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Dr Piers Vitebsky MA PhD

Dr Piers Vitebsky MA PhD

Assistant Director of Research


Piers Vitebsky has been Head of Anthropology and Russian Northern Studies at the Scott Polar Research Institute since 1986.

He was educated at the universities of Cambridge, Oxford, Delhi and London, and studied ancient languages before becoming a social anthropologist specialising in the religion, psychology, poetics and ecology of small-scale societies, and the relations of these societies to the centralised state.

He has carried out long-term fieldwork among shamans and shifting cultivators in tribal India since 1975, and among nomadic reindeer herders in the Siberian Arctic since 1988.

In the Russian Arctic, he was the first westerner since the Revolution to live long-term with an indigenous community. In the early 1980s, he also studied marginal subsistence agriculturalists in Sri Lanka.

Piers Vitebsky has supervised over 20 PhD theses on Siberia, the wider Arctic, and the Indian subcontinent. He has trained a generation of specialists on the Russian North who now occupy positions in universities, government departments and NGOs worldwide. He is the initiator and convenor of the Magic Circle interdisciplinary seminar on religion, ritual and symbolism.

Languages: Russian, French, Modern Greek, Sora (tribal India, Austroasiatic family), Classical Greek, Latin; some knowledge of many other European, Indian and Siberian languages.


  • BA in Classics with Modern and Medieval Languages, Cambridge 1971 (MA 1974)
  • Diploma in Social Anthropology, Oxford 1972
  • Affiliated Student, Delhi School of Economics 1977-9
  • PhD, School of Oriental and African Studies, London 1982


Current core fields of research on Siberia and the Arctic:

  • Space and distance: trajectories of nomads, shamans, traders and aviators
  • Reindeer-herders and their ecologies
  • Changing religions: divinity, experience and politics
  • Family dynamics and cross-cultural psychotherapy
  • Ethnicity and regionalism
  • Oil, gas and society

Other areas of research: indigenous peoples of tropical forests, especially in tribal India; the ancient Greek world; indigenous religions, especially forms of shamanism; psychological anthropology and comparative psychotherapy; memory and forgetting; psychobiography, continuity and transmission; philology and poetics of oral traditions; narrative and dialogue, myth and ritual

Current PhD students

  • Tania Kossberg
    Suicide and mental health in the Sakha Repubic (Yakutia)
  • Laur Vallikivi
    Evangelical Christian conversion among Nenets reindeer herders in the Russian Arctic

Previous PhD students (sole or main supervisor)

  • Janne Flora
    Relatedness, loneliness and longing in Greenland
  • Mark Nuttall
    Names, kin and community in Northwest Greenland, 1990
    Mark Nuttall has been Professor at the Department of Anthropology in Aberdeen University, and is now Henry Marshall Tory Professor of Anthropology in the University of Alberta, Canada
  • John Tichotsky
    Natural resources development in the Republic of Sakha: Russia's diamond producing region, 1997
    John Tichotsky has been Director of the Sakha-American Business Center in Yakutsk; Economic Advisor to the Government of Mongolia in Ulaan Baatar; and Senior Ratings Analyst at Fitch IBCA in London. He is currently Personal Advisor on Foreign Relations to Roman Abramovich, Governor of Chukotka and owner of Chelsea Football Club
  • Emma Wilson
    Making space for local voices: local participation in natural resource management, north-eastern Sakhalin island, the Russian Far East, 2002
    Emma Wilson is Senior Researcher, Business and Sustainable Development, at the International Institute for Environment and Development, London, and Director of Environment and Community Worldwide
  • Niobe Thompson
    The nativeness of settlers: constructions of belonging in Soviet and contemporary Chukotka, 2005
    Niobe Thompson has been Killam Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Alberta, and is currently Director and Producer, Clearwater Media, Canada
  • Judith Pettigrew
    Shamanic dialogue: history, representation and landscape in Nepal, 1995
    Judith Pettigrew has been Senior Lecturer in the Lancashire School of Health and Postgraduate Medicine at the University of Central Lancashire. She is now Principal Researcher in the Chintang and Puma Documentation Project at the Institute of Linguistics in the University of Leipzig and the Central Department of Linguistics in Tribhuvan University, Kathmandu, Nepal
  • Elena Khlinovskaya Rockhill
    Family discontinuity and 'social orphanhood' in the Russian Far East: children in residential care institutions, 2004
    Elena Khlinovskaya Rockhill has been a Researcher in the Department of Social Anthropology, Cambridge. She is currently a Research Fellow at the Canadian Circumpolar Institute and Principal Investigator in the BOREAS programme 'Moved by the State', funded by the European Science Foundation
  • Paul Fryer
    Elites, language and education in the Komi ethnic revival, 1999
    Paul Fryer is Senior Assistant Professor at the Department of Geography at the University of Joensuu, Finland and Programme Coordinator of International Student Services
  • Joachim Otto Habeck
    What it means to be a herdsman: the practice and image of reindeer husbandry among the Komi of Northern Russia, 2003
    Otto Habeck is Coordinator of the Siberian Studies Centre at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology in Halle, Germany
  • Indra Øverland
    Politics and culture among the Russian Sami: leadership, representation and legitimacy, 2000
    Indra Øverland has been Project Coordinator, Norwegian Refugee Council, Pankisi Valley, Georgia, and Senior Advisor, Nordic Research Board. He is currently Director, Energy Programme, Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, Oslo
  • Tatiana Argounova-Low
    Scapegoats of natsionalizm: ethnic tensions in Sakha (Yakutia), northeastern Russia, 2001
    Tatiana Argounova-Low is Research Fellow, Department of Anthropology, University of Aberdeen
  • Eeva Berglund
    Anxieties about nature and science: local environmental activism in a German town, 1995
    Eeva Berglund has been a Lecturer in the Department of Anthropology, Goldsmiths, London, and is now a freelance writer
  • Alan Marcus
    Utopia on trial: perceptions of Canadian government experiments with Inuit relocation, 1994
    Alan Marcus is Reader in Film and Visual Culture, School of Language and Literature, University of Aberdeen
  • Martin Rew
    Auditing 'development': an anthropological study of 'audit culture' within a 'participatory rural development' project in Eastern India, 2003
    Martin Rew is a Researcher at the International Development Department, School of Government and Society, University of Birmingham
  • Konstantinos Zorbas
    Agents of evil : curse accusations and shamanic retaliation in post-Soviet Tuva (Siberia), 2007
    Konstantinos Zorbas is currently serving in the Greek army
  • Hugo Reinert
    The corral and the slaughterhouse : knowledge, tradition and the modernization of indigenous reindeer slaughtering practice in the Norwegian Arctic, 2008
    Hugo Reinert is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Edinburgh
  • Olga Ulturgasheva
    Ideas of the future among young Eveny in northeast Siberia, 2008
    Olga Ulturgasheva is a Research Fellow of Clare Hall, Cambridge, and Researcher on 'Negotiating pathways to adulthood in the Circumpolar Arctic' for the School of Public Health and Health Sciences at the University of Massachusetts

Previous PhD students (joint or additional supervisor)

  • Rane Willerslev
    In-between self and other: hunting, personhood and perception among the Upper Kolyma Yukaghirs of north-eastern Siberia, 2003
  • David Anderson
    National identity and belonging in Arctic Siberia: an ethnography of Evenkis and Dolgans at Khantaiskoe Ozero in the Taimyr Autonomous District, 1996
  • Vera Skvirskaja
    New economic forms and subjectivity in post-Socialist Russia : the case of a rural periphery, Yamal-Nenets autonomous region, 2006
  • Sam Van Vactor
    Flipping the switch : the transformation of energy markets, 2004
  • Martin Whittles
    Inuit history, ecology, and autonomy in Banks Island, Northwest Territories, 1996
  • Graham Poole
    The development of Greenland's shrimp fishing and processing industry since 1979: a study in applied economics, 1994
  • Sardana Alekseyeva
    Children's games among the Even of the Verkhoyansk Mountains [in Russian]
    (for Yakutsk State University)
  • Benjamin Seligman
    Key factors influencing the reliability of trunk gas pipelines in the West Siberian North, 1999
  • Mark Badger
    Visual ethnography and representation: two case studies in the Arctic, 1996
  • Mark Dwyer
    Komi reindeer herding : mobility and land use in a changing natural and social environment, 2007
  • Seona Anderson
    Indigenous plant use in the Vladivostok region, Russian Far East
    (for Insitute of Archaeology, London)
  • Stephanie Irlbacher Fox
    Indigenous self government negotiations in the Northwest Territories (NWT), Canada: time, reality, and social suffering, 2005



  • Reindeer people: living with animals and spirits in Siberia (London: HarperCollins; Boston: Houghton Mifflin 2005), Kiriyama Prize for Non-Fiction; Honorable Mention for the Victor Turner Prize of the American Anthropological Association
  • Dialogues with the dead: the discussion of mortality among the Sora of eastern India (Cambridge University Press 1993; reprinted Delhi: Foundation Books 1993)
  • The shaman: voyages of the soul from the Arctic to the Amazon (London: Duncan Baird; reprinted as Shamanism by University of Oklahoma Press 2001; translated into 15 languages)
  • Sacred architecture (Boston: Little Brown 1997, joint author)
  • The utimate death of the ancestors, Chicago University Press (provisional title, in preparation)

Selected articles

  • 'Loving and forgetting: moments of inarticulacy in tribal India', the Henry Myers Lecture for 2006, published in the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 14 (2008): 243-61
  • 'Vulnerability of reindeer husbandry in the European North to global change', Climatic Change, in press (co-author)
  • 'Assumptions and expectations: adapting to diverse cultural settings', in A Dupont-Joshua, ed, Working inter-culturally in counselling settings, London and New York: Routledge (co-author) 2003: 65-88
  • 'Mapping land cover change in a reindeer herding area of the Russian Arctic using Landsat TM and ETM+ imagery and indigenous knowledge', Remote Sensing of Environment 85 (2003): 441-52 (co-author)
  • 'Withdrawing from the land: social and spiritual crisis in the indigenous Russian Arctic', in CM Hann, ed, Postsocialism: ideals, ideologies and practices in Eurasia, New York and London: Routledge, 2002: 180-195
  • 'The separation of the sexes among Siberian reindeer herders', in S Tremayne and A Low, eds, 'Sacred custodians' of the earth? Women, spirituality and the environment, New York and Oxford: Berg, 2001: 81-94 (co-author)
  • 'A farewell to ancestors: Deforestation and the changing spiritual environment of the Sora', in R Grove, V Damodaran, S Sangwan, eds, Nature and the orient : the environmental history of South and Southeast Asia, Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1998: 967-82
  • 'The northern minorities', in G Smith, ed, The nationalities question in the post-Soviet states, London: Longman, 1996: 94-112
  • 'From cosmology to environmentalism: shamanism as local knowledge in a global setting', in R Fardon, ed, Counterwork: managing diverse knowledges, London: Routledge, 1995: 182-203
  • 'Is death the same everywhere? Contexts of knowing and doubting', in M Hobart, ed, An anthropological critique of development: the growth of ignorance, London: Routledge, 1993: 100-115
  • 'Landscape and self-determination among the Eveny: the political environment of Siberian reindeer herders today', in E Croll and D Parkin, eds, Bush base, forest farm: culture, environment and development, London: Routledge, 1992: 223-46
  • 'Shifting cultivation comes to rest: changing values of land and the person in an area of Moneragala District', in J Brow and J Weeramunda, eds, Agrarian change in Sri Lanka, Delhi: Sage 1992, 155-87
  • 'Centralized decentralization: the ethnography of remote reindeer herders under perestroika', Cahiers du monde russe et soviétique, XXXI(2-3), 1990: 307-316
  • 'Gas, environmentalism and native anxieties in the Soviet Arctic: the case of Yamal peninsula', Polar Record 26 (156), Jan 1990: 19-26
  • 'Yakut', in Graham Smith, ed, The nationalities in the Soviet Union, London: Longmans, 1990: 302-317
  • 'The death and regeneration of a "Divine King": a preliminary account of the mortuary rites of the Paramount Chief (citimukulu) of the Bemba of Zambia', Cambridge Anthropology, 10(1) 1985, 56-91
  • 'Birth, entity and responsibility: the spirit of the Sun in Sora cosmology', L'Homme 1980, XX(1), 47-70
  • 'Some medieval European views of Mongolian shamanism', Journal of the Anglo-Mongolian Society, NS 1(1) 1974


Coping with distance: social, economic and environmental change in the Sakha Republic (Yakutia), northeast Siberia, Cambridge: SPRI for Royal Geographical Society and Gilchrist Educational Trust 2000

Policy dilemmas for unirrigated agriculture in Sri Lanka: a social anthropologist's report on shifting and semi-permanent cultivation in an area of Moneragala District, Cambridge: Centre of South Asian Studies for ODA [now DfID] 1984

Documentary films

Piers Vitebsky's numerous documentary film collaborations include 'Arctic aviators' (National Geographic) and 'Flightpaths to the gods' (BBC2, on the Nazca lines in Peru), and 'Siberia: after the shaman' (Channel 4), which won first prize at the Film Festival of the European Foundation for the Environment and was screened at the Margaret Mead Film Festival in New York.


Piers Vitebsky teaches for the Scott Polar Research Institute's MPhil in Polar Studies and for the Geography Department's part II courses on 'Human geography of the Arctic' and 'Social Engagement with Nature'. He also conducts PhD writing classes for anthropology departments in Norway and Denmark.

External activities

External activities include:

  • 2007-: Chair, Steering Committee for European Science Foundation Forward Look on Religion and Belief Systems
  • 2007: Postgraduate course trainer, Danish Research School of Anthropology, Aarhus
  • 2007: Member of European Science Foundation delegation to Kazakhstan and Kyrghyzstan
  • 2007: Guest Lecturer, American Museum of Natural History field expedition, Vladivostok
  • 2006: Kiriyama Prize for Non-Fiction
  • 2006: Victor Turner Prize for Ethnographic Writing, American Anthropological Association: Honorable Mention
  • 2006: Henry Myers Lecturer 2006 (Royal Anthropological Institute; lecture delivered at Annual conference of European Association of Social Anthropologists)
  • 2006-: Member, Board of Advisors of the Human Dimensions of Arctic Environments Web Resource Project Phase ll, University of Iceland
  • 2005-: BOREAS (international research programme in Arctic humanities and social sciences, 6 million Euros) for European Science Foundation, in collaboration with NSF (USA) and SSHRC (Canada): initiated programme, drafted call for proposals and chaired selection panel
  • 2004-6: ESRC seminar competition: organised innovative series of four international (bilingual) seminars on social responsibility in Russian oil and gas development
  • 2005-: Trustee, Sutasoma Trust (for international aid and education)
  • 2003-4: Co-Director, Project on indigenous knowledge of climate change in Barents region of Russia (part of BALANCE project, funded by EU)
  • 2003: Member of delegation of the Russian Federation, International Whaling Commission
  • 2001-4: Director, Project to adapt psychotherapy methods for a post-shamanic society, Siberian Arctic (funded by Sutasoma Trust)
  • 2000-: Convenor, Magic Circle seminar (discussion group for anthropology, religion and psychology), Cambridge
  • 1998-2000: Gilchrist Expedition Award, Royal Geographical Sociey, London (for Russian Arctic)
  • 1998-2000: Co-Director, Project on indigenous knowledge and environmental change in Barents region of Russia (part of BASIS project, funded by EU)
  • 1998-2000: Secretary, International Advisory Board, Department of Ethnology, European University, St Petersburg
  • 1997-: UK Representative, Association of Marine Mammal Hunters of Chukotka (Northeastern Siberia)
  • 1995-7: Project Director, Environmental change in Siberia and Alaska (funded by ESRC)
  • 1991-92: Directeur d'études associé, Department of Religious Sciences, Sorbonne, Paris (on indigenous religions)
  • 1991-94: Consultant, MacArthur Foundation project on environmental change in Asia
  • 1989: American Psychoanalytical Association: two-day colloquium in New York devoted to my research on shamanism and spirit possession
  • 1982-93: Visiting Researcher, Agrarian Research and Training Institute, Colombo, Sri Lanka (on indigenous agriculture)