Malinowski’s magic, Skinner’s superstition

Posted on January 11, 2012


Just finished a first draft of an article that is to go into a volume edited by Dimitris Xygalatas and William McCorkle. The volume is to be called Mental Culture: Toward a Cognitive Science of Religion and is to show how modern cognitive science of religion is connected back to traditional approaches to the study of religion. My addition is something of a late entry, so it does not appear at this point in the contents on the website of the publisher, Equinox Press.

My own article shows how cognitive science of religion draws on two very different sources, i.e. Bronislaw Malinowski and B.F. Skinner, for some of its ideas. Here is the draft version of the start of the introduction:

Cognitive science of religion draws upon a broad range of scientific authorities – a point readily made by considering the classic research that the papers in this volume connect to the modern approach to the scientific study of religion. Within that range, it is would be hard to think of two researchers whose work is more dissimilar than Bronisław Malinowski and B.F. Skinner. Malinowski’s anthropological work involved the long-term observation of complex human societies while Skinner focussed on particular behaviours of individual animals. Malinowski studied people in the natural environment – Skinner relied upon tightly controlled, artificial conditions. Malinowski described his conclusions in elegant prose that ventured broad theories concerning human belief systems – Skinner eschewed belief talk and aimed for precise theories that were tied tightly to data. Given such differences, the comparison between these two scientific greats could well be used as an antidote against naive views of a monolithic scientific method. The real scientific issue is how to bring them together, however. This is the kind of problem that researchers engaged in cognitive science of religion run into constantly due to the highly interdisciplinary character of this field. Looking at how the work of Skinner and Malinowski can be combined usefully provides, therefore, a worthwhile case highlighting the issues that current scientific research into religion has to find ways of dealing with. Of course, the particular approach pursued here is specific to one researcher and would not be agreed with by others in its details.