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Monday 21 August 2017

Medical anthropology


Medical Anthropology studies human health problems and healing systems in their broad social and cultural contexts. Medical anthropologists engage in both basic research into health and healing systems and applied research aimed at the improvement of therapeutic care in clinical settings or community public health programs in prevention and disease control. Drawing from biological and social sciences, as well as clinical sciences, medical anthropologists have contributed significantly to the understanding and improvement of human health and health services worldwide. As a result, the growth of the subdiscipline in recent years as reflected in publications and meetings, training programs, and influence outside of anthropology has been remarkable.
Medical anthropology is not characterized by a single theoretical paradigm. For example, ethnographic description and analysis of religion and healing systems are as old as anthropology itself, while new approaches like critical medical anthropology are the product of more recent intellectual trends. This has sometimes led to intense debates within the field such as those between clinically applied medical anthropologists (interested in making cultural knowledge useful to the aims of medical practitioners) and critical medical anthropologists (interested in the phenomenology and political economy of biomedicine). But, even though the scope of intellectual inquiry is very diverse, it is possible to identify five basic approaches: biomedical, ethnomedical, ecological, critical, and applied. These approaches share three fundamental premises:
1.       illness and healing are fundamental to the human experience and are best understood holistically in the contexts of human biology and cultural diversity
2.       disease represents an aspect of the environment that is both influenced by human behavior and requires biocultural adaptations
3.       the cultural aspects of health systems have important pragmatic consequences for the acceptability, effectiveness, and improvement of health care, particularly in multicultural societies


Ethnomedical approach:

The initial development of medical anthropology derived from anthropological interest in different illness beliefs and healing practices (Rubel & Hass 1996).

Cultures have developed more or less organized approaches to understand and treat afflictions, and identify the agents, forces, or conditions believed responsible for them. Ethnomedicine is that branch of medical anthropology concerned with the cross-cultural study of these systems. While medical systems or elements thereof were foci of research early in the 20th century in the work of W. H. Rivers, the study of popular systems of health and illness did not coalesce into a field of study
in anthropology until the 1980s. Foundational formulations of the field of medical anthropology appeared in the 1950s and 1960s, in the works of such writers as William Caudill and Steven Polgar.

The earliest ethnomedical research was confined to the study of non-Western societies and exotic cultures and was generally subsumed under the comparative study of religion. Ideas about sickness and therapeutic rituals were analyzed as a window on underlying cosmological beliefs and cultural values. As the intimate relationship between the concepts of illness and the social organization were recognized, ethnomedicine became a common focus of ethnographic research. Fabrega (1975: 969) defined this approach as "the study of how members of different cultures think about disease and organize themselves toward medical treatment and the social organization of treatment itself." Typical ethnomedical studies focus on the classification and cultural meaning of illness (both somatic and mental), the health-seeking behaviors of people suffering from illness, and the theories, training, and practices of healers. Nichter (1992: x) described twelve areas of current ethnomedical work, including the "study of the afflicted body as a space where competing ideologies are contested and emergent ideologies are developed through medico-religious practices and institutions which guide the production of knowledge."   

Biomedical approach:

Although not always recognized as such, much of the research in BIOLOGICAL ANTHROPOLOGY using the standard epistemology of science and focusing on human biology and the health consequences of different stresses is part of medical anthropology (F. Johnston & Low 1984). For example, it has long been recognized that DISEASE has acted as an important agent of natural selection in genetic and cultural EVOLUTION. Biomedical anthropologists have used immunological studies to trace EPIDEMICS. Biological anthropologists have examined human physiological adaptations to a wide variety of stresses, including high elevation, cold temperatures, nutritional deprivation, and infectious disease. Laboratory-based scientific methods (such as the biochemical analyses of ethnopharmacological compounds) are used to analyze the biochemical and physiological functioning of ethnomedical practices. This type of analysis played a role in the discovery of a Hepatitis vaccine (Blumberg 1982).

Ecological Approaches:

The ecological approach in medical anthropology focuses on how human cultural and behavioral patterns shape the complex interactions of the pathogen, the environment, and the human host, and produce both infectious and noninfectious disease states (Inhorn & Brown 1997). In recent years, ecological studies of health and illness have looked beyond local socioeconomic factors that influence disease rates to emphasize the larger political economic forces that constrain the behavior choices of populations. Both Ecological Anthropology and political ecology examine how cultural, physical, and political-economic environments shape the distribution of disease morbidity and mortality. Disease patterns described with epidemiological methods (in regard to time, place, and person) often reflect cultural practices associated with diet, activity patterns, sexuality, and so forth. In addition, culturally defined group practices such as the introduction of IRRIGATION agriculture can transform the disease ecological balance in favor of a pathogen like malaria or shistosomiasis, and in turn damage health. Ecological analyses in medical anthropology also reveal many cases where cultural changes improve health for some groups.

Critica Approaches:

Critical medical anthropology (CMA) is a label applied to two distinct intellectual movements that influenced the field during the 1980s and 1990s. One emphasized the marxist approaches to understanding how macrosociological political-economic forces influence health and structure health-care systems. The second movement is more epistemological, it questions the intellectual underpinnings of contemporary biomedical theory and practice. This approach has been influenced by postmodern thinkers like Foucault who emphasize the social-constructionist nature of reality and the social power inherent in hegemonic institutions like "Biomedicine." What these movements have in common is the demand for a fundamental rethinking of the premises and purposes of medical anthropology.      
The political-economic orientation of CMA views health issues in the light of the larger political and economic forces that pattern human relationships, shape social behavior, and condition collective experience (Merrill Singer 1989). Macrolevel processes such as world CAPITALISM are seen as the dominant forces that shape clinical practice and influence the distribution of disease. Medicine is perceived not only as a set of procedures and treatments, but also as a particular set of social relationships and an ideology that legitimates them. Recognition of the centrality of the political-economic dimensions of both sickness and healing, as well as the unequal social relationships between healers and patients is the hallmark of this approach.     
The second branch of CMA challenges the epistemology and universality of assumptions underlying the theory and practice of Western medicine, which were conventionally exempt from cultural analysis in medical anthropology. This approach has been responsible for the label "biomedicine." Medical anthropologists like Lock and Scheper-Hughes (1996) advocate the deconstruction of how mind and body are conceptualized as a way to gain insight into how health care is planned and delivered in Western societies. The separation of mind and body in biomedical science is so pervasive that there is a need for more precise vocabulary for the interactions of mind, body, and society.            

Applied Approaches  

Interest in the applied aspects of medical anthropology has been present since the initiation of the discipline. There are two branches of applied work, clinical and public health. Clinically applied medical anthropology is best known for its use of explanatory models to explore conceptual differences between physicians' and patients' perceptions of disease and illness. Clinically applied anthropologists work in biomedical settings with health practitioners and the delivery of health care services; they are also involved in the training of future professionals. Without a single theoretical proposition, it can be interpreted as anthropological theory and methods devoted to the topics of health, illness, and health care. Clinical medical anthropological research has a very wide range, including microlevel studies of health-care choices, illness beliefs, and life-course events like CHILDBIRTH or menopause; the examination of cultural influences on health-seeking behavior, disease distributions, the experience of illness (e.g., pain), and interactions of healers and patient (i.e., compliance); and macrolevel research on health-care systems and their political and economic contexts (Chrisman & Johnson 1996). Some clinically applied medical anthropologists are employed within hospitals and clinics as cultural mediators and interpreters.      
Applied medical anthropology research in public health has gained importance in recent decades (Coreil & Mull 1990). More medical anthropologists are working in international health projects, particularly because of the programmatic emphasis on primary health care and interventions in nutrition and oral rehydration therapy that require community participation. Anthropologists have worked on all aspects of such projects, including problem identification and analysis, intervention, and evaluation of specific health problems.

This is a brief outline on medical anthropology (bilingual, meant for my college students)

Interpretative Anthropology

Interpretative Anthropology


Interpretive Anthropology provides accounts of other cultural worlds from the inside and at the same time reflects on the epistemological groundings of such accounts. It is associated with the Chicago school of anthropology in the 1960s and 1970s, especially with the inflection given to symbolic anthropology by Clifford Geertz. Interpretive anthropology was positioned against purely behaviorist, statistical, and formalist-linguistic approaches to human society because it insisted on the importance of the active negotiation of meaning, the decay and growth of symbols, and the richness of linguistic metaphoricity. The effort to unpack culture as systems of meaning led to parallel interests in the processes of interpretation, and eventually, on the one hand, to a stress on differentiated competing discourses within a culture, hegemonic and counter-hegemonic processes, and critical anthropology, and on the other hand to a stress on ethnography as itself a process of interpretation (M. Fischer 1977).


Victor Turner brilliantly elaborated Van Gennep’s notion of liminality. Building on Van Gennep’s concept that the transitional phase sometimes acquires a certain autonomy from the rest of the ritual, Turner developed a view of a “state of transition,” in which the inhabitants are “betwixt and between” normal social status. Based on his intensive study of life crisis rituals among the Ndembu of Zambia, Turner regarded this liminal or transitional phase as ambiguous, inversive, ludic, and a source of the intensive, effervescent camaraderie that he described as “communitas.”
Turner’s works represent a trend in anthropological studies of ritual that shifted emphasis from seeking for function to meaning in 1960s and 1970s. Symbolic and interpretative anthropology developed out from this trend and have had tremendous influence on anthropological studies of death ritual. They have sought to understand symbols and rituals primarily through the indigenous interpretation of the society in question. Victor Turner defined ritual as an aggregation of symbols, with the symbols being the smallest unit of ritual that still retains the specific properties of ritual behavior. From this definition, we can see a crucial feature of his methodology, which works from discrete ritual symbols (“storage units,” “building blocks,” and “molecules of ritual”) to their incorporation in ritual systems, and then to the incorporation of such systems in the whole social complex being studied. He stressed the common diachronic profile or processual form in rituals, that is, the sequence of ritual acts in social contexts. He treated ritual symbols not as static, absolute objectifications but as social and cultural systems, shedding and gathering meaning over time and altering in form. This emphasis on social process distinguishes him sharply from his own background in British social anthropology, which focused primarily on structure and static functionalism.

Culture as Text

The metaphor of cultures as texts, popularized by C. Geertz (1973), initially only meant that anthropologists read meanings in a culture as do native actors, and (in Ricoeur's 1981 influential version) that social actions leave traces that can be read like texts.

For him "Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun", whose analysis is not an experimental science in search of laws but an interpretative one in search of meaning.
Clifford Geertz

Geertz's ethnography highlighted occasions when actors were at a loss to know how to construct a ritual, or when meanings needed to be renegotiated and established for particular interactions to be accomplished. Interpretive anthropology provided a devastating critique of cognitive anthropology's hopes for objective grids of meaning by showing that these grids were shot through with the analysts' own cultural categories and assumptions, thus vitiating the project. Structuralism was similarly, if less devastatingly, criticized as being too distant from the intentionality and experience of social actors. Interpretive anthropology in turn was itself criticized for seeing meaning wherever and however the analyst wished rather than having any objective method or criteria of evaluation.        
One response to such criticism was to conceive of cross-cultural understanding, like any social understanding, as but an approximation, variably achieved through dialogue: a mutual correction of understanding by each party in conversation to a level of agreement adequate for any particular interaction. Geertz's own version of this argument for cross-cultural work was that ethnography is a translation between "experience-far" and "experience-near" languages. This relativist understanding of the distinction between emic and etic categories avoids the need for, and denies the cogency of expecting, universally objective grids of meaning against which various cultural definitions might be measured. It focuses attention upon the ways in which meaning is established within communicative processes   both those processes that establish relatively stable meanings over time (such as Max WEBER's interest in legitimate forms of domination) and those that are fundamentally renegotiated in each interaction. Others took the idea of dialogue in directions that empirically documented   from the sociolinguistic tape-recording to hermeneutical cultural accounting   how actors negotiate their understandings as well as how they interacted with cultural outsiders. At issue was not merely Max Weber's call for a verstehendes Soziologie, a sociology that gives a central role to actors' own understandings, but also the criterion of methodological individualism, the requirement that any sociological theory be able in principle to explain actions in terms of the intentions and purposes of individual actors. This criterion of acceptability was intended as a guard against essentializing Romantic group-mind characterizations of cultural beliefs and practices, so badly misused by the Nazis as well as ordinary racists, and does not necessarily contradict DURKHEIM'S notions of the social or cultural as an emergent level of organization that cannot be simply reduced to individual intentions.


Hermeneutics is the science of interpretation and maintains an interest in the content as well as the form of what is being interpreted. The term itelf originated with the practice of interpreting sacred texts. It is based on the principal that we can only understand meaning of a statement in relation to a whole discourse or world view of which it forms a part.

In conclusion it can be said that the mix of interests and kinds of ethnography that interpretive anthropology generated   interest in the "native point of view," in the competing discourses within social fields, the ritualized ways in which hegemonic perspectives might be reinforced, in the negotiation of meaning and the changes in the constitution of culture that negotiation can sometimes effect, in the interpretive and dialogic processes both of social action and of ethnographic fieldwork and writing   constitute a transition between the discussions surrounding the ethnographies produced by functionalism and those surrounding the issues of postmodernism. Clifford Geertz (1995) himself is a rebel child of the various functionalisms of anthropology and Parsonian sociology, and father teacher defender to the ethnographers who are challenged by the postmodern. The philosophical issues raised, refined, and elaborated are perennial.

Brief idea of Interpretative anthropology (bilingual, meant for my undergraduate students)
Further reading:



Clifford Geertz (from Thomas Barfield's Dictionary of Anthropology 1997, Blackwell, copied to fulfill the requirement of students in COVID 19 lockdown emergency)

Clifford Geertz:
Clifford Geertz is undoubtedly modern America's best-known, most quoted, and most intellectually influential cultural anthropologist. Head and founder of the hugely prestigious School of Social Sciences at Princeton's Institute of Advanced Studies, author and editor of many often-cited books and articles, winner of the National Book Critics Circle award and numerous other honors, and contributor to important scholarly journals, he has found an admiring audience in disciplines as diverse as history, literary theory, and philosophy. But within his own field his work has become ever more debated and controversial.   
Geertz was born in San Francisco and attended Antioch College, where his early ambition to write fiction was set aside in favor of philosophy. In 1950, seeking something "more empirical," he entered graduate school in anthropology in the short-lived multidisciplinary Social Relations Department at Harvard. There he studied with Talcott Parsons, who was bringing the work Max WEBER and Emile DURKHEIM together into a new kind of systematic American sociology. Geertz found little to admire in Durkheim, and Parsons's own theories left him cold, but he took Weber to heart   especially the notion of verstehen, understanding the other's point of view.  
In favoring a Weberian approach, Geertz opposed the FUNCTIONALIST paradigm dominating American anthropology in the 1950s. He argued that the task of anthropology was not the discovery of laws, patterns, and norms, but rather the interpretation of what he called the culturally specific "webs of significance" people both spin and are caught up in. These symbolic webs were taken by Geertz to be the essence of human social life. They legitimated power structures and channeled unruly human desires by offering believers a sense of purpose and agency within a world rendered orderly and meaningful. The way such understanding could be accomplished was through what Geertz famously called the "THICK DESCRIPTION" of another culture   that is, through writing dense and convincing ethnographic portraits.              
Following his own prescription, Geertz has spent a very large amount of time doing FIELDWORK. His first research was two and a half years in eastern Java. From this period came a series of important books, including The religion of Java (1960), and Agricultural involution (1963c), which won acclaim not only among anthropologists but also among economists and development specialists. However, his approach to ETHNOGRAPHY was soon altered by his reading of Herder, Humboldt, and Dilthey during his stay at the Anthropology Department at the University of Chicago. Like Ruth BENEDICT, to whom he has often been compared, Geertz was inspired by the German romantics to increasingly emphasize an aesthetic appreciation of other cultures. His youthful ambition to be a writer of fictions could now be realized within the realm of anthropology; fictional artifice was recast as interpretation of the culturally formed symbolic worlds of others, which existed separately from, yet in dialectical relationship with, social action. For Geertz, the Weberian effort to establish a comparative sociology was now set aside; comparison, he argued, serves to show that societies are, in fact, incomparable   each is unique, and the anthropologist's job is to make his reader appreciate this uniqueness via authorial leaps of informed and artful imagination into the "webs of significance" inhabited by exotic others.         
Concentrating on creating a new kind of anthropological writing, Geertz began to move beyond professional journals in hopes of reaching a wider audience. His prose now assumed a twisting syntactical structure replete with multiple clauses, lengthy lists, and erudite allusions to philosophy, literature, and popular culture. Two highly successful collections of essays, The interpretation of cultures (1973) and Local knowledge (1983), contained Geertz's best-known occasional pieces, and introduced the wider intellectual public to his romantic and writerly version of anthropology. His increasing fame coincided with his appointment in 1970 to Princeton's prestigious Institute of Advanced Studies.  
Simultaneously, Geertz also undertook extensive new fieldwork, first in Bali, and then in Morocco. The latter culminated in his Islam observed (1968), which attempted to compare the distinctive practices and beliefs of Muslims in Indonesia and Morocco. Most influential, however, was his writing on Bali, which presented a striking portrait of the Balinese people as passionless aesthetic performers in a vast and timeless cultural play   a view much contested by other ethnographers, notably Unni Wikan (1993). The problems facing his increasingly aesthetic approach are best illustrated in what is possibly Geertz's most famous essay, "Deep play: notes on the Balinese cockfight" (1972), where he asserted that the cockfight is a moral text teaching the Balinese lessons about subjectivity and human action. This may be so, but the Balinese themselves are not consulted about this reading   it remains Geertz's own. Nor does he note that cockfights prevail in many very different cultures besides Bali. We are left, then, with evocative prose that tells us a great deal about the author's sensibility, but may tell us very little about Bali. 
Perhaps in response to such critiques, Geertz has lately retreated toward an even more selfconscious concern with the role of the anthropological author in constructing and defining CULTURE. His awardwinning book Works and lives (1988) is an analysis of several famous ethnographies as literary texts. However, even though Geertz, using his own considerable poetic talents, has painted the anthropologist, and especially himself, as an artist of culture, most practitioners still consider it their job to help their subjects to speak, not to speak for them.

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.
 A brief introduction to anthropology of religion is available below. Bilingual and meant for my students

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.

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