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Frazer Strikes Back from the Armchair

Department of Anthropology Malinowski Memorial lecture

Date: Thursday 13 May 2010
Time: 6-7pm
Venue:  Old Theatre, Old Building
Speaker: Dr Rane Willerslev

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.

Dr Rane Willerslev has his PhD from the University of Cambridge (2003) and his MA in Visual Anthropology from the University of Manchester (1996). In 2006, he was awarded the ‘Young Elite Researcher’s Award’ by the Independent Research Councils of Denmark. Since 2007, Willerslev has been the editor of Acta Borealia: Nordic Journal of Circumpolar Societies. His main field of research has been hunting and spiritual knowledge among Siberia’s indigenous peoples. In 2007, his monograph Soul Hunters: Hunting, Animism and Personhood among the Siberian Yukaghirs was published by University of California Press, Berkeley and his popular book På flugt i Sibirien (On the Run in Siberia) was published by Gyldendal in 2009. From 2004-6, Willerslev was associate professor at the Granada Centre for Visual Anthropology in the Department for Social Anthropology at the University of Manchester and he is the author of several articles about vision and visuality. In 2006, he was appointed Associate Professor at the Institute for Anthropology, Archaeology and Linguistics, University of Aarhus. Since August 2008, he has been the director of the Ethnographic Collections at Moesgård Museum, Denmark.

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