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exploring 'cultures': the textuality of interpretation and intellectual fashions. Removing 'ethnocentricity' and the importance of 'context'.


Exploring Religions and Cultures



About this Module


This course aimed to introduce students to the exploration of non-western cultures and religions, the meanings and values associated to rituals, beliefs, practices. An introductory look into the creation of religious and cultural meanings.


The course aimed at encouraging students to read ethnographies and reviewing anthropological text that dealt with issues of culture and religion.


Aims: to familiarise with:

Describing Anthropology, Looking at Culture and its definitions, definitions of religion and ritual, understanding ethnocentrism and prejudice, how to do fieldwork about 'religion', understanding cultural practices 'from the natives point of view'. Gain confidence in reading and writing anthropology, to gain understanding of comparison and interpretation, and to understand the nature of cotnext when studying 'cultures' and 'religions'.



I created this module in 2005. Prior to 2005 I was teaching a 20 credit module called 'Reading and Writing' that was an excellent introduction to Anthropology and complemented my colleagues, Kirtsoglou's compulsory 'Anthropology in Context', and a further modul re-written as 'Exploring Culture' (10 credits).


In 2003/2004 I had been teaching 'Exploring Religion and Culture in Japan' as a way of both targeting the introduction of these themes in level 1 and responding to student's demands on the popularity of Japanese ethnography courses. In 2004, I felt the module could gain from an additional and specific course on the themes that students pointed out in their feedback forms across the board, namely, a further course on culture and religion. This was 'Exploring Culture'.


With staff loses, students had detected a gap in our curriculum in the area of anthropology of religion. This course meant to introduce key themes on this area and thus help to prepare students who were hoping to undertake further modules in the area of religious studies that was a pathway in our degree structure.


In 2005 I decided to unify the previous 'reading and writting anthropology', 'exploring cultures' and 'exploring religion and culture in Japan' into one single module 'Exploring Religions and Cultures'.  Religions and Cultures benefited from the earlier modules in that we had a basic line we wanted to develop and also we had some years of experience and we knew what worked well and not so for these kinds of courses.


Critical Thinking strategies

In this respect the two key ideas we were hoping for students to explore was to have a good understanding of anthropological discussion on the meaning of religion, and an overview of anthropological discussions on 'culture'. In particular, we aimed at fusing together aspect of Geertz anthropology of Religion with classic theories of ritual, rite of passage, symbolic boundaries to give students an overview from pre-functionalist to symbolist analysis. Furthermore we wanted to introduce elemnts of postmodern thinking about cultrue and interpretation through tutorials that would expand on earlier structural and post-structural theories. The course followed Bowie's Anthropology of Religion and aimed at students reading a minimum of three ethnographic monographs for the course on either themes to do with understanding 'culture' or 'religion'.


I revised all the handouts of all the introductory anthropology courses I had created from 2000 to 2005 and I selected what had been most succesful from 'Reading and Writing Anthropology' and 'Exploring Religion and Culture in Japan' and included a new itinerary, assessment and pedagogic strategy. I went through it with my colleague Elisabeth who had been the lead staff in the compulsory module for 'Anthropology in Context' and we agreed on how both courses would integrate the curriculum ideas together. The course went out for approval and got inscribed int the curriculum with merits. I then contacted Roula, who was our postgraduate tutor and we set up the tutorial, readings, materials and so on. Roula included the popular Dance, Fashion and Myth and Anthropology of Death, which were her research specialisation (she donated these to me for the following year as she left). Roula and I divided the task of writing the power-points, shared the material and started teaching it. In 2006 I revised again (at Roula's departure for fieldwork) and I synththised some of the earlier tutorials and wrote new ones.


The rationale of the tutorials was to offer a brief introduction of concepts and ideas on culture and religion and introduce students to the concept of 'critical thinking' in class. These would then develop into  examples students could identify well with, Dance, Pilgrimage, The Body, Death, Dressing and Fashion. This part of the course was followed by a third part where students, also after the submission of their second monograph review, adn twelve diary entries, and  would meet again concepts such as ritual and rites of passage introduce earlier but this time using past examples to examine theory further, and concluding with the always popular themes of Shamanism and Carnivals.


One of the outcomes of this course was to reveal the centrality of the theme of the body which then I took and expanded within my module 'Gender and Sexuality' in year two and three. Shamanism was perhaps the most anticipated tutorial and it never failed to create a great tutorial response. The Nacirema exercise proved, once again, very useful for talking about interpretation and further to this, to talk about writing and exoticisation in anthropology.


This course was a joy to teach in that it build up well student's aspirations and knowledge of the themes with theory and ethnography. Thanks to Roula, it had five exciting tutorials on themes that students could identify well with,including one where Roula did some fantastic Greek dancing where all students participated. I particularly like the fact there was no exam for this module and that the assessed exercise was a large working journal, a diary of the course and the student's ideas. The reflexive nature of the exercise allowed for students to think through rather than merely linearly the course. It allowed me to see how what and how they had learned about the contents of the course and on how to keep improving it.


Strategy of the Handouts:

This was the third module to have a book review and a working journal as the two pieces of assessed work. It repeated earlier materials on how to write working journals. he original texts had been provided to us in 2001 from the University of Sussex during a session on training and staff development, and we had been allowed to used them for our students. Over the first two years, these examples had proved excellent ways of helping students understand these kinds of assessments and were included in the final handout and they became practice. 


Each handout had an introduction of one topic, one quotation of the day (to read and discuss in class), reading and references, and a series of Critical Thinking Questions for class and tutorial. The handouts also contained tasks and self-assesment exercises, and class exercises (the Nacirema case built as an exercise on interpretation).


The Handouts worked very well and were given along with a copy of the powerpoint handout. The students than had the handouts to work with, a copy of the powepoint, their own classnotes on the critical thinking questions and their own experiences to use towards the assessed working journal.



The Course Poster

The course poster was a bricolage of different images and themes to do with confronting assumptions to do with culture and religion. In them there were icons of representations of differences in belief and beliefs systems, from Shamanism, Witchcraft to Animism. One of the talking points of the course was to look at the poster as a way of start thinking about how anthropology approaches these themes.


The poster had elements of critique to understandings of religions from a western point of view, in the use of the 'black cat' and 'lightening' and critiques to dominant religious views, and finally the central idea of intolerance (either cultural or religious). This last one, on intolerance would target the importance of dealing with ethnocentricity when doing research on areas to do with 'culture' and 'religion'. The course did start explaining why I had culture and religion in quotes, and the importance of understanding that there were more than one meaning and more than one intepretation to do with belief systems and cultural meanings.


[go back to all materialities] 

The Full Handout includes the following:


1- Course Description

2- Learning Objectives and Aims

3- Bibliography

4- Assessment

5- Course Itinerary

6- Example of Record of Study (working journal)

8- Lecture and Tutorial Handouts

9- PowerPoints
10- Previous Handout Course



lectures and tutorials:


1- Introduction (2 weeks)

2- Culture and Religion (2 weeks)

3- Dance (performance & embodiment)

4- Pilgrimage

5- The Body

6- Death in Greece

7- Dressing and Fashion,

8- Mythology

9- Anthropology as Cultural Critique

10- Ritual ( 2 weeks)

11- Rites of Passage

12- Symbolic Boundaries (2 weeks)

13- Witchcraft (2 weeks)

14- Shamanism

15- Festivals and Carnivals




Definitions of Culture

Geertz & Thick Description

Definitions of Religion

Rituals: function and meaning

Rites of Passage

Fashion and Myth

Anthropology and Death


African Witchcraft
Symbolic Boundaries

The Body



Definitions of Religion student exercise


In class we collected student's definition of 'religion' (1st week). We then worked together in grouping each definition in relation to the 6 reference points in the PowerPoint on Religion as to examine how 'views' on religion can be classified depending on those reference points (or not). This would be use to answer the questions in the powerpoint on systems of classsification.



For queries, an email.