Anthropology is the study of human behavior within a cultural context. The anthropology of religion is a subdivision within this broader field. While anthropologists incorporate the dimension of religion into their studies, others have focused on this topic as a central theme. This has been particularly in the theories of ritual espoused by Victor Turner, who has contributed to a growing interest in anthropological studies pertaining to religion. Moreover, these theories have also appeared in the areas of religious studies, performance studies and comparative literature.
In the 1970s, the anthropology of religion was mainly concerned with tribal studies. Fieldwork was carried out in remote regions of Africa, Asia and Oceania, focusing on what was termed the "exotic" and the "other." From their perspective of the ordinary, anthropologists sought to investigate what was seemingly extraordinary.
At that point, there was a major shift among anthropologists, with the emphasis on studying cultures closer to home. No longer always traveling afar, anthropologists began to look at the extraordinary within the everyday. Another focal point emerged, as anthropologists moved away from tribal explorations to studies of religion in developing countries. Thus, leading authorities in the anthropology of religion, such as Clifford Geertz, Vincent Crapanzano and Melford Spiro, have conducted research in Indonesia, Morocco and Burma, respectively.
With globalization and the ease of communication and travel, that which was previously thought of as uncharted or remote is no longer so. Contemporary anthropologists find it difficult to discover places that no one else has ventured, and they often even encounter other ethnographers, anthropologists and social scientists in the field. This has distinctly altered the face of general and religious anthropological research.
The anthropology of religion requires both a methodology and a system of theories. The anthropologist collects data on religious rituals and beliefs to create a research framework, and documents key findings. In many cases, religious anthropologists make use of investigative analyses conducted by others whose field of expertise follows similar paths. These scholars may include theologians, psychologists, psychiatrists, economists and philosophers. Studies carried out by physiologists, political scientists, religious historians and sociologists, where cross-referencing and an understanding of religious norms is mandatory, may also be relevant.
Melinda Bollar Wagner conducted her research in an urban setting within the American Bible belt. In her book The Study of Religion in American Society, she comments on the awkwardness that arises when anthropologists and sociologists of religion are perceived by the subjects of their research as potential converts. In Science, Religion and Anthropology, James Lett discusses the significance of anthropologists' own belief systems and how these beliefs influence their writing, either consciously or subconsciously.
The study of ritual and the anthropology of religion are interrelated fields. At times, it has been noted, religious studies scholars have made the most impressive advances in their observations of ritual in tribal settings. Anthropologists might themselves are often affiliated with departments of religious studies within various academic institutions.
The anthropology of religion is a subject of interest for the general population. People have been fascinated with the study of religions of other cultures for a long time, and this curiosity has informed many an anthropological project. Most research aims to develop an understanding of the role of religion in the lives of the people and culture under investigation. The anthropology of religion emphasizes the interrelationship between religion, culture, society and the individual.
Anthropological studies, which were principally centered on tribal cultures, and then developing countries, have begun to move into the realm of urban life. In addition to traditional religions such as Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and even shamanism, a new contemporary field has emerged that incorporates non-western traditional religions, including the New Age movement.
The main thrust of this field is the exploration of human life and the interplay of religion. Brian Morris in his book Religion and Anthropology: A Critical Introduction and the companion piece, Anthropological Studies of Religion: An Introductory Text (1987), attempts to find the balance between religion as it pertains to social, cultural, historical and institutional norms, and human beings' specific religious beliefs.
Anthropological studies of religion seek to analyze and understand religious practice within its cultural context. Central to this is the meeting point between a particular religion, the adherent to that religion, and the social and cultural situations in which these co-exist.