anthropology, geertz, turner

An anthropological view of religion:
The ubiquity of religion
At some time in our prehistory, there emerged two key related capacities: language (as opposed to
simple communication, which all animals do, with language, we have the disconnection between a sign
and what it refers to, or a multiplicity of options, consider, for example, the word “bad”, and
grammatical rules for combining words) and the ability to create and deploy symbols.
Metaphor is a lens, a vehicle, a tool – pick your metaphor – that orients us, transports us, directs
attention to this, not that, metaphor can stir affect, prompt action, signal hope or despair.
Anthropologists like Clifford Geertz and Roy Rappaport, Victor Turner, whose work has greatly
influenced my thinking about religion develop an approach to studying religion and culture by
suggesting that a culture or a religion or another comprehensive set of symbols are the functional
equivalent of genetic material., as you find in the thinking of some theorists; rather, our nature includes
“Humanity is a species that lives and can only live in terms of meanings it itself must invent. These
meanings and understandings not only reflect or approximate an independently existing world but
participate in its very construction.” (Roy Rappaport, Religion and Ritual in the Making of Humanity, 8).
People learn culture.
Because the relationship between what is taught and what is learned is not absolute (some of what is
taught is lost, while new discoveries are constantly being made), culture exists in a constant state of
Meaning systems consist of negotiated agreements
Clifford Geertz
Geertz, Clifford (1926–2006). Born in San Francisco in 1926, Clifford Geertz attended Antioch College
and majored in philosophy, later going to Harvard for graduate studies in anthropology. He completed
two extended periods of fieldwork in Indonesia (Java first, then Bali) during and after his graduate
training, then taught at the University of California, Berkeley and the University of Chicago. In 1970 he
became the only anthropologist ever to gain an appointment at the Institute for Advanced Study in
Princeton, New Jersey. He did later fieldwork in Morocco. A provocative and prolific author who gave
philosophical depth to the more mundane details of anthropological reportage, he was one of the
seminal thinkers who criticized the functionalist approach and used instead the analytical methods of
symbolic anthropology.
Geertz’s classic definition: “A religion is (1) a system of symbols which acts to (2) establish powerful,
pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by (3) formulating conceptions of a general
order of existence and (4) clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that (5) the moods
and motivations seem uniquely realistic.”- The Interpretation of Cultures, New York: Basic, 1973, p. 90.
Culture – knowledge people use to generate and interpret social interaction – culture is what is learned.
Religion – those dimensions of culture that are most highly valued and construe as fundamental
Geertz, some terminology
symbolic anthropology: A style of ethnographic research utilized by Claude Lévi-Strauss and Clifford
Geertz that took culture to mean a more-or-less systematic network of interlocking symbols that
gives human activity meaning and helps orient people in the world.
worldview: In general, the way a person or a community sees the world and understands its
significance. Clifford Geertz opposes this to the term “ethos,” by which he means the
predisposition to certain modes of action that a world view underwrites and legitimizes.
ethos: Clifford Geertz’s term for the aspect of religion that motivates people to act in certain ways.
He opposes this to “world view,” which is a religion’s way of seeing reality.
thick description: A term used by Clifford Geertz to denote a way of writing ethnography. Whereas
a “thin description” would only describe the surface details of a people’s cultural practices, a
“thick description” would attempt to piece together the web of significations that make these
practices an intelligible system.
Geertz deftly sidesteps the age-old philosophical dispute over whether such form and order is
discovered or constructed, and is content to affirm that the drive to generate meaningful symbolic
forms is an integral aspect of human existence. For Geertz, anthropology need not seek to understand
the basis of belief but rather belief’s manifestations. Geertz thus offers a relatively intuitive, open, and
non-reductive way of conceptualizing religion.
Now, to understand a religion’s or a culture’s view of the world, it requires a bit of work. An analytical
chart might look something like the following. These various elements are interrelated. Our focus is one
spaces and places. We come at the study of religion through the door of space and place, rather than,
say, myth or doctrine or historical figures.
Beliefs, attitudes, intentions, emotions, assumptions
- all things are interconnected
dancing, kneeling, singing
Spaces, places
- shrines, sanctuaries, rocks
Time, rhythm
- holidays, seasons, eras
masks, fetishes, icons
congregations, sects
Identity: figures, roles
- gods, ancestors, shamans, priests
Qualities & quantities
- circularity, seven
Languages, sounds
- stories, chants, music
Victor Turner (1920-1983)
Turner was especially interested in Arnold Van Gennep’s discussion of the liminal phase in passage rites.
Separation – transition - incorporation
Two key notions in his theory of rites of passage are "Liminality and Communitas"
1. Most important contemporary theorists of ritual
a. Liminality, the liminoid, communitas
b. Occurs in rituals of status elevation (e.g., initiation)
c. Occurs in rituals of status reversal (e.g., festivals, clowning)
d. Liminality vs. status system +
transition / state
communitas / structure
equality / inequality
sacredness / secularity
sexual continence / sexuality
minimal gender distinction / maximal
2. Revised our idea of ritual: processual as well as structural
3. Importance of inversion, court jesters
4. Extended to include "liminoid"
Victor Turner’s model of social - social conflict is dramatic, and he identifies four phases in a social
drama: breach, crisis, redress, reconciliation or irreparable breach.
Turner associates ritual (in a strict sense) with liminality, reflexivity, and a subjunctive mood.
“Liminality,” writes Turner, “can perhaps be described as a fructile chaos, a fertile nothingness, a
storehouse of possibilities, not by any means a random assemblage but a striving after new forms and
structure, a gestation process, a fetation of modes appropriate to and anticipating postliminal
existence.” Ritual then is potentially transformative insofar as it allows the “the contents of group
experiences [to be] replicated, dismembered, remembered, refashioned, and mutely or vocally made
meaningful” (Turner 1991:12,13).