AN247      Half Unit
The Anthropology of Ontology

This information is for the 2016/17 session.

Teacher responsible

Dr Michael W. Scott OLD6.16


This course is available on the BA in Anthropology and Law, BA in Social Anthropology and BSc in Social Anthropology. This course is available as an outside option to students on other programmes where regulations permit and to General Course students.

Course content

In Western thought, the study of the nature of being itself (Greek ontos), including theories about how things come into being and how they are related to one another, is known as ontology. Building on, but broadening the scope of this Western tradition, the growing anthropological literature on questions of being seeks to document ethnographically and model theoretically the many different ontologies, or lived realities, that shape social practice in diverse historical, geographic, and cultural contexts.

Twenty-first century anthropology has seen an ‘ontological turn’, or more broadly, the emergence of ‘the anthropology of ontology’ as a recognized sub-field. Increasingly, there is a convergence of anthropological discourses around the concept of ontology, yet there is no unified approach to this topic. The anthropology of ontology remains a set of loosely linked discussions. Working in different geographical regions and drawing on different intellectual antecedents, anthropologists interested in questions of being have developed different analytical vocabularies and models that are now in need of comparison and mutual interpretation. This course provides an orientation to the various backgrounds and points of similarity and difference that constitute this emergent sub-field.

Through ethnographic readings from such contexts as Aboriginal Australia, Amazonia, Central Asia, China, Melanesia, Native Alaska, Polynesia, 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 - ontologies are 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; processes of ontological transformation; scientific ontologies; the ontological assumptions that have informed anthropology.


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

Formative coursework

Anthropology students taking this course will have the 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

De la Cadena, Marisol 2015. Earth Beings: Ecologies of Practice across Andean Worlds.

Descola, Philippe 2013. Beyond Nature and Culture.

Henare, Amiria, Martin Holbraad, and Sari Wastell (Eds) 2007. Thinking Through Things: Theorising Artefacts Ethnographically.

Holbraad, Martin 2012. Truth in Motion: The Recursive Anthropology of Cuban Divination.

Ingold, Tim 2011. Being Alive: Essays on Movement, Knowledge and Description.

Kohn, Eduardo 2015. Anthropology of Ontologies. Annual Review of Anthropology 44.

Latour, Bruno 2013. An Inquiry into Modes of Existence: An Anthropology of the Moderns.

Scott, Michael W. 2007. The Severed Snake: Matrilineages, Making Place, and a Melanesian Christianity in Southeast Solomon Islands.

Viveiros de Castro, Eduardo 2012. Cosmological Perspectivism in Amazonia and Elsewhere.


Exam (70%, duration: 2 hours) in the main exam period.
Essay (30%, 2500 words) in the MT.

The assessed essay must be between 2,000 – 2,500 words in length.

Key facts

Department: Anthropology

Total students 2015/16: Unavailable

Average class size 2015/16: Unavailable

Capped 2015/16: No

Value: Half Unit

Guidelines for interpreting course guide information