In Chapter 6 of Cultural Anthropology: Tribes, States, and the Global System, the anthropologist John H. Bodley argues against several nineteenth and twentieth century historians and ethnographers who treated shamanistic religions as mere superstition. Overall, Bodley argues that the belief systems of peoples in South America, the South Pacific, and Africa who are considered to be “tribal,” are legitimate systems of religion that should not be derided simply because they have their origins in cultures that Western scholars consider to be “primitive.” For Bodley, the belief systems that such pre-developed peoples produce are completely rational within the context of their own societies. The notion that simply because a belief system is polytheistic or pantheistic means that it cannot possibly qualify as a legitimate “religion” is the product of ethnocentrism, and has produced an unfortunate bias in anthropological scholarship.

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In order to illustrate the ethnocentrism that has permeated cultural anthropology, Bodley cites several nineteenth century scholars who exhibited an explicit racial bias against their research subjects. For instance, Bodley takes special issue with Charles Staniland Wake, the Director of the Anthropological Institute in London, which presented an exhibit on Australian Aboriginal peoples. As Bodley states, “Wake’s ethnocentrism is readily betrayed by his derogatory references to ‘moral defects’ and the ‘barbarity’ and ‘absurdity’ of aboriginal customs, which he claimed were founded on ‘unmitigated selfishness.’ Such astonishing ethnocentrism had its origins in the assumptions of racial and cultural superiority that supported European colonialism” (Bodley, 2017: p. 114). As the chapter proceeds, Bodley produces numerous other testimonies from nineteenth century scholars that similarly betray an overwhelming sense of prejudice, judgementalism, and ethnocentrism, and claims that this chauvinism continues to negatively color cultural anthropology in the twenty-first century.

While Bodley makes an impressive case for the ethnocentrism of nineteenth century anthropologists, he almost completely ignores the progress that the field has made in the twentieth century and beyond. While Bodley convincingly argues for the reconceptualization of tribal belief systems as legitimate religions, his use of nineteenth century scholars as a counterpoint comes across as the presentation of a “straw man” argument. Throughout the twentieth century, the field of cultural anthropology greatly progressed, and any scholar who would write such things in their current works would be immediately excoriated. In many regards, Bodley appears to have an environmentalist political agenda in writing this book, and is attempting to glorify the societies of tribal peoples who currently remain in existence in the Amazonian region of South America, portions of southeastern Africa, and Melanesia. As such, Bodley has a vested interest in presenting the field of cultural anthropology in a negative light, and the best way to do this is to resurrect the racist writings of scholars from two centuries past.

Regardless, of his thinly veiled political agenda, Bodley does make some excellent observations about the problems that can arise when engaging in scholarly studies of non-Western cultures, especially in regards to their religious systems. When reading about the varied belief systems of tribal peoples, it does not seem that there is much difference between these animistic beliefs and the current belief systems that we refer to as “organized religion.” As Bodley illustrates, the tribal belief systems have all of the requisite aspects of a religion, such as a supernatural being, a belief in an afterlife, and a foundational myth. However, because these tribal belief systems have their origins in “pre-civilized” cultures, they are often referred to as magic or superstition. Clearly, religion is the final frontier of ethnocentrism in the field of cultural anthropology.

  • Bodley, J. H. (2017). Cultural anthropology: Tribes, states, and the global system. New York: Rowman Altamira.