Cultural Anthropology/Social Institutions/Expressive Culture

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Key Terms & Concepts

  • Definitions: analytical, functional, essentialist
  • Myth
  • Supernatural
  • Mana
  • Animatism
  • Animism
  • Ritual
  • Communitas
  • Portrayl influence
  • Principle of influence
  • Principle of contagion
  • Divination
  • Totem
  • Practitioners: shaman, priest, sorcerer, witch, medium
  • Patterns of belief: monotheism, henotheism, polytheism
  • Syncretic
  • Revitalization movement

Sufi Whirling Dervishes


This section is not meant to provide an in-depth exploration of religion, but simply to introduce students to the anthropological approach to the study of religion.

You should start with Wade Davis' TED Talk on The Worldwide Web of Belief and Ritual.


Nomad praying
There are various ways to define religion. One, the analytic definition stresses how religion manifests itself within a culture and identifies six dimensions of religion:
  1. Institutional: this refers to the organizational and leadership structure of religions; this may be complex with a bureaucracy or simple with only one leader
  2. Narrative: this refers to myths, e.g., creation stories
  3. Ritual: all religions have rites of passage and other activities
  4. Social: religions have social activities, perhaps beyond rituals, that helps to promote bonds between members
  5. Ethical: religions establish a moral code and approved behaviors for its members and even society at large
  6. Experiential: religious behavior is often focused on connection with a sacred reality beyond everyday experience

The functional definition highlights the role religion plays within a culture. This approach defines religion in terms of how it fulfills cognitive, emotional and social needs for its adherents.

The third definition looks at the essential nature of religion, hence its name, the essentialist definition. This approach defines religion as a system of beliefs and behaviors that characterizes the relationship between people and the supernatural. It is an adaptive behavior that promotes a sense of togetherness, unity and belonging. It helps to define one of the groups to which we belong. Warms (2008) takes an essentialist approach when he defines religion as a system that is composed of stories, includes rituals, has specialists, believes in the supernatural, and uses symbols and symbolism as well as altered states of consciousness. Additionally, Warms states that a key factor in religion is that it changes over time.

Let's look at these parts in more detail:

Religious systems have stories, or sacred narratives. Some stories may be more sacred than others, e.g., in Christianity the story of Christ's resurrection is more sacred then the story of Him turning water
Book of Isaiah 2006-06-06.jpg
into wine at a wedding celebration. Stories may be about many things, but there are some common themes: origins of earth and humans, what happens when we die, deeds of important people, and disasters. Anthropologists can study these stories, or myths, to learn more about the people. Myth in anthropology should not be interpreted as a falsehood. In anthropology, a myth is a truism for the people following that belief system.

An important part of religion is the belief in the supernatural, which includes a variety of beings from angels and demons to ghosts and gods and souls. The supernatural is a realm separate from the physical world inhabited by humans, although the supernatural can influence the human realm either through direct action or by influencing humans. For some peoples the supernatural realm is disconnected from everyday life; for others it is an intricate part of it. The supernatural can also refer to an unseen power that infuses humans, nature and for some belief systems, inanimate objects. Some groups refer to this power as mana, a term that is sometimes used to represent this supernatural power. This belief in a supernatural power is called animatism, while the belief in supernatural beings is animism.

Through rituals, people can influence or call upon the supernatural and supernatural power using symbolic action. Rituals are standardized patterns of behavior; e.g., prayer, congregation, etc. In the realm of religion, rituals are a sacred practice. In some religions, rituals are highly stereotyped and deviation from the ritual results in either no influence on the supernatural or negative consequences. Nature based religions, particularly those led by shamans (see below) are not as wedded to the ritual and employ a degree of creativity when trying to influence the supernatural.

Diwali, Festival of Lights
Ritual promotes what Victor Turner called communitas, a sense of unity that transcends social distinctions like socioeconomic class. During the period of the ritual, rank and status are forgotten as members think of themselves as a community. This helps cement unity among community members.

Ritual can also be a portrayal Influence or a reenactment of myth, e.g., communion or baptism. Portrayal influence invokes magic to manipulate the supernatural. This has nothing to do with David Copperfield type of magic—it is about harnessing supernatural forces. If the magic does not seem to work, there is not a problem with the magic, but with the ritual—the practitioner did something wrong in their performance.

Magic uses a couple of principles: imitation (or similarity) and contagion. The principle of similarity states that if one acts out what one wants to happen then the likelihood of that occurring increases. Baptism is a good example of this as is the Pueblo Indians ritual of whipping yucca juice into frothy suds, which symbolize rain clouds. The principle of contagion states that things that been in contact with the supernatural remain connected to the supernatural. That connection can be used to transfer mana from the one thing to the other. Voodoo dolls are the classic example of the law of contagion, however, some cultures belief that names also have mana, so for anyone outside of the family to know their real name gives them the power to perform black magic against them.

Another form of magic is divination. Divination is the use of ritual to obtain answers to questions from supernatural sources, e.g., oracle bones, tea leaves, way a person falls, date of birth, etc. There are two main categories of divination: those results that can be influenced by diviner and those that cannot. Tarot cards, tea leaves, randomly selecting a Bible verse and interpreting an astrological sign are examples of the former. Casting lots, flipping a coin or checking to see whether something floats on water are examples of the latter.

Ritual is infused with symbolic expression. Emile Durkheim suggested that religious systems were a set of practices related to sacred things. The sacred is that which inspires awe, respect and reverence because it is set apart from the secular world or is forbidden. People create symbols to represent aspects of society that inspire these feelings. For instance, the totems of Australian aborigine groups is spiritually related to members of the society. The human soul is a kindred spirit to the sacred plant or animal. Clifford Geertz discussed how symbols expressed feelings of society to maintain stability. This approach helped to broaden early definitions of religion beyond supernatural to incorporate actions of people and helped to account for the deep commitment and behavior of adherents.

There are several types of religious practitioners or people who specialize in religious behaviors. These are individuals who specialize in the use of spiritual power to influence others. A shaman is an
Buddhist monks
individual who has access to supernatural power that can then be used for the benefit of specific clients. Found in indigenous cultures, shamans may be part-time specialists, but is usually the only person in the group that can access the supernatural. They have specialized knowledge that is deemed too dangerous for everyone to know because they do not have the training to handle the knowledge. Oftentimes, shamans train their replacement in the ways of contacting and utilizing the supernatural. Shamans are often innovative in their practices, using trance states to contact the supernatural.

The term shaman originated with the Tungus peoples of eastern Siberia. Anthropologists debate the ethics of using the term to apply to all indigenous religious practitioners. Some think that we should use each cultures' name for their religious practitioners; others take the position that use of the term is not meant to be disrespectful but is simply a way for all anthropologists to categorize a cultural trait much like we use the names of several cultures for the anthropological kinship terminology systems. There is also public debate about the increasing number of so-called white shamans, especially in the United States where there is still heated debate about the plight of Native Americans. For more information on this debate, check out the video White Shamans and Plastic Medicine Men on YouTube.

Priests are another type of religious practitioner who are trained to perform rituals for benefit of group. Priests differ from shamans is a couple of important ways. For priests, rituals are key—innovation and creativity are generally not prized or encouraged. Priests are found in most organized religions, e.g., Buddhism, Christianity and Judaism, although they have a different name such as monks, ministers, or rabbis.

Sorcerers and witches, unlike shamans and priests who have high status in their cultures, usually have low status because their abilities are seen in a negative manner. Both sorcerers and witches have the ability to connect with the supernatural for ill purposes. Sorcerers often take on a role similar to law enforcement in the United States; they are used by people to punish someone who has violated socially proscribed rules. Witches are believed to have an innate connection to the supernatural, one that they often cannot control. Because witches may inadvertently hurt people because they cannot control their power, if discovered, they are often ostracized or forced to leave their group. It is important to differentiate witches in some cultures from Wiccans. While Christianity makes no distinction between Wiccans and witches as described above, Wicca has clear mandates against using magic to harm others. The Wiccan rede states, “An' it harm none, do what ye will.”

Mediums are part-time practitioners who use trance and possession to heal and divine. Oftentimes after a trance or possession, the medium remembers nothing about the experience or their actions.

Anthropologists have identified a pattern linking the type and number of practitioners with social complexity: the more complex the society, the more variety of religious practitioners. Foraging cultures tend to have only one practitioner, a shaman. If a culture has two practitioners, a shaman and a priest, chances are that they are agriculturalists, albeit without complex political and social organization. Agriculturalists and pastoralists with more complex political organization that goes beyond the immediate community, generally have a least three types of practitioners, shamans, priests and a sorcerer, witch or medium. Cultures with complex political organization, agriculture, and complex social organization usually have all four practitioners (Bonvillain 2010).

Patterns of belief

Patterns of belief focused on one or more god of extrahuman origin is called a theism. The pattern may be a reflection of social organization, e.g., the more centralized and stratified the society, the fewer gods.

Monotheism: belief in one god (Judaism, Christianity, Islam)

Henotheism: worship of only one god, while acknowledging that other gods exist. Henotheists do not necessarily view other gods as legitimate objects of worship, even while acknowledging they exist (Hinduism)

Polytheism: belief in many gods (Aztec, ancient Greeks, Egyptians)

Religious Change

Religious beliefs and rituals can be the catalyst or vehicle of social change. Most religions are syncretic; they borrow practices, beliefs and organizational characteristics from other religions. Sometimes this is done voluntarily and at other times it is done by force. For instance, Catholicism through the practice of forced conversion during the period of European colonialism influenced other religions. Vodoun borrowed heavily from Catholicism. The one god is manifested in Bondye while St. Patrick is symbolized by Vodoun's rainbow serpent deity, Ochumare. Oftentimes special days are adopted by religions. Catholicism adopted Yule, the winter solstice celebration of Pagans, to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. The Zuni merged their native religion with Catholicism, incorporating images of Christ into their cloths and jewelry.

Revitalization movements are frequently associated with religion. They often occur in disorganized societies due to warfare, revolutions, etc. They usually call for the destruction of existing social institutions in order to resolve conflict and stabilize the culture through reorganization. Most recorded revitalization movements were an adaptive response to rapidly changing social and economic circumstances brought on by contact with an outside culture.

The cargo cults of Melanesia are one example of movements that make a conscious effort to build an ideology that will be relevant to changing cultural needs. Cargo cults arose in Melanesia and other areas of the world after European contact in response to “...the expropriation of native land, and the relegation of indigenous peoples to roles as menial laborers and second-class citizens” (Bonvillain 2010: 374). Rituals were performed in the belief that they would result in increased wealth and prosperity in line with the European idea of material wealth.

The Ghost Dance
Another example of a revitalization movement is the Ghost Dance that swept through western Native American cultures in from 1870-1890. The Ghost Dance was begun by a Pauite, Wovoka. Wovoka claimed to have a vision from God during eclipse. In this vision, he was brought before God and given message for people of earth about peace and right living. He was shown the circle dance, that represented the movement of harmony around sun. Wovoka prohesized that dead Indian forebears would return soon to take possession of technology of whites, who would simultaneously be exterminated in huge explosion, resulting in a renewal of earth. Many Native American nations rallied to the Ghost Dance; e.g., Lakota, Ute, Washoe, Shoshone, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Kiowa, Mandan, and Comanche. However, during the process of learning about the Ghost Dance from Wovoka, some of the new adherents changed its meaning and intent. The Lakota were one group who changed some of the meaning of the Ghost Dance.

The Lakota had suffered greatly at hands of US Army. Their lands were taken away by miners, the railroads were given rights to build through the reservations, and traditional hunting grounds were being settled by farmers. One Lakota warrior, Kicking Bear, visited Wovoka, and returned to his people with the message of the Ghost Dance, but he injected militancy into it. He claimed that if the people wore a special costume for the dance, one that included eagle feathers, the dancer would be impervious to the white man's bullets. The Ghost Dance made the United States government nervous and in November 1890 sent thousands of troops onto the Pine Ridge and Rosebud reservations. Sitting Bull, one of the Lakota peace chiefs was arrested and subsequently murdered. Meanwhile another peace chief, Big Foot was encamped with his people along Wounded Knee Creek. On December 28, 1890, soldiers showed up at camp to confiscate weapons in response to the Ghost Dance. One Lakotan man who was deaf and did not understand what the army was doing struggled to keep his gun, which went off in the melee. This caused the soldiers to open fire on the camp of mainly elders, women and children. The resulting massacre left 153 Lakotans dead, mostly women and children. Twenty-five soldiers were killed as well, most by friendly fire, all of whom were posthumously awarded medals of honor.

Why Are People Religious? The Function of Religion

There appear to be two primary explanations for the emergence of religious systems: for psychological reasons and social reasons. Psychologically, religion helps people answer the big existential questions, why do we die and suffer, and help people cope with uncertainty. Religion provides a clear cut way to deal with the unknown. The Trobriand Islanders are excellent mariners, yet perform elaborate rituals before setting sail. On 9/11 and in the days following, tens of thousands US citizens went to church, temple, or mosque to pray and find comfort and answers to the devastation of the terrorist attack.

Socially, religion helps to mediate tension between social roles and relationships. It provides guidelines for how husbands and wives are supposed to act towards one another. It proscribes the relationship of children to parents, and individuals to their society at large. Religion is a way for adherents to achieve consensus. It provides guidelines for right living and identifies what values to hold. Religion gives groups a set of social rules that help to maintain order, invoking a supernatural punishment if its tenets are not followed.


Bonvillain, Nancy. 2010. Cultural Anthropology, 2nd edition. Boston: Pearson Education, Inc.

Lavenda Robert H. and Emily A. Schultz. 2010. Core Concepts in Cultural Anthropology, 4th edition. Boston: McGraw Hill Higher Education.

Laufer, Berthold. 1917. Origin of the word shaman. American Anthropologist 19 (3): 361-371. Also, DOI: 10.1525/aa.1917.19.3.02a00020 (October 28, 2009).

Warms, Richard. 2008. Sacred Realms: Readings in the Anthropology of Religion. New York: Oxford University Press.