The Anthropology of Religion

This information is for the 2016/17 session.

Teacher responsible

Dr Fenella Cannell OLD 6.07 and Dr Michael Scott OLD 6.16


This course is available on the MRes/PhD in Anthropology, MSc in Anthropology and Development, MSc in Anthropology and Development Management, MSc in China in Comparative Perspective, MSc in Law, Anthropology and Society 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

This course covers selected topics in the anthropology of religion, focusing upon relevant theoretical debates. In the Michaelmas term, the focus will also be on understanding through specific ethnographic and empirical case-studies, the ways in which lived religious practice, and the understanding of religion, get constituted inside and outside ‘Western’ and modern contexts. We will also pay attention to cases in which (as in all post-colonial settings, and in relation to so-called fundamentalisms) ‘Western’ and the ‘non-Western’ definitions are emerging in interplay with each other, including their relation to understandings of modernity and the secular. Current approaches to and reconsiderations of classic topics in the anthropology of religion are also presented; these may include ritual, belief, spirit mediumship, relations with the dead, sacrifice, and the fetish. A recurrent theme will be the relationship between religion and ‘modernity’. In the Lent term, we will consider topics such as shamanism, cargo cults, initiation, witchcraft and sorcery, cosmology, and human-nonhuman relations, primarily with reference to ongoing transformations of the indigenous traditions of Melanesia, Africa, Amazonia, Australia, and the circumpolar north.  Recurring themes will be: transformations in the definition of ‘religion’ in relation to ‘science’; the nature of rationality; and the extent to which anthropology itself can be either – or both – a religious and a scientific quest to experience the wonder of unknown otherness.


10 hours of lectures and 10 hours of seminars in the MT. 10 hours of lectures and 10 hours of seminars in the LT.

Indicative reading

H. H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills (eds.) 1946 (and later editions), From Max Weber: essays in sociology; E. Durkheim 1915 (and later editions), The elementary forms of the religious life; S. Mahmood 2005, Politics of Piety; J. Milbank 1990, Theology and Social Theory; T. Masuzawa 2005, The Invention of World Religions; R.A. Orsi (ed.) 2012, The Cambridge Companion to Religious Studies; C. Taylor 2007, A Secular Age; B Latour 2009 The modern cult of the factish god;  H Hubert and M Mauss 1960 On Sacrifice; A. Abramson and M. Holbraad (eds.) 2014, Framing Cosmologies: The Anthropology of Worlds; G. Bateson and M. C. Bateson 1987, Angels Fear: Towards an Epistemology of the Sacred; B. Kapferer (ed.) 2002, Beyond Rationalism: Rethinking Magic, Witchcraft and Sorcery; L. Lévy-Bruhl 1926, How Natives Think; M. A. Pedersen 2011, Not Quite Shamans: Spirit Worlds and Political Lives in Northern Mongolia; K. Swancutt 2012, Fortune and the Cursed: The Sliding Scale of Time in Mongolian Divination; H. Whitehouse and J. Laidlaw (eds.) 2007, Religion, Anthropology, and Cognitive Science; R. Willerslev 2007, Soul Hunters: Hunting, Animism, and Personhood among the Siberian Yukaghirs; D. E. Young and J-G. Goulet (eds.) 1994, Being Changed: The Anthropology of Extraordinary Experience.


Exam (100%, duration: 3 hours) in the main exam period.

Key facts

Department: Anthropology

Total students 2015/16: 9

Average class size 2015/16: 9

Controlled access 2015/16: Yes

Lecture capture used 2015/16: Yes (LT)

Value: One Unit

Guidelines for interpreting course guide information