In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Anthropology of Christianity

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Anthropologists and Christianity
  • Pentecostalism and Evangelicalism
  • Roman Catholicism
  • Other Christian Traditions
  • Conversion and Conviction
  • Colonialism, Post-Colonialism, and Diaspora
  • Science and Rationality
  • Language Ideologies and Practices
  • Scripture
  • Materialities and Modernities
  • Ritual
  • Pilgrimage
  • Person, Individual, Dividual
  • Gender
  • Politics
  • Time
  • Space and Place

Anthropology Anthropology of Christianity
Simon Coleman
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 April 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 October 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0089


Anthropologists have studied examples of Christian worship ever since the early days of the discipline, and yet it has received less attention than other religious expressions such as Islam, Hinduism, or Buddhism. One reason may be the ironic one that Christianity is too close to the culture of Western anthropologists: the discipline may be largely secular in its approach, but it retains implicitly Christian ideas about the linear passage of time, the construction of religion out of texts, priesthoods, distinctions between the sacred and the profane, and so on. Thus Christianity was perhaps simply not noticed as a valid topic of study; or alternatively acknowledgement of its influence might have undermined the worries over ethnocentrism that anthropology has generally maintained as part of its disciplinary identity. Thus up until at least the 1980s it was quite common to hear anthropologists say that they had encountered Christians in the field—most often in the form of missionaries—but had tried to ignore them or at least not to include them in analyses of local culture. In this sense, Christianity was seen as both Western and, frequently, a troubling remnant of colonial times. Especially over the last two decades or so, however, a sea change has come over the anthropology of religion, and to some degree over anthropology as a whole. Christianity has become a valid topic of study, placed in ethnographic and analytical foregrounds. One reason may simply be that Christianity has become more prominent as an ethnographic object: despite predictions of secularization in the West, it has not disappeared, and to some degree is more prominent than ever before in the public spheres of many societies as Pentecostalism has undergone major growth, and as migrants to Western cities have brought versions of the faith from Africa and Latin America in particular. Another reason relates to anthropology itself: its new willingness to work “at home,” which for Western anthropologists means paying more attention to their own culture and indeed intellectual histories. More generally, the emergence of Christianity as an explicit object of study has contributed to and resonated with many of the current concerns of anthropology: globalization, reflexivity, cultural change and the dissolution of boundaries, post-colonialism, materiality, and how to understand what is meant by both modernity and post-modernity.

General Overviews

If the anthropology of Christianity has emerged as a distinct subfield in recent years, it has also dragged some particular controversies and debates in its wake. One set of discussions relates to its genealogical relationship to the discipline as a whole. Asad 1993 has been key in indicating how understandings of religion have changed over time but have also been deeply influenced by Christian ideas and institutions, and more recently Asad 2003 has pointed to the specific historical roots behind notions—“formations”—of the secular. More focused on the anthropology of Christianity itself, the collection Cannell 2006 is an attempt to create a conversation among anthropologists but also to unearth some of the unspoken assumptions and unnoticed gaps in the developing subfield. Specialists in the ethnographic study of Christianity have provided periodic overviews of the literature in order to assess its achievements and omissions. Bialecki, et al. 2008 sees Christianity as a catalyst for thinking about both change and modernity, while agreeing to some extent with McDougall 2009 that scholars need to guard against conflating the study of Christianity with the anthropology of contemporary Protestantism. There are reasons why anthropology has tended to focus its attention on evangelicals in particular: they have been active in public spheres in the West as well as in mission fields throughout the world; their aggressive forms of outreach raise significant issues over cultural change and resistance; their actions raise old Weberian questions concerning the continued importance or otherwise of the “Protestant Ethic” in creating modern ways of viewing—and changing—the world. However, Hann 2007 points out the consequent neglect both of mainstream, liberal forms of Western Christianity as well as its Eastern manifestations, while at the same time questioning the very rationale for an anthropology of Christianity: might the subfield be relying too strongly on the dubious assumption that Christianity contains a consistent set of ideas that apply cross-culturally? And should anthropologists not be focusing on comparative social and cultural problems rather than confining themselves to Christian issues and institutions per se? Such debates continue. Lampe 2010 contains doubts as to whether a clear picture of Christianity has actually emerged in anthropological work so far. In the meantime, Engelke and Robbins 2010 uses the new focus on Christianity to create a forum where anthropology is juxtaposed with theological and philosophical questions of common interest, prompted for instance by Pauline notions of time and rupture. Bandak, et al. 2012 brings studies of varied kinds of Christianity together, while suggesting a methodology for studying religion in general.

  • Asad, Talal. 1993. Genealogies of religion: Discipline and reasons of power in Christianity and Islam. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press.

    Very influential text, containing the argument that the category “religion” is historically specific. Thus the separation of religion from power is a Western norm and the product of a unique post-Reformation history.

  • Asad, Talal. 2003. Formations of the secular: Christianity, Islam, modernity. Stanford, CA: Stanford Univ. Press.

    Explores the idea of an anthropology of the secular, while presenting secularism as a political doctrine that arose in modern, Christian-influenced societies of Euro-America.

  • Bandak, Andreas, Jonas Jørgensen, and Petter Adelin, eds. 2012. Foregrounds and backgrounds: Ventures in the anthropology of Christianity. Ethnos 4:447–458.

    DOI: 10.1080/00141844.2011.619662

    Argues that the anthropology of Christianity must be wide-ranging, encompassing believers, skeptics, and observers. Papers present approaches to Christianity through exploring relationships between foregrounds and backgrounds in religious practice, but also argue that the approach suggested can reach beyond studies of Christianity alone.

  • Bialecki, Jon, Naomi Haynes, and Joel Robbins. 2008. The anthropology of Christianity. Religion Compass 2.6: 1139–1158.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1749-8171.2008.00116.x

    Clear overview, aiming to survey literature on newly emergent discussions of the anthropology of Christianity. Argues that key themes in the literature so far have included anthropology’s relationship with Christianity, issues of cultural continuity and discontinuity in relation to conversion, and questions of modernity, among others.

  • Cannell, Fenella, ed. 2006. The anthropology of Christianity. Durham, NC, and London: Duke Univ. Press.

    Includes ethnographic essays covering various branches of Christianity. The important introduction places the anthropological study of Christianity in historical perspective, and argues that for many years Christianity functioned as a “repressed” topic within the discipline, while still influencing its formation. Questions the current anthropological focus on more ascetic ideologies within Christianity. See also Materialities and Modernities.

  • Engelke, Matthew, and Joel Robbins, eds. 2010. Special issue: Global Christianity, global critique. South Atlantic Quarterly 109.4.

    The introduction and essays explore dialogue between two academic orientations that have been placing Christianity at the center of much academic debate: social scientists studying existing Christian communities on one hand, and theologians, philosophers, and historians of religion who have been reconsidering the critical potential of Christianity on the other.

  • Hann, Chris. 2007. The anthropology of Christianity per se. Archives of European Sociology 48:383–410.

    A distinctive piece that is skeptical of recent developments in the anthropology of Christianity. Notes that few studies have been carried out on mainstream Christianity in America or the United States, and that Orthodox Christianity has also been neglected. Argues it is difficult to discern any stable cultural logic to Christianity.

  • Lampe, Frederick. 2010. The anthropology of Christianity: Context, contestation, rupture, and continuity. Reviews in Anthropology 39:66–88.

    DOI: 10.1080/00938150903548626

    Clearly written summary of some of the main works on the anthropology of Christianity, suggesting that no clear idea of what constitutes Christianity emerges, but that a focus on informants’ experience remains a vital method for the discipline.

  • McDougall, Debra. 2009. Rethinking Christianity and anthropology: A review article. Anthropological Forum 19:185–194.

    DOI: 10.1080/00664670902980413

    Surveys other works that have tried to characterize the development of the anthropology of Christianity, including pieces mentioned in this section. Argues for the need to avoid equating Christianity as a whole with its modern Protestant manifestations.

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