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K-State Today

September 14, 2018

K-State anthropologist unearths the world's tallest statue never built

By Michael Wesch

Jessica Falcone, K-State associate professor of cultural anthropology, recently published a book resulting from extensive field research in multiple locations across the globe.

In "Battling the Buddha of Love," Falcone offers a richly textured account of the ideals and aspirations of a global cosmopolitan group of Buddhists "hailing from Portland to Pretoria," hoping to build the largest statue in the world in India. They hope that it will be a way to express love and compassion, yet to build it they must force some of the poorest farmers in one of the poorest regions of India off of 750 acres of their land. The farmers launched a full-scale grassroots resistance, and as of now the "tallest statue in the world" has not yet been built.

Despite it not yet existing, there is much to be unearthed from the story of this statue. As Falcone notes, the story "tragically and perfectly illustrates the disjunctive flows and frictions of neoliberal globalization."

Falcone spent years doing field research in multiple locations to tell the story, and her rich ethnographic encounters immerse the reader in the aspirations, ideologies, logics and lives of all of those involved. Short stories and vignettes from her fieldwork bring the reader in touch with the real people of the story, while her detailed attention and rigorous collection of documents, articles, blogs, maps, plans and advertisements draw the reader deep into the plot.

True to the great literature of anthropology, her work traces the workings of Power, Faith and Hope with such nuance and detail as to "take the capital letters off of them" (in Clifford Geertz's words). She lets power, faith and hope live through the words and actions of real people — people, who despite their best intentions, sometimes end up working against the very principles they claim to be standing for.

Her work humanizes people on all sides while also addressing her own moral quandaries that became part of her work. In the end, it is a fascinating and beautiful "cultural biography of the greatest statue never built" — the subtitle of the book — well worth reading for anyone interested in Buddhism, globalization, qualitative methods, or navigating research ethics in morally charged field situations.

Falcone received the 2014 Edward C. Dimock Prize in the Indian Humanities for her draft manuscript of "Battling the Buddha of Love: A Cultural Biography of the Greatest Statue Never Built." The book was published as a monograph in 2018 by Cornell University Press.

K-State's anthropology program is part of the sociology, anthropology and social work department in the College of Arts and Sciences. The anthropology program offers students opportunities for hands-on learning, and typically five to 10 students travel across the world to conduct research each summer. To learn more about anthropology at K-State, visit k-state.edu/sasw/anth/.

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