My current research concerns ethnic relations and ideas of civilization, in particular Chinese civilizing ideals casting minorities or barbarians in supportive roles, and with notions of sovereignty, citizenship, and state organization thrown in the mix. My research relates to some of the classical anthropological debates regarding the history and dynamics of center-periphery and ethnic relations, especially in the China-Burma borderlands, where I conducted ethnographic and historical research during the 1990s, and most recently in 2006. My ethnographic research has mainly concerned Wa cultural areas (the Wa are Mon-Khmer speaking people, living at the "edge of empire"), the conditions of their historical autonomy, and the place of sacrifice and religion in local and regional history and economy. Other aspects of my research involve ethnic minorities and majority-minority relations in other parts of China, including the Southern Great Wall in Hunan-Guizhou, and in neighboring Southeast Asian nations, especially Burma, Laos, and Thailand.
My interests in so-called barbarians, slaves, and similar "limit figures" that often define political entities also go beyond Asia. I have written on Scandinavian outlaws, and a recent pamphlet addressed sovereign power more generally, through a discussion of the annual ritualized U.S. presidential pardon granted to one Thanksgiving turkey.
I also have closely related interests in the archaeology of East and Southeast Asia, especially regarding the history of the coming into being of early kingdoms and states. One of my articles on ancient China, based on oracle records and archaeological remains, discussed the hunting rituals of bronze age Chinese kings as a symbolic lever of state power. I have also taken part in archaeological field research in Thailand, Japan, etc.Moreover, following on a previous career as a public museum director, I am interested in the anthropology of museums as social institutions, including modern-era representations of Asia constructed in European and American museums (some of which I contributed to myself, at the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities in Stockholm, 2000-05). Importantly, this also relates closely to my engagement in the global debates regarding the history and contemporary politics of cultural heritage (including the looting of antiquities), as in the recent book co-authored with a Chinese colleague, China Before China, which treats the 1920s beginnings of Chinese archaeology as a part of modern nationalist history in a global setting.