Stanner on Aboriginal Religion

Between 1959 and 1963, Australian anthropologist W.E.H. Stanner published a classic six-part series of articles on Aboriginal religion. Those articles appeared in the journal Oceania, which also published them as a set in Oceania Monograph 11 (1963). This monograph is hard to find and usually expensive when found. Those with institutional access to journals may be surprised to find, as I just found for CU-Boulder, that they do not have a subscription to Oceania. Thankfully, the Sydney University Press has re-published the articles, along with two introductory essays, in a volume titled On Aboriginal Religion (2014). Even better, the entire volume can be downloaded for free here. In Stanner’s own Introduction to the series, he states the guiding principles:

The history of the study of primitive, in particular, Aboriginal religion suggested that I should observe certain conditions. In the first place, it seemed advisable to concentrate on a region since there have been few really intensive studies of regional cults, and a better perspective on the continent as a whole can be attained only in that way. Secondly, I thought I should take Aboriginal religion as significant in its own right and make it the primary subject of study, rather than study it, as was done so often in the past, mainly to discover the extent to which it expressed or reflected facts and preoccupations of the social order. That is, study it as religion and not as a mirror of something else. It seemed desirable, thirdly, to avoid entanglement with any particular definition or theory of religion and, lastly, to resist any temptation to draw from the single instance any conclusions about all religion. Anyone familiar with the literature on the subject will agree that a good case can be made for such limitations.

This is quite refreshing, given that “Aboriginal religion” (there is, by the way, no such essential or singular thing) has been the tool used by too many scholars to advance their favorite theory of religion. When it comes to Aborigines, Emile Durkheim and Mircea Eliade have been prime offenders. I first became aware of Stanner’s work while reading Tony Swain’s mind-bending book, A Place for Strangers: Towards a History of Aboriginal Being (1996). If you read only one of Stanner’s essays, the final installment — “Cosmos and Society Made Correlative” — should be the one.


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4 thoughts on “Stanner on Aboriginal Religion

  1. franscouwenbergh

    I wonder why you see Stanner’s restrictions as “quite refreshing”.
    Your whole “Genealogy of Religon” , your “Hunter-Gatherers Magic Methodology” and so on is one great quest for origins and character of religion.
    Aboriginal religions (I got acquainted with only one of them, from a clan in Arnhem Land) are special pristine and pure, because of the rather ‘recent’ kolonization of the continent, its being locked up after the end of the last Ice age and its lack of domesticable food plants and animals which condemned the tribes to remain hunter-gatherers.
    So the temptation “to draw conclusions about religion” is ultimately great, also for you.
    So: why “quite refreshing?”
    Is Stanners’s view not biased by postmodern positions?

  2. Cris Post author

    It’s refreshing because Stanner has not pre-judged the issues and is not flogging a singular definition or particular theory. It’s further refreshing because his modest approach is an expression of (a) methodological pluralism, and (b) explanatory non-exclusion. Such an approach is sensitive to the substantial variation which exists not only among hunter-gatherers, but also among more recent religions. Finally, it’s refreshing because Stanner does not have any particular or isolated agenda.

    Moreover, this approach may have enabled Stanner to go into the field and gather ethnographic data without (1) perceiving and thus distorting the data through some pre-existing theoretical lens, and (2) selectively presenting that data in ways that would confirm definitions or theories. This is precisely what Durkheim and Eliade did (though neither ever ventured into the Australian bush or field), and it renders their presentation of Aboriginal “religion” completely suspect. While Stanner’s approach may be ideal and in practice impossible, it does lessen the possibility that the data are distorted or selected for bias.

    Any search for truth, with an emphatic small “t,” will always be ongoing, provisional, multi-perspectival, and subject to constant revision. You may wish to call this post-modern; I will call it science. We do not have a universal or final explanation for everything that is called “religion,” and telling a singular story about the “evolution of religion” is an error.

    Finally, Australian Aborigines were not “condemned” to remain hunter-gatherers. That idea reflects a progressive cultural evolutionary story, and it’s a myth.

  3. Gyrus

    Haven’t read Stanner, many thanks for the link. One aspect of his approach immediately makes me curious. I completely appreciate your take that he’s not going into the field with a preconceived agenda. But doesn’t the focus on religion as ‘significant in its own right’ reflect Western disciplinary divisions, which of course aren’t present in Aboriginal culture? I’m guessing that he’s reacting against a (Durkheimian?) approach that reduces religion to social issues. And that a swing the other way – to ignore social factors – is maybe a necessary redress? The title of the final instalment suggests he’s not at all ignoring social factors. Anyway, will have to read – I was just curious about what you’ve made of this focus on religion, and whether he does ever seem to be in danger of swinging too far away from previous approaches led by another disciplinary bias.

  4. Cris Post author

    Stanner was a student of Radcliffe-Brown, so he clearly was reacting to or against RB’s structural-functionalism, which was derived from Durkheim. Structural-functionalists assert that all aspects of a culture contribute, in some way (whether the members are aware of it or not), to a society’s cohesion. This is of course an a priori assumption, and it’s questionable and perhaps even tautological.

    Your question about “religion” is a good one. My sense is that Stanner had a working idea of what might be meant by the term, and this working idea was not necessarily reflective of western ideas of “religion.” He cast a wide ethnographic net, and gathered data on cosmology, ideas, rituals, and myths. It seems he thought that just about everything might be considered “religious.” I suspect he used the term “religion” as a convenient shorthand, or a way to signal to readers his very broad subject matter. I don’t think he saw Aboriginal worldviews as standing alone or apart as “religion.”

    Stanner’s final essay, the one I recommended, does in fact contain social observations and some tentative conclusions. He does not entirely avoid theoretical issues, but these come at the end and are limited observations. Because he is so cautious, and does not draw any larger inferences, my understanding is that other scholars, more theoretically inclined, think his ethnographic data are particularly reliable. This also means that when Stanner arrives at some conclusion, or offers a theoretically informed opinion, people take those quite seriously.

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