Beginning the Study of Religion: wk 8

This week we looked at the anthropology of religion, and began by getting a concrete definition of what anthropology is. We said that it is the study of humankind, or the study of human society, culture and their development. In short, it can be explained as the science of humans.

In contrast to sociology, anthropology studies the less dominant societies as opposed to the dominant western societies and their development and culture. Anthropologists have been accused of ‘going native’. This is a problem as it suggests that our western society is the normative form of reference and therefore superior to other societies. It creates an ‘us’ and ‘them’ point of view.

‘Anthropological study involves attempting to become part of the community adopting its customs and lifestyles, and participating in its key events.’ (Chrysiddes & Greaves, 2007:52). Anthropologists will usually live with a particular tribe and investigate things like: patterns of behaviour; social structures; religious practices. Once they had all their information, they would write about their findings. This became a science in itself called ethnography, which simply put, means writing about people.

We watched two videos in the seminar which followed anthropologists investigating different cultures and lifestyles. The first video was about Haitian voodoo It was really interesting to see how different their traditions are to those we see everyday in our own society. We also watched a video investigating the Wicca community in England, which is a coven of witches who have sacred rituals and meetings as part of their tradition. What most of our group found hardest was trying to look at these traditions without prejudice originating from our own beliefs. It really showed how difficult an anthropologist’s job is when they have to forget about their own views.

As with any method of study, anthropology has its fair share of criticisms. ‘Anthropologists who submit themselves to periods of immersion in another culture inevitably take the risk that their own way of looking at the world will be challenged, transformed and perhaps destroyed’ (Bowie, 2000:10). People can question the methodology and anthropological claims of neutrality due to the length of time spent with the group under study – there is a danger that the anthropologist’s own views may be affected by what they see, making their study biased. Because of this, anthropologists include not only fieldwork, but analysis of the process of doing the fieldwork and also a recognition of the ‘meddling part played by the scholar’ (Puwar 2003: 32).

After looking at some of the problems that arise, we looked at some key figures in anthropology, starting with Sir Edward Tyler, who was appointed first chair of anthropology in Great Britain. Tyler speculated that humans might have developed the idea of a soul and the idea that spirits might inhabit natural phenomena as humans tried to rationalise things they could not explain through reason alone. He also coined the term ‘animism’ which he believed gave way for polytheism and, later, monotheism. We also looked into how Emile Durkheim’s work can, although he is primarily a sociologist, cross over into anthropology. He conducted an extensive study into Australian Aboriginal religion, which he believed to be the earliest and most basic form of religion with its use of totemic symbols. He argued that these totemic symbols were ‘mystically charged emblems of group loyalties, and that ritual expressed and strengthened the social organism’. Durkheim used the term ‘collective effervescence’ to describe what he saw expressed at these rituals.

We looked at a modern anthropologist Clifford Geertz, and his idea of ‘thick description’, meaning the interpretation of the subject’s own interpretation of events based on the observer’s empirical knowledge. This marked the change from ‘etic’ which is looking at cultures from the outside in light of broader principles, to ‘emic’ meaning viewing cultures from the ‘inside’.

We concluded the session by looking at how anthropological study has changed over time. Today, globalisation and mass migration has meant that religions and traditions that used to be specific to one area of the world are now spreading as people bring their faith with them if they relocate. Many anthropologists now see their role as ‘to reconsider modern, secular society as symbolically and culturally constituted, and as much based on religious impulse as on reason’.


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