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A modes of production approach to African religion


Wim van Binsbergen & Peter Geschiere


Adapted from: W.M.J. van Binsbergen & P.L. Geschiere, 1985, ‘Marxist theory and anthropological practice: The application of French Marxist anthropology in fieldwork’, in: W.M.J. van Binsbergen & P.L. Geschiere (eds.), Old modes of production and capitalist encroachment: Anthropological explorations in Africa, London/Boston: Kegan Paul International, pp. 235-89; this extract p. 270-278, and notes/references on pp. 285-289.


Outline of a modes-of-production approach

The application of the ideas of French Marxist anthropology to research in the sphere of ideology (which we shall here limit down to belief and ritual) poses a number of problems, which Marxist writers are only beginning to explore. But, even in general, considering the spate of descriptive anthropological publications on ideological and religious subjects, values, world-views, etc., it is amazing that the anthropological literature contains so very little on the methodology of anthropological research on these topics. Penetrating ideological complexes of thought and symbolic action through participant observation remains a craft that is learned not from books but by contact with experienced researchers, and by personal trial and error. This is not the place to make up for this general omission. We would rather explore how the Marxist perspective on modes of production and their articulation, as presented in this chapter and throughout the present book, suggests specific questions as regards the ideological dimensions of social life — and how these questions might be approached in anthropological research.

                        Setting out on this course, we encounter a second difficulty. In France, modern Marxist anthropology has primarily developed as an attempt to come to terms with the economic organisation of local communities, especially in Africa, trying to identify the material aspects of production and reproduction, and the relations of exploitation around which these revolve; a major issue in this context has been the forms and effects of capitalist encroachment. In the works of Meillassoux, Terray and Rey, religion is either ignored or (see Terray 1979b) is treated in a way which scarcely illuminates the place of ideological elements within modes of production and their articulation. Godelier is in a different position: his short articles on religion (1975, 1977) pretend to offer a Marxist perspective, but his approach is disappointingly idealist, and, besides, a Godelierian idiom seems to contribute little that is not already contained in mainstream anthropology of religion since Robertson Smith, Tylor and Durkheim.

                        However, others working on the basis of a Marxist inspiration, and utilising the concept of mode of production, have meanwhile produced a limited number of analyses of the ideological dimension within one non-capitalist mode of production; in this respect reference could be made to the works of Bonte (1975), Houtart, (1980), Houtart and Lemercinier (1977, 1979), Augé (1975), and Bare (1977). Religious analyses cast in terms of the articulation of modes of production within a social formation were offered by Schoffeleers (1978) in his historical analysis of a Malawian martyr cult, and by van Binsbergen in Religious Change in Zambia (1981a). That book offers an elaborate theoretical framework that enables us to interpret the complex historical succession of major religious forms in Central Africa since about 1500, and the contemporary manifestations of these forms, as the ideological counterpart of the emergence, articulation and partial decline of various modes of production. The contemporary co-existence of all these religious forms (transformed, no doubt, since they first appeared on the local scene) is explained by the fact that today's complex social formation still contains (again, in a transformed shape) the various modes of production and the structures of articulation to which these various religious forms belonged in the first place.

                        These studies are specific applications of a more general Marxist approach to ideology, whose classic statement is to be found, of course, in Marx's analysis of the ideological dimension of the capitalist mode of production (Marx 1973; Marx & Engels 1975). A number of leading ideas combine in this tradition. Religion is seen as the ideological projection, into the celestial and the unreal, of processes of appropriation and exploitation that constitute Man's social life. Thus religion appears as a structure of ideological reproduction: by reflecting existing relations of production and by endowing the phantasms thus produced with a unique, exalted sense of reality and power, these relations are underpinned and carried over to new generations (e.g. in rites of passage) and to other parts of the world (cf. the spread of Islam and Christianity). Religion, however, may take on an impetus of its own, and (in the hands of elders, kings, priests, cult leaders) may stipulate a circulation of producers and an appropriation of their surpluses which, rather than reflecting relations of production that exist outside the religious sphere, constitute relations of exploitation in their own right. In this respect (the point is also stressed in recent non-Marxist theories concerning so-called 'regional cults' or 'territorial cults'; see Werbner 1977; Schoffeleers 1979; van Binsbergen 1981: 252-5), religion may become a structure of material production and exploitation sui generis Only a sophisticated materialist theory of symbolism (whose development is one of the most urgent tasks for contemporary Marxist social science) will be able to explain how the unreal is capable of imposing itself (either as a reflection, or sui generis) with such vehemence upon the reality of material production and exploitation. From this point of view we look at religion, primarily, as a structure of ideological production, and we try to classify the forms of such ideological production, and to identify the rules and laws that govern it. 

                        Throughout, the problem of religion from a Marxist point of view might be summarised, in Bourdieu's words, as the problem of identifying 

'the transformation laws which govern the transmutation of the different forms of capital into symbolic capital. The crucial process to be studied is the work of dissimulation and transfiguration (in a word, euphemization) which makes it possible to transfigure relations of force by getting the violence they objectively contain misrecognized/ recognized, so transforming them into a symbolic power, capable of producing effects without visible expenditure of energy' (Bourdieu 1979: 83, emphasis added; cf. Bourdieu 1977). 

                        However, we must not overlook the fact that such transmutation is in principle a two-way process. For symbolic capital can also be transmuted into material capital, as is demonstrated by so many politically and economically successful ideological and religious movements, from the Roman Catholic Church to the Bolshevik Party, from the nationalist movement in colonial Africa after World War II to the Muridiyya brotherhood which is less than a century developed into a major economic force in Senegal.[1]

                        The dimensions of ideological reproduction, material production and exploitation, and symbolic production suggest specific sets of data which a Marxist researcher doing religious research would primarily focus upon. The dimension of symbolic production would appear to be the most difficult to tackle from a Marxist point of view. Not only is it further removed than the other two dimensions from the processes of material production habitually studied by Marxist anthropology. Also, ideological production is by its nature innovative, and often escapes from the repetitiveness of social phenomena anthropologists look for in the first place. Anthropologists engaged in religious research are now beginning to realise that the power and the appeal that are being generated in religious contexts derive not only from more or less permanent structures (which the tradition of religious anthropology has always stressed), but also from creative and unpredictable, symbolic manipulation by means of which religious actors captivate their audiences, presenting to them a new and illuminating view of their personal condition and of the world (see van Binsbergen and Schoffeleers (in press, b), and references cited there). This so-called praxeological element (which would equally be discernible in artistic production, or in political oratory in a context of mobilisation for class, ethnic and racial conflict) is realised in momentaneous transactions between participants. Linking up with the language- and culture-specific processes of communication between those involved, it is eminently amenable for research by means of participant observation in the field; but it is less easily analysed in the terms that dominate structural Marxism. 

                        Clearly, the underlying problematic here is that of the relative autonomy of the symbolic order vis-_-vis material production and exploitation. Symbolic production presupposes considerable room for experiment, free variation, unsystematic and distorted reflection of material reality, and hence a creative departure from the objective structure of social reality as anchored in relations of material production. For the anthropologist, this means that he or she should detachedly and attentively study symbolic phenomena in the field, before jumping to conclusions as to their repetitive, systematic nature, let alone their reflecting, in whatever dialectical way, the material structures of production and exploitation. Ultimately, of course, Marxist research into ideology should aim to reveal systematic connections between symbolic and material structures;[2] and for this purpose, the study of relations of material production should occupy a very considerable part in any such research. From an analytical and theoretical point of view, however, it would appear as if the study of ideology, belief and ritual is in a somewhat different phase from the study of exploitation, reproduction, bridewealth and related topics well covered by Marxist anthropological theorising. Both within and outside Marxism the theoretical reflection on the ideological dimension of social life is relatively underdeveloped. One explanation for this state of affairs is that such theoretical reflection is in itself a form of ideological production, and thus when brought to bear upon other people's ideological production, raises immense philosophical problems whose solution cannot be expected to come from anthropological field-work alone (see chapter 6). This is no reason to sit back and refrain from Marxist empirical research on religion and ideology until the theorists have finished their homework. But less than in other spheres of Marxist anthropological analysis, a break-through in the study of ideology can be expected from field-work alone.


Religious plurality and articulation of modes of production: the Nkoya case

The following example, from the research of one of us in Zambia, may indicate how the French Marxist perspective of an articulation of modes of production can bring order to otherwise extremely confusing ethnographic data collected in a contemporary setting. It suggests some of the types of data an anthropologist working on religious data in this approach would be advised to look for. In this case, the empirical steps can be summarised as follows.

(1) One should try to identify (through a study of symbols, participants' actions and statements, processes of recruitment and control) the underlying symbolic logic that is consciously applied by the participants in their rituals, cults and religious conceptions.

(2) Rather than assuming that in any historical social formation one and only one symbolic logic is at work, one should make an effort to identify, in the field data, any number of such logics: mutually irreducible and contradictory, and each separately applied in a distinct cult or ritual.

(3) Analysis of non-religious data on production and reproduction within the social formation under study should lead to the identification of the various modes of production articulated (following a historical process — to be studied by additional historiographic research) within that social formation.

(4) The logics of production and reproduction identified under (3) should then be compared with the symbolic logics identified under (1) and (2), in an attempt to relegate the various symbolic sub-sets encountered in the field, to various modes of production and their articulation.

(5) It should be borne in mind that ideological reproduction (ideally resulting in a one-to-one correspondence between symbolic and material logics) is only one of the possible connections between the symbolic order and the material order — in addition, ideological production that has no clearly detectable material counterpart is to be encountered, whereas the anthropologist may also come across ideological structures sui generis: structures which introduce an element of production and exploitation in the religious field (e.g. appropriation, by cult leaders, of surpluses produced by members of a cult in productive contexts defined by that cult), again without a detectable counterpart in structures of non-religious production and reproduction.

                        The contemporary religious situation among the Nkoya turned out to be extremely confusing, as a considerable number of major cult complexes existed side by side, and the same people would participate in many or all of them apparently indiscriminately. Thus the Litoya valley turned out to be the scene of (among minor other types) the following ritual forms:

— ancestral ritual, in which all members of a village would collectively take part under the direction of the headman and other elders, in cases of hunting trips, name-inheritance, and serious illness supposed to have moral implications;

— rain ritual, conducted by the valley chief and a few other headmen belonging to the Kahare dynasty, at the previous chief's burial place;

— cults of affliction, venerating not ancestors but alien spirits; these cults, treating individual diseases devoid of any moral             implications, would be represented by independent cult leaders who had been initiated into the cult in the course of some earlier treatment. The cultic congregations of adepts would be recruited from neighbouring and even more distant villages and valleys, according to a pattern cutting across existing units of production and reproduction;

— prophetic cults of affliction, which differed from the non-prophetic ones in that they venerated the High God, and that their cult leaders, deriving their powers from a charismatic cult founder, would belong to an interlocal cultic organisation which rigidly controlled the cultic idiom and the flow of cash within the cult;

— Christian churches and sects, primarily Watchtower and the Evangelical Church of Zambia, which in many ways are comparable to prophetic cults of affliction, except for the latter’s near-exclusive emphasis on healing.

                        This outline does not cover the whole range of symbolic expression, and particularly does not touch on divination and sorcery control as engaged in by diviners and diviner-priests (nganga); these activities, however, were largely of a technical and individual nature, if they were not part of the cults mentioned above.

                        Once the relevant ethnographic data had been collected, the five major cult complexes clearly stood out. They defined different sets of activities, organised differently. Each had its own patterns of control over people and material resources, and pursued a distinct idiom featuring different supernatural entities, interpretations of human misfortune and ways of redress. Some cults would stress morality whereas others would not. Some had a strongly communalist view of the human individual in that the misfortune of one of the members was supposed to reveal a moral crisis affecting the entire group (ancestral cult). Others would look at misfortune as a purely individual, accidental and a-moral circumstance, to be redressed by appeasing the vagrant spirit that had allegedly taken possession of the patient (non-prophetic cult of affliction). The various complexes seemed to represent, on the symbolic level, a number of mutually irreducible logics, whose co-occurrence within one and the same 'culture' could not be explained in structural-functionalist terms. For here the same set of people were operating, in cultic complexes which were rigidly compartmentalised rather than normatively or functionally integrated.

                        The pattern began to make sense once the various irreducible logics underlying this contemporary religious plurality were interpreted in terms of distinct logics of modes of production. Ancestral ritual and chiefly rain ritual could easily be identified as the ideological components of the 'lineage' mode and the tributary mode respectively. They, in other words, constituted clear-cut cases of ideological reproduction. The individual-centredness of the remaining three cultic forms, their lack of references to the processes of production (hunting, agriculture) that went on in the local community, their recruitment patterns which denied the units in which such production was organised, their veneration of invisible entities without local referents (such as chiefs and ancestors have), the more or less bureaucratic organisation characterising the prophetic and the Christian forms, and the extensive circulation of cash in all three varieties suggested a dynamic beyond the local horizon: processes of articulation, capitalist encroachment.

                        Only after extensive historical research and further theorising (which led to the idea that cultic forms might reflect not just modes of production, but also the process of their articulation), was it possible to relegate the contemporary cultic varieties to specific modes of production in the articulation process of the social formation of Kaoma district, and to establish a rough periodisation for the emergence and decline of the various modes of production involved. The original data, however, derived from the contradictions encountered in the ethnographic data themselves.

                        Interestingly, cultic forms, which originally reflect modes of production and their articulation, turn out to replace in part the very relations of material exploitation to which they originally referred. Thus they come close to being sui generis exploitative structures in their own right. Non-prophetic cults of affliction, for instance, could be argued to have formed, at the time of their emergence (in Kaoma district: late nineteenth century), the ideological component of an articulation between, on the one hand, mercantile capitalism (as locally represented by alien traders), and on the other, a social formation comprising a dominant tributary mode articulated to a 'lineage' mode. The social formation today has a very different composition, and the impact of capitalism has taken new forms. Yet these cults of affliction continue to play an important part in the relations of exploitation between elders and the youth: they provide a structure through which the cash the youth earn in the capitalist sector is siphoned back to the villages, as payment for the activities of elders who are among the important cult leaders; most cult leaders are elderly women and their cultic administrations over female patients, for which the youth act as sponsors, provide a grotesquely deformed mirror-image of the relations of exploitation characteristic of the 'lineage' mode of production (van Binsbergen 1981).



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[1]              We concentrate on religion, although the problem of ideology is much wider than that, and includes, e.g., varieties of class consciousness, often appearing in a religious form.

[2]              We have Marx's word for it that this is even a relatively simple exercise: 'It is, in reality, much easier to discover by analysis the earthly core of the misty creations of religion, than, conversely, it is to develop from the actual relations of life the corresponding celestial forms of those relations' (1973: 372-3, as quoted approvingly by Godelier 1977: 4). Unfortunately, our task is made rather more difficult by the fact that religion is not a self-evident category in social analysis. Nor can religion (and this point is made repeatedly by Godelier: see 1978a, 1978b) always be neatly dissected from the processes of material production and reproduction in a social formation: it often forms a part of them (as stressed by Godelier— an aspect we would term 'ideological reproduction'), and sometimes generates them (under conditions we would describe as 'sui generis').


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