How far is the ethnographic study of 'cosmologies' relevant to contemporary anthropology, and how might it illuminate understandings of the contemporary world? In this article we argue for a renewed anthropological interest in matters cosmological by seeking to disentangle the study of cosmology from the concomitants with which it was associated in earlier periods of anthropological research. In particular, we argue that an orientation toward cosmology continues to be of prime importance to the discipline insofar as it can be freed from its associations with holism and exoticism. The shift from 'high modernity' (in which orientations toward cosmos are variously constrained and circumscribed) to the flattening effects of the 'fluid' modernity of neoliberalism, we argue, has tended to thrust concerns with cosmic orders and dynamics back onto the forefront of people's lives. We end the article with a series of programmatic observations of how anthropologists might respond to these shifts, both ethnographically and analytically.
Allen Abramson and Martin Holbraad
Returning to Cosmology—Thoughts on the Positioning of Belief
Cosmology may be helpful in positioning belief. I suggest, through discussing the contributions to this collection, that belief, especially propositional belief, is integral to monotheistic cosmoses that are constituted through gigantic fractures (like that between God and human being). Such fractures distinguish between cosmic interior and cosmic exterior. The fracture as boundary is absolute, paradoxical, not to be breached. Thus, the infinite Hebrew God integrates His finite cosmos by holding it together from its outside. The absolute boundary signifies cosmic discontinuity. Here belief in the unfathomable may be central to overcoming such discontinuity and, so, to integrating cosmos. By contrast, an organic cosmos is held together within itself, is more continuous within itself, is more holistic, and, in flowing through itself, obviates any centrality of belief.
Congolese Refugees Seeking Cosmological Continuity in Urban Asylum
Avoiding poison refers here to practices of securitization that enable refugees from the Democratic Republic of the Congo to exert agency in urban asylum in Uganda. I consider that the stakes of poisoning are not exclusively understood in terms of physiological survival, but are existential, relating to the ways that Congolese refugees imbue purpose in their lives through acts that restore cosmological continuity. Focusing on the cosmological logics through which refugees experience urban asylum, I argue that practices of avoiding poison can be seen as acts of securitization whereby refugees exert agency in precarious contexts of urban asylum.
A Cultural Ecological Framework and Its Implications for Education Systems
Phil Bayliss and Patrick Dillon
This essay critiques the majoritarian, post-Enlightenment, scientific worldview, the assumptions it makes about human cosmologies and lifestyles and how, in turn, these assumptions influence the nature of education systems. The critique focuses on how the experiences of minority cultures, particularly those cultures that are nomadic or pastoralist, challenge some of the fundamental premises of majoritarian education. There follows a cultural ecological framing which compares the ways in which Western (majoritarian) cultures and minoritarian cultures contextualise education. In Western educational situations, structures, contexts and schemata are substantially pre-defined, and we talk about things as 'context-dependent', since context is something that can be described as the backdrop to behaviour. In minoritarian cultures both meaning and context emerge from people's interactions with their environments and may subsequently be described. These are respectively relational and co-constitutional manifestations of situations. We present a cultural ecological framework in an attempt simultaneously to embrace both interpretations.
Religious Rituals and Embodied Spirituality among the Bahraini Shi‘a
This article analyses the relationship between the seen and the unseen in the cosmology and practices of Bahraini Shi'a. Rather than contrasting the visible and the invisible, the study delineates the hierarchical relations between them, within a whole or cosmology, as reflected in various discursive and non-discursive actions that are supported by the religious beliefs of Bahraini Shi'a. Issues of the Hidden Imam, concealment, dissimulation and other unseen dimensions of the cosmos are discussed. The article finds that the Shi'a construct the invisible in their social world by using visible ways of creatively enacting their hidden thoughts and beliefs, as represented in their religious discourses, rituals and body symbolism. Their belief in a divine higher power provides a source of emotional, spiritual and socio-political empowerment.
In Ladakh, north-west India, a popular narrative of the region’s inhabitants as spiritually and ecologically enlightened combines with national sustainable and participatory development policies to produce a distinctive character that underpins the local administration’s development strategies. These strategies emphasise ‘traditional’ values of cooperation, simplicity, and ecological and spiritual harmony as the way to achieve culturally sustainable development and emotional well-being. However, obstacles to development appear when normative principles of sustainability and ecological wisdom encounter local cosmology, hierarchy and perceptions of expertise in society. In this article, I refl ect upon my fieldwork and previous regional ethnographies to consider possible frameworks for evaluating well-being as an indicator of culturally sustainable development that include concepts of cosmology and expert protection.
Tricksters in Cuban and Brazilian Spirit Mediumship Practices
Diana Espírito Santo
In this article, I explore how the cosmologies of two popular spirit possession cults—Espiritismo in Cuba and Umbanda in Brazil—exhibit forms of recursivity and self-reflexivity. Taking my cue from Don Handelman’s notion that the cosmos often contains its own logic of self-becoming, I argue that in these ethnographic cases, recursivity results from the interplay between, on the one hand, the spirits’ expression of their autonomy from living beings and, on the other, the spirits’ contingency for their effectiveness on human belief, representation, perception, and action. In Espiritismo and Umbanda, spirits intervene in human affairs unpredictably, throwing new light on anthropological and native conceptualizations of reflexivity.
A Cultural Concept for Conditions of Being Far from Salvation
“Dancing mania” and “St. Vitus dance” were culturally formed illness concepts that enabled late medieval people in the Rhine area to act out states of liminality. The semiotics of these trace back to ancient Platonic cosmology, which had been transmitted into medieval theology by late antique Neoplatonism. In this article the iteration of these motifs especially through the early and high Middle Ages is scrutinized. When “dancing mania” emerged in the fourteenth century it was thus neither an early case of mass hysteria nor a particular form of religious deviance, as is still assumed frequently.
The Catholic Church, Adat, and ‘Inculturation’ among Northern Lio, Indonesia
Based on ethnography from Lio, Indonesia, I explore effects on values, categories, and practices that followed the introduction of Catholicism to the area. Hierarchy is treated both as a model of value, conveyed through asymmetrical relations, and as a system of social organization. Hierarchy is employed as a way to order elements of value, to include the social-political sphere of stratification, and as a conceptual tool to analyze the relationship between adat (cosmology) and the Catholic Church. In adat, hierarchical relations constitute a means of social and ritual organization and practice in which the whole is considered superior to the individual, while Catholicism is based on an ideology of egalitarianism. Unlike adat, which pervades every aspect of life, the Catholic religion in Lioland occupies only a delineated niche of religion.
The Cosmopolitics of an Apparently Non-religious Practice
Sergio González Varela
Scholars commonly associate the religiosity of capoeira with the Afro- Brazilian religion of Candomblé, although some consider capoeira to be exclusively a martial art or even a sport. From the vantage point of the leaders of capoeira Angola groups, their individual power comes from a set of magical attributes that go beyond the influence of Afro-Brazilian religions. In this article, I explore an alternative form of spirituality that is based on the existence of spiritual beings such as the ancestors and the dead mestres (leaders). I argue that these entities emerge only in capoeira performances, affecting ritual action in such a way as to constitute an alternative form of religion that co-exists with Candomblé. By focusing on the effects that these spirits have in the configuration of charismatic personal power, it is possible to delineate cosmological attributes that make capoeira a potential religious practice in its own right.