Not available in 2013/14
AN461      Half Unit
Anthropological Approaches to Questions of Being

This information is for the 2013/14 session.

Teacher responsible

Dr Michael Scott OLD6.16


This course is available on the MSc in Anthropology and Development, MSc in Anthropology and Development (Management), MSc in Religion in the Contemporary World and MSc in Social Anthropology. This course is available with permission as an outside option to students on other programmes where regulations permit.

Course content

In titles of books and articles and in descriptions of conferences and seminars, anthropologists are using the word 'ontology' with increasing frequency, but what do they mean by it? Historically, ontology is a branch of Western thought devoted to the study of the nature of being (Greek ontos) and how the various categories of being said to exist in the universe are related to one another. Building on, but broadening the scope of this Western tradition, the anthropology of ontology is a growing area of research that seeks to document ethnographically and model theoretically the often radically different ontologies - sets of assumptions about the number and nature of fundamental categories in the world - that inform social practice in diverse historical, geographic, cultural, and sub-cultural contexts. Several recent publications have called for a 'turn to ontology', or the development of a new field of 'ontological anthropology'. But there is, as yet, no unified approach to this topic. Working in different geographical regions and drawing on different intellectual antecedents, anthropologists have developed different analytical vocabularies that are now in need of comparison and mutual interpretation. This course provides an orientation to the different approaches within this emergent field. Through ethnographic readings from Aboriginal Australia, Amazonia, Central Asia, China, Melanesia, Native Alaska, and Polynesia, as well as the anthropology of Christianity and the history of science, the course takes a comparative approach to the exploration of different ontologies and their relationship to practice, cultural change, ethics, and social conflict. Questions and topics covered include: The relationship between ontology and cosmology Where and how - beyond myth and ritual - are ontologies available to ethnographic observation? Theories of animism versus Western nature/culture dualism Amazonian perspectivism Relationship to place and the environment as indices of ontology The ontological status of 'things' Dreams, illness, and curing as indices of different modalities of being Conflicting ontological assumptions in intercultural contexts Cognitivist experimental methods for the study of intuitive ontology Scientific ontologies Race and gender as categories of being ET culture and UFOlogy as sites of ontological anxiety What ontological assumptions have informed anthropology?


10 hours of lectures and 10 hours of seminars in the MT. 1 hour of lectures in the ST.

Formative coursework

Anthropology students taking this course will have an opportunity to submit a tutorial essay for this course to their personal tutors. For non-Anthropology students taking this course, a formative essay may be submitted to the course teacher.

Indicative reading

Battaglia, Debora (Ed) 2005, E.T. Culture: Anthropology in Outerspaces. Durham: Duke University Press. Boyer, Pascal 1998. Cognitive Tracks of Cultural Inheritance: How Evolved Intuitive Ontology Governs Cultural Transmission. American Anthropologist 100(4): 876-889; Clammer, John, Sylvie Poirier, and Eric Schwimmer (Eds) 2004. Figured Worlds: Ontological Obstacles in Intercultural Relations. London: University of Toronto Press; Descola, Philippe 2007. Beyond Nature and Culture. In Proceedings of the British Academy, Volume 139: 2005 Lectures: 137-155. London: Oxford University Press; Goldman, L. R., & C. Ballard (Eds) 1998. Fluid Ontologies: Myth, Ritual and Philosophy in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea. London: Bergin and Garvey; Henare, Amiria, Martin Holbraad, and Sari Wastell (Eds) 2007. Thinking Through Things: Theorising Artefacts Ethnographically. London: Routledge; Puett, Michael J. 2002. To Become a God: Cosmology, Sacrifice, and Self-Divination in Early China. London: Harvard University Press; Schrempp, Gregory 1992. Magical Arrows: The Maori, the Greeks, and the Folklore of the Universe. London: University of Wisconsin Press; Scott, Michael W. 2007. The Severed Snake: Matrilineages, Making Place, and Melanesian Christianity in Southeast Solomon Islands. Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press; Viveiros de Castro, Eduardo 1998. Cosmological Deixis and Amerindian Perspectivism. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 4(3): 469-488


Exam (100%, duration: 2 hours) in the main exam period.

Key facts

Department: Anthropology

Total students 2012/13: Unavailable

Average class size 2012/13: Unavailable

Value: Half Unit

Guidelines for interpreting course guide information