Syncretism (Anthropology)

Syncretism refers to the hybridization or amalgamation of two or more cultural traditions. However, all cultures comprise a variety of diffused and borrowed elements — a point Ralph Linton made in his ironic piece ‘One Hundred Per-Cent American’ (1937). Given this, ‘syncretism’ loses much of its descriptive precision and many have deprecated the utility of the term. It makes best sense in the context of functionalist theories of integrated social systems, or doctrines of cultural holism, that presuppose unified and bounded social or cultural units that, under certain conditions, can be conceived as merging to produce some novel syncretic formation. Syn-cretistic analysis, however, unavoidably raises problems of history and social change and thus sits uneasily alongside classic functionalist theory (see for example, Malinowski’s uncomfortable attempt to alloy functional coherence and social change in Southern Africa [1945]).

Ethnohistorians and diffusionists concerned with population movements, migrations, invasions and colonial empires have used ‘syncretic’ to describe cultural and social systems that emerge from these various sorts of historical connections among different peoples. Melville Herskovits, for example, found the term useful to describe the culture of African Americans — a culture, he argued, that blended elements of European and African traditions: syncretism is a fundamental ‘mechanism in the acculturative process undergone by New World Negroes’ (1941: 184-5).


Anthropology shares the concept of syncretism with scholars of comparative religion who have used the term at least since the early 1600s (often disparagingly to condemn the adulteration of true Christian belief). Theologians continue to apply the term to religious systems (various forms of Hinduism, Japanese Buddhism, Santeria, Bahai’i and the like) that amalgamate several different traditions (see Hartman 1969). Within anthropology, the concept of syncretism also most commonly describes hybrid religious systems, particularly those that developed in response to the disruptions of European colonialism. Thus, the nineteenth-century North American ghost dance movement combined certain Native American elements and Mor-monism; Melanesian cargo cults often conjoined Christian Adventist notions of the millennium with island concerns to control the production of wealth; and African Zionism ‘attempts to reform the received world by means of a syncretism of images and practices, a syncretism drawn from the local and global systems whose contradictory merger it seeks to transcend’ (Comaroff 1985: 250).

Other cultural or social domains, besides religion, may also conspicuously combine elements from multiple traditions. For example, pidgin lingua francas — which commonly overlay words from one language upon a simplified grammatical substrate from a second — have been termed ‘syncretic’. Art traditions (e.g. European primiti-vism), nationalist political ideologies (Vanuatu’s Melanesian Socialism), economic systems ( Japanese capitalism) or any similarly blended formation may all be deemed syncretic.

New terminology to describe the cultural admixtures occasioned by expanding global economic, communicative and political systems, however, is replacing an earlier language of syncretism. Culture and society are both late nineteenth-century anthropological terms, developed to describe human communities that were mostly localized and bounded. Over the past century, what economic, political, informational and geographic boundaries that may once have separated human societies have much decayed. Surges of people, goods, words and images wash throughout global networks. We apply the terms ‘culture’ and ‘society’ with increasing difficulty to non-localized and dispersed communities. Notions of syncretism likewise, that suggest the blending of two holistic traditions, are proving insufficiently commodious to describe the admixture of multiple cultural influences that converge at the borderlands of the world system.


Increasing interest in cultural studies of ‘diaspora’ and the minglings of peoples in cultural borderlands and ‘contact zones’ (Rosaldo 1989) has conjured up a new descriptive language of ‘ethnoscapes’ (Appadurai 1991) and ‘hybridity’. An ethnoscape is ‘the landscape of persons who make up the shifting world in which we live: tourists, immigrants, refugees, exiles, guest-workers, and other moving groups and persons’ (Appadurai 1991: 192). The ethnoscape of the borderlands breeds cultural hybridity in which multiple traditions fuse, as itinerant peoples negotiate and construct their shared and unshared identities. Similar attempts to grasp what might be called the emerging ‘hyper-syncretism’ of the contemporary global ethnoscape will continue to engage anthropological attention.

Next post:

Previous post: