Understanding Religion in the Contemporary World

This information is for the 2016/17 session.

Teacher responsible

Dr Fenella Cannell OLD 6.07, Prof Laura Bear OLD 6.09 and Dr Mathijs Pelkmans OLD 5.08


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

Course content

The course will consider the distinctive definition and understanding of ‘religion’ within the social sciences,  asking the key question ' what is the object of "religion" for the social sciences?' . The course will introduce students to the classical social science sources on religion (including, but not limited to, Durkheim, Weber and Marx) and the particular problematics which their views on religion imply. There will be discussion of the different traditions of social scientific thinking about religion which flow from these foundational thinkers into current debates. Secondly, the course will focus on a range of empirical and ethnographic case studies, which illustrate some of the diversity of religious practice around the world, and some of the consequences which may flow from adopting particular definitions of what ‘religion’ is. One underlying theme in the course, will be the need to pay attention to ways in which the category and the domain of religion are redefined, or claimed to be redefined, in modernity, in relation to other domains of life including politics, kinship and economy.  The focus will be on understanding through specific ethnographic and empirical materials, the ways in which lived religious practice, and the understanding of religion, may differ radically 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.   The first term considers key themes and theoretical topics in the anthropology of religion literature in the light of these framings.   The second term  will include sustained case-studies drawing on current research within the LSE, and comparative thematic discussions.  Students have the opportunity to work with their lecturers through lines of analysis and problems in evidence and reasoning drawn from the lecturers' primary research, and to see at first hand how professional anthropologists move towards their conclusions.  The second term therefore encourages students to begin to think like research anthropologists themselves,  while also consolidating key theoretical and ethnographic bodies of knowledge.   There will be a focus on contemporary issues in the study of religion including the organization of religion in a range of different societies, its relationship to broad social change including the rise of modernity/capitalism, global political-economy, and its codification in institutions such as the family, law, gender and the state. 


10 hours of lectures and 10 hours of seminars in the MT. 20 hours of seminars in the LT. 1 hour of lectures in the ST.

In LT the format is one two-hour interactive seminar per week.

Formative coursework

Formative coursework will include 1) discussions and presentations during the dedicated seminar and 2) the writing of non-coursework essays which will be discussed in small-group tutorials within the anthropology department as described above.

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; E.B. Tylor 1871 (and later editions) Primitive Culture; T. Asad 2003 Formations of the secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity; M. Lambek 2002 A Reader in the Anthropology of Religion; 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; F. Cannell, ed. 2006 The Anthropology of Christianity; C. Taylor 2007 A Secular Age.


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

Key facts

Department: Anthropology

Total students 2015/16: 4

Average class size 2015/16: 5

Controlled access 2015/16: No

Value: One Unit

Guidelines for interpreting course guide information