Theory in Anthropology

Reflections on An Introduction to Theory in Anthropology, by Robert Layton, Cambridge University Press, 1997.

I do not yet consider myself an anthropologist. I am a geographer who – perhaps foolhardily – thought it would be useful and engaging to switch disciplines and throw myself into a PhD in anthropology. So, along with a desire to read specifically about migration and religion, I am reading broadly about anthropology and trying to get a feel for the discipline.

In this endeavour, I’ve found Layton’s book a really helpful entry point. I’m sure his is not the final word, he probably emphasises some things at the expense of others, but it was recommended to me by someone I trust and it seemed pretty well put together. Here are some of the things that I was – perhaps naively – surprised to find out about anthropology:

  1. I hadn’t realised what a significant role theories of evolution (or, at least, the idea of survival of the fittest) played in shaping discussions about why some cultures persist and others don’t.
  2. I hadn’t realised how much weight economics was given in theorising cultural exchange.
  3. I was surprised to find that, in a discipline so characterised by the particularity of the case-study, there has been a long history of searching out general rules that govern any given society.
  4. Kinship (the study of how related-ness is understood in different cultures) and linguistics (the study of the structure and meaning of different languages) are major parts of the discipline that I’m only just starting to get my head around.

Not all of these things are necessarily core to contemporary anthropology. Indeed, in my (limited) reading of contemporary anthropology none of these things had been particularly apparent — that’s why they were surprising! But I feel a certain responsibility to try and deal with these things (and the authors that wrote about them)  in a way that honours the contribution they’ve made to the discipline.

One of the things that this book has started me thinking about is the possibilities of reflecting on spiritual kinship. The metaphor of family is a pretty profound description of the church in Scripture. I’m curious about how we understand and, even more, how we act out this understanding of related-ness in everyday church life. And how does it intersect with other culutral understandings of kinship?

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5 responses to “Theory in Anthropology

  1. The idea of ‘spiritual kinship’ is intriguing. It might give you the flexibility to capture differing degrees of relatedness — like when the New Testament churches all pitched in to support the church in Jerusalem as a matter of fellowship/partnership (cf. 1 and 2 Corinthians). Maybe it’s a sort of ‘extended family’ thing?

  2. Natalie Swann

    Maybe indeed! I’m not sure I’d thought much about the corporate expression of relatedness (congregation to congregation) — I was captured more by the immediate relatedness language of ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters’ or the way Paul talks to Timothy as his son in a spiritual sense. Much food for thought!

  3. Greetings,

    I second Chris that “the idea of ‘spiritual kinship’ is intriguing. In Sufism the Shaykh(master)-Muriid (apprentice ) relationship in one way or another is about ‘spiritual kinship’. The Shaykh might link the Muriid to the ‘spiritual family’ (The right of passage via Silsila).

    Thank you for your interesting questions

  4. Natalie Swann

    Hi Muhammad — thanks for your comment. I am glad my reflections resonate with your experience. I know very little about Sufism, so I hope you’ll teach me a little in your comments. Feel free to recommend other things I could read that you think would be helpful in sorting out some of these ideas!

  5. Man, I love this blog. I love that you are doing anthropology.

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