Home » anthropology

Category Archives: anthropology

Schumacher’s ‘Buddhist economics’

I’ve been talking to a colleague recently about developing a project on religion and economics under the auspices of the Religion and Political Culture Network (RPCN) at the University of Manchester. This has got me thinking about Buddhism, economics and Buddhist economics, and has led me to reread Ernst Friedrich Schumacher’s classic essay Buddhist economics, first published in 1966, and available online here: (more…)

Needham’s review of Paul Veyne’s ‘Did the Greeks believe in their myths?’

This post is a continuation of my thoughts in my previous post

Now to Needham’s review of Veyne’s book. The review is short, and much is taken up with flattering comments on Veyne’s style, but overall the conclusion is negative—he characterises the argument as ‘erratic and inconsistent’. On my reading, Needham makes three substantive points, which I shall deal with one by one here in order of importance.

(1) The only criticism that really has bite is that Veyne is vague about what the key terms in his analysis—belief and truth—mean to him. Partly on the basis of Veyne’s previous work, Needham reads Did the Greeks…? as an exercise in epistemological relativism, and makes a version of the usual objection to the paradoxes of relativism: if truth is always to be defined in local terms, in relation to historically specific programmes of truth, as Veyne would have it, then what exactly does Veyne mean when he says, absolutely, and not qualified by any context, that truth is plural?

Needham writes:

As it turns out, Veyne actually concentrates not on belief but on truth, but only to place himself in a further difficulty. He concedes that ‘truth’ too means so many things, yet he passes over the variety of theories of truth and, in the end, commits himself consistently to none. The nearest he gets to a steady acceptance is to say that truths and interests, which are both limited and arbitrary, are ‘two different terms for the same thing’.

Needham is right to call Veyne out for not clarifying his terms, and attributing this weakness to strong epistemological relativism is not an unreasonable interpretation. However, I believe another reading is possible.

Veyne details the variety of ‘regimes of belief’ in terms of different truth conditions and specific practices, such as the use of footnotes in academic writing, with which they are associated. These things are the specific form that believing has, historically taken. But it is still possible to speak of believing in the abstract, as the category to which all these concrete modes of belief belong. What is it that makes the ordinary ancient Greek’s vague and lethargic belief in gods and heroes an instance of the same class of phenomenon as the mediaeval lawyer’s insistence on footnotes, and the modern newspaper reader’s suspicion of bias? They are all specifications of the practical and social relationship between thinker and what the thinker accepts as truth. To put it more pithily, belief is about a relationship to a body of truth.

I admit, it’s not clear from Veyne’s text that this is what he means by belief and truth, but it’s a reading that makes sense of his concrete claims, and saves his general conclusions from Needham’s anti-relativist criticism. Needham is right that Veyne is unclear on this score, and clarifying the meaning of the general category of belief, and of the general category of truth on which it depends will be an important task for any ethnographic approach to belief.

(2) He complains that Veyne, in seeking to understand belief, did not take into account the attempts of philosophers such as Wittgenstein, Hume, Kant, and so on to do the same thing.

These writers were engaged in what Veyne describes as an exercise of ‘the constitutive imagination’. Like the ancient and modern historians whom Veyne describes, they were engaged in shaping programmes of truth, legitimising some ‘regimes of belief’ and delegitimising others. They were not in the business of describing the plural programmes of truth of others, and they would only have had a place in the book alongside the mediaeval jurists and modern journalists that Veyne—as case studies of the kind of second-order belief theory and practice that Veyne is interested in describing.

In other words, Veyne is writing at a higher level of generalisation or abstraction than Kant et al., and for a different purpose. The philosophers’ question would not have been ‘Did the Greeks believe in their myths’, but the logically posterior question, ‘Were the Greeks right to (dis)believe in their myths?’, which is only meaningful once it is established whether or not (or to what extent, in what senses) they did, in fact, believe.

(3) Finally, Needham chides Veyne for not taking account of ‘sceptical anthropology’. He argues that ethnographers have succeeded in explaining the kinds god-language that Veyne’s question raises, but without resorting to the notion of belief. He concludes that these writers,

confirm that it is not ‘pointless’, as Veyne proposes, to try to determine the true thought of other peoples, but that we shall not do so if we attribute our thoughts to them.

No page references are given in the review, but thanks to Google, it is possible to trace the passage in Veyne’s book to which Needham refers. Needham suggests that Veyne says it’s pointless ‘…to determine the true thought of other peoples thought’. The ‘pointless’ here is taken out of context and is quite misleading. In fact, Veyne was not saying it was hopeless to try to understand ‘other people’s’ thought, but that when faced with contradictory forms of thought, one must recognise the plurality rather than trying to explain it away. The full passage reads as follows:

Struggling to determine ‘the’ true thought of these people is pointless, and it is equally unproductive to attempt to resolve these contradictory thoughts by attributing one to popular religion and the other to the beliefs of the privileged social classes. (Veyne 1988:89)

The sceptical approach that Needham recommends begins by setting aside the question of belief. It may have found other explanations for religious language, and they may be illuminating, but this approach cannot even recognise the plurality of modes of belief that Veyne draws our attention to and makes it his business to describe and understand.

In summary, then, Needham’s critical review does not persuade me that Veyne’s way of understanding belief is not a really critical piece in understanding human thought, though Needham is right to say that Veyne is vague about his key terms. They’re still arguing in my head and Veyne is still winning.



Needham, Rodney. ‘Reviewed Work: Did the Greeks Believe in Their Myths? An Essay on the Constitutive Imagination. by Paul Veyne, transl. Paula Wissing’. Man (New Series), Vol. 25, No. 1 (Mar., 1990), pp. 157-158.

Veyne, Paul. Did the Greeks believe in their myths?: An essay on the constitutive imagination. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.

Rodney Needham and Paul Veyne on religious belief

I recently came across a review by Rodney Needham of Paul Veyne’s Did the Greeks believe in their myths? I was quite intrigued by this as these two authors are representatives of two approaches to the study of religious belief and the anthropology of belief I have been thinking about for a while . They have often squabbled in my head, and in my imagination, Veyne always wins the argument, so I was curious to see what Needham would make of Veyne’s argument and the strong implicit critique of his own position it entails. (more…)

The Meaning and End of Religion

Over the weekend I read Wilfred Cantwell Smith‘s The Meaning and End of Religion (1962). I knew a little about this book from Talal Asad’s 2001 article (jStor paywall), which I suppose is the main way most anthropologists of religion have come to know its content too. Asad lavishes praise on Smith at the beginning of the article—the book is a ‘modern classic’, and so on—but most of his article is a pretty unrelenting takedown. I have always taken it for granted that Asad’s precis is a reliable description of Smith’s position, but now I’ve actually read the book, I’ve found that the argument is much more subtle, and that many (but not all) of Asad’s criticisms are unfair.


‘Neoliberalism’ as ‘conceptual trash heap’

This is my first post in a long time. Over the last year I moved to Manchester and started teaching full time. I hope to return to blogging from time to time.

Recently I’ve seen the transcript of the 2012 GDAT debate on the concept of neoliberalism, which is due to be published in JRAI next year. I spoke in the debate as second proposer for the (resoundingly defeated!) motion The concept of neoliberalism has become an obstacle to the anthropological understanding of the twenty-first century. (more…)

Announcing: Ignorance Studies Listserv

see, hear, speak no evil, Chris Walkington


I’ve set up a JISCMail mailing list for discussion of the social scientific study of ignorance. The list will be publicly archived. To subscribe or contribute, click HERE.

Get in touch with me if you have any questions.

(The image above is ‘see, hear, speak no evil’ by Chris Walkington, and was the cover image we used for Anthropology of Ignorance.)

Speaking Ethically Across Borders Conference: Registration Open!

Registration is now open for the conference:

Speaking Ethically Across Borders: Interdisciplinary Approaches
8-10 January 2014
CRASSH, University of Cambridge

With lectures by: Michael Lambek (Toronto) and Simon Coleman (Toronto).

Including papers by: Michael Lempert (Michigan), John Marenbon (Cambridge), Carlo Severi (EHESS), Hallvard Lillehammer (Birbeck).
***For registration and further details: http://www.crassh.cam.ac.uk/events/25021 ***
***The Facebook page can be viewed here: https://www.facebook.com/events/341661642641952/ ***
Convenors: Jonathan Mair (jonathan.mair@manchester.ac.uk) and Nicholas Evans (ne228@cam.ac.uk)


Recent years have seen a dramatic growth in the study of ethics among social anthropologists. Much of this growth has been due to the assimilation into anthropological thinking of virtue ethics building on two streams of theoretical work: that of Foucault, and that of virtue ethicists working in the Anglo-Saxon philosophical tradition. Proponents of the virtue-ethics approach in anthropology argue that a focus on self-cultivation as a process allows for sufficient attention to be paid to self-conscious reflection. Reflection and the freedom it entails, they argue, are essential aspects of ethical life that traditional social scientific approaches to ethics – Durkheimian approaches – simply ignore.

There appears to remain an area of ethical experience, however, that neither approach can easily accommodate. Since virtue ethics sees ethical judgment as the result of cultivation within a self-conscious ethical tradition, it can no more account for ethical judgment outside of or between traditions than the Durkheimian approach can. Yet history is full of situations in which multiple, self-conscious ethical traditions meet, and in which people try to judge each other, persuade each other, or draw lessons from each other across the borders that separate those traditions. These situations are what we call ‘speaking ethically across borders’, and this is the phenomenon that the conference will aim to explore.

In these situations, are people limited to using values with which they are already familiar to interpret and judge other values? Or can they genuinely learn from alternative ethical systems? If so, on what conditions does this process depend? Is the capacity for or disposition towards a cosmopolitan attitude to ethics itself a culturally specific norm or a virtue to be perfected, or is it a necessary aspect of ethical thought? Ethnographically speaking, how have people in fact used the intellectual resources provided by one ethical tradition to judge others? How have they sought to borrow from other traditions, or to persuade followers of other traditions to adopt novel values and practices? What meta-ethics have specific traditions proposed to govern the relationship of members of the tradition to the mores of other traditions?

Sponsored by: Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH); The Division of Social Anthropology, University of Cambridge; St. John’s College, Cambridge; King’s College, Cambridge.

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.

Literacy, religious renaissance and the ‘morality system’

Safari ya roho akhera, ‘the journey of the soul into the afterlife’, was published in 1999 by Said Amour Al-Habsy in Oman -- image from Becker's 2009 paper.
Safari ya roho akhera, ‘the journey of the soul into the afterlife’, was published in 1999 by Said Amour Al-Habsy in Oman — image from Becker’s 2009 paper.

This is a cross-post from ethics.CRASSH.

Felicitas Becker on Islamic reformism and Sufi traditionalism in Tanzania

I’ve just read two fascinating papers by Felicitas Becker on moral conflict in East Africa. Both papers describe the relationship between Islamist reformers and Sufi-influenced traditionalists in rural Tanzania. Broadly speaking, the Islamists are young, have international connections (though these are limited), and their leaders claim legitimacy as a result of their scriptural scholarship. The traditionalists are drawn from the older generations and derive their authority from their descent from founders of local mosques, or from their place in a chain of transmission of oral knowledge. Most local people, Becker notes, consider themselves Muslims, but observe the debates between the two groups without feeling the need to declare themselves partisans of either side.

One of the papers, ‘Islamic Reform and Historical Change in the Care of the Dead’ (2009) focuses on disagreements between the two parties around funerary practices, which take on great importance in this context. Traditionalists have elaborate funerals in which prayers and the Quran are recited over the funeral procession and the deceased is read instructions on how to meet the angels after the burial is complete. To the elders who represent this tradition, these measures show that they are more punctilious in caring for the dead than their nomadic forebears who, before the adoption of Islamic usages, would abandon settlements along with the corpses of the dead. To the reformists, the intercessions on behalf of, and interaction with, the deceased are accretions that are not justified by Quran or Hadith and must therefore be relinquished.

The other paper, ‘Rural Islamism during the “War on Terror”‘ (2006) considers a wider range of disagreements over practice, and also addresses the question of how far the reformers, who are nicknamed by other ‘Al Qaeda’, are in fact part of a coherent ‘international terror’ movement. Becker’s admirably nuanced conclusion, if I understand it correctly, is that although they are politically activist in theory, and in a way that could potentially lead to violent conflict, the political plank of their programme finds no traction with local concerns and is therefore barely a live part of their practice, while the international connections are tenuous. Meanwhile, the other aspect of their programme, the claim that scriptural scholarship is the sole source of religious legitimacy has found great support among the population, and even grudging assent among those who find themselves on the opposite side of debates about specific practices. This aspect of Becker’s material makes it interesting in terms of the CRASSH Speaking Ethically Across Borders Project.


The ‘morality system’ and literacy

In the 2006 paper, Becker notes:

…the opinions expounded by Ansaar [the reformists/Islamists] consistently tend towards the imposition of stricter rules. They are more concerned than others about the loss of ritual purity through contact with the opposite sex; they support a ban on alcohol and have suggested that smoking, too, is haram, religiously prohibited. … They have also introduced new forms of veiling to Rwangwa, have changed standards for halal (religiously correct) slaughter and have questioned the acceptability of established ways of dealing with witchcraft. (Becker 2006: 594)


This made me think about the relation of literacy and forms of ethics. Much recent anthropological work on ethics has taken on a distinction from philosophy between virtue ethics and what Bernard Williams calls the ‘morality system’. The morality system is about judgment of acts against legalistic codes of behaviour, lists of obligations and taboos, and it leads to a concern with the refinement of rules for particular circumstances, and with moral dilemmas. Virtue ethics is about the judgment of character against models of excellence, and leads to a concern with the identification of exemplars, and with pedagogical techniques that lead to the cultivation of particular virtues (including what Foucault calls ‘techniques of the self’).

A lot of anthropological work on Islamic reformists has emphasised the way in which their reforms are connected to virtue ethical programmes of character development, but I wonder if there’s a general relationship between reformist movements that base legitimacy on scriptural sources and the importance of the ‘morality system’. Character-based ethics requires a good deal of interpretation in order to work out how an exemplar would act in the current situation (see Humphrey 1997 on this). Virtues that are partly or mainly about embodied dispositions are apt to be expressed in imagistic forms that underdetermine their expression (Carrithers 1990). Is it difficult to combine this interpretative flexibility and the autonomy it implies with an insistence on submission to scripture as a sole source of authority?

In Becker’s Tanzanian case study, the traditionalist elders apply this kind of reasoning to the conduct of funerals. The reformists argue from scripture that,

The Prophet, peace be upon him, prohibits the corpse [to be sung to], that is to say, when we get up to go to the graveyard to bury someone, we are required to be quiet and to ponder that our fellow Muslim has died and we will die too. Therefore we must be quiet. And the Prophet says don’t follow the hearse with any sort of noise, let people be quiet and reflect. (Becker 2006: 592)

The Sufis’ riposte is that:

In the days of the prophet, the graves were situated very close to the houses of the liv- ing. But our graves are far from our villages. Moreover, our faith is not as strong as that of the first Muslims. Were we to go to the graveyard in silence, our thoughts might start to wander and some might start to discuss, say, football on the way to the grave! So our elders decided we had better recite the shahada on the way to the grave, to keep our minds focused.

This could, I think, be interpreted as a more character-based approach to ethics. Though the traditionalists accept the idea that scripture, and not established custom, is the proper arbiter of practice, they maintain enough autonomy from it to interpret it in the light of specific local and personal conditions. Perhaps this shows that they are more concerned with emulating the underlying character expressed by the Prophet’s actions, something that can never be entirely captured in words, because it is always contextual, rather than reproducing the actions, which can be more precisely described in the text, themselves.

It’s difficult to reach a conclusion on this question on the basis of this material alone, but perhaps a comparative approach would turn up a regular association between text-based revival movements (i.e. renaissances — Goody 2009), and a shift away from a concern with character and towards a concern with moral rules. Or the shift might be away from a complex character approach, with multiple, perhaps mutually incompatible, virtues or exemplars available to the moral subject, towards a simpler character approach which focuses all effort on the single virtue of perfect submission to the authority of the text.

Any thoughts?


Main texts

Becker, F., 2006. Rural Islamism during the “war on terror”: A Tanzanian case study. African Affairs, 105(421), pp.583–603.

Becker, F., 2011. Islamic Reform and Historical Change in the Care of the Dead: Conflicts Over Funerary Practice Among Tanzanian Muslims. Africa, 79(03), pp.416–434.


Further reading

Carrithers, M., 1990. Jainism and Buddhism as enduring historical streams. JASO (Journal of the Anthropological Society of Oxford), 21(2), pp.141–163.

Faubion, J.D., 2001. Toward an Anthropology of Ethics: Foucault and the Pedagogies of Autopoiesis. Representations, (74), pp.83–104. Available at: http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/rep.2001.74.1.83.

Foucault, M., 1990. The history of sexuality volume 3: the care of the self, London: Penguin.

Goody, J., 2009. Renaissances, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Humphrey, C. 1997. Exemplars and rules: aspects of the discourse of moralities in Mongolia. In Howell, S. (ed). The ethnography of moralities. London: Routledge.

Laidlaw, J., 2002. For An Anthropology Of Ethics And Freedom. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 8(2), pp.311–332.

Williams, B.A.O., 1985. Ethics and the limits of philosophy, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.