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Frazer Strikes Back From The Armchair


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Speaker(s): Dr Rane Willerslev

Recorded on 13 May 2010 in Old Theatre, Old Building.

The question which runs throughout this talk can be stated in stark form: is it a mistake to take our interest in an ethnographic phenomenon in the direction of an empirical investigation, when what is really needed with respect to its clarity is an imaginative contemplation of it? It is my overall argument that this is indeed the case and that the Malinowskian recourse to empirical evidence as the ultimate criterion for anthropological knowledge is misguided. Some phenomena dealt with by anthropologists are beyond empirical experience. As examples, I take two classical topics - the 'soul' and 'ritual blood sacrifice'. I will show how both are essentially metaphysical issues, not empirical ones. Understanding them, therefore, is not a question of advancement in the actual material practice of fieldwork, but of the power of the scholar's speculative imagination. This finds an echo in Frazer, the last survivor of the old 'armchair school'. His style of anthropology was marked by a deliberate speculative interrogation of ethnography - a process whereby abstract thinking gives force and meaning to ethnographic observations.

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