Chapter 1: Introduction to the Anthropology of Magic, Witchcraft, and Religion

Amanda Zunner-Keating
34 min readDec 1, 2020


⚠ ️Instructors, please note: the latest version of this text (complete with exercises) is now published on Pressbooks.

Image by Halanna Halila on Unsplash.

How do anthropologists study magic, witchcraft, and religion?

Chapter 1 Learning Objectives

At the end of this chapter, you’ll be able to:

  • Explain and distinguish the complex definitions of “magic,” “witchcraft,” and “religion.”
  • Summarize and discuss the goals and research methods of cultural anthropologists.
  • Critique the work and motivations of colonial anthropologists.
  • Apply the principle of cultural relativism.
  • Apply an intersectional and holistic approach toward the analysis of cultural beliefs and practices.

Chapter 1: Welcome to The Anthropology of Magic, Witchcraft, and Religion

Chapter 1 audio can be accessed on Soundcloud; please view the complete textbook chapter on Pressbooks.

“The Anthropology of Magic, Witchcraft, and Religion” is a classic course in departments of anthropology all over the world. In part, this is because every human culture engages with these topics: “magic,” “witchcraft,” and “religion.” Clearly, they are important topics for us, and their universal presence across cultures provides lessons about our shared nature as humans. But it’s also a classic course and a well-established area of study within the discipline of anthropology because, as it turns out, every culture engages with these topics in its own way. Their diverse expression across cultures also warrants explanation.

What exactly are “magic,” “witchcraft,” and “religion?” And why should we care — either about the terms themselves, or about the anthropological study of magic, witchcraft, and religion more broadly? In this chapter, we provide detailed answers to the first set of questions: questions about terms, definitions, and their implications for how we might organize our thoughts and think more critically about humanity and our world.

Throughout this entire book, we also present a response to the second question (“Why should we care?”). That response involves explicit statements about the value of “anthropological perspectives” on magic, witchcraft, and religion (and don’t worry if you’re not sure what “anthropology” is yet — this will be defined soon enough!). We will also explore case studies that illustrate anthropology’s direct impacts on the world around us, in the past, present, and hopefully in the future as well.

We encourage you to reflect on the impacts that the anthropological study of magic, witchcraft, and religion have in the present day while you are reading this book or taking the course it’s assigned for or even long afterward. If you have questions or comments as you reflect, share them with your instructors and classmates, or you can even reach out to us (the authors of this textbook).

1.2 What is the supernatural?

Anthropologists seek to gain a better understanding of the human condition and the human experience. To do so, we need terms that allow us to study human cultures in an unbiased and comparative way. Nowhere is this more true than in discussions of scientifically-unverifiable beliefs. To describe these kinds of beliefs, anthropologists use the term “supernatural,” which refers to anything that people might believe exists, but that falls outside the laws of science or the natural world. Supernatural beliefs are usually specific to individual cultures and cannot be proven or disproven by the scientific method, yet they still maintain a central role in a group’s cultural identity.

The three major concepts that engage with the supernatural are “magic, witchcraft, and religion.” Anthropologists define these three concepts in a manner that may not be in line with the way you have heard them used colloquially, or even with the ways you have used them yourself. For the purpose of clarity in the rest of this course, we will define each term below.

1.3 What is religion?

We use the term “religion” to refer to a system of beliefs that have at least some supernatural elements, and that impact a society’s understanding of reality and shape people’s lived experiences. More specifically, religious views can impact a person’s behaviors and attitudes, which in turn differentiates them from others and guides them on a unique path or journey through life. Similarly, there are also many non-religious areas of culture that influence a person’s lived experiences (e.g., politics, science, beliefs and expectations about gender norms). However, we are able to examine religion through a unique lens that engages with the supernatural elements of life (e.g., the human soul, the afterlife, the divine, etc.).

Religions are faith-based; because they involve the supernatural, they cannot be proven through science. If a religious belief system could be proven true by using the scientific method, it would cease to involve the supernatural and would become “science.” Although its beliefs cannot be scientifically proven “true,” we certainly know that religion is “real” because of the impact that it has on people’s behavior and on people’s lives.

Although we have defined the term here, “religion” is nonetheless exceptionally hard to define in a satisfactory way because so much variation exists in the range of ideas and behaviors that it conjures up. We want to be able to use the term in a universal way: to describe all of the belief systems and practices we might possibly think of. At the same time, many students will object to a definition so broad that it starts to include belief systems that don’t intuitively fall into the category of “religion.” Compromises will have to be made in our course, and along the way, we might just realize that many seemingly non-religious beliefs and practices we take for granted as part of human cultural life in the past and present do in fact fall into the category of “religious beliefs and practices.” Just remember that there is no one unifying characteristic that exists across all religions. Some religions believe in one god, some believe in multiple gods, some believe in spirits, and others don’t believe in gods or spirits at all.

Throughout this course, we will engage with all types of religions, we will strive to develop our own definition of religion (particularly in Chapter 3, where we will revisit this term very explicitly), and we will embrace the complexity of the religion concept.

1.4 What is magic?

We use the term “magic” to refer to a person or group’s efforts to change their life through supernatural means. Magical rituals differ from religious ones because the latter “involve the whole of the community, [whereas] magic is often centered on the needs and desires of an individual. [For example if] a farmer wants rain, a young man wants a wife, a woman needs a cure for her illness [they might use magic to fulfill their desires]. In contrast to religious rituals that are carried out for the good of the community, magic is directed at very practical ends as articulated by an individual” (Frankle, 137). Put differently, magic has a definite beginning and end — someone’s goal, and a specific outcome they desire (Graeber, 245–246).

Consider an example. If you are unable to pay your rent this month and you decide to sell your bike to make ends meet, you aren’t engaging in magic because the steps you are taking are not supernatural. However, if you are unable to pay rent this month and decide to take action by following the principles of Feng Shui, you might place a money plant in your living room facing south. This would be considered a magical action because your efforts are engaging with supernatural forces that cannot be directly observed or explained by scientific means.

Other examples of magic use would include instances when people pray to supernatural beings to grant them specific outcomes. Sunday prayers to the Christian deity Jesus Christ may fall under the heading of “magic” if the person or people praying are praying for something specific, since engagement with this deity is not scientifically or naturally observable. In general, by praying to any divine beings with specific goals in mind, you are conducting magic: engaging with supernatural forces in an attempt to change your circumstances.

1.5 What is witchcraft?

We use the term “witchcraft” in two different ways in this course.

  • First, we use the term to refer to the many different religious communities who refer to themselves as witches. Although this form of witchcraft actually exists in many forms, it is often the case that witches believe in the supernatural powers of the “natural” world (parts of the world that are not human-made).
  • At the same time, many societies also use the term “witch” as an accusation intended to punish people who don’t conform to society’s standards.

We will explore the very different lessons, histories, and belief systems associated with these two uses of “witchcraft” (witchcraft as a description of one’s own spirituality and witchcraft as an accusation against others) at length in this course.

One last term still requires definition before we can begin our exploration into the anthropological study of witchcraft, magic, and religion. Anthropology is the study of humanity. Anthropologists are interested in all elements of human life. There are four major fields of anthropology:

  1. Anthropological archaeology: the study of human behavior through objects people leave behind.
  2. Linguistics: the study of the human experience through language.
  3. Physical anthropology: the study of human diversity, biology and evolution.
  4. Cultural anthropology: the study of human culture.

This course falls under the category of cultural anthropology. Cultural anthropologists are interested in every part of human culture, including religious beliefs and practices, but also including political structure, family organization (“kinship systems”), economies, etc.

As you can imagine, “culture” is hard to define, but we might think of it simply as “the way human beings create meaning in their lives.” Sometimes, human life can feel quite frightening, nonsensical, and out of control. For example, when bad things happen to good people or good things happen to bad people, we tend to struggle to make sense of the world around us. Often, we are faced with a powerful and frightening natural world that forces us to realize how little control we have. When human beings feel powerless and confused, we create and maintain cultural traditions to help make sense of the universe and to create a sense of meaning in a life that would otherwise feel meaningless.

The anthropological practice of studying meaning-making, otherwise known as semiotics, is a central focus in our class. Taking a semiotic approach means that while we examine our own cultures and the cultures of others, we will not just strive to understand not only what different human cultures believe or how they express those beliefs. We will also consider how humans actually produce (and reproduce) beliefs, meaning, and culture.

1.7 A word about our goals as cultural anthropologists

Cultural anthropologists are not interested in determining which religions or belief systems are “true” or “false.” Similarly, we are not interested in deciding which religions or belief systems are “better” or “worse.” In fact, decisions about what is “true,” “false,” “better,” or “worse” are not universal and are therefore impossible to make with any kind of scientific or unbiased certainty. In this course, you will be challenged to engage with concepts that may be different from your personal understanding of reality and we urge you to stretch your mind to understand the beliefs of people who think differently about the world than you do. To enter the study of magic, witchcraft, and religion without an open mind will hinder your ability to understand the course material.

Remember that your goal this semester is to understand the beliefs and practices of others — and of your culture too — while also developing your own unique perspective. You are not expected to like or to agree with everything that we discuss in this course, but you are expected to work hard to understand how anthropologists and other scholars study the topics of magic, witchcraft, and religion, and why other people’s religions and spiritual beliefs are as valid as your own.

1.8 Anthropology and Holism

While this course specifically focuses on magic, witchcraft, and religion from a cultural anthropology standpoint, we also incorporate ideas from linguistic anthropology, anthropological archaeology, and physical anthropology. Anthropologists call this a “four-field” approach toward the study of humanity, and we use it because we acknowledge that there are connections between the cultural, biological, linguistic, and material aspects of human life. In fact, these connections are quite common; no part of a culture exists in total isolation.

For example, think of all the ways that religion can be affected by “other parts of culture”:

  • Economic forces might favor the development or disappearance of specific types of religious practices over time, affecting the way that a religion changes.
  • There are laws in most countries that govern how religious institutions can operate; these laws can affect where a religion spreads and might even lead to conflicts between religious institutions and governments.
  • Cultural expectations and beliefs about what constitutes acceptable behavior likely also affect elements of a religion. For example, consider ideas about what a “normal” family should look like, what forms of dress are appropriate, what defines masculinity, femininity, or even “success.” All of these cultural expectations might shape how the messages and symbols that are part of a given religion develop.

In this sense, religion is connected to other parts of culture. It cannot be understood effectively if we fail to take its cultural surroundings into account.

In fact, any part of a culture is similar in that it is connected to other cultural institutions. For this reason, anthropologists use what we call a holistic perspective to study culture. Rather than using a naive approach that expects to simply and easily delineate a single part of culture in which we are interested, we instead seek out the connections between cultural institutions like religious beliefs, kinship systems (family structure), economies, gender ideology, political life, cultural understandings of health, and much more.

Anthropologists know that we have to consider the whole cultural situation — using “holism” — if we want to understand the reality of a person’s cultural experience. Later on in this course, you will be asked to examine the cultural practice of cannibalism holistically in order to understand how spirituality, gender roles, and language all play a role in one anthropologists’ examination of the practice.

For now, consider these examples of how anthropologists use holism. The perspective will come up frequently throughout our course:

  • Medical anthropologists worked in West Africa throughout the Ebola epidemic. Simply examining the genetic material of the virus was not sufficient in understanding why and how the disease spread so rapidly. Anthropologists therefore looked to the religious beliefs and practices of the community to learn that some West African communities touch and hold the bodies of their deceased loved ones as part of their religious and cultural ritual. Holistically combining this cultural knowledge with the scientific knowledge that Ebola is still contagious immediately after a person’s death, social scientists and doctors were able to see the big picture and to understand the progression of the epidemic (Wilkinson et al., 2017).
  • Marriage is practiced in a variety of ways and, in some rural Tibetan communities, women marry multiple men at the same time; most commonly a woman will marry all of the brothers from one family. We call this “fraternal polyandry”. Anthropologists have examined this practice at length and, by examining the culture holistically, we understand that a variety of factors cause a family to enter this type of marriage (Starkweather and Hames, 2012). In traditional Tibetan society, families prefer to keep their farms intact without splitting the land between children (fraternal polyandry keeps the entire farm intact within the same family) (Goldstein 1987). Traditional Tibetan society does not employ the same gender expectations that forbid a woman from having multiple husbands. So, by looking at the big picture and considering farming traditions, rules of inheritance, gender roles, and sexuality in this society, we can understand why these communities would practice fraternal polyandry.

1.9 Intersectionality and holism

We can look at the work of UCLA Professor Kimberle Crenshaw to better understand certain aspects of the holistic approach as it relates to contemporary discussions surrounding race and racism in the United States. Crenshaw argues that, while the Black Lives Matter movement consistently brings the murders of unarmed Black men to light, society at large too often ignores the murders of unarmed Black women. By examining this holistically, anthropologists and social scientists understand that these women’s murders are harder to address because both their race and gender intersect to create a type of marginalization that is unique. Black women in America are marginalized differently than Black men are and we cannot study the two trends in the same way; we must look at the big picture and consider both race and gender at the same time. Crenshaw calls this “intersectionality” whereby all of our different identities (our race, gender, class, nationality, ability, sexuality, etc.) intersect with one another in order to create unique lived experiences.

1.10 Worldview

When we take a holistic approach, we are examining the “whole” of something. The whole of our culture influences our worldview. Cultural anthropologists are very interested in examining and understanding different people’s worldviews. Your worldview is the way that you view the world including:

  • Your understanding of “good” and “bad.”
  • Your understanding of “better” and “worse.”
  • Your ideas of how people should behave.
  • Your idea of what gender roles are.
  • Your idea of what justice is.
  • Your understanding of history.
  • Etc.

It’s all specific to you. No two people have identical worldviews. You know that this is true if you have ever sat at the table with your own family and engaged in a political debate. Your family likely has an otherwise similar worldview to you (perhaps a similar religion, economic background, geographical location) and yet some members of your family might still diverge from you politically because they still have their own unique worldviews. Or, if you are religious, you know that no one culture has a unified worldview because you’ve likely had at least one argument with a member of your own religion over what the religious text “actually” means. Even two people raised in the same religion, reading the same holy text, can hold different worldviews on the “true” meaning of the religion. By holistically examining all of the elements that tie into a person’s life, we can better understand how different worldviews emerge.

Cultural anthropologists know that worldviews are culturally specific and that they differ from person to person, place to place, and that they are connected to our cultural experiences. In this course, we’ll be examining a wide variety of different worldviews and culturally specific perspectives.

1.11 Enculturation

The process through which you learn your culture and worldview is called enculturation. You were likely enculturated through the media, through TV and movies. You were likely enculturated by your families who taught you what “proper” behavior was and by friends who positively reinforced “good” behaviors while negatively reinforcing “bad” behaviors. Your view of the world was likely also developed by medical experts who told you what was mentally and/or physically healthy and similarly by religious leaders who told you what was moral or immoral.

Consider the following examples of the enculturation process:

  • Human bodies are very diverse. Weight, skin tone, hair color, length, and texture all vary widely. From a medical standpoint, different heights and weights can all be equally healthy and normal. However, our ideas of what is “beautiful” and “attractive” are largely defined by powerful cultural trends that typically only promote one type of body as the “ideal” type. When we grow up in a society that consistently puts one form of beauty on magazine covers, in TV shows, and on children’s toys, then we are enculturated to value only one, very small sampling of human bodies.
  • People are not born with a preconceived notion of what “success” or “power” looks like and, indeed, these concepts vary from generation to generation and from society to society. We learn our society’s own, culturally-specific ideas of success and power throughout our life as teachers, parents, religious leaders, media, politicians, define and reinforce these concepts.
  • “Appropriate” social behaviors vary from place to place and across social groups. Throughout our lives, we are taught how to behave from adult community leaders and our peers reinforce “good” behaviors and strive to eliminate “bad” behavior through social feedback.

No two people have the exact same ideas of “beauty,” “success,” or of “proper behavior”. And, most importantly, individuals who were enculturated by different forces than you will hold their beliefs equally dear to them and are equally valid in the way they developed their understanding of the world.

1.12 Shifting Gears: Anthropology, History, and Colonialism

The history of anthropology is connected to the problematic history of colonialism and this is where we must begin our journey together. The actual “beginning” of anthropology is hard to identify because human beings have, to some extent, always been interested in studying each other. Long before anthropology was officially recognized as a field of study, early travel writers and philosophers from ancient societies all over the world studied and wrote about the diversity of human culture (Guest 68). But, before colonialism, anthropology was a field of study that often had no clear value to those who held power in their respective societies (Lewis 269, 300).

The value of anthropology became more pronounced during the era of European expansion from the 16th-20th centuries, as European countries strove to expand their political influence and control areas across the entire globe. In many cases however, European-run colonial governments struggled to control local populations (Wolf 1982; Nevins 675; Sullivan 806). During this time, early anthropologists sought to re-brand their work in a way that could assist colonial governments in their missions (Kuper 1973) because, if you can understand a people, you can better exercise control over them.

1.13 So, what is colonialism?

We use the word “colonialism” to refer to the control of people and their land by a foreign power. While there are still some colonies today, the peak of colonialism took place from the 16th-20th centuries. European powers sought to expand control of the world in order to control its resources (this includes minerals, gems, waterways/trade routes, spices, and, in many cases, people). In some colonial situations, native people were viewed as an obstacle to circumvent, while in other cases, native people were viewed as resources to be enslaved. In all situations, native people were viewed as objects without equal standing or claim to human rights (Vaughan, 921).

1.14 What did colonial anthropologists actually do?

Anthropologists working for colonial regimes produced a great deal of work that was intended to assist the colonial governments in their efforts by:

  • Producing propaganda that presented native peoples as “savage” or less-than-human (while producing propaganda that their own people were “civilized”). When these early anthropologists were viewed as “experts,” they were taken at their word by Europeans living at home. And, when anthropologists produced accounts of culture that were steeped in racism, they were justifying the abusive control that European powers sought to keep over the rest of the world (Crewe and Axelby 28–31; Kuper 111).
  • Developing a hierarchy of cultural value. European anthropologists believed that their culture was, inherently, the “best” culture. They then strove to compare all other cultures against that standard in order to determine which people were more advanced than the rest. This logic is inherently flawed because the European standard of greatness is not a universal standard and these cultural hierarchies were not objective (Ibid; Trouillot 2003; 1; Mines 312–313).
  • Collecting census data. By surveying the number and types of people in each community, the colonial governments could better exercise control. (ibid)
  • Studying and learning the local culture and languages. It was easier to control a population if you could understand how they spoke to each other and about themselves. (ibid)
  • Studying and learning about local judicial systems so that the foreign governments could use them to better control the local population. (Ibid)

Cultural anthropology during this time did not look like the cultural anthropology of today. We call anthropologists of this era armchair anthropologists because they did not spend a great deal of time among the people whose cultures they studied (Guest 69; Launay 167). In fact, some never visited the people at all. Armchair anthropologists would rely on information provided by missionaries and government officials in the field; they would then write lengthy articles and books on the native peoples. As you can probably imagine, this type of research is often unreliable and did not actually reflect the realities of cultures it investigated.

Early anthropologists’ impact on the cultures they studied is hotly debated. While we know that anthropologists were offered funding and access to native lands during the era of European expansion (Guest 69; Crewe and Axelby 28–31; Kuper 113), and that many of these anthropologists marketed themselves as helpful to colonial governments in order to gain funding and other support (Kuper 94–114), the actual contribution that anthropology made to colonial rule is widely contested (Stocking 3–8; Asad 1991). Anthropologist Adam Kuper argues that anthropologists were in fact mostly ignored by government officials as eccentrics while anthropologist Talal Asad argues that the contributions of early anthropologists were too specific to be helpful to colonial administrators.

Did anthropologists directly help colonial governments? This is unclear. But what is clear is that early anthropology was steeped in a worldview of white, European supremacy during its early development (Wolf, Zuberi and Bonilla-Silva 18–19). Whether each individual anthropologist was assisting or resisting the colonial effort, they were working within a framework that constructed the world in a binary construct of European whiteness versus the rest of the world (Trouillot 2003, 103; Said, 1). This worldview is deeply flawed, problematic, and requires modern anthropologists to overcome our damaging history (James 32–33).

At this point, you need to understand how important critical thinking is in this class (and, indeed, in all classes). Each anthropologist that we read and study in our course will have a political viewpoint, personal bias, and academic agenda. All people are steeped in a particular worldview and this worldview will inevitably come through in our work. Some colonial anthropologists will strive to construct native peoples as subhuman while some post-colonial anthropologists might fail to fully recognize a damaging cultural practice within a community. Please prepare yourself to critically examine everything that you read and learn in this course and in this text as well.

1.15 Why do we care about colonialism now?

Please look at a world map and take a moment to identify which parts of the world were colonized. With, arguably, the exception of two countries (Lesotho and Ethiopia) the entire African continent was colonized during the era of European expansion, as were all of South America and the Pacific. More than half of the Middle East and Asia was colonized by European countries during this time. When we look at the world as a whole, we can see that the wealth disparity between the richer European (and European-heritage) countries and the significantly poorer nations in the rest of the world reflect colonial borders. This is no coincidence! When European colonial governments were mining other parts of the world and stealing their valuable resources while simultaneously enslaving the people for free labor, the colonial powers became steadily richer while native people became poorer (Wolf 1982). This wealth disparity led to technological advancements in the European and European-heritage nations while the robbed nations were weakened over and over again, leading to the disparity that impacts our daily lives today.

Perhaps most importantly, we can consider our own history to understand the impact of colonialism. For example, the Eastern United States was colonized by the British until that community rebelled against the British crown and became the American colonists. The Southern states were colonized by the French until they were sold to the American colonists and the Southwest United States was colonized by the Spanish until it was taken by American colonists through warfare (in between, much of that territory was Mexico’s land after Mexico pushed Spain out. It was taken by the Americans. California transitioned from Mexican to American rule in 1850).

In the United States, we live in a former colony and our colonial heritage impacts all areas of our lives. Consider the two majority languages that we speak in our country: English and Spanish. These are not native languages, these are the languages of the colonizer. Consider the majority religion: Christianity. This is the religion brought over by the colonists. Our judicial system, legal structure, style of dress, the holidays we celebrate, and our gender roles are all cultural forms that were brought to this land through European heritage. So, we cannot separate our modern lives from colonial history.

1.16 Cultural Relativism

Colonial anthropologists practiced ethnocentrism. Ethnocentrism is the practice of measuring the achievements or cultural practices of another community against your own cultural standards. In other words, if your favorite color is blue then you might say that a green car is ugly because it isn’t blue. In this circumstance, we know that the judgment is not objective because not everyone agrees that blue is better than green. This was the logical mistake that many fields made during the Era of European expansion: they decided that European culture was the best and then measured everyone else’s value against how ‘European’ their cultures were (Hammond 1; Lewis 586).

Anthropologist Franz Boas developed the concept of cultural relativism in direct response to this kind of ethnocentric thinking. Cultural relativism is the most important skill to learn in this course. Cultural relativism is the principle that all cultural beliefs and practices are equally valid in their own context. In other words, to judge a culture other than your own based on the standards that you learned within your cultural setting is always a pointless exercise that is biased by ethnocentrism. Instead of judging from the perspective of an outsider, as early anthropologists did, we now strive to understand cultures through their own, culturally-specific logics.

Throughout this course, we will strive to present you with cultural practices that are extremely different from your own; these may include practices like cannibalism, polygamy, and even incest. You never have to agree with or even like these cultural practices, but your task is to strive to understand how they make sense in their own context. When you feel challenged by a cultural worldview, ask yourself, “what would have to be true for this to be the case?” You’ll need to closely and holistically examine the cultures in order to make sense of a practice that is otherwise impossible to understand.

1.17 Engaging with cultural relativism: what is a “liberated woman?”

We can look at the example of a “liberated woman” to better understand how cultural relativism works. While no two people in the United States embrace the exact same cultural values, the majority understand that the dominating idea of a “liberated woman” is a woman who — among other things — is free to show her body (Mascia-Lees 206–207). In other words, many women’s liberation movements in the United States are of the view that a woman’s body is natural, not inherently sinful, and that a woman should remain safe in public no matter how little clothing she is wearing (Mascia-Lees 33–58).

This worldview makes sense in its own, culturally-specific context. However, there are many other forms of women’s liberation in the US and across the world that incorporate a different form of logic and, ultimately, arrive at a different conclusion. In some religious communities — including some Muslim, Christian, and Jewish communities — a liberated woman is a woman who is freed from the male gaze. In this context, a woman who covers most of her body is not pressured to be judged by society or to look attractive to men. To people in this culture, true freedom is the freedom from showing one’s body (Abu-Lughod, 787; Mascias-Lees 63–65).

While these two value systems seem contradictory, they both make equal sense in their own context and are both designed to achieve the same outcome. By practicing cultural relativism, we can move past the idea that these two cultural practices are mutually exclusive. Both cultural views and forms of clothing are designed to liberate women from oppression and both provide a certain sense of freedom; they simply express the same cultural value in different ways.

In each case, deeply ingrained cultural preferences can limit a woman’s freedom of expression and nonconformity can even threaten her safety. A community — like many in the United States — that expects women to uncover may react with hostility toward a woman who fully covers. On the other hand, a community that expects women to cover — like parts of Indonesia or the United Arab Emirates — may be hostile toward a woman in a bikini. In both cases, women are expected to internalize a specific value system that makes sense in context and anthropologists can examine both to better understand the larger human experience (Lewin 1–38).

Feminism is the principle that all genders and expressions of gender are equally valid and that all genders should be treated equally in society. Contrary to popular misconceptions, feminists do not believe that women are superior to men, and feminists do not believe that women (or men, or any other gender) should have to change their behaviors in order to gain power in society (Mascia-Lees 33–58; Chapman 177–178). If you are annoyed or remain unconvinced by feminism then please hang in there at this point in the course — we will examine feminism at multiple times throughout the course and this will give you a chance to reconsider. Remember that, if you don’t agree with something, then you should learn as much as you can about it so that you can more effectively argue against it. Give your instructors the chance to fully introduce you to this system of thought before you pass your final judgment and know that you never have to change your beliefs in order to learn about someone else’s.

Now, you’ll read the work of feminist anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod titled, “Do Muslim Women Need Saving?” Abu-Lughod addresses some incredibly controversial issues surrounding the US invasion of the Middle East after 9/11. Abu-Lughod argues that different groups of women empower themselves in different ways and that, when we try to view another groups’ liberation through our own, culturally-specific lens, we can foster irreparable conflict.

1.18 Participant Observation

In 1914, an anthropologist named Bronislaw Malinowski was offered a position to briefly visit New Guinea (a British colony at the time). Malinowski was a citizen of Austria-Hungary and was studying in the UK. He planned to do the minimal amount of research that the dominant approach to anthropology — the armchair approach discussed above — required at the time.

Upon arrival in New Guinea, Malinowski learned that the First World War had broken out and that he was, essentially, behind enemy lines. Malinowski was required to stay in British territory as an “enemy of the state” but he was hired to complete fieldwork while he lived among the Trobriand Islanders (Young 1, Frazer vii, Uberoi 5). Malinowski transformed fieldwork by intimately getting to know his community of study (Stocking Jr. 11, 12).

After the end of the war, Malinowski returned to the UK with a powerful book about the lives of the people he had truly had the chance to observe, live among, and know. Malinowski’s experiences led him to develop the fieldwork strategy, participant observation, that we all embrace today.

The four steps of participant observation are:

  1. Stay for an extended period of time: This may seem obvious to us now, but it was groundbreaking at the time. Malinowski wanted to make sure that anthropologists spent years living among the people they were studying in order to have enough time to fully understand all elements of the culture.
  2. Learn the local language: If you are multilingual then you know that different languages lead to different ways of thinking. Malinowski realized that you can’t understand a community if you can’t learn how they speak about themselves and about the world.
  3. Explore the mundane imponderabilia: in other words, “make the strange familiar and make the familiar strange.” Anthropologists strive to make sense of cultural practices that seem “strange” while equally trying to identify what might be unique or “strange” from an outsider’s perspective in order to highlight what, exactly, is a social construct in our own cultures.
  4. Get off the veranda:” Malinowski wanted anthropologists to leave their homes and actively participate in the cultural practices of the people they were studying (DeWalt 1–17). It is only by getting off the veranda and participating, while also observing, that we can ever fully know the people that we are studying.

1.19 Ethnography

Anthropologists produce ethnographies (written descriptions of a community or cultural practice). In order to produce a good ethnography, we need to be able to conduct participant observation while practicing cultural relativism. An anthropologist in the field will face a variety of challenges that will inhibit good ethnography, including:

  • Understanding culturally-specific logic.
  • Removing power for people to speak for themselves.
  • Instinctual desire to measure the culture against your own.

The term “ethnography” is not only a term for the written work that an anthropologist produces after observing and participating in a culture. It is also a shorthand term used to describe the method of participant observation that Malinowski pioneered. Throughout this course, you will encounter the term “ethnography” as a way of describing both the product of an anthropologist’s fieldwork and the fieldwork method itself.

1.20 Emic and Etic Perspectives

A written ethnography presents a way of understanding a culture based on an anthropologist’s insights and experiences as a participant observer. However, as it turns out, there is more than one way to understand a culture. We will sometimes find it useful to distinguish two separate perspectives we use when studying cultures, each highlighting a fundamentally different way of viewing cultural beliefs and behaviors. Each of these perspectives has an important place in the anthropologist’s toolkit.

As you have learned, anthropological fieldwork involves immersing oneself in a group’s day-to-day activities, participating in their rituals, attending social gatherings, and conversing with cultural insiders. All of this is done with the goal of understanding the culture from the perspective of its actual members. To learn how cultural insiders see the world is to gain what we call an emic perspective. Another way to say this is that when we take an emic perspective, we are looking at the world around us through the eyes of a member of a particular culture, interpreting it in terms of their beliefs, preconceptions, and categories.

In contrast, another approach that anthropologists use when trying to gain an understanding of a culture is what we call an etic perspective. This term refers to a way of observing a culture without the preconceptions, attitudes, or cultural knowledge of its members. In other words, an etic perspective is supposed to be free of any cultural biases, even cultural insiders’ perspectives about their own reasons for doing what they do.

1.21 An Example of the Emic and Etic Perspectives: a Morning Meal

Kenneth Pike, a scholar who coined the terms “emic” and “etic” in the 1950s, provided an example of a group of biologically-related individuals gathered together, eating toasted bread and butter, scrambled eggs, and orange juice, shortly after sunrise (Mostowlansky and Rota 2020:5–6). An anthropologist using an etic perspective to interpret this event might choose to focus on the quantity of calories, cholesterol, and carbohydrates each individual ingests during this event. An anthropologist using this (etic) perspective might also emphasize the way that daily feeding events like this one allow the members of a household to share information about their schedules over the next day and coordinate with one another before they separate to fulfill their economic, social, political, and familial responsibilities.

In other words, an etic perspective focuses on the observable functions of a practice — even one as simple as “breakfast”). It does not focus on what cultural insiders think of, what they care about, or how they describe this event when they reflect on it. When early anthropologists wrote about cultural practices among groups all over the world who they viewed as “primitive,” they tended to use an etic approach. Members of the cultures that these anthropologists wrote about would likely have explained their own beliefs in very different terms than armchair anthropologists did.

Looking at the same event described above, an emic perspective, by contrast, a written ethnography would present this event as cultural insiders see it. To cultural insiders, this event is a type of event that is both familiar and meaningful, and even carries its own symbolic importance due to the specific cultural information they have come to possess through the process of enculturation. This event is breakfast — “the most important meal of the day!”

Of course, from an objective and unbiased standpoint, cultural insiders may be correct or incorrect in their attitude or their belief about breakfast and its importance. Most likely, they have plenty of other ideas or expectations or associations relating to breakfast that are unique to their specific culture. In fact, the very concept of breakfast may be unique to their culture, such that outsiders observing them eating might not have any preconceived notions or even a word for this particular meal.

In short, when we discuss an emic perspective, we are referring to cultural insiders’ unique understanding of their own practices. Throughout this course, we will encounter instances where cultural insiders’ (emic) perspectives are critically important for us in order to understand why people make the choices they make.

1.22 Why Emic and Etic Perspectives Matter

Anthropological research conducted over centuries teaches us that an enormous and diverse range of worldviews have always existed, and continue to exist across human cultures. We should expect that what members of one culture see as beautiful, ethical, or valuable might differ significantly from how people in another culture assign these attributes to objects, actions, and ideas they encounter.

As discussed earlier in this chapter, one of the central goals of anthropology involves documenting and understanding these different cultural perspectives. To do so, we will often need to wear the lens of a cultural insider, taking on the emic perspective to the best of our ability. At the same time, there will also be instances where cultural insiders understand their behaviors in ways that do not fully capture what we are really interested in. In these instances, it may not be enough to know how insiders explain or justify their own cultural practices. Instead, we may also want to consider factors that aren’t obvious or don’t seem important to cultural insiders. Such cases require us to use the etic perspective.

Again, neither one of these perspectives should be treated as superior; in fact, most of the situations we consider will require us to understand both emic and etic perspectives.

1.23 Remembering “Emic” and “Etic”

If you’re looking for a trick to remember the difference between emic and etic perspectives, consider the way that the word emic has the letters “m” and “e” in the word spelling the word, “me” and then you can remember the emic perspective is your own perspective. What this means is that when you grow up in your own culture, you, likely, understand why you practice certain holidays, why you dress a certain way, why you divide labor in a family differently than another culture might do it, and you can explain these things to outsiders if they’re visiting your culture and looking to learn about it. However, because everything in your culture might feel so normal and natural and obvious to you, you may not know what is unique or interesting to your culture. This is why we need outsiders to visit our cultures and observe them with an etic perspective. The etic perspective, or, the outsider’s perspective, can highlight what is unique about a culture from a new, alternative viewpoint.

1.24 A Final Note on Critical Thinking and Studying Anthropology

Education, including this class, is a part of the enculturation process (discussed above). Concepts are presented to us as facts in the classroom and we are expected to understand the material in the same way that our instructors understand the material. If you’ve ever felt frustrated by a teacher’s bias, then you know that there is an inherent power imbalance in the education system: teachers have a great deal of power to influence their students’ understanding of the world around them (Freire 1972).

Educators have the power to:

  • Identify and present information in a manner that we see fit
  • Interpret the information in a way that is in line with our own worldview
  • Encourage the reflection of our own worldviews in the grading process

Your instructors have culturally specific worldviews that can never fully be removed from the classroom. Your anthropology instructors strive to equalize this power imbalance as much as we possibly can by being transparent about our personal biases and by asking you, the student, to speak up and share your personal knowledge and experience (especially when it differs from our own).

The college classroom is the best place to learn how to think critically and you can achieve this by learning how to critically engage with academic arguments. Critical thinking is an essential skill that we work to help you develop. Critical thinking is the practice of examining evidence and using what you learn from it to reach a conclusion. By advancing your critical thinking skills, you’ll be able to better separate fact from fiction when watching, listening to, or reading news stories or arguments from politicians or from other powerful sources that wish to maintain power over you. When thinking critically, it’s essential to:

  • Consider the speaker: What is their agenda? What are they trying to achieve? Do they want something from you?
  • Consider the evidence presented: Is it reliable? How do you know?
  • Consider your own knowledge: What has your experience been? What unique information do you possess about the issue at hand?

Then, finally, make up your own mind about the information presented. In your personal life, you should be able to do this with your teachers, news media, politicians, medical and religious experts. In this course we will work with you in the first few weeks to help you critically examine the arguments presented by cultural anthropologists so that you can decide, for yourself, which arguments are most valid and valuable. In the rest of this text, we will consider some of the problematic history of cultural anthropology that was steeped in racism and colonial oppression. It’s important that you’re able to keep this in mind when you read the work of anthropologists because early anthropologists produced work that helped to spread the problematic narrative of white, European superiority across the globe (Zuberi and Bonilla-Silva 18–19; James 32–33; Guest 69; Said 1979; Boas 1922; Mascia-Lees 69–73; 212). Consider how these problematic white supremacy movements still impact life in this country every day and then you’ll understand why it’s so important to be able to think critically. We will work on this together in class throughout the course.

The first step in understanding how to think critically is to remember that your instructors are also human beings with specific worldviews, and that Anthropology, like all of the social sciences, is based on debate and dialogue between social scientists’ different theories. It’s important that you understand that nothing we learn here is absolute, objective fact but, rather, our subject is made up of well-researched and developed arguments that rely on the arguments of social scientists who came before us. We will also be incorporating evidence from our own research and our own lived experiences in the material. Please consider all of this when critically engaging in the course material.

At the end of the semester, you should be able to:

  • Critically examine the arguments of the social scientists we learn this semester
  • Remember who made each argument because they are arguments and not absolute, objective fact (this is usually the hardest part of course, but we’ll support you to make it easier)
  • Critically examine our arguments, consider our perspective as authors and anthropologists
  • Listen to the contributions of your classmates who have equally valid knowledge and experiences to share
  • Contribute to the dialogue yourself by offering “I statements” (please do not make claims in the classroom that you cannot, personally verify to be true)
  • Come to your own conclusions based on all of these considerations

Chapter 1 Works Cited

  • “Anthropologists Engaged.” Anthropology and Development: Culture, Morality and Politics in a Globalised World, by Emma Crewe and Richard Axelby, Cambridge University Press, 2014, pp. 28–31.
  • “Anthropology for the 21st Century.” Essentials of Cultural Anthropology: a Toolkit for a Global Age, by Kenneth J. Guest, W. W. Norton and Company, 2020, pp. 9–69.
  • Asad, Talal. “Anthropology and the Colonial Encounter.” The Politics of Anthropology, doi:10.1515/9783110806458.85.
  • Boas, Franz. The Mind of Primitive Man. Forgotten Books, 2015.
  • Dewalt, Billie R., and Kathleen M. Dewalt. Participant Observation: a Guide for Fieldworkers. Md., 2011.
  • Frankle, R. L. (2005). Anthropology of Religion, Magic, and Witchcraft. Retrieved 2020.
  • Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Penguin Education, 1972.
  • Goldstein, Melvyn. “Fraternal Polyandry: When Brothers Share a Wife.” Natural History, 1987, pp. 39–48.
  • Graeber, David. Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value: the False Coin of Our Own Dreams. Palgrave Macmillan, 2001.
  • “Imaginative Geography and Its Representations.” Orientalism, by Edward W. Said, Vintage Books, 2004, pp. 49–72.
  • Kuper, Adam. Anthropology and Anthropologists: the Modern British School. Routledge, 2006.
  • Malinowski, Bronislaw, et al. A Diary in the Strict Sense of the Term. Stanford University Press, 1989.
  • Malinowski, Bronislaw. Argonauts of the Western Pacific: an Account of Native Enterprise and Adventure in the Archipelagoes of Melanesian New Guinea. Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1978.
  • Mostowlansky, T. & A. Rota. 2020. Emic and etic. In The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Anthropology (eds) F. Stein, S. Lazar, M. Candea, H. Diemberger, J. Robbins, A. Sanchez & R. Stasch.
  • “The Politics of Anthropology.” Gender and Difference in a Globalizing World: Twenty-First-Century Anthropology, by Frances E. Mascia-Lees, Waveland Press Inc, 2010, pp. 69–70–212.
  • Slocum, Sally. “Woman the Gatherer: Male Bias in Anthropology.” Toward an Anthropology of Women, 1975.
  • Starkweather, K.E., Hames, R. A Survey of Non-Classical Polyandry. Hum Nat 23, 149–172 (2012).
  • “Toward A Definition of White Logic and White Methods .” White Logic, White Methods: Racism and Methodology, by Tukufu Zuberi and Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2008, pp. 18–19.
  • Wilkinson, A., Parker, M., Martineau, F., & Leach, M. (2017). Engaging ‘communities’: anthropological insights from the West African Ebola epidemic. Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological sciences, 372(1721), 20160305.
  • Wolf, E. Europe and the People without History. University of California Press, 1982.

Chapter 1 Suggestions for further reading:

  • “Chapter 4.” We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families: Stories from Rwanda, by Philip Gourevitch, Picador/Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2004.
  • Earle, T. 1997. How Chiefs Come to Power: the Political Economy in Prehistory. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
  • Lindenbaum, Shirley. “An Annotated History of Kuru.” Medicine Anthropology Theory | An Open-Access Journal in the Anthropology of Health, Illness, and Medicine, vol. 2, no. 1, 2015, p. 95., doi:10.17157/mat.2.1.217.
  • “The Notion of Witchcraft Explains Unfortunate Events.” Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic among the Azande, by E. E. Evans-Pritchard and Eva Gillies, Clarendon Press, 2014.
  • “Production.” Sweetness and Power: the Place of Sugar in Modern History, by Sidney Winfried Mintz, Penguin Books, 2018, pp. 20–73.
  • “Toward and Interpretive Theory of Culture.” The Interpretation of Cultures, by Clifford Geertz, Basic Books, 1972.


Written by Amanda Zunner-Keating and Ben Shepard. Edited by Oscar Hernández, Ben Shepard, Laurie Solis, Brian Pierson, Madlen Avetyan, and Amanda Zunner-Keating. Special thanks to Jennifer Campbell for curating photos; and to Melody Yeager-Struthers for organizing our resources. Student editing by Renee Rubanowitz and Alexa Zysman. Layout by Amanda Zunner-Keating and Madlen Avetyan. Audio recording by Amanda Zunner-Keating. Published under a Creative Commons License CC BY-NC 2.0.

Published under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License