Magic and Science Research Paper

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Religious and magical practices in primitive cultures were the focus of research among the first anthropologists in the 19th century. The attempt to distinguish religion from magic and define each sharply has continued to be a significant topic in anthropology. In more recent years, anthropologists have broadened their studies to include the practice of science along with the many other facets of human beliefs and endeavors. Cultural anthropology is one of the four fields of anthropological study, the others being archaeology, biological anthropology, and linguistic anthropology. All such research takes into consideration the context of the particular culture within which the study is focused, and accumulated records offer growing opportunities for the comparison and contrast of beliefs, rituals, and behaviors worldwide and across time.

Cultures are defined as human groups united by their social practices and beliefs, passed down in oral and ceremonial traditions. Cultural anthropologists consider every facet of cultures, both past and present. Art, industry, beliefs, rituals, kinship, and child rearing are among the topics studied. Methods of study involve fieldwork, direct observation, interviews conducted within the society, consideration of the manner in which various systems in the society relate to each other, and the comparison of observations recorded about other societies. This enables anthropologists to understand the culture’s own value system and thought processes, and to discover the logic of its practices within the context of the culture.

Magic, science, and religion are related, each playing a part—to a greater or lesser degree—in societies across the world and throughout time. An ongoing area of anthropological study has been the attempt to define clearly the boundaries of each. Science is evident in the use of technology, agricultural techniques, materials and weapon production, and record keeping. Technology is the application of science and may develop by trial and error. Anthropological interpretation of the use of magic in primitive and nontraditional cultures has evolved over time. While some aspects appear fundamental to magic across cultures, such as the need to bring order and control to an unpredictable world, actual practices may differ among the cultures. Religion, often linked with magic, allows intercession with the gods and spirits and provides answers about the world and how it came to be.

Early anthropologists believed all human cultures developed within the same framework of stages, from savage to civilized. Information about non-Western groups came from explorers and missionaries who reported what they observed. Eventually, this theory proved too narrow to accommodate all facets of a given culture. In the 20th century, the discipline of anthropology moved away from those “armchair” scholars who based their theories primarily on anecdotal evidence. Researchers came to recognize the need for direct observation and even participation in the cultures they studied. What began as a study of religious practices among primitive, or nontraditional, societies broadened in scope as anthropologists took to the field and experienced directly the richness of the many different cultures.

Today, studies may look at characteristics of human behavior common across boundaries, or they may view each culture within its own microcosm. It is impossible to understand another culture in terms of one’s own, as the foundation will be different. At the root of the research is the necessity to learn the core beliefs upon which each individual society is based.

History of Anthropological Theory


The 19th-century introduction of Darwin’s theory of evolution and social Darwinism (a social theory that borrowed from it) led to the idea of the evolution of cultures. In the United States, Lewis Henry Morgan led the study of primitive cultures, based on the concept of evolutionism. He observed Native Americans in New York and found that direct observation made the internal logic of their cultures more apparent. In England, Edward B. Tylor, also an evolutionist, was the first anthropologist to advance a definition of culture, describing it as an inclusive unit where beliefs, customs, art, and other aspects of human behavior combined to form a cohesive whole. He believed that there were general principles of thought and action found in all cultures, but that different cultures were in varying stages of development. His influential book, Primitive Culture (1871/1958), was later published in two volumes. He proposed that magic was practiced by cultures at the lowest stages of civilization, by the “lower races,” uneducated and superstitious. He suggested that a progression toward modern civilized cultures was based on an advanced education, which gave people the growing ability to use testing and experience as a means of forming opinions. Primitive “savages” erroneously assumed that associations in thought must necessarily occur in reality as well. Occult magic therefore was based on an association of ideas. Analogy and symbolism were the foundation of the magical arts, and Tylor likened them to superstitions still held by Europeans in his day.

The progression of cultures could be seen in the practice of religion, to which Tylor gave a basic definition of the “belief in spiritual beings,” and to which he applied the term animism. Animism included the belief that souls of individuals could exist after death, as well as the belief in other spiritual beings that interacted with society and individuals on some level. He suggested that the notion of the existence of such spirits arose from dreams, hallucinations, and related experiences, and he saw no value or truth in the magical beliefs of primitive cultures. Tylor stated that the animistic spirits were what humans imagined their own souls to be. The spirits were meant to explain the workings of nature, based on the idea that all forces and things in nature were inhabited by various spirit forms—both good and evil.

The Englishman James George Frazer developed the idea of sympathetic magic in The Golden Bough (1890/1981), a book that grew into several volumes. He presented a complex picture of primitive magic, suggesting that the practice first arose from a need to control nature. Spells and rituals, by means of compulsion, were meant to have a direct effect on successful hunting and food gathering, and also on the weather. When coercion failed, pleas and propitiations to gods and spirits were introduced, and religion, as a separate practice, was born. When cultures grew more sophisticated, they would adopt the methods of science.

Frazer’s book had a deep impact on many disciplines of study, discussing the myths and religions of a number of non-Christian cultures of the world, as well as sharing concerns such as birth and death. Like Tylor, Frazer saw a progression of intellectual development from the simple to the more complex. Cultures first used magic, advanced to religion, and finally to science. He described primitive magic as based on notions of sympathy, wherein an effect could be brought about by imitating it. In part, the evolutionary focus was the result of the biases built into the material Frazer collected from those who provided him with information, such as missionaries and colonialists.

Cultural Relativism

Franz Boas came to the United States in the late 19th century and contributed significantly to the growing field of anthropology during the early 20th century. Based on his experiences among other societies, he rejected the notion of evolutionism, with its cultural biases, and stated that every culture must be studied and understood in terms of its own system of values. Looking at cultures this way called for probing their individual histories. No longer placing them in a one-size-fits-all set of developmental steps, Boas valued each culture’s historical development on its own merits. This is the theory of historical particularism. Boas defined culture as a set of learned behaviors. He emphasized research and promoted use of scientific methods by anthropologists, bringing the practice of anthropology into the modern era.


Functionalists moved away from a focus on historical context and studied the structures within a society. Each system or structure contributed to the integrity and stability of the whole society. This approach in the early 20th century also helped to shed the racist biases and evolutionist views of earlier theories. However, by ignoring history, functionalism did not account for change and did not provide for the changes that may take place in a society when it is transformed by exposure to the outside world.

There were two approaches to functionalism, as seen in the theories of Bronislaw Malinowski, who focused on individuals, versus those of A. R. Radcliffe-Brown, who looked at the structure of the society. Malinowski attempted to disentangle religion from magic in Magic, Science and Religion and Other Essays (1948/1954). Coral Gardens and Their Magic (1935) addressed agricultural magical rites practiced by Trobriand Islanders of Melanesia. Malinowski considered magic to be nothing more than a specific set of acts, practical in their intent as a means to accomplish a goal. The emotions concurrent with the act were also critical to the success of the magic. He found that different types of magic acts were associated with different goals. Melanesians, for example, performed the most powerful magical rites when engaged in the most dangerous or uncertain operations. House building, although complex, presented little risk and therefore required no accompanying magic to ensure success. Fishing, when it involved such dangerous fish as the shark or others difficult to catch, called for a great deal of magical preparation. Magical forces played a part in certain human emotions and in forces of nature for the Melanesians, calling upon the need for associated magic rites and acts. Malinowski concluded that magic was not unlike science, since it called for acts toward practical ends and was governed by theory and principles that determined how the acts must be performed.

  1. E. Evans-Pritchard expanded on the structural form of functionalism and specialized in the study of African cultures. Two of his books have had an especially strong impact in the field of anthropology. In The Nuer (1940), he examined the political organization of the Nuer society in detail. The book has become a classic ethnographic study. Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic Among the Azande (1937) was a major study of the magical beliefs of a society based on non-Western thought. Evans-Pritchard demonstrated the internal coherence of the Azande culture and the logic of their magical beliefs within the context of Azande society. His rich, well-documented description of magic and witchcraft in Azande society can be contrasted with the practices of other groups elsewhere.

Other Notable Figures in Anthropology

Émile Durkheim, a French sociologist, strongly influenced the theory of structural functionalism. He wrote the book Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1912/1965), which discussed the origin of religions in society. He separated magic (profane) from religion (sacred), stating that because magic was always performed in private, it could not be seen as part of religion, which was social. He viewed magic as a precursor to science, but preferred to focus on religion.

Ruth Fulton Benedict, an early 20th-century cultural anthropologist, did fieldwork among various Native American groups and wrote the classic Patterns of Culture (1934/1959). Like her colleague Franz Boas, she rejected theories of racism based on heredity and environment.

Margaret Mead, a major figure in American anthropology, used the ethnographic method to conduct field studies, focusing on child rearing and gender issues in Samoa, New Guinea, and Bali. She was a prolific writer, promoted women’s rights, and was among the first to use photography as a way of adding to the record of a culture. Her bestknown work is Coming of Age in Samoa (1928/1961).

The French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss was strongly influenced by linguistics. He focused on those common characteristics of the human mind that produced an underlying structure among cultures. This theory is known as structuralism. He posited that the same set of general rules underpins all cultures. The thoughts of humans are patterned in binary oppositions arising out of the human need to classify. In Myth and Meaning (1978/1995), a collection of his lectures, he states: “To speak of rules and to speak of meaning is to speak of the same thing; and if we look at all the intellectual undertakings of mankind . . . the common denominator is always to introduce some kind of order” (pp. 12–13).

Clifford Geertz, a cultural anthropologist focusing on symbolic anthropology, was particularly concerned with symbolism evinced by a culture. He defined culture as an expression of the symbols used by a society. He posited that, in order to gain an inside view of a culture, the anthropologist must first learn how its individual members view selfhood. It is impossible to climb into the skin of another, Geertz said, but it is essential to understand what the individual really conceives that it means to be a human. The sense of self is not the same in every culture, and culture itself is transmitted through symbols that carry meanings. These symbols are what members of society use to communicate, and it is these symbols that shape the worldview.

Alice and Irvin Child coauthored the book Religion and Magic in the Life of Traditional Peoples (1993). It discussed and compared rituals and other religious practices conducted among the traditional societies of the world. They found trends and recurring elements of religion. Later, Irvin Child, a Yale psychologist, became interested in the paranormal and conducted research in the current practices of Western society.

Magic and Science: A Comparative Overview

Anthropologists, psychologists, and social scientists generally see the function of magic as a way of controlling and organizing the world. Magic, along with religion and myth, is a way of explaining the world and its natural history. This may serve to explain things, as in creation stories of how the world began. Magic, religion, and myth may also provide social control, help increase crop yields, and improve the hunt or predict the future. Science has its own creation myth, the big bang theory, developed on the evidence of astronomical and mathematical studies. The perception of what is taking place when one practices science versus magic may be different, while the purpose remains the same. A culture’s viewpoint and the instruments at hand will also determine which practice it is perceived to be by those outside of its culture.

Magic and science have elements in common. Mathematics is fundamental to science, but has also been considered a highly magical art. The Pythagoreans did much to develop mathematics, but they saw numbers as magical, possibly even the true foundation of reality. Other cultures viewed numbers as magical symbols. Magic involves ritual and symbol, and symbols are a cornerstone of magic, as they are in science. Magic relies on a belief in forces beyond the everyday world. Magic often requires a very orderly progression of routines and practices that, if done correctly, will lead to the desired result. It is generally practiced in secret and carried out by individuals or small groups.

Science, too, involves ritual in the proper implementation of experiment, and the scientific method calls for an orderly progression of routines. Symbols are used in all areas of science. Natural forces are a foundation of modern science, but these forces have been studied and described, and they are not viewed as spirits or gods. For the scientist, forces are a part of the natural world—as are spirits to those who believe in magic—but are explicable in concrete terms and are not whimsical in their behavior. Scientific forces are predictable in their operation, and they can be described mathematically and their effects demonstrated. Scientists share their knowledge, often building on the work of others.

Magic Practices

Magic may be recognized by ceremony and ritual practices, a demand for secrecy, and an attempt to control nature or other humans. Those performing rituals, whether in earlier societies or today, see these acts as transformative. There is not only a public act, but also an inner sacred experience. The magic arts can be part of a very complex structure or very basic and direct. The successful performance of magic is based on the belief in the underlying connection of all objects, peoples, and animals through a supernatural force—a perceived connection between similar things. Sympathetic magic, also referred to as imitative magic, is in practice when a voodoo doll is used to cause pain or illness in the person whose image is represented by the doll. Contagious or contact magic depends on the notion of a continuing tie between items or persons who have once been in contact. In some cultures, nail clippings or hair may be used to turn harm back on their original owner.

Mana was a Polynesian term that referred to a kind of power—a supernatural force—possessed by someone or something. Marcel Mauss studied the concept of mana extensively, believing it to have been a universal belief at an earlier time. This term came to be related to taboo, which also refers to a power, generally of evil or pollution inherent in a person or object. The taboo power may only be temporary, and in some societies taboo also refers to the special power of a king, for example, where his position elevates him away from the common folk. Power was often construed as hierarchical.

Magic and religion are often difficult to separate when used to explain life itself. The mysteries of life and death hold great importance to humans. Archaeologists have found evidence of ritual burials from as long ago as 60,000 years. Deliberate burial suggests an awareness of or belief in something beyond the mortal body, and goods buried with a body could suggest ritual practices and the belief in an afterlife. This suggests the belief in souls that live on after human flesh decays. The notion of a soul could have contributed to the belief in supernatural forces, such as gods and spirits.

While pleas, prayers, and other propitiatory acts point to religious beliefs, the manipulation or coercion of forces to produce specific results may be defined as magic, according to Frazer (1890/1981). Magic can be divided broadly into good (white) and bad (demonic). Occult magic, used for either good or bad, is that which appeals to unseen forces, as occult means hidden. Attitudes and practices associated with magic vary widely from culture to culture, although the underlying theme remains that of control or manipulation of gods, demons, or other forces. Superstition, still apparent today in such acts as nailing a horseshoe above a door or carrying a rabbit’s foot, expresses the remnants of ritual magical acts and beliefs.

Cave Drawings and Rock Art

The earliest evidence of magical practices is found in prehistoric cave drawings. Cave drawings and rock art are found throughout the world, some created over 30,000 years ago; the last of it perhaps died out in the 19th century with the passing of the San in southern Africa. Especially in Australia, oral tradition about the creation of rock art still exists. However, the religious and magical practices of societies do change over time, and what modern oral traditions describe may not capture the true meaning and purpose of much older work; care must therefore be taken when using that evidence to interpret the drawings of former centuries.

One of the most recently discovered sets of cave paintings is in Grotte Chauvet in France. The work is believed to be more than 32,000 years old and consists of paintings, geometric forms, images picked out of the rock by sharp implements, and hand prints. The many animals depicted represent animals actually hunted by those early people, as proven by the types of animal bones found in the area. Often the geometric forms are near the animals and perhaps suggest counts or rituals. The images of hands are more difficult to explain, but they could have been part of a ritual.

A recent comparative study of rock art in western North America led to the conclusion that Columbia Plateau rock art represented several different types of ritual, performed by different social groups at different times. The art was seen to represent rituals by shamans, such as vision quests, where the shaman entered a trancelike state to interact directly with spirit guides, and rituals associated with death. Some rock art was clearly sympathetic magic associated with the hunt. Interpretation of any such drawings or engravings may depend on time and place. It is doubtful that one interpretation fits all the cases.

Jean Clottes in World Rock Art (2002) points to certain themes and practices that are generally recurrent in cultures, such as birth, death, and initiation rites for some purpose, as well as coming of age and marriage. Any of these may be surrounded with ceremonies, some of which may be recorded or symbolized in rock art. Other themes could include the creation stories of a culture and those sacred stories or legends that are significant to it. Members of traditional cultures in both the recent and distant past saw themselves not as separate from, but as part of, the natural world. Seeing all of nature as related, they could believe that the images held the magic of spirits or natural forces. Depiction of the images therefore represented an attempt to influence, coerce, or seek help from the inherent power of the image.

One of the most puzzling recurrent depictions in cave drawings and rock art is that of hands. They also appear nearly worldwide. Sometimes the hand was pressed in pigment and then rolled onto a surface to leave the imprint. On other occasions, pigment was placed in the mouth and blown around the hand pressed against the wall in order to produce a stencil effect. It is still not possible to interpret the purpose, which could have been part of a ritual, or merely a means of leaving behind the identity of oneself. In some areas, the imprints include fingers that appear to be missing some bones. Clottes noted that, in Australia, these images were a form of sign language and could be the same elsewhere. He found that sign language was used for communication, especially in hunter-gatherer cultures, often during a hunt. But sign language could also have been used to communicate with the spirits.

Images of humans and animals are common motifs in cave drawings and rock art. Animal images might have been intended to enhance success in the hunt, although some argue that the evidence is open to other interpretations. Some images resemble humans in other guises, suggesting shamans interceding with the spiritual world. Such therianthropes, as they are called, may have shown persons in costumes, but for traditional cultures these probably held a greater significance, perhaps of a shaman passing into the animal or spirit world. The latter images appear most often in Africa and the Americas. Other universal designs include patterns referred to as geometrical designs, objects, and shapes engraved or gouged out of the rock. Despite similarities in appearance, any of these would need to be studied within the context of place, time, and culture.

Anthropologists interpret the drawings and engravings found in rock art by noting several variables. The methods by which the images are depicted, along with their locations geographically and within the cave, are considered. Comparisons are also made with the ethnological record. Caves were viewed as other worlds. Art created far in the depths of the cave could have been especially sacred, as the cave was seen to exist in another realm. Other sacred places included “boundary zones,” those areas where one physical geography came into contact with or connected to another. Such examples included where mountains touched both earth and sky, or where the depths of canyons connected deep earth and water. The accumulating records of anthropological study show that there are some basic similarities of thought and action found among cultures in like stages of development. Because humans are the same in terms of physical makeup and needs, the foregoing records permit some analogy to be made between more recent and more fully documented rock art with that of the ancient past.


Shamans are specialized practitioners who can enter a state in which they have direct contact with spirits or animistic elements of matter and life. By asking or compelling, shamans obtain assistance from the spirits on behalf of their tribe or individual members. Healing often plays a key part in the shaman’s role. Shamans exist now, just as they did millennia ago, and they are powerful members of their societies.

Traditionally, shamans seem to have appeared most often in hunter-gatherer cultures. Their practice often involved the trance state, reached through any one of several methods. Enduring excessive pain, fasting to the point of near starvation, dancing to the point of exhaustion, and taking some form of powerful drug were among the many routes to the altered state necessary for the shaman to journey into the world of the spirits. The “New Age” has seen the rise of neoshamanism, prompted by the belief that there is something valid in shamanism. Mircea Eliade contributed to this explosion of interest when he described shamanism as a form of ecstasy in his book Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy (1951/1964). Although some points in this classic work have been questioned by more recent anthropologists, it nevertheless remains an important study.

A key to shamanic practices has been the belief that multiple worlds exist in the cosmos, either alongside or within the world of everyday existence. Here, science and magic seem to meet, for the many worlds theory (parallel universes) is accepted by many physicists today. Shamans could interact directly with creatures of the other worlds in order to obtain help, practice healing, or wreak evil on other members of the society. Usually, those who dealt evil were considered sorcerers rather than shamans, however. In many cultures, particular animals served as helpers or guides for the shaman. In such cases, the shaman was believed to transform literally into the animal itself. Often, shamans were associated with healing. Through ritual, dance, and a variety of other techniques, shamans have successfully cured members of their tribal group. A key to success was the belief that they truly had power to cure.

Other Magic Practitioners

Depending on the culture both present and past, witches, sorcerers, shamans, wise men or wise women, or some combination, were set apart as powerful figures to contend with the hidden spirits of nature, demons, and gods. For each culture, the training might be different, yet such figures had access to magic potions, prayers, amulets and talismans, or trances in order to manipulate the magic. Religions, too, had access to supernatural powers, and the line sometimes blurs, depending on the point of view. For example, the 16th-century Reformation saw Protestants accusing Catholics of practicing magic because liturgical books contained rituals for blessing wells and animals, for driving away thunder, for exorcising evil spirits, and for the miracles claimed to occur at holy shrines.

  1. E. Evans-Pritchard (1937) lived among the Azande, an African tribe, making careful note of all systems and practices within their culture. He learned that, among the Azande, witchcraft was literally a physical characteristic, a specific material present in the bodies of certain individuals. Witchcraft was inherited and was performed psychically, without rites or spells. Sorcerers, however, did harm by using bad medicines in magic rites. Diviners were consulted to identify witches. Evens-Pritchard suggested that for the Azande, witchcraft explained why bad things happened and provided a way of dealing with those occurrences.

The curse of a witch doctor was no idle threat. The beliefs of the one cursed and of his fellow tribe members were shaped by the views of the culture. The cursed one was shunned, because he was polluted, a term related to taboo. Hopeless, ostracized, and convinced of the curse’s power, the member would die, providing proof of the magical powers leveled against him. Success reinforced the belief and the magic was validated.

A number of Native American tribes incorporated fears of witches or sorcerers into their belief systems, and this may have offered a form of social control. Mental illness has also been attributed to witchcraft in societies that embrace magic. Witch doctors or wise women appear in some societies as healers, using spells, rituals, and special medicines to drive out the evil spirits that produce illness. There are countless examples of these beliefs and practices. Differences may be great or subtle, so care is taken in evaluating magic activity within a given culture.

Divination uses any of a variety of methods to predict the future, such as the outcome of a battle, or to locate an item or person. Oracle bones, animal livers, tea leaves, and the position and movement of stars and planets are among the varied sources used by diviners. Early astrology was a complex form of divining that required a familiarity with the motions of the stars and planets. As above so below developed out of the tenets of astrology. This practice, begun in ancient Babylonia, was based on constant observation of the stars and planets, which were regarded as gods or other supernatural beings. Their activities could be used to make certain predictions about occurrences in the world below. Astrology passed on from culture to culture, with embellishments and reinterpretations added over time. Careful observations made by astrologists and recorded over a long period of time gave real information upon which scientific hypotheses could eventually be made. This contributed to the growth of astronomy. Even in this era, there are people who rely on astrological readings to assist in decision making.

The belief in the link between the heavens and earth served as an underpinning for the practice of alchemy, a form of magic prevalent in medieval and Renaissance Europe. The preparation, the incantations, the secrecy involved, and the connection with astrological symbols bespoke magic. Yet, practitioners would argue that the labor, the time involved, and the withdrawal into an inner world were necessary to move up to a higher, purer level of existence as good Christians. References were made to heavenly bodies and their influence on the world below. At the end of the alchemist’s journey, she should have both created gold and achieved a position among the elite. Alchemy continued to be practiced into the 17th century, and while it involved magical rituals, many of its early laboratory practices served as precursors to chemistry.

Magic Today

Western society has seen the reemergence of magic after the so-called rationalizing influences of the 17th and 18th centuries and the rise of science. Witchcraft, or secret societies with magic rituals, attempts to contact the departed through psychic mediums, and Ouija boards are just one of the forms this has taken. Wicca, or modern witchcraft, is often seen as an expression of feminism and as benign in its practices. Its chief ceremony is the Drawing Down of the Moon, where the goddess is drawn into the high priestess.

In 1888, Dr. Wynn Westcott established the Order of the Golden Dawn, a secretive society based on various historical magical traditions, such as the Kabbala. Members desired to achieve the goal of emerging into the light—a spiritual rebirth—by ascending the Kabbalistic tree of life in sacred ceremonies. Aleister Crowley was a well-known wicked magician, a controversial member of the Order of the Golden Dawn. This group of practitioners helped to restore an interest in magical practice in modern times. A need for greater fulfillment, disappointment with what current religion has to offer, or a desire to turn away from an increasingly complex world and embrace a more rural, natural world may contribute to the desire to practice magic today.

For the first time in human history, a cyber world exists within our own. Access to computers and the Internet has led to increasing communication via new technologies, such as social-networking pages, blogs, online games, and interactive Web pages. As technology advances, it may become difficult to separate our world from the virtual world—the joining of magic and science in ways never dreamed of before.

The Scientific Method

Through research and experiment, scientists manipulate nature according to specific methods that could be interpreted as ritual, yet science differs from magic. The way science is practiced is what sets it apart and validates science’s findings and creations, according to a scientific worldview. Accurate observation and careful, replicable experimentation is part of the scientific method, and what is proven must also be falsifiable—able to be proven false based on newer data or other findings. If a new experiment yields better interpretations, then the old theory is discarded. Fundamental to science is the ability for an experiment to be repeatable anywhere, anytime, in any culture.

Science consists of both theory and application. Technology is the application of scientific principles to create machines, medicines, or other aids to human progress. Technology has always been with humans. The principles of science behind the practice need not be understood. The discovery of making bronze to create stronger weapons is one example. It was not necessary to understand the chemistry of metals to produce the new substance—trial and error probably led the path to discovery.

According to sociologist Thomas Kuhn, the process by which consensus is reached in the scientific community is not a smooth accumulation of information over time. In his landmark book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962/1996), he explained the process. First, there is a stable belief system, based on a particular worldview. The world appears to function within the tenets of that system, and certain predictions can be made based on it. When consensus breaks down—as it may with the appearance of many inexplicable events, observations, or experimental results—attempts will be made to explain these oddities within the old system. Scientists will go to great lengths to save the system that is the entrenched worldview. As negative evidence builds up, the old system gradually breaks down. When every effort has been exhausted to fit the oddities into the current science, a new science may erupt. According to Kuhn, it will be a revolutionary leap, a paradigm shift, and will be completely incommensurate with the system it replaces. Consensus is reestablished only gradually, but when it is reached, the new science becomes the “true” science. The shift from a belief in an earth-centered planetary system to the sun-centered heliocentric system is an example of such a shift.

Careful observation is the first step in the process of the scientific method. Cultures now and in the past were keen observers of nature. In this respect, most cultures may be said to practice the first step. The next step is to create a hypothesis, or test description, based on the results of the observations or experiments. The experiments must be reproducible by anyone and yield the same results. Anyone should be able to make the same observations. Consistency of measure, observation, and results is the key to a sound scientific method.

The third step calls for scientists to make predictions based on the developed hypotheses and then test the predictions through further experiment and observation. If additional testing does not support the hypothesis, it must be revised or perhaps changed completely. With consistency of results and predictability of further results, the hypothesis may become a theory.

Finally, a theory must be both repeatable and falsifiable. Falsifiability means that some further observation or experiment could prove the theory untrue. On the other hand, if one claimed to hear voices from Mars and further claimed that he alone was a special agent of that reception, it would not be a falsifiable theory. Science is not individual, nor is it secret. It is designed to accommodate change, while magic is generally a very traditional system.

Science and Technology in Magical Societies

Cultures based on the use of magic often used science and technology for practical purposes. Agricultural societies found it necessary to develop a method for determining, in advance, when planting or reaping should begin. By closely observing natural signs, such as the regular movement of the sun, moon, and stars through the seasons, cultures learned to recognize the signs. The development of calendars grew out of this. As with so much else, the calendars might also involve magic for prediction or as indicators of times appropriate for particular rituals and practices. Careful observation, record keeping, and mathematical skills were required to create accurate calendars. The creation of bronze and iron, of pottery and glass, all required much technical skill. Metal making, in particular, was associated with magic and secrecy, as the scientific reasons for success were not understood.


Magic served practical purposes, was based on a belief in the interconnectedness of all things in the world, and could be put to good or bad uses. Magic helped to introduce order to a complex world marked by unpredictable events and often served as a means to preserve social order. It could explain why things happened and how the world came to be. Creation myths are among the most powerful foundations of cultures and shape a worldview, sometimes even dictating how physical structures will be laid out in the landscape. As a means of explanation and as an application of acts toward a practical end, magic can be likened to science.

For some, magic was seen as the means to obtain ultimate power. For others, it served and continues to serve as a form of religion. In practice, magic tends to be individual, while science depends on the work of others. While magic and science both operate with natural forces, the understanding of what those natural forces are and how they may be harnessed is different. Each approach is logical within the realm of the culture that engenders it. Magic may be compared to science as a way of creating order and achieving success in human endeavors that promote health and well-being. Magical acts sometimes contributed to scientific ideas, yet the two can exist side-by-side, founded on entirely different views of the world.

Anthropological Studies

The Present

In the recent past, anthropological studies have expanded and enriched the study of other cultures, incorporating biological, psychological, or gender aspects. In addition, structuralism—associated with linguistic factors and symbolic anthropology—has added greatly to the understanding of both traditional and nontraditional societies.

Daniel O’Keefe’s Stolen Lightning: The Social Theory of Magic (1982) and Stanley J. Tambiah’s Magic, Science, Religion, and the Scope of Rationality (1990) have contributed to the recent understanding of magic. O’Keefe’s book discusses both how and why magic works in various societies and breaks it down into the many categories found in practice. It is a very comprehensive book about all aspects of the supernatural. Tambiah’s book explores the evolving worldview of the Western European tradition as it has shaped the understanding and interpretation of magic, science, and religion in other cultures. He emphasizes the “continuities in experience” and the “psychic unity of mankind.” Tambiah, who did his field studies in Asia, considers how anthropologists, rooted in the Western worldview, can analyze and describe the magic, science, and religion in comparative studies of other cultures.

The Future

Investigations into the nature of virtual reality are on the cutting edge of studies. Technopagans are those who are comfortable in the changing world of cyberspace, where reality can be modified, as well as in the world of computers and electronics. An article in the Anthropology News (Gusterson, 2004) pointed out how religion and science can overlap. Recent political decisions in the United States show evidence of this mixture where there has been a call for banishing the teaching of evolution in schools. This is an area that calls for investigation. The same article discusses “the way that magic and science, far from being opposites, are increasingly fused at the hip.” The return to magical practices and witchcraft in modern societies calls for study. Shamanism has reemerged as well, but shedding its trappings of superstition and sorcery. There is a need to understand how it fits into modern society, and why.

With the advances made in genetics and cognitive studies, earlier theories may need to be reconsidered. Questions will address which concepts and behaviors are passed on genetically rather than culturally. Further studies of the human brain have revealed a more formal and organized structure than was understood in the past. Studies in linguistics, and in the use and comprehension of symbols and signs, provide fertile ground for further exploration.


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