Prof. Joel Robbins

The anthropology of religion and ritual, the anthropology of Christianity, religious education, values, ethics, cultural change, material and verbal exchange, structuralism and semiotics.

I have broad interests in the anthropology of religion and anthropological theory. Much of my work to date has focused on working toward the development of the anthropological study of Christianity and on helping to construct theoretical models of radical cultural change. My primary fieldwork has been in Papua New Guinea among the Urapmin, a remote language group all of the members of which converted to charismatic Christianity in the late 1970s, and this despite never having been directly missionized by Westerners. The rapid and extensive changes in Urapmin culture and social life that followed their conversion –changes which included, for example, the abandonment of an elaborate traditional system of strict gender separation in almost all areas of life – set for me the question of how anthropology can construct theories that at once account for the highly structured nature of most of social life and at the same time its potential for radical transformation. Similarly, the intensity of Urapmin devotion to their new religion has led me to work to theorize the relative absence of studies of Christianity in the anthropology of the past and to work with others to foster the developing anthropology of Christianity. I have also studied global charismatic and Pentecostal Christianity in comparative terms, and this is an area, along with the others I have just discussed, in which I have a continuing interest.

I also have a longstanding interest in the anthropology of values. As the anthropological study of ethics and morality have grown rapidly in recent years, I have come to focus on what the study of values can contribute in this area. More generally, I have been exploring the prospects for finding a central place for values in anthropological theorizing. At present, I am pursuing these linked interests by working on a project focused on what I have called “the anthropology of the good” – an anthropology focused on those things people strive to produce that would be attentive both to the ways values structure social life and the way people experience them as prompts for their emotions and desires. I have published a number of articles that take up issues related to the anthropology of values and I am currently working on a book focused on the anthropological study of the good.

I am also beginning to develop a new project focused on religious higher education. Vast numbers of people in the world who receive higher education do so in religious settings. We have some ethnographic studies focused on how knowledge is defined and taught in such settings, but in fact we know relatively little about the intellectual side of religion compared to its practical and emotional ones. We also know more about lay religious reasoning in many places than we do about elite versions. In my own research for this project, I plan to study Christian educational institutions, but I hope to secure funding to support others to study higher education in other religious traditions as well. My overall goal is to contribute to a comparative understanding of religious higher education and its place in the contemporary world against the backdrop of a wider understanding of the role of education and knowledge in shaping social processes more generally.