In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Magic

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Textbooks
  • Role as a Mode of Thinking, Worldview
  • Language-Based Analyses of Magical Texts
  • Contemporary Reexaminations of the Magic Concept
  • Ethnographic Studies, Pre-1980

Anthropology Magic
Pamela A. Moro
  • LAST REVIEWED: 31 July 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0051


Theories of magic began with the mid-19th century origins of anthropology. Despite periodic attempts to dissolve the concept of magic or fold it within broader considerations of religion, magic as a term or category resurfaces in anthropology with remarkable persistence. In general, the term refers to beliefs and behaviors in which the relationship between an act and its effect is not empirically or scientifically verified but, from a Western perspective, rests on analogy or a mystical connection. Most frequently, theorists have applied the term to non-Western peoples or cultural “others.” Early anthropologists and sociologists postulated magic as an evolutionary stage, contrastable with religion, or as evidence of primitive as opposed to rational thinking. With the dawn of the ethnographic method, functionalist and psychological interpretations emphasized magic as a way of fulfilling emotional and social needs. Understandings of magic varied little for much of the 20th century, with countless scholarly works repeatedly resuscitating a small number of key theorists. During the last quarter of the 20th century, new ethnographic research and theoretical assessments led to a revival of interest in magic, with the familiar term applied in new ways and in new contexts, especially emphasizing magic in connection to modernity and the power of the state.

General Overviews

General overviews of magic often trace the concept throughout anthropology’s history and note its connections to broader intellectual debates. Assessments of theoretical and ethnographic works on magic are often entwined with examinations of religion at large, as in Bennett 1996, Evans-Pritchard 1965, and Klass 1995. Brown 1997 and Styers 2004 take up the problematic nature of the magic concept, attempting to account for its persistence. Cunningham 1999 and Jarvie and Agassi 1970 examine magic as it has been contrasted with religion and science by anthropologists. Cunningham 1999 and Wax and Wax 1963 provide chronological overviews of how the concept has been used. Winkelman 1982 takes the unusual position of suggesting that magic is possibly not based on mistaken understandings of cause and effect, but on the psi effect. Winkelman’s work is noteworthy for its intellectual framework and the nineteen commentators whose replies are published alongside.

  • Bennett, Clinton. 1996. In search of the sacred: Anthropology and the study of religions. London: Cassell.

    An intellectual history of the study of religion in anthropology and the field of religion, identifying linkages and divergences. Sharpest attention to magic is on pp. 37–41. Includes key authors relevant to magic beginning with Edward Tylor and James Frazer during the late 19th century.

  • Brown, Michael F. 1997. Thinking about magic. In Anthropology of religion: A handbook. Edited by Stephen D. Glazier, 121–136. Westport, CT: Greenwood.

    Extremely useful overview of anthropological strategies for understanding magic, with attention to questions about the term’s utility. Traces authors from Tylor and Frazer up through the 1980s rationality debate. Integrates examples from fieldwork with the Aguaruna of Peru.

  • Cunningham, Graham. 1999. Religion and magic: Approaches and theories. New York: New York Univ. Press.

    A chronological survey of the literature on magic, with brief discussions of key authors between approximately 1870 and 1970. Organized into chapters devoted to different intellectual approaches. Much of the book focuses on the enduring conversation about the relationship between definitions of magic and religion. This is a thorough, succinct, and readable secondary source.

  • Evans-Pritchard, E. E. 1965. Theories of primitive religion. Oxford: Clarendon.

    A survey of approaches to the anthropology of religion, with attention to magic in chapters on psychological and sociological theories. A classic text by a key author. Advocates a holistic approach to magic as part of broader social systems, and looks at 19th-century authors seldom mentioned in more recent overviews. Originally delivered as lectures in 1962.

  • Jarvie, I. C., and Joseph Agassi. 1970. The problem of the rationality of magic. In Rationality. Edited by Bryan R. Wilson, 172–193. Oxford: Blackwell.

    Compares theories of magic within a larger concern for rationality. Asserts that the issue of rationality lies at the heart of anthropological distinctions among magic, religion, and science. Emphasizes three influential anthropologists: Frazer, Evans-Pritchard, and Beattie. Lucid and readable work from a series on key concepts in social sciences.

  • Klass, Morton. 1995. Ordered universes: Approaches to the anthropology of religion. Boulder, CO: Westview.

    Monograph surveying the anthropological study of religion, with attention to magic throughout. Criticizes much analytical vocabulary, especially the concept of magic, as based on Klass’s own assumptions

  • Styers, Randall. 2004. Making magic: Religion, magic, and science in the modern world. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    This theoretical work attempts to account for the persistence of the concept of magic in anthropology despite significant, long-running criticism. Suggests that magic appears to offer a form of deviance or alterity, and is useful in identifying the boundary between magic and science.

  • Wax, Murray, and Rosalie Wax. 1963. The notion of magic. Current Anthropology 4.5: 495–518.

    DOI: 10.1086/200420

    Survey of literature distinguishing major perspectives on magic within anthropology and sociology; a state-of-the-art review at the time of its publication that is still useful for its lucid treatment of key authors. Authors note a persistent negative comparison of magic to Western religion and science.

  • Winkelman, Michael. 1982. Magic: A theoretical reassessment. Current Anthropology 23.1: 37–66.

    DOI: 10.1086/202778

    Unusual work calling for a consideration of evidence that magic is not based on analogy or mystical understandings of cause and effect, but on the psi principle that potentially could be verified through experimental parapsychology. Includes replies from nineteen commentators, many of whom praise the article for raising a subject generally submerged within the culturally relative position of ethnography.

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