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How Do Religions End?

Theorizing Religious Traditions from the Point of View of How They Disappear

Joel Robbins

What does it mean for a new religion to arise or take hold among a group of people? What does it mean for a religious tradition to endure? These are questions that are quite commonly addressed, at least implicitly, in the study of religion. Less frequently asked is the question of what it means for a religious tradition to come to an end. This article addresses this question, paying particular attention to the ways people actively dismantle a religious tradition that previously shaped their lives. I also consider what studying the process of religious disappearance can teach us about what it means for a tradition to arise and endure, arguing that a grasp on processes of religious dissolution is necessary for a fully rounded approach to the study of religious change. Throughout the article, I illustrate my arguments with material from the study of Christianity, Judaism and indigenous religious traditions, particularly from Oceania.

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On Knowing Faith

Theology, Everyday Religion, and Anthropological Theory

Joel Robbins

I was very honored by the invitation to deliver the 2019 Rappaport Lecture, which forms the basis of this article. The theme of the Society for the Anthropology of Religion's conference for which it was written, “The Politics of Religious Knowledge and Ignorance,” is one that is very close to the heart of Roy Rappaport's work. After all, the foundation of his magisterial theory of the role of ritual in the development of humanity is our species’ radical inability, once language allowed expression to take on a life of its own, to know whether others are lying to us or not, and ritual's ability to address the problem of radical social ignorance that this incapacity sets before us by creating certainty about who people are and what commitments they have taken on (Rappaport 1999). For Rappaport, ritual and religion were both from the start fundamentally entangled with issues of knowledge and ignorance.

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Pentecostal Networks and the Spirit of Globalization

On the Social Productivity of Ritual Forms

Joel Robbins

Pentecostal Christianity has in the last several decades demonstrated an ability to globalize with great speed and to flourish in social contexts of poverty and disorganization in which other social institutions have been unable to sustain themselves. This article asks why Pentecostalism should be so successful at institution building in harsh environments. I argue that this question is more fundamental than those scholars more often ask about the kinds of compensations that Pentecostalism provides for its adherents. I then draw on Collins's theory of interaction ritual chains to suggest that it is Pentecostalism's promotion of ritual to the center of social life that grounds its unusual institution-building capacity.

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On the Critical Uses of Difference

The Uninvited Guest and "The Invention of Culture"

Joel Robbins

The year 2000 marked the twenty-fifth year anniversary of the publication of Roy Wagner’s book The Invention of Culture. One of the earliest and still most profoundly challenging considerations of anthropology from a quarter- century that went on to see its share of critical engagements with the discipline, the book’s recent anniversary provides an opportunity to look back at Wagner’s argument and consider what it has taught us and what parts of its message may still remain to be assimilated. In what follows, I take up these issues by examining the book’s reception, laying out its core argument, considering its contribution to critical anthropology and, finally, showing how its primary analytic strategy can be applied to the study of contemporary religious movements.

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James Laidlaw and Joel Robbins

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Reinventing the Invention of Culture

Joel Robbins and David A. B. Murray

In a recent special issue of Social Analysis, Culture at the End of the Boasian Century (1997) the editors noted that the 1970s was a time of particularly intense anthropological debate about culture. They mentioned Geertz, Sahlins, Schneider and Boon as anthropologists who made some of the key theoretical contributions of that era, interrogating the meaning of the ‘culture concept’ and extending it in new directions. As much as those names conjure up a period of impressive accomplishment in anthropological culture theory, we feel there is an important omission from this list: Roy Wagner’s The Invention of Culture, first published in 1976 (with a revised volume published in 1981). In fact, we would argue that more than twentyfive years later, this book remains highly relevant to contemporary debates on the meanings and definitions of culture in anthropological circles and, indeed, to debates on the meanings and definitions of anthropology itself.

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Comments and Reply

Aparecida Vilaça, Simon Coleman, Máire Ní Mhaonaigh, Don Seeman, and Joel Robbins

What if a Religion Is Not Made to Last? Aparecida Vilaça

The Sense of an Ending Simon Coleman

Constructing Continuity Máire Ní Mhaonaigh

But Whose Categories Are These? Don Seeman

Author's Reply: On Morality, Time and Religious Disappearance Joel Robbins

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Around David Henig's Remaking Muslim Lives

Everyday Islam in Postwar Bosnia and Herzegovina

Catherine Wanner, Michael Lambek, Basit Kareem Iqbal, Joel Robbins, and David Henig

Around David Henig's Remaking Muslim Lives: Everyday Islam in Postwar Bosnia and Herzegovina Urbana, Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2020, paperback, 210 pages

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Around Andreas Bandak's Exemplary Life: Modelling Sainthood in Christian Syria

Maya Mayblin, Joel Robbins, Amira Mittermaier, Bjørn Thomassen, and Andreas Bandak

Exemplarity is one of those startlingly interesting ideas that deserves to be up there with ‘power’ as a foundational concept for the social sciences. Exemplarity is memory, learning, and mimesis; it is self-recognition in the Other, and therefore key to theory of mind. One of the curious things about exemplarity is how pervasively we encounter it in its multiple, material, and ideational forms; as copies, repetitions, iterations, duplications, models, seriations, similes, icons—the list goes on. Examples (of some sort) can always be found.

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An Author Meets Her Critics

Around "Political Spiritualities: The Pentecostal Revolution in Nigeria" by Ruth Marshall

Ruth Marshall, J.D.Y. Peel, Daniel Jordan Smith, Joel Robbins, and Jean-François Bayart

In the now very rapidly growing literature on Pentecostalism in Africa, Ruth Marshall’s book occupies a special place. In disciplinary terms, most of that literature falls under religious studies or history. The anthropologists came later, particularly those from North America, who had to get over their distaste for a religion that seemed so saturated in the idioms of the US Bible Belt. The originality of Marshall’s book is grounded in its linkage of questions derived from political theory with rich data collected through intensive and sustained fieldwork. But she insists it is not “an ethnography of the movement” (p. 5), so what exactly is it?