Jonathan Spencer has carried out fieldwork in Sri Lanka since the early 1980s, concentrating at first on rural change and local politics, but writing more recently on ethnic conflict, political violence and political non-violence. His current research looks at the history of dissent in Sri Lanka, and at the politics of access to the grid for poor communities in cities in Sri Lanka, India and Pakistan.
His book on the anthropology of 'the political' in South Asia, Anthropology, Politics, and the State appeared in 2007. Checkpoint, Temple, Church and Mosque, written with colleagues from SOAS, Zurich and Peradeniya, on the work of religious organizations in war and peace in Sri Lanka, was published in late 2014.
He has been series editor for Cambridge New Directions in Anthropology, and a member of the ESRC Training and Development Board, the 2008 RAE sub-panel for Anthropology and the 2014 REF sub-panel for Anthropology and Development Studies. He is a Fellow of the British Academy, the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and the Academy of Social Sciences.
2020 (with Harini Amarasuriya, Tobias Kelly, Sidharthan Maunaguru and Galina Oustinova-Stjepanovic) The Intimate Life of Dissent: Anthropological Perspectives. UCL Press (Open Access).
2019 (with Asha Abeyasekera, Ammara Maqsood, Iromi Perera and Fizzah Sajjad) 'Discipline in Sri Lanka, Punish in Pakistan: Neoliberalism, Governance, and Housing Compared.' Journal of the British Academy. 7(s2), 215–244.
2019 'Afterword: We Have Other Ideas.' In David Gilmartin, Pamela Price and Arild Engelsen Ruud eds. South Asian Sovereignty: The Conundrum of Worldly Power, Routledge (in press)
2019 (with Harini Amarasuriya) 'Tracing Conscience in a Time of War: Archiving a History of Dissent in Sri Lanka 1960s-2000s.' In Tobias Kelly, ed., “The Intimacy of Dissent,” American Ethnologist website, April 15, 2019.
2018 'The Right Anthropologist.' [On Isabelle Clark-Decès]. Anthropology of this Century. 21. January 2018.
2018 "Pillayar and the politicians: secularisation and toleration at the end of Sri Lanka's civil war.' In Humeira Iqtidar and Tanika Sarkar eds. Tolerance, Secularisation and Democratic Politics in South Asia, Cambridge University Press, 199-211.
2018 (with Sidharthan Maunaguru) '"You can do anything with a temple": religion, philanthropy, and politics in South London and Sri Lanka.' Modern Asian Studies. Special Issue, Charity and Philanthropy in South Asia, (eds) F. Osella and S. Ramaswamy. 52(1).
2016 'Securitization and its Discontents: The End of Sri Lanka's Long Postwar?' Contemporary South Asia. 24(1): 94-108.
2015 (with Harini Amarasuriya) '"With that discipline will come to them": the politics of the urban poor in postwar Colombo.' Current Anthropology. Special issue, The Politics of the Urban Poor. 56(S11).
2014 'Anthropology, Politics, and Place in Sri Lanka: South Asian Reflections from an Island Adrift.' Samaj: South Asia Multidisciplinary Academic Journal. 10, Ideas of South Asia.
2014 (with Harini Amarasuriya). 'The Beautification of Postwar Colombo.' In The City and South Asia. Harvard South Asia Institute, 19-21.
2014 (with Jonathan Goodhand, Shahul Hasbullah, Bart Klem, Benedikt Korf & Kaling Tudor Silva) 2014. Checkpoint, Temple, Church and Mosque: A Collaborative Ethnography of War and Peace. London: Pluto
2013 (with Sidharthan Maunaguru) 'Tigers, Temples and the Remaking of Tamil Society.' Religion and Society. 3. 169-76.
2013 'A Certain Gesture: Reflections on the Murder of Sivaram.' Journal of Historical Sociology. Special Issue 'Counter-mapping the Self: Agency and History in South Asia' edited by Nayanika Mookherjee. 26 (1): 83-99.
2012 'Who is the enemy?' Anthropology of this Century 4, May 2012.
2012 (with Harini Amarasuriya) 'NGOs, the state, and "cultural values": imagining the global in Sri Lanka.' in J. Howell (ed.) Global Matters for Non-Governmental Public Action. London: Palgrave.
2012 (with Jennifer Curtis) 'Anthropology and the Political.' in R. Fardon et al., (eds) Sage Handbook of Social Anthropology Volume 1. London: Sage.
2012 'Performing Democracy and Violence, Agonism and Community, Politics and Not Politics in Sri Lanka.' Geoforum. Special Issue, Space, Contestation and the Political. 43(4): 725-31.
2011 (ed. with Jonathan Goodhand and Benedikt Korf) Conflict and Peacebuilding in Sri Lanka: Caught in the Peace Trap? London: Routledge.
2010 'The Perils of Engagement: A Space for Anthropology in the Age of Security?' Current Anthropology. 51 (S2): 289-99.
2009 (ed. with Alan Barnard) Encyclopedia of Social and Cultural Anthropology. Second edition. London: Routledge.
2008 'A Nationalism without Politics? The Illiberal Consequences of Liberal Institutions in Sri Lanka.' Third World Quarterly. 29 (3): 611-629.
2007 Anthropology, Politics and the State: Democracy and Violence in South Asia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
2007 'Anthropological order and political disorder' in F. Pirie and B. von Benda-Beckman (eds) Order and Disorder. Oxford: Berghahn.
2003 'A nation 'living in different places': notes on the impossible work of purification in post-colonial Sri Lanka.' Contributions to Indian Sociology; reprinted in F. Osella and K. Gardner (eds) Migration, modernity and social transformation in South Asia Delhi: Sage.