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Moral crises: magical and secular solutions (Gluckman 1964)

May 19, 2016

via HAU journal

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Max Gluckman. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI:


Moral crises

Magical and secular solutions
The Marett lectures, 1964 and 1965



It is a double honour for me to be invited to deliver lectures in honour of Richard Ranulph Marett in this Hall.1 Such an invitation must honour any anthropologist; and in addition I think I am correct in asserting that I was the last of his pupils to become a professional social anthropologist. In this Hall, too, I partook of that commensality which, even over meals we grumbled at, made me feel so deeply I was a member of your Society.

I have selected for the theme of my lectures two subjects on which Marett wrote at length: morals and magical activity. Indeed, he first moved from the study of classics into social anthropology when he was awarded the Oxford University Green Moral Philosophy Prize for an essay on the ethics of tribal peoples (1893). His later, best-known work, The Threshold of Religion (1900), examined those forms of activity, such as magic and sorcery, which he held to precede religion. Marett, like most of his contemporaries, considered that one of the main functions of social anthropology was to set out the evolutionary series through which the institutions of human society have developed. I too am an evolutionist in that I consider that when we assess and try to understand the significance of institutions it is essential to examine them against the background of what has undoubtedly been a major trend in the history of human society as a whole—the increasing complexity of technology, and with it of economic organization. I believe that when we work out the forms of social organization and of social beliefs and ideas associated with different ranges of technology, we illuminate them all. This is now an unpopular line among social anthropologists, and has been for a long time, save for the school under Professor Leslie White at the University of Michigan. Of recent years the stress has been on what is common in the institutions of all human societies; and indeed there is much that is common to them all. Yet within this marked common area, it is possible to trace differences which acquire significance from their common matrix in social life.

A further theme that I shall discuss is that of the effect of customs, the standardized practices of a particular population of people, on behaviour; and the relation of various forms of custom to the general techno-economic background. This again is a theme which Marett used frequently to stress; hence the volume of essays presented to him by his pupils and admirers on his seventieth birthday was entitled Custom is King (1936: edited Buxton). And here too I take a line that is, at least among most younger British social anthropologists, a relatively unpopular one: for many of them have moved from the emphasis laid by their elders on social relationships to study human action apart from the constraining effect of custom, which Marett considered so to dominate in controlling human behaviour.

My problem may be briefly posed. Individuals in all societies run into moral crises. The crises with which I am concerned in these lectures are the crises that arise in situations where a person is moved by different social rules and values to opposed courses of action so that no clear solution is available. I shall argue that in such situations tribal custom provides resolutions which are in some form or other magico-religious, or ritual, depending on beliefs in occult forces, and I shall demonstrate this through an examination of a number of African societies.2 Durkheim and many other scholars have asked why there should be such customs, and this is the problem to which I shall address myself. I shall then report and analyse one similar crisis in an industrial society, and show how it is handled in terms of secular beliefs. From this comparison I shall suggest that there may be certain consistent contrasting approaches in the sets of beliefs of tribal societies and those of at least many members of a modern industrial society.

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