Relational health: Animists, shamans and the practice of well-being

Harvey, Graham (2014). Relational health: Animists, shamans and the practice of well-being. In: Johnston, Lucas and Bauman, Whitney eds. Science and Religion: One Planet, Many Possibilities. Routledge Studies in Religion. Abingdon: Routledge, pp. 204–215.



Animism has undergone a re-theorisation by scholars in a range of disciplines. Replacing the nineteenth century primitivist discourse of “belief in spirits,” the new approach engages with indigenous knowledge systems and practices, recognising in these a range of relational ontologies and epistemologies. This chapter briefly introduces the “new animism” and its value for understanding indigenous traditional knowledges. This may be summed up as an understanding that the world is a community of living persons, most of whom are not human but all of whom deserve respect. Respect is defined (following Mary Black ) as careful and constructive engagement. Drawing on Ken Morrison’s work , I make use of “person, power, gift” to treat indigenous animist health systems. Relational theories of personhood require relational theories of well-being, i.e. a mutualist seeking of well-being within a multi-species community (“totemism” in Debbie Bird’s usage ). Ill-health too may be understood and treated relationally, i.e. not as accidental but as the result of disrespectful acts towards others or as the aggressive acts of predators. Animist health can require the intervention of shamans, medicine people and others who seek understanding of relational causes and relational remedies. The value of these practices for re-thinking modernist ideas of well-being and illness will be considered briefly. Increasing interest in embodied knowledges, holistic personhood and “porous selfhood” (Charles Taylor ) suggest that animist health care might have utility in an increasingly post-Cartesian world.

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