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Method and Theory in the Study of Religion


Admission requirements

In addition to the general rules set for admission to the master program Religious Studies, students are expected to have some basic knowledge of Anthropology and Sociology of Religion, and of Philosophy of Science. A working knowledge of the English language, and a basic training in writing essays and performing presentations is necessary.


This seminar focuses on contemporary theoretical approaches and discussions in the study of religion in general and on the application of these approaches in a few case studies. Attention will be paid to the necessity of theoretical orientations in studying religion, to the history of theory formation, and to questions concerning defining and comparing in the study of religion and culture.
We will study the key concepts and ideas of influential theoretical approaches such as structuralism (Lévi-Strauss), interpretative anthropology (Geertz), practice-theory (Bourdieu), and cognitive theory (Boyer, Whitehouse).

Course objectives

Students are capable of discussing complex theoretical issues related to the study of religion and religious phenomena. They can analyse these issues, present their arguments orally and in writing in a sound scientific way. They have a profound and thourough knowledge of the most important theoretical orientations regarding the study of religion, and can relate them with empirical research.


See Time table.

Meetings: 7 × 2 hours (14 hours) Reading assignments: 50 hours Presentations and term papers: 36 hours End term paper: 40 hours Total: 140 hrs. (= 5 ects).

Mode of instruction

Class attendance is mandatory and class participation consists in 10% of the grade. Each student is expected to come to class having done the assigned readings and prepared to discuss them with others. Bring the book or handouts we are working on to each class. If an emergency requires you to miss a class, notify the instructor in time, and be prepared to have another student report on what you missed; you are responsible for class information and announcements whether present or not. This is a personal presence and participative class.

Assessment method

Presentations and term papers, end term paper, and participation in class.


Yes, see Blackboard.

Reading list

I. Strensky, “Why it is better to know some of the questions than all of the answers”, MTSR 15/2 (2003) 169-186.
S. Ortner, “Theory in Anthropology since the Sixties”, Comparative Studies in Society and History 26 (1984), 126-166.
J.S. Jensen, “Structure”, in W. Braun & R.T.McCutcheon (eds.), Guide to the Study of Religion (London 2000).
C. Lévi-Strauss, “The Structural Study of Myth”, in Structural Anthropology, (New York 1963; transl. by C. Jacobson & B. Grundfest Schoepf) 206-231.
C. Lévi-Strauss, “A Jivaro Version of Totem and Taboo”, in M. Lambek (ed.), A Reader in the Anthropology f Religion (Oxford, 2008), 196-205 (abridged).
C. Geertz, “The Cerebral Savage: On the Work of Claude Lévi-Strauss”, in C. Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures (New York 1973) 345-359
C. Geertz, “Religion as a cultural System”, in C. Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures (New York 1973) 87-125.
C. Geertz, “Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture”, in The Interpretation of Cultures, 3-30.
C. Geertz, “Centers, Kings, and Charisma: Reflections on the Symbolics of Power”, in C. Geertz, Local Knowledge. Further Essays in Interpretive Anthropology (New York 1983), 121-146.
D.F. Eickelman, “Clifford Geertz and Islam”, in R.A. Schweder & B. Good (eds.), Clifford Geertz by his Colleagues (Chicago 2005), 63-75.
P. Bourdieu, Outline of a Theory of Practice (Cambridge 1977; transl. by R. Nice), 72-95, 159-197.
H.B. Urban, “Sacred capital: Pierre Bourdieu and the Study of Religion”, Method & Theory in the Study of Religion 15 (2003) 354-389.
T. Rey, “Outline of a Theory of Religious Practice: Eternalizing the Arbitrary in Colonial New England”, in T. Rey, Bourdieu on Religion. Imposing Faith and Legitimacy (London 2007)81-106.
E.T. Lawson, “Cognition”, in W. Braun & R.T. McCutcheon (eds.), Guide to the Study of Religion (London 2000) 75-84.
P. Boyer, “Out of Africa: Lessons from a By-Product of Evolution”, in T. Light & B.C. Wilson (eds.), Religion as a Human Capacity. A Festschrift in Honor of E. Thomas Lawson (Leiden 2004) 27-43.
E.Th. Lawson & R.N. McCauley, Rethinking Religion. Connecting Cognition and Culture (Cambridge 1993), 60-83.
H. Whitehouse, “Modes of Religiosity: Towards a Cognitive Explanation of the Sociopolitical Dynamics of Religion”, MTSR 14 (2002), 293-315.
C. Geertz, “An Inconstant Profession”, in C. Geertz, Life Among the Anthros and Other Essays. Edited by Fred Inglis (Princeton 2010), 185-199.


Via uSis .
In addition to the registration in uSis, students are also expected to self-enroll in blackboard a few weeks before the course starts.

Exchange and Study Abroad students, please see the Study in Leiden website for information on how to apply.

Contact information

Dr W. Hofstee.


Prospective students of this course are advised to contact the instructor by e-mail at least two weeks before the program will start.