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Level 6

6AAT3801 Anthropological Approaches to Religious Innovation and Questions of Being


The modules run in each academic year are subject to change in line with staff availability and student demand so there is no guarantee this module will run. Module descriptions and information may vary depending between years.

Credit value: 15
Module Tutor: Katherine Swancutt

New model

One 2,500 word essay (40%) and 2-hour examination (60%)

Previous model

One 3,000 word essay (40%) and 2-hour examination (60%)

Students are reassessed in the failed elements of assessment and by the same methods as the first attempt.

Teaching pattern: One-hour lectures followed by a one-hour seminar over ten weeks
Pre-requisites: None

This module introduces you to new theoretical directions in the anthropology of religion – and notably to its recent ‘ontological turn’ – through an exploration of animism, shamanism, and numerous religious practices from around the world. Animism never fails to excite the popular imagination, and yet it has been formative to anthropological theory-making for more than a century. In this module, we invite you to think through a diverse range of ethnographic works on religion – and to debate the merits of studying religious innovation through the lens of cosmology. Situated at the cusp of anthropology and philosophy, this module asks you to broach the religious experiences and conceptualisations of the ‘Other’, and to thereby widen your understanding of what we call ‘religion’. 

Sample topics:
  • Sample Topics
  • The Ontological Turn
  • Questions of Being in the Study of Animism
  • Melanesia and Personhood
  • Amazonia and Perspectivism
  • North Asia and Spirit-Human Relations
  • China’s Minorities and Popular Religion
  • Southeast Asia, ‘Tribal’ India, and the Mixing of Religions
  • Africa and the ‘Occult’
  • Anthropology and Religion in Dialogue
Preliminary/Suggested Reading:
  • Descola, Phillipe. 2013. Beyond Nature and Culture. London and Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Ingold, Tim. 2006. ‘Rethinking the Animate, Reanimating Thought’ in Ethnos: Journal of Anthropology. 71(1):9-20. 
  • Kapferer, Bruce. 2013. ‘How Anthropologists Think: Configurations of the Exotic’ in Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute. 19(4): 813-836.

Past syllabus

Please find the syllabus document available here for academic year 2015-16. Please be aware that the content of the syllabus will differ each academic year. 

Further information

Module aims
  • to provide an overview of current anthropological approaches to how ‘animistic’ and ‘shamanic’ groups experience and conceptualise the world around them
  • to provide opportunities to engage in debates about the nature of ‘being’ in a wide range of ethnographic case studies from around the globe 
  • to give a critical assessment of the broad nature of religious innovation, through key studies of how innovations arise in animistic or shamanic religions
Learning outcomes

Module specific skills

  • Students should have gained detailed knowledge of the ‘ontological turn’ in anthropology.
  • Students will be able to identify the main anthropological approaches to innovation and questions of being, and will be able to offer supporting evidence for these approaches by drawing on ethnographic case studies from animistic and shamanic religions worldwide.
  • Students will be able to bring anthropological approaches into conversation with their own views on how – and why – religious or ‘magical’ innovations arise in a given context.
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