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Friday, 18 August 2017


It is widely known that all societies known to anthropologists possess some sort of belief systems which can roughly be termed as religion or religious beliefs. Since, these beliefs vary cross culturally anthropological definition of religion is quite broad. Religion is its widest sense religion is any set of attitudes (acts and actions), beliefs and practices related to supernatural power and forces. These power calls for an array of forces including gods, spirits, ghosts or demons.


The anthropological approach to religion has two predominant traditions: the intellectualist and the symbolist, each of which may be further subdivided. Following Tylor (1871), who argued that early religion arose from people's beliefs in spirits of godlike beings (see animism), the first is called "intellectualist" because religion is seen as a system of explanation. People, it was claimed, invoked beliefs in spirits or gods in order to explain natural events and phenomena in the world about them. The symbolist approach, derived from Durkheim (1915), sees religion as                making symbolic statements about the social order, not as explaining nature. Beliefs, rituals, or myths may reinforce ideas about authority but are not peoples' attempts to explain why authority is there in the first place. Hence, for the symbolists, religion does not attempt to solve intellectual or empirical problems. Tylor's intellectualist definition grew out of his theory of cultural evolution and the development of human reason. He saw magic, science, and religion as manifestations of the human intellect and, though different from one another, as likely to coexist in all human cultures. Magic was a form of mistaken science. Whereas scientific assumption could be shown to be true or false through empirical tests, magic tried to solve problems through associations of ideas that simply seemed to fit with each other: he gave as an example the Greek view that the yellow of a gold ring could draw out the yellow of jaundice and so cure it. Magic and science were, however, similar to each other in seeking causal connections in an ordered nature, and differed from religion with its belief in spiritual beings, rather than an impersonal power, as having an effect on the world. FRAZER (1890) broadly followed Tylor's distinction between magic, religion, and science but saw them, in this order, as making up an evolutionary continuum. Much later, Lévi-Strauss (1966, 1969b, 1973, 1978) was to revert in part to Tylor's insight and to demonstrate through detailed analyses of myths, ART, and custom, that magic, science, and religion were indeed to be regarded together as premised on the inherent human capacity for logical classification.
Durkheim's major study The elementary forms of the religious life (1915) did not concern itself with the truth or falsity of religious beliefs, but instead insisted that the many religions throughout the world and history were based on a human need and so could not be regarded as illusory. He found inadequate Tylor's definition of religion as belief in godlike entities and argued that a broader concept was required, namely that of the SACRED. All things classified by humans were either sacred or profane. The critical feature of the sacred was that it united worshipers in a single moral community.          
Religion, therefore, had its basis in a social group, not individual psyches. The sacred had continuing rather than occasional effects on such groups because it derived from an early form of social differentiation, namely that of exogamous CLANS, each of which was symbolized by a specific animal or plant totem. These objects were not intrinsically sacred but drew their sacredness by virtue of a special ongoing relationship with what they symbolized.
Anthropology had for a long time followed the convention of making a distinction between the world religions and others supposedly not so globally comprehensive. A related but not isomorphic distinction is that between religions premised on a belief in a High God, perhaps the only permitted spiritual being, and Polytheism (many gods), sometimes expressed as a pantheon or assembly of gods, not necessarily hierarchically arranged. These distinctions are of limited usefulness. In what sense are the Semitic religions more globally comprehensive than, say, Hinduism and Buddhism? Each caters broadly for major areas of the world, but with significant minorities everywhere; similarly, since Taoism is practiced by vast numbers of people in China (Feuchtwang 1992), can it not be regarded as numerically if not geographically of equal significance? More importantly, we find influences of different religions on each other as a result of conquest and contact, making demarcation more a feature of the claims of a religion's priesthood than of worshipers' belief and practice.          
As regards religions defined as based on a central belief in a High God, both Buddhism, for the reasons already given, and Hinduism, with its hierarchy of major and minor gods and of lowly spirits, cannot be covered by such a rigid criterion. Given the role of Satan in the Semitic religions, especially in those Manichaean or dualistic versions that cast the Devil's evil as a force of potentially equal strength to that of God's goodness, we have to ask whether Satan is not really another deity, albeit of a negative kind, and whether these religions are not really duo-theistic rather than simply examples of monotheism.            
A more useful, though still shaky, distinction is between those religions that acknowledge dependence on written texts or scriptures that are held to be important and, in some cases, final arbiters of moral authority, and those that do not rely on written texts. Sacred texts presuppose a clergy able to read and interpret them and so set up a hierarchy of priests and worshipers who may sometimes only have access to their god(s) through such priests. Religious fundamentalists (L. Caplan 1987) argue that worshipers have strayed from a "true" understanding of the texts, which must therefore be followed strictly in order to restore people to their religion.          
Those religions that do not have written texts, sometimes called "animistic," "pantheistic," and "polytheistic" and most commonly found in Africa (Parkin 1991), Amazonia (J. Kaplan 1975), Papua New Guinea (Gell 1975), Aboriginal Australia (Berndt 1974), and parts of Malaysia (S. Howell 1984), may nevertheless have beliefs in a High God, though he or she tends to be of limited significance and is sometimes refracted as an immanent divine force in lesser spirits and objects of the environment, as among the Nuer of Sudan (Evans-Pritchard 1956). Priestly hierarchies are not absent in such nontextual religions, but less formal relations may obtain between priest and worshiper, who may also pray directly to ancestors or speak and negotiate with spirits through a medium or shaman. Such distinctions between textual and nontextual, and world and local, religions are shaky because, throughout the world, it is the interpenetration of the two that is the lived experience of most people, as Kapferer (1983) showed in an account of the interrelationship between demons and Buddhism in Sri Lanka. In all religions, too, sacrifice and offerings to godlike entities or spirits (even in Buddhism the nat spirits receive offerings) are a feature, sometimes taking more the form of PRAYERS and homage than the preferment of goods and immolation of animals.

Major theories in brief:

Major theories of religion and their brief subject matters are as follows:


Basic needs theories – religion has been seen as a response to social needs like solidarity, value consensus, harmony and integration.
Durkheim: Elementary forms of religious life
  • Sacred profane distinction as the basis for social integration
  • Totemic clans are symbolic representatives of society hence worshipping totem is worshipping society and maintaining harmony
  • ‘Collective conscience’ is formulated through religion through shared values and moral beliefs – religion fosters collective conscience.
  • Religion is linked with life crises such as major life stages like birth, puberty, marriage and death. These crises are surrounded with religious rituals
  • Religion helps relieving anxiety with the uncontrollability of the world by people – fishing and canoe preparation rituals of Trobriand Islanders as Malinowski explains
  • Human actions are guided by norms and values – religion is crystallised forms of such norms and values.
  • Religion functions to create provision of meaning to events that people do not expect or feel ought not happen.


  • Generally sees religion as a distortion of meaning or a form of mystification.
  • Marx argued that through religion people conceive their real world as something foreign.
  • It is not simply the effects of oppression, rather it is an instrument of that oppression.
  • Religion is a mechanism of social control to maintain existing class vis-a-vis power relationships.

Gender studies and feminists:

  • Inclined with Marixist perspective which sees religion as a system of social control and reinforcement of existing power relationships, but it adds to this the dimensions of patriarchy. It sees religion as a product of patriarchy.
  • Simone de Beauvoir in Second Sex provides radical feminist perspective for the existence of religion. For her, religion acts for women in similar ways to those in which Marx suggested reigion could act for oppressed classes. For her men use religion to control over women.

Rational choice theorists:

  • Stark and Bainbridge (1985) believes that religion helps meeting universal human needs. In other words people do what they believe could bring rewards and avoid what they believe entail costs. Religion, therefore, bridges a critical gap between what people want and what they get or can get. Therefore, even though people want an eaternal life or reincarnation and there is not evidence of its possibility therefore, people embrace religion.

Sunday, 6 August 2017

Interfaces 1 – Anthropology and Economics



The interface between anthropology and economics is as old as the discipline itself. ethnographic monographs have dealt with the economies of the people under discussion as a matter of course. The evolutionists were fundamentally interested in levels of technology and environmental “adaptations,” and functionalists interpreted all social systems in terms of the satisfaction of basic human needs. Subsequently, anthropologists influenced by Marx would see a given society’s “mode of production” as determinant, at least in the last instance, of politics, law, and ideology. Even though none of these theoretical paradigms dominates the field today, it is generally accepted that compelling accounts of social and symbolic behavior must relate them to the material organization of society. Economics is such an integral part of anthropological studies that a separate branch of economic anthropology has been developed.

Brief history:

The interface between economics and anthropology follows a three phase of development.
The purpose of economic anthropology in the nineteenth century was to test the claim that a world economic order must be founded on the principles that underpinned Western industrial society. The search was on alternatives that might support a more just economy, wheather liberal, socialist, anarchist or communist. Since, society was understood to have not yet reach its final form, there was great interest in origins and evolution. Anthropology was thus the most inclusive way of thinking about economic possibilities. Therefore, in the first phase most anthropoligists were interested in whether the economic behaviour of the ‘savages’ was underpinned by the same notions of  ‘raitonality’ that were taken to motivate economic action in the West. The result was the famous formalist-substantivist debate. Formalist-Substantivist Debate is the dispute in Economic Anthropology between those scholars who argue that formal rules of neoclassical economic theory derived from the study of capitalist market societies can be used to explain the dynamics of premodern economies ("formalists") and those who argue that goods and services in the substantive economy are produced and distributed through specific cultural contexts ("substantivists"). Formalists contend that because all economies involve the rational pursuit of, access to, and use of, scarce resources by self-interested, maximizing social actors, formal economic rules can be used to explain them (H. Schneider 1974). Substantivists, by contrast, contend that different forms of exchange have different sets of rules and expectations (Dalton 1961). Following Karl Polanyi the substantivists argue that there are three major forms of exchange: reciprocity, redistribution, and market exchange (K. Polanyi et al. 1957). By this view, the rational, maximizing strategizing that lies at the heart of neoclassical economics and formalist economic anthropology is characteristic only of market economies.
In this phase the debate was whether mainstream approaches and methodologies of studying economics was adequate for studying economics of pre-industrial – especially ‘tribal’ society or not. Formalists held that the tools of mainstream economics were adequate to this task, while, ‘substantivists’ were of the opinion that institutional approaches is more apt to study a substantive economy (Le Clair and Schneider 1968). Substantivists argued that economic life of substantive societies are embedded in other social institutions, ranging from the household to government and religion (Hart 2008).
The formalist-substantivist debate has been replaced by more enduring issues such as Marxist approach (Seddon 1978) and Feminists approach (Moore 1988). Eventually, with globalisation and neo-liberal opening up of markets in post-colonial nations anthropologists started to include more aboutfill range of human economies and not just the exotic economics. We all now live in one world driven by capitalism, so anthropologists have studied that. There was a marked shift back home to the Western heartlands : but in real sense of a shrinking world, anthropologists are encouraged to develop new ways of studying ‘globalisation’ everywhere (Eriksen 2007).

Enduring issues:

Anthropologists today are dealing with the following issues with increasing close working relationship with economics:

Informal economy:

Is an outcome of attempts to see what happens to the rural people who migrates to the cities (Hart 1973). Anyone who visits the sprawling cities of what once called ‘the Third World’ can see that their streets are teeming with life, a constantly shifting crowd of hawkers, porter, taxi drivers, beggers, pimps, pickpockjeters, hustlers -  all of them getting by without the benefit o a ‘real jon’. Ethnographic study of this phenomenon generated the principal contribution made by anthropologists to development studies and economics.

One World Capitalism:

This results from a shift in the centre of production from so called developed nations to countries with cheaper labour like China, India and Brazil. This is most important feature of recent decade. In the neoliberal homelahds, a wave of outsourcing, downziging and casualization of the labour force undercut the political power of the unions and implied that the Western masses now participated in the capitalism primarily as consumers rather than producers.

Money economy and crisis:

The traditional substantivist understanding of the function of money in economies of pre-industrial societies have gathered enough evidence to teach the ‘modern’ money based economics what do to avert financial and economic crisis. Anthropologists have unearthed in what ways money based economics is seen as informal and contractual by the ‘pre-modern’ societies and that they have developed their own mode of economic practices coupling with money and their traditional means of subsistence economy.


Marxist approach

The Marxist anthropologists of the 1960s and 1970s made much more profound theoretical attempts to wrestle with noncapitalist economies. Althusser’s structuralist reading of Marx identified the analytic tools that might be extracted from Marx’s study of the rise of industrial capitalism and applied to alternative social formations. Meillassoux is considered the first anthropologist to analyze a precapitalist society in Marxist terms with his study of the Guro of Côte d’Ivoire (1964). Rather than applying Marx’s unsatisfactory prefabricated constructs of “Asiatic” or “slave”mode of production, he identified a lineage mode of production by analyzing the direction of surplus extraction in Guro society. In this work and in his subsequent Maidens, Meal, and Money (1981), Meillassoux pointed to the central importance of biological reproduction as a means of production in a situation of abundant land and relatively capital-poor technology.

Cultural ecology to political economy

With some exceptions, American anthropologists never adopted a Marxist problematic in the way that French and some British anthropologists did. There was, however, a turn to materialist principles of explanation in the 1960s and 1970s, as the ecological determinisms of an earlier period (Julian Steward, Leslie White) were revisited. Orlove categorized this work as neoevolutionist (Elman Service, Marshall Sahlins) and neofunctionalist (Marvin Harris, Andrew Vayda, Roy Rappaport). The latter group tended to view human societies and their environments as interactive systems, taking inspiration from the systems theory.Marshall Sahlins described a state of primitive abundance, calculating the resources required for hunters and gatherers to supply their needs and observing that their societies did not induce scarcity of want-satisfying means. Marvin Harris and Elman Service worked out different versions of the evolution of human society and culture in terms of adaptations to environmental constraints, the former tending to a techno-environmental determinism. Roy Rappaport derived the ecologically adaptive functions of various religious and ritual observances. Although materialist and evolutionary, none of this work was historical or dialectical.
Eric Wolf emphatically introduced history when he turned to dependency and world systems theory for a reappraisal of anthropology’s modus operandi. Dependency theory had been elaborated by radical economists working in Latin America and Africa who argued, against development and modernization theory, that global integration was serving to underdevelop peripheral regions of the globe at the expense of the capitalist “core.”Wallerstein examined the ways European imperialist expropriations had financed the industrial revolution at the expense of the colonies. The new attention to global interconnection took anthropology by storm.

Exchange and value:

In The Social Life of Things, Appadurai made an appeal for the utility of examining exchange independently of production (although it might be argued that this is what non-Marxist anthropology has been doing since Malinowski reported on the kula ring or since Paul Bohannan brought back proof of Polanyi’s ideas about the social embeddedness of trade from the Tiv). For a Marxist anthropologist, to look at exchange without considering production is to participate in ideological mystification. For most anthropologists, however, exchange processes offer a rich field for examining the cultural construction of meaning and value. Much anthropological and ethnohistorical work has addressed the historical exchange of objects across cultural space, where the meanings of the objects transacted are a matter of contest. In the early part of the century, Mauss drew widely on existing ethnographic sources to describe a kind of exchange in “archaic” societies that was essentially the opposite of the commodity fetishism of capitalist exchange. Anthropologists have taken up Mauss’s ideas about the relationships of debt and obligation created through gift exchange as a fundamental mechanism of social cohesion. Apart from Gregory’s attempt to ground gifting in specific social relations of production and reproduction, most of the theoretical impact of gifting seems to have been registered outside of the subdiscipline of economic anthropology.

See also: