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Canonicity in Anthropology of Religion

Canonicity in Anthropology of Religion

By: Erdogan


At its most basic form, I define the canon as names and/or works that define or shape the theoretical and methodological modus operandi of a field of study; those that set the rules for the subsequent practioners of a field of study. Canonical names or works assume these positions not through force but through their excellent and cogent scholarship. Here, I want to mention Foucault’s concept of “founders of discoursivity”, which refers to authors who not only produce their own texts, but also “possibilities or the rules for the formation of other texts.” According to Foucault, Marx and Freud are two good examples of the founders of discoursivity. It seems to me that what Foucault defines as founders of discoursivity corresponds to canonicity in an area of study.

I assume that canon can be perceived in two ways. First, some works could achieve a canonical status within a sub-discipline (e.g., the anthropology of religion, anthropology of performance etc.) or within a scholarly area of study (e.g., nationalism, totemism, social movements etc.) in a way that they set the rules and methods for the subsequent studies. In this sense I consider Boas, Kroeber, Malinowski and Geertz as canonical (the founders of discoursivity) in that their works, at some point, have achieved canon status in cultural anthropology.

Second, as an extended meaning of the term, an academic movement or tradition as a whole may constitute a canon, as this is the case for Victorian anthropology, Boasian Anthropology, functionalist anthropology, interpretivist anthropology, postmodern anthropology, just to name a few. What make them canonical are their distinctive theoretical and methodological approaches. Those who operate within such traditions, more or less, adhere to these procedures. However, these types of holistic canons/traditions may include the first type of canonical work as I discussed above paragraph. For instance, Kroeber has a canonical status within the Boasian tradition because he also made important theoretical and methodological contributions to the Boasian canon.

Before proceeding to the measurement section, I want to touch on two important points. First, the canonical status of names or works in an area of study is not everlasting, meaning that new names or works may put an end to the canonical status of previous names and works by demonstrating that former theoretical and methodological canons are not helpful anymore to understand or explain the complexities of the real world. This refers to Kuhn’s notion of paradigm shift, which means that when a paradigm is surrounded by many anomalies that it cannot explain, it needs to be replaced with a new paradigm, which is capable of explaining the anomalies. Thus, canonical works may lose their significance over time.

My second point regards the question that what best characterizes canon – dominant scholars or works? My answer to this question is that there is no need to make a distinction between scholars and works. If a work is considered to be canonical, its author must be seen canonical as well. Thus, I will use the names of authors as canons throughout my analysis.


How, then, can we measure canonicity? I assume that the best and the most accurate way of measuring canonicity is to conduct survey research among the practioners of the related field, directly asking them their opinions. This method, however, is beyond the limits of and not feasible for this project. I actually did send some e-mail to certain names in the field of anthropology of religion, but few of them responded to my e-mail even without nominating any names.

By eliminating first strategy, I tried to find out canonical studies in the field of anthropology of religion through three other resources. Firstly, I surveyed 10 textbooks or readers of anthropology of religion, which are widely assigned in syllabi of related courses. I focused more on the theoretical and methodological sections of these texts.

Secondly, I surveyed 40 Syllabi of anthropology of religion courses taught at American universities as the second resource of measuring canonicity. I personally sent e-mails to the instructors of related courses and asked permission to reach their syllabi. I could able to collect 40 syllabi.

As a third way of measuring canonicity, I surveyed two journals: Annual Review of Anthropology (ARA) and American Anthropologist (AA). I surveyed articles published by these journals since the year of 1990. I limit myself to the last 23 years because I wanted to see how recent studies approach the issue of religion. Their theoretical sections provide us with an opportunity to find out canonical names or studies. I was able to find 13 articles regarding religion published by ARA over the course of last 23 years. There are 17 related articles published by AA in the same period.



It must be noted that articles that I collected and surveyed (30 in total) widely cite some names (e.g., Asad, Geertz, Tyler, Malinowski, Rappaport, Evans-Pritchard, Leo-Strauss) than others. Geertz (by 18 articles), Asad (by 16 articles), Rappaport (by 12 articles), Tambiah (by 12 articles), Boyer (by 11 articles), Bloch (by 11 articles), Durkheim (by 10 articles), Evans-Pritchard (by 9 articles), Weber (by 8 articles) are the most cited names. Geertz and Asad emerge as the most cited names by the articles written on the subject matter since 1990 by two aforementioned journals. Figure 1 indicates the distribution of citations.


The distribution of citations indicates that Geertz is more cited than any other scholars. His canonical place within the subdiscipline becomes clearer if we narrow our focus to only the articles published by the Annual Review of Anthropology. Out of 13 articles published ARA, 9 articles cite Geertz. This is important in the sense that it gives an idea about the place of the aforementioned scholars in the recent literature of the anthropology of religion.


I looked at the theoretical contributions sections of the textbooks because I believe that canonical names or work are expected to make brilliant theoretical and methodological contributions. All textbooks under investigation in their theoretical sections include Edward Tyler, Max Weber, Emile Durkheim, Talal Asad, Evans-Pritchard, Malinowski and so on. These names are considered to be the main theoretical contributors to the anthropology of religion. It is not very easy to discern which names are more canonical then other if we only take textbooks into account. If we take syllabi and citations by recent articles, the picture becomes clearer that for the most recent literature of anthropology of religion, Geertz has a more canonical power than any other studies.


Almost all of these syllabi include texts of Geertz (included by 40 syllabi), Malinowski (36), Durkheim (36), Weber (34), Asad (33), Edward Tyler (30), Evans-Pritchard (32) and so on. In these syllabi the theoretical views of Weber, Durkheim, Tyler and Evans-Pritchard are considered to be earlier approaches to the issue. Geertz and Asad are considered to be still influential figures in the field. In this sense I got an impression that the canonical statuses of earlier scholars decline in the sense that recent studies generally do not base their theoretical discussion on the frameworks that these names developed or proposed as the analysis of published articles indicate. Geertz emerges again as the most canonical name within the field of religion of anthropology. Figure 2 indicates the number of syllabi that include texts of aforementioned names.


I want to touch on an important issue. The anthropology of religion is large subdiscipline including diverse theoretical, methodological and topical interests. There are some sub-topics within this field of study such as totemisim, spirit possession, magic and myth, Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. It seems that all these sub-fields of anthropology of religion have their own canonical names or works. For those who study anthropology of Islam Talal Asad and Saba Mahmood emerge as two leading scholars, for those who study Buddhism Stanley Tambiah is the most influential name. What makes Geertz important is that he is cited by many scholars operating within the diverse sub-fields of anthropology of religion, something that indicates the place of Geertz as the “founder of discoursivity” in the subdiscipline.



Foucault, Michael. “What is an Author.” http://www.generationonline.org/p/fp_foucault12.htm, accessed March 5 2013.