department of Anthropology, 1985-88.

In 1989, Jim became Professor of Anthropology at Princeton (also serving on Princeton’s Program in European Cultural Studies). He chaired Princeton’s Department of Anthropology in 1998-99 and 2002-2007. In 2011 he becomes professor emeritus.


Foreign Research

1971, Indonesia; fieldwork in Java and Bali

1972, 1981, 1992, Indonesia; fieldwork in Bali

1972, 1985, 1990, the Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland; archival and museum work on colonial-era collections

1987, Australia; library and museum work on history of Indonesian ethnology

1992, Bali and Singapore; field study and museum research;

1999 Greece, Museum research on history of anthropology

2000 Hong Kong and Macau, Research on museums, cities, and critical theory

2002 Austria, Switzerland, France, museum research

2005 France, research on social theory and music

[First-language English. Language training: French (reading and speaking), Indonesian (reading and speaking), German (reading), Dutch (reading) Balinese (some speaking)



Bridging the humanities and social sciences, Jim’s works about Indonesia and Balinese culture and about comparative interpretation in general engage diverse histories, distinctive schools of interdisciplinary ethnography, politics and poetics of representation, and critical theory both old and new

1972 From Symbolism to Structuralism: Lévi-Strauss in a Literary Tradition, Blackwell and Harper and Row.

(Spanish translation, El Ateneo, 1977)

1977 The Anthropological Romance of Bali, 1597-1972: Dynamic Perspectives in Marriage and Caste, Politics and Religion, Cambridge University Press. (Re-issued 2009)

1982 Other Tribes, Other Scribes: Symbolic Anthropology in the Comparative Study of Cultures, Histories, Religions and Texts, Cambridge University Press. (Re-issued 2009)

(Spanish translation, Fondo de Cultura Economica,199l).

1990 Affinities and Extremes: Crisscrossing the Bittersweet Ethnology of East Indies History, Hindu-Balinese Culture, and Indo-European Allure, University of Chicago Press.

1999 Verging on Extra-Vagance: Anthropology, History, Religion, Literature, Arts . . . Showbiz, Princeton University Press.

Current book projects are (titles tentative):

Cultural Comparison, Encore! Novel Returns to Geertz, Weber, Boasians, Frazer, Critical Theory, and Commercial Desire.

Levi-Strauss, a Longtemps Later


Recent Researches

These studies reconsider intricate life-works of scholars called to compare, stressing significantly odd detours in professional trajectories rather than routine “methodologies.” Jim traces relations among everyday practices, panoramic spectacles, and philosophies of interrelated arts (verbal, musical, visual). He hazards ways of cross-reading myth, music, movies, and magic (per Marcel Mauss) as ritual modes of un-forgetting. Also remembered are kinship – both actual and figurative, and hybrid commercial arts (Tin Pan Alley; the corpus of Hitchcock and copious cross-cultural receptions; etc.).

Besides his books, essays and presentations on cultural theory and multi-sensory arts of experience include:

1989. “Levi-Strauss, Wagner, Romanticism: A Reading-back.” In George Stocking, ed. Romantic Motives (History of Anthropology, Vol. 6). University of Wisconsin.

1994. “Extravagant Art and Balinese Ritual.” In D. Gerstle and A. Milner, ed. Recovering the Orient: Artists, Scholars, Appropriations. Harwood.

1995 "Panofsky and Lévi-Strauss (and Iconographers and Mythologiques) Re-regarded." In Meaning in the Visual Arts: Views from the Outside. I. Lavin, ed. Princeton University Press.

1998 “Accenting Hybridity: Postcolonial Cultural Theory, A Boasian Anthropologist, and I." In Culture and the Problem of the Disciplines. John Rowe, ed. Columbia University Press.

1998 "The Cross-cultural Kiss: Edwardian and Earlier, Postmodern and Beyond." David Skomp Distinguished Lectures in Anthropology. Indiana University.

2000 “Showbiz as a Cross-Cultural System: Circus and Song, Garland and Geertz, Rushdie, Mordden ... and More." Cultural Anthropology 15(3): 424-56

2001 “Kenneth Burke's 'True Irony': One Model for Ethnography, Still." In Irony in Action. J. Fernandez and M. Huber, eds. University of Chicago Press.

2002 “Subtly Showy Lowie, or Anthropology’s Ancestors may be Trickier than We Think (even Frazer).” Franz Boas Lecture Series. Columbia University. Department of Anthropology.

2002 “Inter-sensory Travel-Writing as Scientific Dandyism: Select Episodes.” Paper for “The Science (and Art) of Travel Writing, 1750-1850.” Internationales Forschungscentrum Kulturwissenschaften. University of Vienna.

2004 “Claude Lévi-Strauss.” In The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism, Second Edition. M. Groden and M. Kreiswirth, eds. Johns Hopkins Press.

2004 “Anthropology, Ethnology, and Religion.” In The Encyclopedia of Religion, Second Edition. Macmillan Press.

2005 “Geertz’s Style: A Moral Matter.” In Clifford Geertz by his Colleagues. R. Shweder and B. Good, eds. Univ. of Chicago Press.

2005 “Its All Fijian to Me” (Review Essay of Marshall Sahlins, Apologies to Thucydides: Understanding History as Culture and Vice Versa). Anthropology and Humanism, Fall.

2005 “Can Music Compare (et traduire)?: Weberian Affinities (and Hunches).” Paper for Colloquium on “Weber et La Musique,” IRCAM, Paris.

2007 “Also 100 Years Since Weber Flirted with Ethnography.” In Max Weber’s “Objectivity” Reconsidered. Laurence Mcfalls, ed. University of Toronto Press.

2008 “The Birth of Anthropology out of a Pause on Pausanias: Frazer’s Travel-Translations Re-interrupted and Resumed.” In Ethnographica Moralia: Experiments in Interpretive Anthropology. N. Panourgiá and G. Marcus, eds. Fordham University Press.

2010 “Lévi-Strauss’s Last Laugh (Encore, Encore).” Paper for Symposium “After 100: The Legacy of Claude Lévi-Strauss’ Work in 21st Century Arts and Humanities.” Bloomington, Indiana University.

2010 “On Alternating Boasians: Generational Connections.” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 154(1): 20-30.


Relished Responses and Retorts

Welcome comments (often helpfully ironic ones) stoking on-going projects include:

1. From Didier Eribon, De Près et de loin (1988; translated as Conversations with Claude Lévi-Strauss, 1991):

D.Eribon. You often say that you are a man of the nineteenth century. What does that mean?

C. Lévi-Strauss. It’s not only my own idea. A few years ago, a young American colleague wrote a book [J. Boon, 1972] in which he placed me in the tradition of the symbolists and other writers of the period. I have the feeling that if someone waved a magic wand and I were transported to that time without losing my twentieth-century consciousness, I would not feel too far from home . . . .

2. Cliff Geertz, winking that Jim is “perhaps the most distinctive stylist in Anthropology,” added:

The heart of Boon’s message, here as just about everywhere else, is that solemnity and seriousness are not the same thing, and that those of us – he and I are alike in this, as in so much else . . . unable to keep a wholly straight face when confronting the really important things of life have something of a problem when it comes to anthropological prose making. Comic gravity, a careless air in the face of hard reality is a difficult thing to bring off. (C. Geertz in Clifford Geertz by his Colleagues, R. Shweder and B.Good, eds. 2005, p. 112)

3. Literary theorist-historian John Carlos Rowe characterized Jim’s approach in “Culture” and the Problem of the Disciplines:

Stressing the performative aspects of teaching that derive directly from the everyday use of language, Boon playfully and thus seriously returns liberal education to the ordinary complexities of real life. Education, the teacher, and the student are always already “hybridized” by the disciplinary networks in which they are constructed. Contemporary as such an approach may be, Boon warns us against historical egotism by pointing out equivalent hybridities in such a venerable figure as Edward Sapir . . . Boon wants us to respect those precursors who helped frame the intellectual projects of critical theory and cultural studies. He also wants us to understand how intellectuals continue to shape dominant ideas of culture, even if they do so by transgressing the boundaries of such popular conventions. Pointing out how Sapir’s understanding of language’s fundamental hybridity led Sapir also to reject all nationalisms as contrived fictions, Boon stresses the continuing importance of the language model for anthropology and the other disciplines basic to cultural studies. . . . Learning how to “listen” to the sounds we ourselves produce as we interpret other cultures is one of the difficult lessons Boon teaches in this essay . . . by way of a rhetorical performance that is self-consciously marked in the published version of the lecture he delivered at Irvine . . . [that] involved . . . readings in different languages, dialects, and accents in live voice and from audio recordings . (Columbia U. Press, 1998, pp. 10-11).


Interdisciplinary Miscellaney

Summa Cum Laude (Princeton); Phi Beta Kappa; Woodrow Wilson Fellow;

Danforth Graduate Fellowship (1968-72); Roy D. Alpert Prize (Chicago); Ford Foundation Grant for work in Indonesia (1971). NIMH Fieldwork Grant (1971-73). Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, post-doc (1973-74); Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, Visiting Member (1974-75); Cornell Society for Humanities Faculty Fellow (1978-79); Inaugural Lecture for NEH Themes, Cornell Society for Humanities (1980); Awarded pilot program, N.E.H. series (“A Question of Place”) on National Public Radio (1980); American Philosophical Society Summer (1981); Cornell Southeast Asia Program Summer Fellowships (1978 through 1988); Invitational Six-Lecture Series, State University of New York (1983); Keynote Lecture, KITV, Leiden (1986); Australian National University Humanities Research Center Fellow (1987); Fulbright Scholar, Australia (1987) ); Fulbright Lectures in Canberra, Sydney, Hobart, Melbourne, and Perth Australia (1987).; Salzburg Seminar Faculty (1988); Keynote Address, Society of English Literature and Language Scholars in Switzerland (1991); Plenary address, New Chaucer Society (1992); Plenary Address, Center for Medieval and Early Renaissance Studies (1993); Skomps Distinguished Lecture in Anthropology, Indiana University (1996); Seeger Fellowship (Princeton) for work in Greece (1999); Miller Endowment Fellow, Center for Advanced Study (Illinois, 2000); Center for the Study of Globalization and Cultures Fellow (U. of Hong Kong, 2000).