2000, 6th Biennial Conference, Krakow

Crossing Categorical Boundaries: Religion as Politics | Politics as Religion

Anthropological research has tried repeatedly to go beyond the once handy division of social life into separate domains, such as kinship as opposed to economics, economics as opposed to symbolism, religion as opposed to politics. Yet this building-blocks view of social life still pervades most of our teaching and our standard textbooks: from kinship through exchange to economics; from economics through redistribution to politics; from socio-economics through symbolism to religion. Needless to say, one ends up with a surplus of ‘large-scale phenomena’ such as: colonialism and a world of (supposedly) secular nation-states, missionary expansion and (thus?) revivalist cults, rationalist secularism and (against it) fundamentalist counter-movements, free-market globalisations and (inexplicably) identity politics. All of these ‘large-scale dynamics’ look unnecessarily vague, precisely because they have been relegated to the status of after-thoughts or residual categories by the outdated but resilient epistemology of social building-blocks. To go beyond this, it must be useful to re-think the division of social life into separable domains (which, tellingly enough, we usually re-inscribe in our self-profiles as published in EASA’s and other professional Registers).

The conference seeks to question, think across, and indeed anthropologize such categorical divisions wherever they impede our discipline’s progress: economics as kinship, symbolism as power, purpose rationality as religion – the permutations are manifold , and they all argue against the building-blocks view of social processes. An especially fruitful, and locally apt, crossing of categorical boundaries relates to the division between politics and religion. This division needs to be examined ethnographically, questioned theoretically, and transcended holistically.

Ever since Clifford Geertz floated the last successful textbook definitions of religion as a category sui generis, universally applicable and ethnographically boundable, anthropologists have taken issue with it. They have questioned the cryptic notion of ‘belief’, implicit even in Geertz’ tour de force; have spoken of civil religions in seemingly secular nation-states; and have not only called religion on ‘authorizing discourse’ interacting with several others, but also pointed to the specific ideological interests which try to separate the categories of religion and politics. The past decade’s work on fundamentalist movements, diasporic politics, nationalist and identity politics, and transnational networks has produced compelling evidence to show that the division between religion and politics is an ideological formation. It ignores the historical situatedness of all classifications, blocks our alertness to original comparison, and bars the way to a holistic understanding of social dynamics.

The theme of the conference responds to three wishes expressed by the membership: it is locally relevant, given the history of Kraków and the reconstitution, in the wider region, of its traditions of cultural pluralism; it is applicable to all ethnographic fields and traditions of anthropological thought; and it returns to a substantive focus which nonetheless allows for reflection on the assumptions underlying our practice.