Anthropology and Spirituality

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Anthropology and Spirituality

Kees Waaijman

Anthropology and Spirituality

Kees Waaijman    2010Workspace

The anthropological approach ’is the most recent development in the field (of academic spirituality, kw) and most clearly influenced by Postmodernity, both cultural and academic. This approach is rooted in the recognition that spirituality is an anthropological constant, a constitutive dimension of the humanum’.[1] Characteristic for an anthropological spirituality is the emphasis on hermeneutical methodology, reading lived spirituality basically as a human search for (self)transcendence and meaning.[2] This methodology has, indeed, as every classical anthropological field-work, a ’double focus: understanding and explanation (i.e., the expansion of knowledge), on the one hand, and appropriation (i.e., the expansion of subjectivity), on the other’.[3] This hermeneutical methodology is part of the phenomenological approach, from the beginning of the 20th century.

Apart from methodology, anthropology conceives spirituality as a universal human quest, significant for the human enterprise as a whole.


On a purely practical level anthropologists need knowledge of the language of the people they are studying. Often they have to make the first survey of it and to compose the first lists of words. These efforts mostly were embedded in the strategy of missionary activities or cultural expansion. In the anthropology of experience the methodological insight emerged, that the point of departure should be the expressions used by people belonging to a culture: ’The advantage of beginning the study of culture through expressions is that the basic units of analysis are established by the people we study rather than by the anthropologists as alien observer. (…) Expressions are the people’s articulations, formulations, and representations of their own experience’.[4]


Things play an important role in shamanic performances and healing rituals. In this respect the meaning of things has been studied in the anthropology of experience. But on the function of the material culture within the framework of spirituality has not been reflected. This one-sidedness is caused by theoretical presuppositions. Spiritual anthropology is particularly focused on ’spirits’, the ’reality’ of these spirits, and the ways to come in ’contact’ with this spiritual realm. By doing so the attention for the spiritual meaning of the material culture has been pushed to the background.

Arts (Images)

In the 20th century anthropologists became interested in the way in which myth, ritual, and symbolization operate within the various religious traditions. Art, images, and symbols are not objective things, but spiritual programs of performance and transformation.[5]

Another important contribution of cultural anthropology to the study of spirituality is the perception of art, symbolism, and rituals as essential parts of the whole of a culture, i.e. the whole of a spiritual architecture. In spirituality ’art’ (pictures, dance, music, architecture etc)[6] cannot be separated from the socio-cultural whole in which it functions. In a concentrated ’performance’ it unfolds a transformative power and realizes an intense contact between deep emotions and central values.[7] Cultural anthropology has provided for the dimension of art, images and symbols a framework of interpretation.[8]


To get access to the inner horizon of a culture anthropologists need not only descriptions of behaviour and rituals, they also need the ’eye’ of experience, expressed in myths, folk tales, proverbs, and so on. Therefore one of the first tasks which the anthropologists imposed themselves was to collect the various forms of oral expression. Toward the end of the 19th century tales were collected in such an encyclopaedic work as Grawley’s Mystic Rose (1902), collections of religious and spiritual practices.

The main contribution of anthropology in the last decades is the description of so called indigenous spiritualities all over the world, from the Aborigines in Australia to the Native Spiritualities in North-America, from the islands of New Zealand to the Afro-Brasilian cultures. These descriptions contain a lot of spiritual texts: prayers, mystagogical instructions, visions, and so on.[9] But till now, no systematic reflections are dedicated to hermeneutical questions like: what does happen with ’texts’, when they are transposed from their oral to their written form; how to construct by audio-visual means a scientific registration; how to interpret these ’texts’ from the viewpoint of spirituality, and so on?

Forms (Histories)

Originally, anthropology was based on an evolutionist approach. For a lack of written documents, no historical record could be determined. Therefore these cultures where called ’prehistoric’. As we have seen, the last century a broad stream of texts and descriptions are produced, bringing these cultures within the horizon of ’history’. Almost every indigenous spirituality has been described.

Groundbreaking is the above mentioned reference work World Spirituality, which considerable space assigned to indigenous spiritualities (5 of the planned 25 volumes): Asian Archaic Spirituality, European Archaic Spirituality, African Spirituality, South and Meso-American Native Spirituality, North American Indian Spirituality.[10] These studies describe a basic form of spirituality which, in its primordiality, has to be distinguished from the schools of spirituality, being part of an overarching world religion.[11] In a parallel process also in Europe the primordial spiritualities are rediscovered.[12]

Connections (Relationships)

One of the most challenging developments in the study of spirituality is the documentation of indigenous spiritualities. These forms of primordial spirituality, handed over in oral traditions, are mostly preserved and interpreted by anthropologists. A characteristic of this form of spirituality is its feeling for connectedness. We may observe this in Sub-Saharan spirituality.[13] The actual setting of this spirituality is the family. A person lives in fellowship with the other members of the community, as brothers and sisters. Hospitality and social justice are integral to this community.[14] Being born into a family, one participates in the current of generations. Within this genealogical system the ancestors play an important role. The living generation receives from them their life-giving influence.[15] The human community participates in the natural environment being a divine reality: ’The moon and the stars, the rivers and the seas, the hills and the mountains, fish and animals and human beings – all carry the message of God’s presence’.[16] The divine power is immediately experienced in the universe: ’God is the beginning without end. All that exists has its origin and meaning in God and will terminate in God’.[17] African spirituality is a paradigm of indigenous spirituality, showing that ’relationality’ is an essential element in this form of spirituality: genealogy, extended family, environment and the divine presence are one all-permeating reality.[18]


The anthropology of experience[19]can be seen as a ’rebellion against structural-functional orthodoxy, with its closed static model of social systems’.[20] Using Van Gennep’s The Rites of Passage[21] Victor Turner expanded the notion of liminality (being the transitional middle stage in the rite of passage, between separation and re-integration), identifying many of those liminal moments that did not belong to the social structure. He recognized this liminality in the rites of passage of African tribes, but also in a variety of betwixt-and-between circumstances in other societies.[22] His analysis has been very influential in spirituality, to understand spiritual growth in the area of ’anti-structure’ (fruitful chaos, a place of incubation for new ideas and lifestyles, of resistance and creativity, of communitas), a ’nowhere’ outside of ’structure’.[23]

Rituals of initiation and of healing give a knowledge of deep connection (communitas) and a change in consciousness. To give one example, Colin Turnbull tells how he, being with the forest people of the Ituri in the Congo, in the 1950s, experienced the highest sense of mystical unity, which came to him at the sound of the pygmies singing, at night seated around a fire, to cure someone’s sickness. He was transformed into another mode of perception, going beyond ordinary consciousness.[24]


Practices and professions in the field of spiritual anthropology are complicated. Seen from the perspective of the anthropologists themselves we may observe a very broad spectrum. At the one end, there are the anthropologists who sit behind their desks and read. In between we encounter field workers with an objectifying approach. At the other end, the field workers, particularly in the field of spiritual anthropology, ’experience as practioners, actual practioners, the healings their friends were engaged in’.[25] But even than, being part of the spiritual culture, in which they ’went native’, they are practioners of the Western culture as witnesses of mostly small cultures, threatened by Western dominance. They are ’marginals’ in the sense of Victor Turner: belonging to two worlds, living in-between.

Seen from the perspective of native spirituality itself, anthropology is mainly focussed on two practices and professions. Firstly, many studies appeared in the field of shamanism.[26]

A step forward in this field of research is The Encyclopedia of Shamanism, signaling the recognition of shamanism in the academia.[27] Important can become the new shamanic studies institute in Moscow (2005), named Merzakerin Norbekov Institute. Secondly, there is the study of the healing practices in indigenous spiritualities.[28]


Anthropology is a multilayered discipline. Firstly it was used in the philosophical faculties of the German universities at the end of the 16th century. It attempted to regroup the specialized disciplines within a common purpose: the humanity of man. In the 18th century the discipline splitted into physical anthropology (investigating the place of man in nature, comparing himself with other primates and interpreting the race differences) and cultural anthropology (considering man as a social being individualized by historical and geographical factors). Spiritual anthropology emerged within cultural anthropology. Long times studies on spirituality were ignored. Edith Turner describes, ’how the discipline of anthropology had to break open to include spirituality’.[29] From the 1980s anthropologists like Bruner, Fernandez, Grindal, Tedlock paved the way for an anthropology of experience and consciousness.[30] The last decades an increase is visible in the number of notable publications on spirituality, healing, shamanism, radical empathy, radical participation, and the work of anthropological practioners.[31] In the same time research groups and schools of thought focussed on spiritual anthropology.[32]

The consequence of this spiritual turn in anthropology was an epistemological shift. In order to perceive and to understand the level of spirituality in a culture, one needs a participatory attitude: ’Anthropological writers should allow the events of the field – be they extraordinary or mundane – to penetrate them’.[33] Spirit experience can not be registered objectively. On this level information is transformation. Needed is a ’method’ which is empathic and participative: ’What is needed for this kind of fieldwork is a technique of participation that demands total involvement of our whole being. Indeed it is perhaps only when we truly and fully participate in this way that we find this essentially subjective approach to be in no way incompatible with the more conventional rational, objective, scientific approach. On the contrary, they complement each other and that complementarity is an absolute requirement if we come to any full understanding of the social process’.[34]


The Age of Discovery confronted the modern West with cultures that remained outside its horizon. They were experienced as foreign and therefore labelled as ’savage’, ’primitive’, ’preliterate’, and so on. Cultural anthropology can be seen as a scientific answer on this experience of ’otherness’. During the time, this answer itself was transformed by the challenges of its ’object’.

Firstly, anthropology could not remain insensitive for its own presuppositions. Particularly the philosophical anthropology was confronted with different images of man: image of God, natural being, product of evolution, product of culture, mystery, individual, Thou, etcetera. These reflections were deeply influenced by developments in the Western culture itself. Theological anthropology is dealing with these ’spiritual’ questions.[35] Theology itself seems to become anthropology, looking for ’anthropological constants’ as a basic system for theological reflections.[36] In fact, anthropology and theology seem to be interrelated precisely on the level of spirituality, that is to say, on the level of the divine-human relationship. This seems particularly relevant at the limits of both realities: ’There is a striking correlation between the themes of the death of God and the death of man; this correlation seems to verify the mutual interrelation of theology and anthropology. (…) For most philosophical anthropologists, the theological dimension, or some reference to God, is indispensable in order to hold in check the contradictory threats that would destroy the image of man and to maintain the opening to transcendence in which each individual consciousness can discover its meaning, its values, and its freedom’.[37]

Secondly, the basic idea of culture itself was shocked by anthropological research. The common scientific approach of anthropologists as Mauss, Métraux, Lévi-Strauss, Malinowski, Radcliff-Brown and others was system oriented: the only way to explain facts was to define the function they perform in a given culture. Spiritual anthropology opposed strongly against the presupposed idea that all power inevitably must be attributed to society and culture, especially as regards religion. The idea of anti-structure made it possible to understand liminal processes, including mystical transformations.[38]

Lastly, the otherness of foreign cultures challenges Western researchers to evaluate their methodology. As long as other cultures, within a colonizing attitude, can be ’objectified’, the scholars are more or less ’safe’. But from the moment on, that they loose their monopoly of objectivity and empathy, encounter and participation become part of their research strategy, the perspective of the ’other’ becomes more and more influential. This causes ’a change in ethnographic epistemology’.[39]


  1. S. Schneiders, ‘The study of Christian spirituality’, in: The Blackwell companion to Christian spirituality, 26; with a reference to J. Breton, Approche contemporaine de la vie spirituelle, Montreal 1990.
  2. Ibidem.
  3. Ibidem, referring to P. Ricoeur, Interpretation theory: Discourse and the surplus of meaning, Fort Worth 1976, 71-95.
  4. E. Bruner, ‘Experience and its expressions’, in: The anthropology of experience (Ed. V. Turner & E. Bruner), Urbana 1986, 9.
  5. See S. White, ‘Ritual studies’, in: The Blackwell companion to Christian spirituality, 387-400.
  6. S. Friedson, Dancing prophets: Musical experiences in Tumbuka healing, Chicago 1996.
  7. P. Brook, The empty space, Harmondworth 1982; C. Geertz, Interpretation of cultures, New York 1977; R. Grimes, Reading, writing, and ritualizing, Washington 1993.
  8. Faithful performances (Eds. T. Hart & S. Guthrie), Abingdon 2007; F. Kline, ‘Artistic performance and ascetic practice’, in: Spiritus 2 (2002), 173-179.
  9. To give an impression: A. Borsboom, De clan van de Wilde Honing: Spirituele rijkdom van de Aborigines, Haarlem 2006; L. Hume, Ancestral power: The dreaming, consciousness, and Aboriginal Australians, Carlton South 2002; M. Charlesworth, Religious business: Essays on Australian Aboriginal spirituality, Cambridge 1998; L. Irwin, Native American spirituality: A critical Reader, Lincoln etc. 2000; E. Tooker, Native North spirituality at the Eastern Woodland: Sacred myths, dreams, visions, speeches, healing formulas, and ceremonials, New York etc. 1979; A. Doumbiq, The way of elders: West African spirituality & tradition, St. Paul (MN) 2004; M. Milder, Dansen om te leven: Over Afro-Braziliaanse cultuur en spiritualiteit, Heeswijk 1999; B. Glass-Coffin, The gift of life: Female spirituality and healing in Northern Peru, Albuquerque 1998; R. Ellwood, Islands of the dawn: The story of alternative spirituality in New Zealand, Honolulu 1993.
  10. Meanwhile African Spirituality and South and Meso-American Native Spirituality are published.
  11. Waaijman, Spirituality, 18-27.
  12. For instance, the Celtic spirituality: P. Thomas, The opened door: A Celtic spirituality, Brechfa 1990; E. de Waal, Celtic light: A tradition rediscovered, London 1997; P. O’Dwyer, Toward a history of Irish spirituality, Blackrock-Dublin 1995; P. Sheldrake, Living between worlds: Place and journey in Celtic spirituality, London 1995; R. Simpson, Exploring Celtic spirituality: Historical roots for our future, London 1995.
  13. For this widespread form of African spirituality, see G. Huizer, Folk spirituality and liberation in Southern Africa, Talence (France) 1991; P. Paris, The spirituality of African peoples, Minneapolis 1995.
  14. B. Lele, Family spirituality in Africa, Eldoret (Kenya) 1982.
  15. A. Ehirim-Donko, African spirituality: On becoming ancestors, Trenton (NJ) 1997.
  16. C. Egbulem, ‘African spirituality’, in: The new dictionary of Catholic spirituality, 19.
  17. Ibid., 18.
  18. For other indigenous spiritualities see E., MacGaa, Mother Earth spirituality: Native American paths to healing ourselves and our world, San Francisco 1990; M. Charlesworth, Ancestor spirits: Aspects of Australian Aboriginal life and spirituality, Melbourne 1990; A. Gray, The Arakmbut: Mythology, spirituality, and history in an Amazonian community, Providence-Oxford, 1996.
  19. See The anthropology of experience (Ed. V. Turner & E. Bruner), Urbana 1986.
  20. B. Babcock, ‘Victor W. Turner: Obituary’, in: Journal of American Folklore 97 (1984), 462.
  21. A. van Gennep, The rites of passage, Chicago 1960.
  22. V. Turner, The ritual process; Id., Dramas, fields and metaphors: Symbolic action in human society, Ithaca 1974.
  23. For a description of this field of spiritual counter-movements see Waaijman, Spirituality, 212-303.
  24. C. Turnbull, ‘Liminality’, 58.
  25. Turner, ‘Advances in the study of spirit experience’, 44.
  26. To mention only K. McCarthy Brown, Mama Lola: A Vodou priestess in Brooklyn, Berkeley 1991; C. Laderman, Taming the wind of desire: Psychology, medicine, and aesthetics in Malay shamanistic performance, Berkeley 1991. A classic is of course M. Eliade, Shamanism: Archaic techniques of ecstacy, Princeton (NJ) 1972. See also E. Turner, ‘From Shamans to healers: The survival of an Iñupiat Eskimo skill’, in: Anthropologica 31 (1989), 3-24; D. Tedlock, Days from a dream almanac, Urbana 1990; B. Tedlock, The woman in the Shaman’s body: Reclaiming the feminine in religion and healing, New York 2005.
  27. The encyclopedia of Shamanism (Ed. M. Walter & E. Fridman), Santa Barbara (CA) 2005.
  28. J. Neihardt, Black Elk speaks: Being the life story of a holy man of the Oglala Sioux, Lincoln-London 1961; L. Peters, Ecstasy and healing in Nepal: An ethno-psychiatric study of Tamang shamanism, Malibu (CA) 1981; R. Desjarlais, Body and emotion: The aesthetics of illness and healing in the Nepal Himalayas, Philadelphia 1992; E. Turner, Experiencing ritual: A new interpretation of African healing, Philadelphia 1992; Id., The hands feel it: Healing and spirit presence among Northern Alaskan people, DeKalb (IL) 1996; Gary Holy Bull, Lakota Yuwipi man: Healing rituals and teachings of the Sioux medicine man (B. Keeney), Chicago 2000; Religion and healing in America (Ed. L. Barnes & S. Sered), New York 2005; E. Turner, Among the healers: Spiritual and ritual healing across the world, New York 2005; Spiritual transformation and healing (Ed. J. Koss-Chionino & P. Hefner), Lanham (MD) 2006.
  29. E. Turner, ‘Advances in the study of spirit experience: Drawing together many threads’, in: Anthropology of Consciousness 17 (2006) no.2, 41.
  30. The anthropology of experience (Eds. E. Bruner & V. Turner), Urbana 1986; B. Grindal, ‘In the heart of Sisala experience: Witnessing death divination’, in: Journal of Anthropological Research 39 (1983) no.1, 60-80; D. Tedlock, Days from a dream almanac, Urbana 1990.
  31. Turner, ‘Advances in the study of spirit experience’, 45-51.
  32. Ibid., 52-55.
  33. P. Stoller, ‘Mind, eye, and word in anthropology’, in: L’Homme 24 (1984) nos 3-4, 91-114.
  34. C. Turnbull, ‘Liminality: A synthesis of subjective and objective experience’, in: By means of performance (Ed. R. Schechner & W. Appel), Cambridge 1990, 51.
  35. J. Ruffing, ‘Theological anthropology’, in: The new dictionary of Catholic spirituality, 47-50; L’Antropologia dei maestri spirituali (Ed. C. Bernard), Milano 1991. See also Explorations in anthropology and theology (Ed. F. Salmona & W. Adams), Lanham-New York-Oxford 1997.
  36. E. Schillebeeckx, Christ: The experience of Jesus as Lord, New York 1981, 734-743.
  37. ‘Philosophical anthropology’, in: The new Encyclopaedia Britannica, Chicago etc. 1980, vol. 1, 985.
  38. V. Turner, The ritual process: Structure and anti-structure, London 1962.
  39. B. Tedlock, ‘From participant observation to the observation of participation: The emergence of narrative ethnography’, in: Journal of Anthropological Research 47 (1991) no.1, 69-94. See also S. Kimball, ‘Learning a new culture’, in: Crossing cultural boundaries: The anthropological experience (Ed. S. Kimball & J. Watson), San Francisco 1972; E. Turner, ‘Fear of religious emotion versus the need for research that encompasses the fullest experience’, in: Selected readings in the anthropology of religion: Theoretical and methodological essays (Eds. S. Glazier & C. Flowerday), Westport (CT) 2003, 109-118.