Do you believe in ‘Magic’? After reading this you just might…

When I was 12 years old I found magic (kind of). Both of my parents are atheists, but I didn’t want to follow in their footsteps so I began searching the web for a religion. I remember coming across a site about paganism and white magic and I instantly knew it was the one for me (it may have had something to do with watching Charmed). I begged my Dad to take me to our local bookstore where he sat in the café next door blissfully unaware that I’d ventured into the religion and spirituality section to find a guide book on white magic. My affinity with white magic lasted about 2 weeks, as did most of my interests at the age of 12. However, I clearly remember one of the rituals about letting go of stress. You were to take a nice long bath with an egg. Upon draining the bath, you were to visualize all of your anxieties being absorbed into the egg which would then be buried in the garden.  

Years later reflecting on my 2 weeks as a white witch I’ve come to realize a great deal of overlap between everyday acts of ‘self-care’ and ‘white magic.’ Taking a bath is still a ritual I do from time to time (minus the egg because I’d rather eat it), but I visualize all my stress being released as the water drains. According to Gmelch (1971) a ‘magic ritual’ is defined as performance of a certain task despite no ‘empirical’ evidence that it will help achieve the outcome. Therefore, rituals are regarded as largely ‘irrational.’ In many ways we are all irrational beings (what constitutes ‘irrationality’ is also context specific). Most of us would have engaged in certain rituals which come under the umbrella of ‘magic’ and yet would be averse to ever labelling our behaviors as ‘magical.’  Words are loaded and so often we get bogged down by words that we are unable to keep an open-mind. 

There are other places you might never have considered to be riddled with magic, like… a baseball field? Gmelch (1971) analyzed the habits of baseball players and found a striking similarity to that of the Trobriand Islanders who used magical rituals when fishing in open water. Interestingly the Trobriand Islanders did not perform these rituals when fishing in the lagoon. It was when the chances of catching fish were more uncertain in the open waters that magic was utilized. Gmelch (1971) realized that American baseball played also engage in rituals, especially when batting as opposed to fielding because the odds are more precarious. Some of the rituals these American players performed were going to the movies on game day, eating a tuna sandwich and drinking two glasses of iced tea, tapping the home plate three times before batting and tugging their baseball cap a certain number of times.  

A study was conducted on first year cultural anthropology students at The University of Western Ontario to see if they used ‘magic’ in their daily lives (perhaps you’ve done the same kinds of things without realizing it!). One student revealed: “The day of my first date with my current girlfriend, now of ten months, I came home and found a [guitar] pick in my pocket. Since then, whenever I am leaving the house, especially if I am with her, I always make sure to carry a pick.” Another student said he always wore the socks he was given on his tenth birthday when playing hockey despite their worn out state and many holes.  

So before you proclaim that magic doesn’t exist, keep an open mind and reflect back on some of tasks you’ve performed over the years – magic might not be as distant as you once thought.   


Gmelch, G 1971, ‘Baseball Magic’, Society, vol. 8, no. 8, p. 39.

Howie, L, Sattin, M, Coutu, S, Furlong, M, Wood, M, & Petersson, E 2011, ‘Some Thoughts on Magic: Its Use and Effect in Undergraduate Student Life’, Totem: The University of Western Ontario Journal of Anthropology, Vol. 19, no. 1, pp. 179-189

Hungry for more mystical insights? See also:

Abbie’s article on Mediumship

Lionel’s article on Witchcraft

Cultural Appropriation & Cake?? A Bittersweet Analogy

Posted by Miley Cyrus June 5th 2019

I recently started following ‘thesweetfeminist’ A.K.A Becca Rea-Holloway on Instagram. She posts pictures of her cakes which are iced with a generous amount of buttercream and political advocacy. On June 20th 2018 Becca posted a photo of a cake which said “Abortion is Healthcare.” She has reposted this same cake many times since and particularly as of late with the 27 abortion bans that have been passed in 12 American states. Becca, however, wasn’t the only one to express her outrage via frosting. Miley Cyrus announced she’d be collaborating with Marc Jacobs to sell a jumper with the words “Don’t F*ck With My Freedom” of which all the profits are claimed to go to planned parenthood. One of the photos for this campaign depicts Miley licking a cake that not only resembles Becca’s creation, but is an EXACT replica. In response Becca wrote, “Cake art is for everyone, but this is inexcusable.” The issue is that her work was blatantly copied without her consent or any form of acknowledgement or compensation. Now while this may not be an example of cultural appropriation, parallels can be drawn from this case to the arguments presented by Brown (1998) in his paper “Can Culture be Copyrighted?”  

Posted by ‘thesweetfeminist’ June 20th 2018

Trying to copyright ‘culture’ is like trying to copyright ‘cake’ (for different reasons of course) but in the same way that they are both unstable grounds to work on. Firstly, how do we define culture? Do we need to distinguish between material, tangible culture and intangible cultural knowledge? Brown (1998) argues the notion that we can somehow ‘copyright’ culture is flawed because it rests on a romanticized and purist understanding. If we can ‘replicate’ culture then it must be original and authentic to begin with. I could argue this point further or I could insert a compelling quote from Edward Said (1994, p. 448): “All cultures are involved in one another; none is single and pure, all are hybrid, heterogeneous, extraordinarily differentiated, and unmonolithic.” 

Now just because culture is fluid and cake is delicious, does that mean they should be a free for all where we can steal as many symbols and slices as we want without any consequences? While at first glance it may seem as though Brown (1998, p. 207) is arguing for the protection of a liberal democracy above all else, he makes an important declaration, “Reduction of inequalities in the distribution of power is just as essential for maintaining liberal democracy as is a free flow of information.”  

Becca & some of her other creations

Becca believes that, “Cake art is for everyone” and likewise Brown (1998) argues that ideas, knowledge and personal expression should not be threatened by copyright laws. Institutionalized secrecy has a tendency to result in abuses of power. For instance, the Church of Scientology has been attempting to privatize their religious texts and ‘sensitive’ information about their organization (and I think we can see how problematic it would be to keep that info confidential).  

Many debates about cultural appropriation have centered on control and the notion that by copyrighting cultural artefacts, symbols and knowledge the ‘original’ culture regains power. But will this really give power back to marginalized and minority voices? Instead Brown (1998, p. 208) asserts that greater change can be enacted through an “agreed-upon social goal” and mechanisms which provide compensation for the use of cultural symbols/knowledge. Brown (1998, p. 203) believes that all this talk about copyrighting culture is actually detracting from more important discussions such as “the fragility of native cultures in mass societies.” 

What can Becca’s feminist cakes and Brown’s (1998) arguments in favour of a liberal democracy teach us about cultural appropriation? For one, copyrighting something as crumby as cake and as elusive as culture is a problematic foundation to work on. Instead we should focus on developing ‘social goals’ which foster respect for cake artists and cultural ideas. We need to think critically about how compensation can best be given to those who have inspired us and how imbalances of power effect the actors involved. I realize that these suggestions are quite ambiguous and ‘fuzzy’, but when dealing with a phenomenon as complex as cultural appropriation, perhaps any possible solutions will be just as elusive.  


Brown, MF 1998, ‘Can Culture Be Copyrighted?’, Current Anthropology, Vol. 39, No. 2, pp. 193-222.

Said, EW 1994, Culture and imperialism. New York, Knopf.

Enjoy thinking about the pitfalls of defining & appropriating culture? See also:

Dyan’s article

Maddie’s article

Abbie’s article

Collective Effervescence – it’s bubbly & it’s everywhere!

Warning: Once you know this concept you will overthink group situations FOREVER! 

I first learned of ‘Collective Effervescence’ in third year when I was telling another anthro major about my study habits. I told her how much trouble I had studying at home, but there was something about going to the Baillieu library. Being surrounded by other people working hard (or appearing to work hard) always gave me more motivation. She immediately replied, “Collective Effervescence!” Embarrassed that I didn’t know this term (or had forgotten it) I simply nodded and looked it up as soon as she left.  

Image result for baillieu library

Collective Effervescence was first introduced by Emile Durkheim in his book ‘Elementary Forms of Religious life.’ He used the phrase to describe the inner experience that can occur during religious events. When a group with shared beliefs, such as a belief in God, come together and engage in ‘sacred’ rituals there is a build of energy and emotion. Praying, chanting and meditating are experienced quite differently when performed alone because in a group there’s a kind of ‘social heat’ in the air. Durkheim believes this ‘social heat’ sparks feelings of excitement within the individual and unifies the group. Religious rituals were thus seen as integral to maintaining solidarity within society.  

One critique of Durkheim’s work is that he paints religion as a social enterprise, but is this always this case? E.g. Ascetic traditions in which connection to God is achieved through withdrawal and isolation. Another major critique of Durkheim’s work is his distinction between the sacred (E.g. important religious rituals) and the profane (E.g. Everyday tasks like cleaning and cooking). Collective effervescence was seen as limited to the ‘sacred.’ However, the line between the sacred and the profane isn’t always so clear cut…and who is say mundane tasks can’t also evoke collective effervescence?  

Image result for afl grand final

There are a number of circumstances which can foster a sense of collective effervescence that aren’t ‘sacred’ or ‘religious’ – like my example of studying in the Baillieu library. Another popular example is an AFL grand finale (I’m sure many would argue it’s sacred). The experience of watching this match while in the crowd is obviously very different to that of watching it alone on T.V. In the crowd fans are united by their common devotion to the team and throughout the match will feel a shared sense of triumph or heartbreak.  

Here are some other examples of activities in my life where I’ve felt or witnessed collective effervescence (whether these are sacred or profane is debatable):  

  • My friends gathered together to watch the Game of Thrones final episodes. I was intrigued by the fact they didn’t really speak or socialize before or after the episode. Their only interaction was the collective gasps to the events on the screen. At first I thought why don’t they just watch it at home where it’d be more convenient, but then I remembered – Collective effervescence.
  • Going to a lecture vs. listening to it online. There’s something about seeing other people enthralled by the lecturer’s every word that makes me more invested. When I listen at home I’m always more likely to zone out.
  • Music festivals – these feel like a kind of ‘modern’ religious gathering with a shared devotion to music. The colours, sounds, the ‘flow’ of energy certainly excite the individual (hence post festival depression). 
Related image


Durkheim, E 1915, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life: A Study in Religious Sociology, Macmillan, Oxford.

Eat, Pray, Love…HATE! A Critique on Journeys of Self-Discovery

As an anthropology student, ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ is a great movie to watch for all the wrong reasons. Left in a state of despair and loneliness after the end of her marriage, Gilbert (played by Julia Roberts) embarks on a journey of self-discovery where she ‘eats’ in Italy, stays at an ashram to ‘pray’ in India and finds her one true ‘love’ in Bali.  

Where did we get this idea that travel = self-discovery? According to Savage (2013, p. 28) travelling for leisure is a “historical anomaly.” Technology allows us to see the world in a way that was once impossible. If planes and trains didn’t exist would it be impossible to find our truest self?  

In addition, solo travel (the epitome of self-discovery) is culturally specific. Carroll (2009) claims that mere consideration of ‘solo travel’ is seen as highly ‘illogical’ for many Lao travelers. Travelling in a group simply makes more ‘sense’ because it provides “social security” and reduces the overall cost because expenses are shared (Carroll 2009, p. 285).  

The argument I am trying to make here is that the way we understand ‘self-discovery’ is specific to a certain context and point in time. This notion of self-discovery does not exist everywhere and it is a fairly recent development. This is true of many concepts, but I believe it is especially important that we understand the extent to which ‘self-discovery’ is socially constructed. Self discovery is often conflated with phrases like ‘becoming more aware’, ‘evolving’ and ‘reflecting.’ It therefore seems contradictory to reflect on the self, without reflecting on where this notion that we must find the self came from in the first place.  

Image result for eat pray love

The kind of journey of ‘self-discovery’ I’m talking about here is also an issue of class and race. Benedetto (2012, p. 34) highlights a major contradiction in Gilbert’s journey, that is she reflects on everything except for her “white privilege.” Throughout the movie Gilbert speaks about the “the commonality of humanity” and positions herself as an authority on everyone’s suffering and life experience (ibid.). For example, the film’s opening lines: 

I have a friend, Deborah,a psychologist who was asked by the city of Philadelphia if she could offer psychological counselling to Cambodian refugees…boat people, who had recently arrived in the city. Deborah was daunted by the task. These Cambodians had suffered genocide, starvation, relatives murdered before their eyes…years in refugee camps, harrowing boat trips to the West. How could she relate to their suffering? How could she help these people? So guess what all these people wanted to talk about with my friend Deborah, the psychologist. It was all, “I met this guy in the refugee camp. I thought he really loved me, but when we got separated, he took up with my cousin. Now he says he loves me and keeps calling me. They’re married now. What should l do?” This is how we are. 

Image result for eat pray love

What films like ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ have created is a “recipe for obtaining enlightenment” which guarantees the traveler “cultural capital” upon return home (Badone 2016, p. 39). In Gilbert’s case she becomes an expert on the human condition: “This is how we are…” Gilbert’s quest for self-realization is achieved through a number of romanticized and reductive depictions of the people she meets along the way. For instance, Gilbert journeys to India because of her attraction to the “radiantly beautiful Indian woman” (Chandra 2015, p. 502). There is an underlying assumption that the ‘spiritually endowed’ Indian woman must heal the ‘spiritually desolate’ American woman (ibid.). The ‘exotic’ people Gilbert meets (including a traditional Balinese healer named Wayan) fade into a “reductive backdrop” where their only purpose is to ‘enlighten’ Gilbert (Benedetto 2012, p. 5).  

‘Spiritual voyages’ are often juxtaposed against mass tourism, however, the popularity of ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ has resulted in a watershed of commercial opportunities. Intrepid Travel (2018) have recently “built the ultimate Eat, Pray, Love journey of self-discovery” which promises to be a “life-changing adventure.” 

After reading so far you may have come to the conclusion that I think we cannot learn anything about ourselves through travel, but that is certainly not the case! Here is where I stand – I believe that travel challenges us in many ways; we are forced out of our everyday routines and can encounter situations which feel strange and foreign. This in turn can lead us to reflect on our ‘normal’ lives back home and perhaps see how limited our worldview was before going abroad. We may also reflect on the self because we can see how deeply our cultural context has shaped our identity.

What I perceive to be the ‘real’ issue with journey’s of self-discovery is when they become reliant on problematic and reductive imaginings of the people we encounter. Stasch (2016, p. 11) argues that travellers sometimes fall into the trap of observing people like they are in a “human zoo.” Tourists become fascinated with the exotic ‘Other’ because they resemble humanity’s “primitive” and “archaic past” (ibid.). When we generalize and stereotype cultures we start to adopt an ‘ethnocentric’ gaze – which as an anthropology major is most likely your worst nightmare! At the end of the day we are all human, and humans who have been raised in particular cultural context (or several) and that has influenced the way we understand the world and other people. No matter how hard we try, can we ever really be ‘objective.’ I personally think not, but I do believe we all have a responsibility to be self-aware of what our biases might be, especially when it comes to journeys of ‘self-discovery.’


Badone, E 2016, ‘Eat, Pray, Love and Tourism Imaginaries’, in L Beaman S Sikka (eds), Constructions Of Self And Other in Yoga, Travel, And Tourism: A Journey To Elsewhere, Springer International Publishing, pp. 37-43.

Benedetto, GD 2012, ‘The Punitive Theatre of the Western Gaze: Staging Orientalism in Eat Pray Love’, International Communication Association, pp. 1-38.

Carroll, C 2009, ‘My Mother’s Bestfriend’s Sister-in-Law is Coming With Us’, Asia on tour: exploring the rise of Asian tourism, Routledge, pp. 277-290.

Savage, E 2013, ‘Confessions of a Fat, Exploitative Tourist’, Eureka Street, vol. 23, no. 21, pp. 28-29.

Stasch, R 2016, ‘Dramas of Otherness: “First Contact” Tourism in New Guinea’, HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory, vol. 6, np. 3, pp. 7-27.

Feel like reading another rant on the perils of travel? See also:

Maddie’s article

Margaret Mead – Someone you should definitely remember as an Anthro major!

Margaret Mead is best known for her book ‘Coming of Age in Samoa’ which she wrote when she was just 27. She wanted to investigate whether adolescence was a stressful process due to biology or cultural context. How could you analyze this phenomenon within the discipline of psychology? According to Mead you would need to raise a child ‘cultureless’ in order to determine the effects of biology which is virtually impossible. That’s why Mead argued that anthropology could step in and solve problems beyond the field of psychology. In order to understand the role that American culture had on adolescences; she chose to look at a distinctly different culture. In Mead’s eyes Samoa ‘set the stage’ for the perfect experiment. Over the course of 9 months she observed and interviewed 50 Samoan girls aged 9 – 20.  

What were her conclusions?  

In 1928 when Mead’s work was published her conclusions were seen as pretty revolutionary. Her findings challenged the previous belief in the ‘biologically superior’ individual. Instead an individual’s ability to thrive or succumb to stress during adolescence was seen as the result of cultural forces. Mead surmised that the ‘simplistic’ and ‘laidback’ attitude of Samoan culture made adolescence a ‘simple’ matter. In contrast, the overwhelming amount of choice and freedom in American contributed to a great deal of stress and uncertainty for American adolescences. It is important to keep in mind that Mead did not suggest America become more like Samoa in order to solve this issue, but rather that comparison between cultures can illuminate the effect that culture has on an individual.  

“One girl’s life was so much like another’s, in an uncomplex, uniform culture like Samoa, I feel justified in generalizing although I studied only 50 girls in three small neighboring villages.” P. 16 

Image result for margaret mead


Now this is where it gets really intriguing (and just a ‘bit’ unethical) …Since its publication, Coming of Age in Samoa has been met with a number of allegations. There is one section where Mead describes teenage boys masturbating in groups, but it is unclear whether she observed this herself. It is also unclear whether Mead sought parental consent (probs not) from the children’s parents before asking questions about their sexual experiences.  

“There were only three little girls in my group who did not masturbate.” P. 113 

Perhaps most notably is that the girls Mead interviewed are believed to have lied and told her what they thought she wanted to hear. While Mead’s work was revolutionary at the time because it challenged the popular theories in Evolutionary Anthropology (such as the idea that some people’s genes are more superior than others), Mead portrayed America as culturally advanced. 

“Our society shows a greater development of personal.” P. 166  

Why is this important?  

While Mead’s actual findings have been proven flawed for countless reasons, her work is still a valuable source for future anthropological inquiry. At the time Mead’s work was seen as progressive confronting and so it’s important to not fall into the trap of judging her methods by today’s standards. What we can learn from past ethnographies is how the discipline has evolved over time. In addition, we can see how some of the assumptions made in early ethnographies have influenced future works, including our own. For example, Mead attempted to portray the totality of Samoa after the short 9 months she lived there. She also did not disclose her own positionality nor think critically about her own biases and how this impacted the research. Personally, reading Mead’s work has reminded me of the danger when trying to represent the entirety of a situation and to keep in mind that each ethnography is like a limited snapshot of the researcher’s interaction with their subjects. Despite the limitations, the insights are nonetheless valuable as long as we think critically and reflexively about the processes involved.   


Mead, M 1928, Coming of Age in Samoa: A Psychological Study of Primitive Youth for Western Civilisation, Blue Ribbon Books, New York.

Want to know more about anthropology’s unethical past? See also:

Imo’s article

Dyan’s article