Belief (Anthropology)

Statements like ‘The X believe that … ‘ or ‘The Y believe in … ‘ used to abound in ethnography. Ethnographers regarded belief as an integral part of culture, with whole peoples being thought uniform and consistent in their sets of beliefs. Such an understanding of belief was characteristic of Durkheimian and functionalist writers; e.g. Durkheim (1915 [1912]) and Radcliffe-Brown (1952 [1945]: 153-77).

However, the study of belief entails a number of interesting problems, if not logical contradictions. How do we know what people really believe? Is it relevant what they believe, or is the statement of belief what ought to really matter to an anthropologist? If belief is an ‘internal state’ unrelated to language, then it is inaccessible to the ethnographer, even perhaps to the ‘external’ conscious reflection of the native. If belief can be described, then it is dependent on language, and that language of description may be more formulaic than reflective of the inner state which is supposed to generate belief.

A high point in the study of belief in anthropology was Needham’s Belief, Language and Experience (1972), which hints at some of these contradictions. Needham claims he awoke one night with the realization that he did not know how to say ‘I believe in God’ in Penan, the language of his fieldwork many years before. Evans-Pritchard had thought of some of these questions earlier too, as he had once remarked: ‘The Nuer do not believe in God. He is just there.’ Needham explores Evans-Pritchard’s claim. The question is, if belief is an ‘interior state’, as Evans-Pritchard said it was, then can it ever be accessible to ethnographers?


Belief has in the past often been coupled with ritual, as one of the two pillars of religion. However, since the late 1970s the theoretical emphasis on ^practice has given greater prominence to ritual, with belief now held in the background. The work of Sperber (e.g. 1985 [1982]), among others, cast doubt on the notion that symbols have specific meanings, even in the context of structured sets of symbols. For Sperber, as indeed (though perhaps in different senses), for Evans-Pritchard and Needham, the concept of belief is dependent on the knowledge of the word which describes it. Only those who have a concept of belief themselves have minds which exhibit the properties of belief. "fTalal Asad (1983) criticized anthropological accounts of belief from a more historical point of view: the emphasis on belief as an interior state was, he suggested, specific to a modern, private Christian religiosity.

As action has come to dominate much of anthropological theory in recent years, with philosophy and language becoming as peripheral as they are problematic, belief (as a field of study) has dwindled in importance. Whether it rises will depend on whether anthropology’s pendulum will again swing towards its earlier philosophical concerns. The implicit cultural relativism of those who in the past emphasized the study of belief has thus been overturned in favour of more behaviourist, ^materialist and (in Sperber’s case) ^rationalist enterprises.

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