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The Social Life of Spirits

Spirits can be haunters, informants, possessors, and transformers of the living, but more than anything anthropologists have understood them as representations of something else—symbols that articulate facets of human experience in much the same way works of art do. The Social Life of Spirits challenges this notion. By stripping symbolism from the way we think about the spirit world, the contributors of this book uncover a livelier, more diverse environment of entities—with their own histories, motivations, and social interactions—providing a new understanding of spirits not as symbols, but as agents.
The contributors tour the spiritual globe—the globe of nonthings—in essays on topics ranging from the Holy Ghost in southern Africa to spirits of the “people of the streets” in Rio de Janeiro to dragons and magic in Britain. Avoiding a reliance on religion and belief systems to explain the significance of spirits, they reimagine spirits in a rich network of social trajectories, ultimately arguing for a new ontological ground upon which to examine the intangible world and its interactions with the tangible one. 

312 pages | 15 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2013

Anthropology: Cultural and Social Anthropology

Religion: Religion and Society


The Social Life of Spirits makes the argument of the ‘social life of things’ go full circle, cogently arguing that immaterial spirits, just like material things, should be approached as social beings with a life and trajectory. Going beyond beliefs or representations, it proposes to describe spirits through their effects, asking how are spirits made to happen and what do they make happen. This is a brilliant book.”

Roger Sansi, University of London

“This is a great volume of essays, a real testament to the subtleties that emerge out of empirical research—even when on something so ostensibly ‘un-empirical’ as spirits. It makes signal contributions to classic and contemporary debates on presence, evidence, mediation, and materiality that have animated the anthropology of religion ever since E. B. Tylor’s Victorian heyday.”

Matthew Engelke, London School of Economics and Political Science

“What might the world look like if it were to contain all of those things—‘entities’—that are meant, in one way or another, not to exist? How might an anthropology of ‘non-entities’—spirits, dreams, histories, ethers, utopias—proceed without doing violence to its objects’ peculiar manners of (non-)disclosure? A vertiginous exercise in anthropological ‘abduction’—thinking backwards, from effects to plausible causes—this book grounds conceptions of the ineffable in a meticulous survey of its traces, on people, in moments, at places. More than just a ‘social life of spirits,’ the volume offers us glimpses of the irreducibly spiritual life of the social.”

Martin Holbraad, University College London

“Opens the intangible and spiritual to new and profitable considerations in terms of fieldwork, statistics, and the many insights made available by general anthropological reflection.”

Catholic Library World

Table of Contents

Chapter 1.        Introduction: On the Agency of Intangibles
                        Diana Espírito Santo and Ruy Blanes
Chapter 2.        Intangible Motion: Notes on the Morphology and Mobility of the Holy Spirit
                        Thomas G. Kirsch
Chapter 3.        What the Invisible Looks Like: Ghosts, Perceptual Faith, and Mongolian Regimes of Communication
                        Grégory Delaplace
Chapter 4.        The Materiality of “Spiritual Presences” and the Notion of Person in an Amerindian Society
                        Florencia C. Tola
Chapter 5.        Spirits and Stories in the Crossroads
                        Vânia Zikàn Cardoso
Chapter 6.        Enchanted Entities and Disenchanted Lives along the Amazon Rivers, Brazil
                        Mark Harris
Chapter 7.        Spirit Materialities in Cuban Folk Religion: Realms of Imaginative Possibility
                        Kristina Wirtz
Chapter 8.        João da Mata Family: Pajé Dreams, Chants, and Social Life
                        Ana Stela de Almeida Cunha
Chapter 9.        Amerindian and Priest: An Entity in Brazilian Umbanda
                        Emerson Giumbelli
Chapter 10.      Toward an Epistemology of Imaginal Alterity: Fieldwork with the Dragon
                        Susan Greenwood
Chapter 11.      Historicist Knowledge and Its Conditions of Impossibility
                        Stephan Palmié

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