Getting ready for Vienna

Posted on June 9, 2007

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The semester is finishing and in a week I will be starting up in Vienna. I was meant to go last week but there is still much to be finished up here and there is no point wasting my post-doc time on dealing with things back here and doing it by remote control, what is more. So, I have put off the start of my fellowship by a couple of weeks.

I have been trying to orient myself in the status quo of the research on superstitions and have had what I think is only partial success. I’d like to believe that I by now I am at least aware of much of the work that’s being done on superstition in developmental and cognitive psychology. Certainly, that is where the bulk of my effort has been directed over the last few months. My grasp of the situation in other disciplines is much weaker, however. I am thinking, particularly, of anthropology. The starting point will have to be reading Evans-Pritchard’s Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic Among the Azande a classic in the area which was recommended to me by Peter Harries-Jones, whom I ran into while I was in Granada. In so far as I understand, much of the current work on these kinds of phenomena within anthropology goes back to Evans-Pritchard, his work being based upon that of Malinowski who studied the Triobrand Islanders during World War One. Another anthropologist whose work Harries-Jones recommended to me is the recently deceased Mary Douglas with her work on purity and risk.

While I sure that the empirical data that the anthropologists have gathered is bound to be very valuable, I am somewhat concerned to what degree the theoretical work is going to be of value to me. My worry is that the anthropologists are coming at superstition from a point of view focussed upon culture where for me the main focus lies at the individual cognitive level, on the one hand, and on the evolutionary level, on the other. I am concerned that he theoretical point they make will be largely orthogonal to my own interests. Which is probably why I have pursued the psychological aspects prior to the anthropological ones.

Another area which studied superstition but which I have not properly followed up on for similar reasons is history. Historical studies of superstition are much rarer than the anthropological ones, of course, and tend to focus on the phenomenon of the witch crazes in early modern Europe and America – a topic which is of only tangential interest to me. In this discipline I have only read Inventing Superstition by Dale Martin which, although interesting due to its explanation of how superstition was thought of in the Ancient world, was focussed on the cultural phenomenon and, indeed, seemed at times to assume that the thing it was looking at was the only thing there is. Kind of like the old tale of the five blind men trying to work out what an elephant is like and each describing the elephant in terms of what part of it they happened to be touching. Which is something for me to keep in mind and a reason to go beyond the literature I am most in tune with.

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