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Anthropology’s Ontological Turn

Updated: 5 days ago

The Ontological Turn is an important but confusing idea in anthropology and folkloristics. Drawing on her own fieldwork in the high-altitude Himalayas and the Sundarbans mangrove forest of Bangladesh, Dr. Orton explores the history of the concept and explains how the Ontological Turn can help researchers.  

For university-level scholars or independent researchers, we’ve included clickable links to useful literature and canonical scholarship you need to be acquainted with to get started. For those who are simply interested in anthropology, enjoy these examples from different cultures all over the world!

Puja to pray for snow in the Spiti region of Himachal Pradesh

Anthropology in the Twentieth Century


Anthropologists have long noticed that people from different cultures explain the world in ways that Westerners may find strange. In the 1930s, E. E. Evans-Pritchard’s study of magic and witchcraft among the Zande described the group’s causal explanations. Evans-Pritchard’s work was important because, rather than dismissing people who believe in witchcraft as uneducated and superstitious, he pointed out that Zande explanations were supplying information that Europeans miss out.


Imagine that an old granary collapses and the people sitting beneath it are hurt. We might say that the granary collapsed because it was infested with termites and that that people were sitting under it to escape the heat of the day – by coincidence, those people happened to be there at that time and were injured.


Zande people are not ignorant about termites and the inclination of people to seek shade in the heat, but they use witchcraft as an explanation of why these two things coincide. Rather than answering the question of how an event happened, these explanations look at why it happened to a particular person at a particular time.


Responses to these kinds of insights have included cultural relativism, which uses social, cultural and historical factors to explain different versions of morality or truth. This has been called an ‘epistemological’ approach because it centres around ideas, worldviews, and cultures.


In the late twentieth century, the scholarly movement of postmodernism combined the idea of cultural relativism with the idea that power structures shape truth and marginalise certain groups. Postmodernists argue that language also shapes our understanding of reality.


Postmodernists are also known for deconstructing ideas by uncovering the power structures that lie behind them. In terms of anthropology, the practice of ethnography was attacked by postmodernists on the basis that objectivity is impossible; therefore, it often represents a Western-centric viewpoint. Claiming to know about, categorise and represent a group of people actually subordinates them, according to this view.  


The Ontological Turn


In the early twenty-first century, scholars began to reconsider categories that many anthropologists took for granted. Ontology is about what categories of things there are and how these categories are related; the Ontological Turn in anthropology is a way of re-evaluating our own way of thinking to help us to understand people from other cultures.

Dr. Orton with local people in the high-altitude Himalayas

Scholars of the Ontological Turn question concepts of knowledge, truth, morality, society, culture and history. This involves what Holbraad and Pedersen identify as reflexivity: “…to pose the question of anthropological assumptions in ontological terms – to ask, what kinds of things are there?” Holbraad and Pedersen are influenced by Marcel Mauss’s work on Maori gifts, which are returned because they are taken to contain within them the spirit of the donor.


For those frustrated by postmodernism’s emphasis on deconstruction, Holbraad and Pedersen argue that the Ontological Turn is a more constructive approach: “reflexivity turns the critical energy of deconstruction into a positive agenda for generating – constructing – new ways of thinking.”


For example, some Amazonian groups explain differences in perspectives due to differences in a person’s body, not differences in culture. The Ontological Turn allows anthropologists to take this into account without imposing their own assumptions onto the group.


Fieldworkers in other regions have also found this approach useful. Speaking of the Mi'kmaq people at the Conne river powwow, Graham Harvey points out that “feeding the fire” is not just a metaphor – the fire is understood to desire and be grateful for offerings. Fires, says Harvey, are relational beings; their receipt of ‘food’ leads to the reciprocal gift to humans of light and heat. The Ontological Turn helps us to understand how, for the Mi'kmaq people, other-than-human entities may be called on for help, but they do not exist primarily for human benefit.


Other researchers have found the theory helpful in studying other cultures in a respectful and sensitive way. Some people speak about a ‘recursive turn’, rather than an ontological one, meaning that ethnographic concepts feed back into and affect analytical ones.


Ethical Fieldwork


It can also help researchers think about how to do fieldwork in a way that respects local communities. In my own work in the Himalayas, local people have described to me their relationships with lhas, village deities who are very much a part of life in the region. As I’ve argued elsewhere, we should take these accounts seriously if we are to understand the culture of the region.


Ceremonial objects in the Himalayas

As Paolo Heywood points out, “If your interlocutor tells you that the tree she is pointing to is in fact a spirit, do you, for example, describe this as a belief? You might, but to your interlocutor it is not of course any such thing: to her, it is a fact...The recursive anthropologist, instead, would ask what sort of adjustments to our conceptual schema have to be made in order for it to make sense to think of the tree as a spirit.” To me, the word “belief” is not quite as dismissive as Heywood suggests, but I do take the point that we should adjust our own ideas in order to engage ethically in fieldwork.


I’ve written elsewhere about vernacular theorising, an approach that acknowledges that local people are the experts on their own communities and works with them to build accounts, rather than dismissing what they say or telling them who they are. The Ontological Turn can complement this approach, as it allows ethnographers to speak respectfully about concepts that do not make sense within their own schema.


One example of where I’ve found this to be useful is in my fieldwork in Bangladesh, where I spoke to a number of gunins (Hindu ritual specialists) about their method of using mantras to prevent tiger attacks. One person told me, “Sometimes we have to chase the tiger through mantras.” The idea of chasing an animal through mantras is unfamiliar in Western academic discourse, but we do need to accommodate it in order to fully understand these rituals.


Of course, there are drawbacks to the Ontological Turn. We need some ideas about the world to get started on our research so it would be an impossible task to purge ourselves of all our assumptions about reality. In addition, some scholars worry that many Ontological Turn-inspired ethnographies result in remarkably similar arguments, which should not be the case if they are serious about being open to different ontologies.


Of course, I use scholarly concepts and refer to canonical literature in my academic writing, but I won’t write anything unless I’m confident that local people will recognise themselves in my accounts. As I wrote in my last blog post, there has been a recent trend in academia in questioning the category of ‘religion’ as a post-Enlightenment, Western invention, but this does not mean that we should disregard the term when local people use it.


To me, the important point is to take people seriously, particularly when they are saying something that seems to contradict my own world-view. This means being led by what local people are saying, not by academic theories.


In my recent talk at the University of Tartu, I argued that it is difficult to reflect the dynamism and organic nature of views and narratives in an academic paper. Just as there are diverse opinions and narratives within and between communities, individuals themselves may hedge, qualify and develop their own views, often within a single conversation.


If academics are too attached to their own theories and world-views, it is harder still to get to grips with the communities we are studying. I’ve argued elsewhere that researchers should find their own ways of engaging with people respectfully and it seems to me that the literature on the Ontological Turn is a useful way to think about how to do that.


Just remember, though: people come first. Theory follows.


Dr. Orton interviews local people in the Sundarbans, Bangladesh



If you’re interested in tutorials with Dr. Orton, she offers online, one-on-one tutorials that are based around your learning or research needs. This ranges from ad hoc tutorials to gain an understanding of the academic literature, research proposal feedback and development, or regular, ongoing support.


You might also like to take a look at our Religious Studies or Anthropology courses. These courses are templates of possible routes of study and can be combined, adapted, or designed from scratch to suit your interests and goals. Dr. Orton will work with you to design a course of private tutorials tailored to your needs, ability and schedule – whether you are undertaking your own research for an independent project, writing a book or simply have a personal interest. Click the link to find out what it’s like to work with her and contact us to find out more!


To learn more about Dr. Orton’s research into anthropology and religion, visit Our Research Page to listen to her lectures, or read her blog post on Himalayan narratives to find out why we should prioritise the voices of local people in anthropological research. Learn more about the Sundarbans in her Bangladesh blog series!


Undertake Your Own Research Project in Anthropology and Religious Studies


Working on your own independent research project needn’t be a lonely task: Dr. Orton works with other independent scholars on projects in conservation and the humanities. Contact us for a chat with her.


If you’re not ready to reach out yet, follow our research methods series on this blog for more ideas! Dr. Orton has written posts on the importance of independent research and how to get started with building your own approach to ethical, people-centred fieldwork.


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