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July 11, 2006

Anthropology Attacked!

I think I want to take a swipe at anthropologists.

Many nineteenth-century European observers of preliterate peoples mislabeled them as disbelievers because whatever they might have believed sure didn't look like The One True Faith: Christianity. These explorers and missionaries have taken their share of abuse.

But I'm ready to conclude (in reworking my first chapter) that many twentieth-century anthropologists made a similar mistake: They mislabeled the peoples they observed as devout believers because the doubts and hesitations they did harbor sure didn't look like Logical, Consistent, Secular Humanist, Western, Enlightenment Rationalism.

Posted by Mitchell Stephens at July 11, 2006 1:31 PM


Many of those 19th C. anthropologists were also armchair observers; Sir James Frazer, for example. _The Golden Bough_, not exactly a work of anthropology (ostensibly it's about myth) set so much of that tone for others. Been rereading Robert Young (contemporary historian) -- powerful stuff indicting the role of imperialist thinking in the construction of, especially, history as a narrative--anthropology surely part of that broader construction, no? Enthusiastically recommend _White Mythologies_ (the intro, at least, Mitch, I think you would find very interesting as you plot out your deployment of chronology, narrative structure)

Posted by: JM at July 11, 2006 8:50 PM

It's kind of easy to bash 19th century anthropologists on religion - anthropologists have been doing it themselves for a considerable period of time. More nuanced ethnographic accounts of religion include Roy Rapapport, Gananath Obeysekere and others. Check them out, because as it is, this hardly functions as an "attack" on athropology...

Posted by: spk at July 17, 2006 8:18 AM

fair enough. I'll check them out. but while my tongue was somewhere near my cheek when heading this entry, I have been reading, and questioning, 20th century anthropological reports that reject the possibility (for all the most up-to-date reasons) of preliterate people doubting their religions.

Posted by: mitch at July 17, 2006 1:54 PM

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