Tag anthropology

Posts: 10

Cultures of Belief — post-print version of article

As promised, here’s a post-print version of my Cultures of Belief article, which was published in Anthropological Theory.


The text is identical to the journal version, but the formatting is different — this is the version I’m allowed to distribute according to the publishing agreement. If you have access to the journal, for example through a library, you can see a prettier version here.

Cultures of Belief – New paper out in Anthropological Theory

I’ve just had a new paper out in Anthropological Theory — this is behind a paywall, I’ll make a post-print version available through this website soon for those who don’t have access to the journal through an academic library.

The paper is titled ‘Cultures of ignorance’. In a nutshell, the argument is that academic students of religion have settled on a way of accounting for religious language and thought that distinguishes ordinary, everyday belief from religious belief. The former is understood to be literal and practical. The latter, by contrast, is taken to be indirect, metaphorical, symbolic, affective, moral and so on, and by implication not to be about propositional belief. Drawing on my own field research in northern China’s Inner Mongolia, I argue that there are ways of relating to a body of true knowledge that fit neither of these models. I argue that in order to understand what is going on in this situation and many others we need to develop an ethnographic sensibility to locally specific ‘cultures of belief’. To get this project off to a start, I suggest some initial building blocks for a general anthropology of belief, based on religious thought in ancient Greece, mediaeval Judaism, and contemporary US Evangelism.

Here’s the abstract:

In popular thought about the meaning of religion, as well as established debates in anthropology, religious belief is interpreted as either a commitment to a clear set of propositions, or as a non-literal, symbolic, ethical or social commitment. Anthropologists have tended to support the latter of these positions, so much so that this can now be seen as the ‘anthropological’ position; it is also characteristic of the view of scholars in related disciplines, such as religious studies. This article argues for a third possibility: that religious (and other) believers are often engaged in complex, reflexive practices that stipulate specific cognitive and non-cognitive relationships to propositional content. This is demonstrated with reference to contemporary Buddhism in Inner Mongolia, China. The author argues that the existence of such cultures of belief demonstrates there is a need for a systematic anthropological theory of belief and suggests some sources that may contribute to its formulation.

Mair, J., 2013. Cultures of belief. Anthropological Theory, 12(4), pp.448–466.

CRASSH Project: Speaking Ethically Across Borders

I am currently a research fellow at CRASSH, the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities, at Cambridge University.

One of the things I’m working on is an interdisciplinary project on ‘Speaking Ethically Across Borders’. Right now I’m planning a reading group on the topic for next term. The outline is below, together with some sample readings. If anyone has any suggestions for good readings on this theme, from any discipline, please let me know by email or in the comments below. Thanks!

Incidentally, this is related to my last post: the conversations I am interested in for this project could be seen as self-conscious attempts to overcome potential conversations at cross-purposes.

Speaking ethically across borders

A conversation between Western Christendom and the Mongol Empire:
Pope Innocent IV sends a mission to Central Asia, carrying one of a series of letters that were exchanged between the pontiffs and the Mongol khans in the thirteenth century. (Source: Wikipedia)

Psychologists such as Judith Smetana have argued that the distinction between moral rule and social convention is innate and universal. That may be so, but knowing that there is a difference is not the same as knowing where the line can be drawn that divides the two. When we are in familiar settings, the differences between tradition, habit, and pragmatic efficiency on the one hand, and ethical considerations about value and duty are frequently elided: there are a limited number of given, concrete ways of living life, and most of our choices will be made from among them. Even innovations justified on moral grounds will silently incorporate much that is conventional.

But when people speak ethically across regional boundaries, they must face the problem of finding ways to render the ethics of different regions commensurate, either by translating local, thick ethical practices of one or both sides into the thin common currency of some universalist morality, or by claiming that, in so far as the essentials are concerned, what appear to be quite different values or practices are in fact compatible. In either case, there is a need to agree on a place to draw the line dividing universal or shared essence from contingent cultural convention, to decide whether it is the specific practices that are valued, or only the underlying principle, only their effects, or some combination of these. This makes these conversations an ideal site for scholars interested in understanding moral reasoning and its relation to practice.

Possible examples of conversations across borders

A Jesuit in Confucian ceremonial robes during the period of the Confucian Rites Controversy (Source: Wikipedia)
  • rival claims to moral authority between rival regional powers with cosmopolitan aspirations
  • the universalization of local ethical traditions
  • conversely, the vernacularization of cosmopolitan ethics
  • civilizing and proselytizing missions
  • attempts of diaspora populations to adapt the ethical culture of the contemporary, historical, or imagined home region to life in a variety of different moral environments
  • attempts to preserve a regional moral order in the face of modernization by separating ethos from techne (many fascinating examples to draw here from East Asia, including the May Fourth Movement and Deng Xiao Ping’s ‘Socialism with Chinese Characteristics’)

Sample Bibliography

Bakken, Børge. 2000. The Exemplary Society: Human Improvement, Social Control, and the Dangers of Modernity in China. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Buckser, A. 2008. “Cultural Change and the Meanings of Belief in Jewish Copenhagen.” Social Analysis 52 (1): 39–55.

Humphrey, C. 2007. “Alternative Freedoms.” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 151 (1): 1–10.

Laidlaw, James. 2010. Ethical Traditions in Question: Diaspora Jainism and the Environmental and Animal Liberation Movements. In Ethical Life in South Asia. Edited by Anand Pandian and Daud Ali. Bloomington: Indiana University Press: 61-80

Nussbaum, Martha. 2011. “Patriotism and Cosmopolitanism.” In The Cosmopolitanism Reader, ed. David Held and Garrett Wallace Brown, 155-178. Cambridge: Polity.

Roy, Olivier. 2006. “Islam in the West or Western Islam? The Disconnect of Religion and Culture.” Hedgehog Review 8 (1/2): 127.

Rapport, N. (1998) The potential of human rights in a post-cultural world. Social Anthropology. 6/3: 381-388.

Sheldon Pollock. 1998. “The Cosmopolitan Vernacular.” The Journal of Asian Studies 57 (1): 6-37.

Schmieder, F. 2000. “Cum Hora Undecima: The Incorporation of Asia into the Orbis Christianus.” In Christianizing Peoples and Converting Individuals, ed. Guyda Armstrong and Ian N. Wood, 259–65. Turnhout: Brepols.

Turner, B.S. 2002. “Cosmopolitan Virtue, Globalization and Patriotism.” Theory, Culture & Society 19 (1-2): 45.