Sophia 48 (2):119-125 (2009)
The study of religion by social anthropologists, as distinct from the classical philosophical approach of the Greeks and their medieval heirs, began in the late 19th century with Edward Tyler’s Primitive Culture (1871). Tyler’s approach was completely a priori in style in that it did not rest on systematic field work or empirical observation. The same approach characterized James Frazer’s famous book, The Golden Bough (1891). Baldwin Spencer, the founding father of Australian anthropology, was persuaded by Frazer to see the sophisticated religious beliefs and rites of the Aboriginal groups he studied in central Australia as mere ‘magic’. By the 1960s, a new generation of anthropologists, influenced by Claude Lévi-Strauss and English thinkers like E. Evans Pritchard, had arrived on the scene. This new ‘turn’ in anthropology led a number of contemporary scholars to the radical position that Western anthropology itself is a socio-cultural phenomenon that can be investigated in a broadly anthropological way. To see what this involves, it is worthwhile examining a number of crucial misunderstandings of Australian Aboriginal beliefs and practices that have been the artefactual result of various anthropological approaches.
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