Next Forum

In the fifty-fifth number of Antropologicheskii forum / Forum for Anthropology and Culture, published by the Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography of the Russian Academy of Sciences (Kunstkamera), the European University, St Petersburg, our ‘Forum’ (written round-table) will address the question of the “material turn” in the study of religion. We would like to invite you to respond to the questionnaire below.

You may, as you wish, directly address the questions presented here, or send in a text responding to one or some of them (or taking up some other issue that seems to you relevant). Whichever way, we would be grateful if you could keep your answers to a maximum of 10 pp. (1.5 spaced, 12-point type). Please use the author-date in-text citation system for any references in the format [Smith 2002: 12], i.e. author/date (no comma) in square brackets, appending a list of ‘References’ at the end with full publication details: Author: e.g. Smith M. A.; Article title: e.g. ‘Visual Anthropology’; Journal title: e.g. Ethnology, 2002, no. 3, pp. 14–19; or alternatively, Author: e.g. Smith M. A.; Book title: e.g. Visual Anthropology. Place: Publisher, date, pages: e.g. London: Anvil Press, 2002, 356 pp. Please send replies by 31 May 2022 to, with a copy to; your email address should be included in any attached file. We hope that the discussion will appear in December 2022.


Forum 55: The Material Turn and the Anthropology of Religion

In the last two decades, reflection on the so-called material turn has occupied a prominent place in Western studies of religion. The programme for the study of “material religion”, formulated, for example, in the preface to the first issue of the journal of the same name [Material Religion 2005], was intended to demonstrate that religion is not a pure space of ideas and doctrinal beliefs, remote from the objective world. On the contrary, sacred objects, things, substances, aromas, touches, gestures, sounds and vestments act as legitimate mediators that ensure the convergence of believers with the world of the transcendent or supernatural.

This direction in the study of religion went almost unnoticed, however, in the Russian humanities and social sciences. This state of affairs can be explained in different ways. Probably, the paradox of the “materiality of the spiritual” looks challenging and promising for the researcher only if religion is understood as something essentially non-material, and everything material is fundamentally secondary, auxiliary, or even accidental in relation to this essence. In other words, the revelation of the materiality of religion was interesting where religion itself was dematerialized or, in Max Weber's terms, rationalized, i.e. in Protestant cultures. In those religious traditions where the materiality of faith has always been self-evident, its sensational discovery did not seem such a bold intellectual move.

Another possible explanation for the lack of enthusiasm for the material turn in the post-Soviet academy may be its unreflexive rootedness in Marxist ontology, which assumed the primacy of the material over the spiritual (consciousness). In this perspective, religion, as a secondary phenomenon by definition, is a derivative of the social basis, and its materiality is an effect of its materialistic origin.

In late Soviet ethnography, attention to the "spirituality of the material" became a kind of politically-coloured opposition to the mainstream and determined the vector of analysis of social life, which inspired and still inspires many researchers. The classics of this “dematerial turn” are the works of Albert Baiburin about the East Slavic house and the semiotic status of things. And although Baiburin did not attribute his ideas to the field of the study of religion (the term “spiritual culture” was in use at the time), his analysis of the ritual raises questions that are to some extent consonant with those raised in the study of religious materiality.

The purpose of this Forum is to assess the current state of the field of material research of religion, primarily in Russian anthropology, and to discuss the prospects for the development of this area. We invite authors to answer the following questions:n

1. In his well-known work “The Cultural Biography of Things: Commoditization as a Process”, Igor Kopytoff offers to look at things as if they were people who are born, become social agents, change their social statuses and die. Scholars inspired by his work made the study of the social life of things through their biographies a noticeable trend in anthropology and other social sciences. However, this approach is rarely applied to the analysis of biographies of religious objects. Why is it so? Have you ever thought or written about a thing (or substance, such as incense) from the point of view of its social life?

2. The material turn in the study of religion is primarily signifies making sensations, emotions and physicality central to the analysis of  religious experience. The body and its reactions are seen, from this perspective, as a means of access to the transcendent, sanctioned by religious authority. Believers not only “believe”; they accustom their body, in the course of socialization in a particular religious culture, to respond in a certain way to the presence of the divine in their lives — through responses to sounds, the act of smelling or touching, contemplation or ecstatic states. The issue is how this should be investigated. Do you think that the methods of the anthropology of religion make it possible to make a full-fledged study of sensory experience? Do you focus your research on the somatic and emotional experiences of your informants? And have you yourself experienced the feelings cultivated in the community under study during your fieldwork?

3. One of the understudied aspects of religious materiality is the functioning of the infrastructure, i.e. systems for providing the material resources necessary for religious life. Normally, the infrastructure is invisible, but failures in its operation, such as a breakdown of a pilgrimage bus, an icon falling due to its poor fixing, or the refusal of the municipal authorities to sanction a procession, reveal both the fact of its existence and some of its characteristics. Have you been faced with the need to study this aspect of religious life?

4. Another interesting but underestimated topic that can be attributed to the field of the materiality of religion is the study of the economic component of religious life. It is obvious that without the investment of material resources — money, time, labour — the activity both of large religious structures and individual communities and of individuals who contact with the field of religion is hardly imaginable. However, many anthropologists of religion have an internal prohibition on collecting such material and analysing such issues. It is sometimes embarrassing for us to be interested in the economic dimension of “spirituality”, since such an interest can be interpreted as a reproduction of anti-clerical stereotypes about greedy and cunning priests deceiving good-natured believers. These difficulties may also be related to the specificity of the subject of research itself, i.e. religion, which is understood by most modern people, including believers, as as lying at the opposite pole from the field of economics. Do you think the political or socioeconomic approach to the study of religion is promising, and to what extent? To what questions in this area should social researchers pay attention (or not)? Can the Marxist analytical tradition, including the one that developed in the socialist countries, be useful for such projects?

Many thanks!



Material Religion: The Journal of Objects, Art and Belief, 2005, vol. 1, no. 1. <>.


Editorial Office of the journal 'Forum for Anthropology and Culture':

Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography (Kunstkamera), Russian Academy of Sciences

3 Universitetskaya Emb., 199034, St Petersburg, Russia

European University at St Petersburg

6/1А Gagarinskaya Str., 191187, St Petersburg, Russia

Phone: +7 (812) 386-76-36

Fax: +7 (812) 386-76-39

E-mail: forum.for.anthropology()

Forum for Anthropology and Culture:

ISSN 1815-8927

Antropologicheskij forum:

ISSN 1815-8870

Mass Media Registration certificate PI No. FS77-35818, issued by the Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media