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    American Academy of Religion

    Metaphors and Maps: Towards Comparison in the Anthropology of Religion Author(s): Fitz John Porter Poole Source: Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Vol. 54, No. 3 (Autumn, 1986), pp.

    411-457Published by: Oxford University PressStable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1464561Accessed: 16-08-2014 15:24 UTC

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  • Journal of the American Academy of Religion, LIV/ 3



    Conversations between anthropology and other academic studies of religion have been marked historically by considerable ambiva- lence and avoidance.' In the post-Malinowskian era of fieldwork- centered ethnography, the remarkable subleties of newly emerging and unexpected orders of data have challenged the adequacy of traditional academic perspectives on religion, many of which seemed bound-implicitly or explicitly-to the epistemological conventions and cognitive lenses of Western religions.2 From an anthropological perspective, the restricted emphasis on the written, enshrined texts of literate traditions and the curious assumption that religion could be studied almost in vacuo became untenable in the midst of a newfound functionalist concern to see religious phenomena intricately sus- pended in broader webs of cultural significance and subtly embedded in wider arrays of social institutions.3

    Fitz John Porter Poole is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, San Diego, La Jolla, California 92093.

    1 For scholarly appreciations of the historical course of anthropological approaches to the study of religion, see especially van Baal (1971), Banton (1966), Evans-Pritchard (1965), Firth (1973), La Barre (1972), Skorupski (1976), and Wallace (1966). In addition, particular attention should be directed toward anthropological perspectives on religion associated with the seminal studies of Mary Douglas, James Fernandez, Clifford Geertz, Claude L6vi-Strauss, Melford E. Spiro, and Victor W. Turner, who have influenced perhaps most dramatically contemporary anthropological views on the subject. Finally, some aspects of the modern dialogue between anthropological and other forms of the academic study of religion are well represented in Bianchi (1973), Spiro (1973), and the remarkable studies of Jonathan Z. Smith.

    2 For elegant overviews of the American, French, and British traditions of fieldwork-based anthropology and their significance in conceptualizing key issues of theory, method, and data, see Boon (1982), Clifford (1982), and Stocking (1983), respectively.

    3 The theoretical consequences of this elaborated sense of socio-cultural context for understanding religious meanings, acts, experiences, personae, and institutions and for

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  • 412 Journal of the American Academy of Religion

    The enchantment and challenge of prolonged field study-and thus an intimate sense of religion as a complex, lived reality in village communities-led many anthropologists to focus almost exclusively upon local nuances of the religions of single, simple, non-literate societies. Such studies devoted little attention to the historical or comparative contexts of local religions4 and placed severe strictures on reconstructive and comparative endeavors.5 To the extent that other scholars of religion have largely ignored, misunderstood, or misapplied anthropological efforts, or have tended to caricature them in simplistic or superficial slogans, many anthropologists have come to doubt even the possibility of interdisciplinary pursuits.6

    Yet, despite the differences between the archive and the field, various undertakings in the academic study of religion attend to both kinds of data and to the difficulties of their articulation. These

    articulating esoteric, textually-centered and popular, community-centered traditions are splendidly portrayed in the exemplary studies of Feeley-Harnik (1981) on images of the eucharist and passover in early Christianity, Geertz (1968) on the character of Islam in Indonesia and Morocco, Heilman (1976) on the socio-cultural significance of the synagogue in a community tradition of Orthodox Judaism, Obeyesekere (1984) on the shape and force of the cult of Pattini in South Asia and Sri Lanka, Ortner (1978) and Paul (1982) on the symbols of Sherpa religious experience, Spiro (1978, 1982) on the traditions of Burmese Buddhism, and Tambiah (1970, 1976, 1984) on aspects of culture, thought, and social action in Thai Buddhism (cf. Carrithers [1983] on Buddhist monks of Sri Lanka). For a general appraisal of the significance of such research for the broader academic study of religion, with a particular focus on the works of Geertz, L6vi-Strauss, and Turner, see Bianchi (1973) and Moore and Reynolds (1984).

    4 The relationship between anthropology and history in this regard has been a critical subject of vigorous and continuing debate. See Bagby (1958), Boas (1936), Cohn (1980), Eggan (1954), Evans-Pritchard (1962a, 1962b), Godelier (1971), Hudson (1966, 1973), Hughes (1960, 1964), Hultkrantz (1967), Kroeber (1935, 1963), Lewis (1968), Lowie (1917), McCall (1970), Munz (1956, 1971), Obeyesekere (1970), Olien (1967), Schapera (1962), J. Z. Smith (1982d), M. G. Smith (1962), and Sturtevant (1966). For critical and productive examples of anthropological ideas illuminating aspects of historical dis- course, see Finley (1975), Humphreys (1978), and Macfarlane (1970).

    5 It should be noted that the works of Claude L6vi-Strauss on mythology, Melford E. Spiro on psycho-cultural and psycho-social foundations of religious belief and practice, and Victor W. Turner on ritual have been remarkably influential in turning anthropol- ogy from narrow, cautious, parochial interests in local religious phenomena to compar- ative issues focused ultimately on the pan-human nature of religion. The present influence of more hermeneutical, interpretive approaches to the anthropological study of religions, however, perhaps most elegantly articulated by Clifford Geertz in his analytic concern with the project of "thick description" (1973), represents a challenge to the legitimacy of a positivistic, comparative search for universals and for explanations (in the strict hypothetico-deductive, causal sense) in understanding religious phenom- ena (see Geertz, 1984; cf. Spiro, n.d.).

    6 For an excellent discussion of the limits of naivety and responsibility in going beyond one's discipline of primary competence in the search for theoretical insight, see Gluckman (1964).

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  • Poole: Metaphors and Maps 413

    approaches exhibit a commonality of interest with anthropology that should encourage mutual recognition of the importance and potential of intellectual cooperation.7 This essay constitutes an anthropological contribution to that significant, but still embryonic dialogue.

    i Any critical study of religion aims to develop interpretively

    sensitive and explanatorily (or theoretically) powerful analytic frame- works that make significant sense of complex cultural, psychological, and social data by delimiting a "domain" of religion. But to unravel the puzzle of religion a coherent theory must articulate the conceptual problem to be solved and shape the bracketing of the phenomena to be explored. This is easier said than done. In bounding a "domain" of religion, there is an inevitable tension between the illusory precision of monothetic categories and the more inchoate quality of polythetic categories. There is another tension between the desire to capture the richness, complexity, coherence, and ethnographic nuance of "na- tive" experience (whether lived or reconstructed) and the necessity for formal and abstract analysis. All academic studies of religion are thus obliged to forge an explicit and precise relationship between the particular and the general in the construction of any analysis. The particular anchors the analysis to some sense of ethnographic reality, and thus gives it empirical force. The general makes the analysis significant as an illuminating instance of religion, and thus makes it applicable to the constitution of an explanation.

    Any descriptive, interpretive, or explanatory endeavor involves relating phenomena to one another within a framework of categories extrinsic to the phenomena themselves.8 A general theory of religion is therefore necessary to guide the analysis of particular religious phenomena. To encapsulate an analysis within a single religious system-and thus within the semantic networks of the religion's own terms, categories, and understandings-entangles the analysis with the very discourse it seeks to interpret and explain. Since analysis entails going beyond the empiri