The Ritual Taboos of Fishermen

Posted on September 25, 2007


About a week ago the KLI hosted a workshop on innovation in cultural systems. The talks were a great example of how disciplines such as archaeology and anthropology are becoming more and more scientific thanks to the increasing application of mathematical methods and, very often, the conceptual framework that is provided by evolutionary theory. Among the speakers was Craig Palmer from the University of Missouri-Columbia who has done work on superstition and with whom I had a couple of interesting talks. Since then he’s sent me a copy of a paper he had published in 1989 in Marine Anthropological Studies. The paper explores a couple of issues that are important for me. The first is the relationship between people claiming to know of a superstition, claiming to engage in it and claiming to believe it. Palmer’s approach is somewhat behaviourist in that he would like to avoid having to discuss the beliefs in discussions of ritual taboos – a type of superstition. My worry in that regard is that I am not sure if it is possible to distinguish between ritual taboos and other practices without making assumptions about the beliefs. Having said that, his study is very interesting in that it shows a mismatch between whether people claim to believe in a superstition and whether they claim to engage in it. There are two methodological problems with it, though. The first is that it is on a very small sample – just nineteen fishermen. The second is that the only thing being examined is the claims the fishermen made in response to a questionnaire. This leaves open, for example, the question of what is the relationship between the fishermen claiming to observe a taboo and actually observing it. Still, this does not undermine the interest of the paper in theory terms.

The other theory-related reason why Palmer’s paper is interesting to me is that he proposes an alternative explanation for superstitions. As he puts it, “Instead of seeing taboos as a means of relieving anxiety, the paper proposes that taboos promote cooperation by communicating a willingness to accept traditional patterns of authority.” Here, Palmer is arguing against a particular way of interpreting the results that Malinowski obtained by looking at the practices of the Trobriand islanders where superstition seemed to be correlated with danger. Of course, anxiety-relief is a particular theory assuming a primarily emotive response to a dangerous situation and there are other alternatives including the cognitive options that I find plausible, i.e. attempt to control a dangerous situation where normal means are not satisfactory. The existence of those options does not undermine Palmer’s suggested alternative, though it does ‘open up the field’, so to speak. Palmer’s suggestion seems to me to essentially collapse superstitious practice into religious practice in so far as his cooperation hypothesis seems to fit with Durkheim’s characterisation of the function of religion. This is problematic given the long-standing tradition of distinguishing between religious and superstitious beliefs (whatever the ongoing controversy surrounding the relationship between the two). Also, it seems to me that to make his hypothesis stronger his would need to exclude the possibility that increased observance of taboos in larger groups isn’t merely due to increased opportunity for social transmission of the beliefs. Having said all that, I would not wish to discount his hypothesis as it seems perfectly reasonable to me that superstitions my play a variety of non-exclusive roles in different contexts, the relative significance of these roles depending upon the specific circumstances. This seems to me to be particularly the case with what I call religious superstitions, i.e. beliefs in the miraculous properties of religious objects, pilgrimage sites etc. In that case it seems likely that the superstition is doing ‘double-duty’. Of course, even there the primary focus of my interest is upon the cognitive side of the issue, the social role staying more in the background.

As it turns out, Craig Palmer, along with Lyle Steadman, is currently working on a book that I will most definitely need to read – Natural Selection and the Supernatural: The Evolutionary Success of Religious Behavior. If the paper is anything to go by it ought to be a good read. I wonder what the relationship of their work is to David Sloan Wilson’s.