Westermarck lectures

Westermarck Memorial Lectures

Edvard Westermarck (1862-1939) is known as the pioneer of Finnish anthropology and sociology. In 1983 the Finnish Anthropological Society together with the Westermarck Society of Finnish Sociologists organized a lecture series honouring the late Professor Westermarck which has flourished since then.These lectures are held annually, alternating between the two learned societies.

Numerous leading anthropologists have given the lecture in which they have touched on a wide range of current and debated issues in the discipline.

The Edvard Westermarck Memorial Lectures organized by the Finnish Anthropological Society 1983-2023:


Why do Spirits Want Relations with Humans?
Piers Vitebsky
Assistant Director of Research (Retired), Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge

“Homer made his humans into gods for their strength, and his gods into humans by making them suffer conflict, revenge, tears and bondage” (paraphrased from Longinus, On the Sublime, 1st century CE, section 9.7).

How can we think that non-human entities resemble us, and that they want human-like relations with us? How does one regulate such unstable contacts with such intangible realities? And what happens to these when societies change religion? I shall examine some examples of mutual desire and neediness between humans and a range of gods and spirits, expressed through genres of communion such as sacrifice, prayer, and sexual intercourse. Religious change erodes some relations and creates others, and conversion or enforced atheism can do this suddenly, leading to ontological confusion and emotional derangement. Among nomads of Arctic Siberia, spirits of places and animals partly survived the Soviet state’s destruction of the shamans who managed relations with them, and they still regulate human movement. Among Sora of tribal India, the landscape and cosmos were entirely ancestorised and it was the dead who set the emotional tone of relations with the living; Christian and Hindu conversion now blocks relations with one’s own ancestors in favour of more distant gods, while emptying the immediate environment of relatable entities altogether. Homer’s gods, made obsolete by the Orthodox church or turned into local folklore, have adapted themselves into literary and psychoanalytic archetypes far beyond the Greek world. I shall contrast styles of mutual relationality in animistic or polytheistic cosmologies with those of monotheism, and suggest that the current global loss of biodiversity is paralleled by a loss of the diversity.

Dr Vitebsky’s lecture is available on YouTube.


Geology as Unconforming Infrastructure: engineering the containment of fissile matter
Penny Harvey
Professor of Anthropology, University of Manchester

In the UK a search has begun for a suitable site for the disposal of high-level radioactive waste. Current government policy judges suitability in terms of two key criteria, namely appropriate geology and the willingness of a community to host a geological disposal facility. This process of volunteerism rests on the notion that ‘a community’ might make an active choice to help solve what is posed as a societal problem of inter-generational and environmental care that stretches into the deep future. In this lecture I focus on the conceptual challenges of thinking through the unconformities of geological and human agency.

Finding a way into the underground involves the navigation of complex relational terrain. Engineering solutions focus on achieving a permanent separation of radioactive matter from wider eco-systems through the alignment of multiple barriers, some engineered, some natural. However, this process of creating a waste infrastructure that embraces both systemic flow and fixed boundaries can only be approached via the unstable pathways of moral reasoning, the navigation of uncertainty, and the shifting scales of time and of agency.  As anthropologists are challenged to re-imagine the scope of relational worlds in the anthropocene, and to follow calls to address geological relations in non-extractive mode, the engineered burial of fissile matter poses some specific questions about how to foster and limit human entanglements with non-organic matter.

Penny Harvey is Professor of Social Anthropology at the University of Manchester. She also held the position of Professor II at the University of Oslo (2012-2019) and previously at the University of Bergen, and was recently elected to the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters. She has carried out ethnographic research in Peru, Spain and the UK and published widely on issues of politics and power; language and communicative practice; technology, infrastructure, and engineering expertise; materiality; and contemporary practices of modern statecraft. She is currently engaged in a long-term ethnographic project on ‘Nuclear Life’ in the U.K. Her publications include Roads: An Anthropology of Infrastructure and Expertise (with H. Knox), Cornell University Press, 2015; Infrastructures and Social Complexity (edited with C. B. Jensen and A. Morita), Routledge 2016; and Anthropos and the Material: Anthropological Reflections on Emerging Political Formations (edited with C. Krohn-Hansen and K. Nustad) Duke University Press 2019.

Read more about Penny Harvey and her work here.

Professor Harvey’s lecture on YouTube.


Fixing Inequalities in Time: Radicalising Westermarck’s moral emotions for a critique of financialised speculation
Laura Bear
Professor of Anthropology, London School of Economics

Why should we care about inequalities in Time and why fix these now? When we reflect on our informants’ insecurity, the time-pressures academics face or the precarity of the earth —time and timing appear as urgent issues. Why is this, and how do we fix it? How do we generate an abundance of time and widely shared secure futures? To answer these questions we need to understand, and then change, the moral action that creates the timescapes we live in. This moral action is financialised speculation built on limited sympathy and an anti-altruism, which has intensified uncertainty. To guide our exploration of this speculation I will return to an earlier moment of anthropological critique—Westermarck’s engagements with Adam Smith. Through his comparative project of exploring moral emotions Westermarck challenged the ethical and epistemic foundations of older forms of speculation. This is particularly visible, although not solely, in his analysis of slavery and racism. Using Westermarck’s insights we can similarly critique the emerging field of narrative and behavioural economics linked to newer forms of financialised capitalism. However we also need to go further, by exploring the political economy that links moral-affective action to timescapes of accumulation and inequalities in time. I will illustrate this approach with examples from my fieldwork with central banks and maritime economies. My conclusion will address how to create a new abundance of time through reform of government and financial institutions. This could be achieved through a new kind of speculation that explicitly addresses how to achieve altruism, unlimited sympathy and social value.


Metalwork: Processes of Making and the Imagination
Liisa Malkki
Professor of Anthropology, Stanford University

This paper is an ethnographic status report on two years of training in metalwork with a master smith and ongoing conversations with metal artists. My training in silversmithing is ongoing, and will be one element in a larger, multi-sited project on embodied processes and practices of making, the senses, and on making as a form of thinking. The research will be conducted with metalwork artists/artisans in California, Finland, and Ghana, and will be a close, exploratory examination of how metalworkers bodily make things and how they think about making, “creativity” and the imagination. Learning how to make things in metal and the experience of undergoing rigorous training are as essential to the project as learning a field language. In this process, it has been necessary to think critically about how the imagination is often linked with “creativity” — and in turn how “creation” is so often valued over “recreation”, production over reproduction, and “high art” over “mere craft”.


Landscape as Transfiguration
Philippe Descola
Professor, chair holder in the Anthropology of Nature, Collège de France

Definitions of what is a landscape vary between a very loose meaning – an environment transformed by human action or subjectively apprehended – and a very narrow one: the pictorial or literary depiction of a piece of land embraced by sight. A third approach will be favoured, based on the study of the process of transfiguration thanks to which a landscape is constituted. Transfiguration deliberately changes the appearance of a site – through its representation or its arrangement – so that it becomes an iconic sign that stand for something else and renders manifest some of its implicit features. Traces of this process will be examined in native Amazonia, among cultures where there traditionally exists neither figuration of landscape nor pleasure gardens.

Published in the Journal of the Finnish Anthropological Society, 1/2016.

Professor Descola’s lecture on Youtube.


Anthropology Beyond Humanity
Tim Ingold
Professor of Anthropology, University of Aberdeen

This lecture begins with a dispute between myself and anthropologist Robert Paine about Saami reindeer herding. Do reindeer transact with humans, as humans are alleged to do with one another? Or is a transactional approach no more appropriate for humans than it is for reindeer? Just at the point when transactionalism was on the wane in anthropology, it was on the rise in psychology and the study of animal behaviour. Studies of non-human primates, in particular, likened them to Machiavellian strategists. Picking up on this idea, philosophers Michel Serres and Bruno Latour have argued that human relations are stabilised, by comparison with the animals’, through the enrolment of ever more ‘non-humans’. By ‘non-humans’, however, they mean material-semiotic mediators rather than Machiavellian transactors. In the latter capacity, as smart performers, non-humans are supposed to interact only with other individuals of their species, not with humans. The idea that social relations should be confined to intraspecific relations, however, is shown to be a reflex of the assumption that humans are fundamentally different, in their mode of being, from all other living kinds. Rejecting this assumption, I argue for an anthropology beyond the human that would turn its back both on the species concept and on the project of ethnography, and join with non-humans understood neither as material mediators nor as smart performers, but as sentient beings engaged in the tasks of carrying on their own lives.

Published in the Journal of the Finnish Anthropological Society, 2/2013


Transcendence and the Anthropology of Christianity
Joel Robbins
University of California, San Diego

Is there a unique anthropological understanding of the nature of Christianity? Although still quite new, over the last decade the anthropology of Christianity has become a robust field of discussion and debate. Given its rapid development, the time has perhaps come to consider this question. In this lecture, I argue that work carried out thus far suggests that a focus on the nature, variety, and cultural consequences of Christian notions of transcendence is emerging as a distinctive feature of the anthropological approach to the study of Christianity. Building on this point, I suggest that exploring differences between various Christian approaches to transcendence is a key to synthesizing the most important early debates in the anthropology of Christianity. These debates have centered on 1) the ways Christians, and Protestants in particular, understand the nature and ideal uses of language; 2) the role of Christianity in fostering self-conscious efforts toward bringing about radical cultural change; and 3) the tendency of Christianity to foster various kinds of individualism among its converts. By gathering these debates together through a focus on transcendence, we can develop a specifically anthropological understanding of Christianity that not only allows for productive cross-cultural comparison, but that also helps us raise broader questions about the relation of transcendence to social life of importance across many fields of anthropology and the social sciences more generally.

Published in the Journal of the Finnish Anthropological Society, 2/2012


Comparing Concerns: Some issues in organ and other donations
Marilyn Strathern
Professor of Anthropology, University of Cambridge

In an information society, where overload has become a problem, might anthropology’s comparative method find a new lease of life? This Lecture sets out to test the hunch that it might. A field ever more densely populated with information is that of organ and tissue donation, and the debates to which current practices give rise. Donation is only one of several modes of procurement, organs only one kind of body part that can be donated, and people offer comparisons just as commentators do. Perhaps here is an answer to the question of how to make a reasonable account out of a fraught and infinitely expandable nexus of public concerns. Is it possible to conserve the complexity of the issues while not letting the sheer quantity of information run away with itself? Would following through the comparisons do the trick?

Introduction to Professor Strathern’s lecture

Published in the Journal of the Finnish Anthropological Society, 4/2009


Religious Practice and the Claims of Anthropology (1)
Webb Keane
Professor of Anthropology, University of Michigan

The Westermack Lecture of 2007 was delivered by Professor Webb Keane. It drew on his recent book, Christian Moderns (University of California Press 2007), and explored what he calls “semiotic ideologies”, or reflexive beliefs people share about language, arts, or any meaning-making process or practice. Highlighting a contrast between ideologies such as Calvinist theology, that seek to purify meaning of its necessarily material manifestations, and those ideologies that locate meaning in the very materiality of their signs (for instance, ancestor worship and so-called fetishes), Keane argues for attending to the ways in which traditions reflexively problematize practices of signification. The Westermarck Lecture particularly focused on definitions of religion and how they feature in the
contest of cultural interpretations more broadly.

The lecture has been published in Suomen Antropologi: Journal of the Finnish Anthropological Society 1/2008.


Hierarchy, Equality, and the Sublimation of Anarchy: Western Illusion of Human Nature (2)
Marshall Sahlins
Charles F. Grey Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of Anthropology and of Social Sciences, University of Chicago

The Westermarck Lecture of 2005 was given by Professor Marshall
Sahlins. In it, Professor Sahlins returned to a theme about which he has often written – western culture, its mental traditions and legacies – examining the western view of human nature and its implications for social science and government. According to Sahlins, “For more than two millennia, the peoples we call “Western” have been haunted by the spectre of their own inner being: an apparition of human nature so avaricious and contentious that, unless it is somehow governed, it will reduce society to anarchy.” Delivered also as a Tanner Lecture on Human Values, the lecture was translated into Finnish and published in the Journal of the Finnish Anthropological Society 4/2005.


The ‘Becoming-Past’ of Places: Spacetime and Memory in mid-19th Century New York City (3)
Nancy Munn
Professor Emerita of Anthropology and Social Sciences
Professor of Anthropology, University of Chicago


Ethnicity, Nationalism and the Culture of the State (4)
Bruce Kapferer
Professor of Social Anthropology, University of Bergen


The Reprojective Basis of Human Society (5)
Roy Wagner
Professor of Anthropology, University of Virginia


From One Human Nature to Many Human Conditions: An Anthropological Enquiry into Suffering as Moral Experience in a Disordering Age (6)
Arthur Kleinman
Presley Professor of Medical Anthropology, Harvard University


Contentious Subjects: Moral Being in the Modern World (6)
Jean Comaroff
Professor of Anthropology, University of Chicago


Internal and External Memory: Different Ways of Being in History (6)
Maurice Bloch
Professor of Anthropology, London School of Economics


Late Twentieth Century Strategies for Producing Ethnography(6)
George E. Marcus
Professor of Anthropology, Rice University


Misconceived Kinship or, How Nature Imitates Culture(6)
Claude Meillassoux (1925-2005)
Professor, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), Paris
(Invited by the Westermarck Society)


Rationality between Sociologists and Anthropologists or, The Fetishism of Culture(6)
Ernest Gellner (1925-1995)
Professor of Social Anthropology, University of Cambridge


How Institutions Think(6)
Mary Douglas (1921-2007)
Professor of Anthropology, University College London


Incorporation and Identity in the Making of the Modern World(6)
Eric R. Wolf (1923-1999)
Professor of Anthropology, City University of New York


History and Structure (6)
Marshall Sahlins
Professor of Anthropology, University of Chicago

(1) Published in the Journal of the Finnish Anthropological Society 1/2008
(2) Published in the Journal of the Finnish Anthropological Society 4/2005
(3) Published in the Journal of the Finnish Anthropological Society 1/2004
(4) Published in the Journal of the Finnish Anthropological Society 2/2002
(5) Published in the Journal of the Finnish Anthropological Society 1/2000
(6) Published in Developing Anthropological Ideas: The Edvard Westermarck Memorial Lectures 1983-1997 (Transactions of the Finnish Anthropological Society 41; Helsinki, 1998)