Not available in 2019/20
AN461      Half Unit
Anthropological Approaches to Questions of Being

This information is for the 2019/20 session.

Teacher responsible

Dr Michael W. Scott OLD6.16


This course is available on the MSc in Anthropology and Development, MSc in Anthropology and Development Management, MSc in Social Anthropology and 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

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 convey ethnographically and conceptualize theoretically the many different ontologies, or lived realities, that shape social practices in diverse historical, geographic, and cultural contexts. This literature also urges us to reconsider reflexively what anthropology is, does, and might become.

Twenty-first century anthropology has seen an ‘ontological turn’ or ‘turns’, or more broadly, the emergence of anthropologies of ontology. Increasingly, a variety of anthropological discourses invoking the concept of ontology have come into dialogue, yet ontology-oriented approaches remain diverse. Over the past decade, these discourses have been sites of divisive debate, strong contestation, pointed polemic, and at times personal critique. While this has generated a lot of interest, arguably these debates have created more heat than light. In the wake of these debates, and keeping them in view, this course aims to illuminate current work around ontology by reading three recent and influential books, each of which takes a distinctive anthropological approach to questions of being.

Morten Axel Pedersen’s ethnography, Not Quite Shamans (2011), explores spirits, shamans – or the relative lack of shamans – and postsocialism among the Darhad people of northern Mongolia. Pedersen focuses on the ontological uncertainties that can attend sweeping social transformations; in so doing, he challenges us to rethink the assumptions about being that inform mainstream anthropological analyses.

Marisol de la Cadena’s ethnography, Earth Beings (2015), offers a person-centred, conversation-driven account of people, place, and indigenous cosmopolitics in the Andes. De la Cadena engages with the Quechua people’s political struggles in ways that prompts us to question modernity’s dominant nature/human dualism. Giving us access to a context where mountains are wilful actors, she invites us to reconceptualize politics as ontological disagreement.

Stuart McLean’s book, Fictionalizing Anthropology (2017), develops a comparative approach to anthropology by juxtaposing diverse folkloric, historical, literary, and ethnographic accounts – primarily from the North Atlantic. McLean seeks to persuade us that storytelling is a mode of ‘ontological poesis’; it does not simply reflect – or even reflect on – aspects of the world as given; it participates in the very making of worlds. In the same way, he suggests, the stories anthropologists tell and the comparisons they make may be ontologically generative, part of the becoming of new possibilities for human and other-than-human being.

These three works – focused on very different contexts, using very different modes of research, and written in very different styles – introduce students to the central questions, dynamics, and debates that constitute anthropological approaches to questions of being.


10 hours of lectures and 15 hours of seminars in the LT. 1 hour of lectures in the ST.

Formative coursework

Students will be expected to produce 1 essay in the LT.

Indicative reading

Morten Axel Pedersen, Not Quite Shamans: Spirit Worlds and Political Lives in Northern Mongolia (2011); Marisol de la Cadena, Earth Beings: Ecologies of Practice across Andean Worlds (2015); Stuart McLean, Fictionalizing Anthropology: Encounters and Fabulations at the Edges of the Human (2017).


Coursework (100%, 5000 words) in the ST.

The assessed essay must be between 4,500 – 5,000 words in length.

Key facts

Department: Anthropology

Total students 2018/19: 6

Average class size 2018/19: 6

Controlled access 2018/19: No

Value: Half Unit

Guidelines for interpreting course guide information