Graham Harvey, ‘Animism: Respecting the Living World’

Reviewed by Natasha Fijn

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Graham Harvey defines what he means by animism in his first paragraph, when he states that ‘animists are people who recognise that the world is full of persons, only some of whom are human, and that life is always lived in relationship to others. Animism is lived out in various ways that are all about learning to act respectfully (carefully and constructively) towards and among other persons’ (p. xi). This definition of animism foregrounds Harvey ‘s perspective for the rest of the book, which, like the definition is broad and far-reaching in scope. By person, Harvey means those beings that interact socially with varying degrees of reciprocity. These persons may include other animals, rocks, trees, mountains, or thunder. This is a new form of animism, which has become prominent in recent anthropological literature, particularly the work of Bird-David, Viveiros de Castro and Descola.

The first section of Harvey ‘s book provides background to western views on animism from philosophers, psychologists, anthropologists, ethologists to novelists. He begins with the ‘old animism’ in the form of Tylor, Durkheim and Mauss but moves quickly on to the seminal work of Irving Hallowell (1960) and his influential work with the Obijwe. Hallowell’s writing inspired later anthropologists to consider a new kind of animism. Harvey himself seems very much a proponent of this ‘new animism’, in that he writes of animism as a relational way of being, engaging with ‘other-than-human persons’.

‘Other-than-human person’ was a term first used by Hallowell. Harvey acknowledges that some academics, such as Bird-David, have difficulty with this term because of its human bias. Harvey uses this term repeatedly throughout the book, as he claims that there can be ‘other-than-bird persons’ too, arguing that the term draws together ‘degrees of relationality’. I felt the term somewhat impeded the flow of sentences at times because of its unwieldy length, perhaps a shortened form, such as ‘non-human persons’ would suffice, or when referring to animals then, ‘other-animal persons’. Toward the end of the book, Harvey refers to Mary Midgley’s comments about the serious need to find new words and terminology for animist discourse that is not biased by Cartesian polemics. Perhaps the Cartesian dualism within the English language is part of the reason why these terms, like ‘other-than-human persons’, sound awkward, as we are not yet used to other beings written or talked about as agents, or as persons in the world.

Harvey presents a number of case studies, all containing elements of his own ethnographic research with the Obijwe, Maori, Australian Aboriginal and western eco-pagan activism. The more substantial sections of the book are when Harvey re-visits these ethnographic examples but relates them to specific animist issues, such as personhood, death, spirit and souls, shamans, cannibalism, totemism and ethics. Harvey incorporates the anthropological terms of shamanism and totemism within the broader category of animism. As with animism, shamanism and totemism have been re-visited and re-defined in recent literature. Harvey describes (animist) totemism, as ‘a mode of sociality and socializing that includes particular other-than-humans in kinship and affinity groupings and avoidances’ (p. 164). He rejects the term ‘shamanism’, arguing that shaman religious belief is essentially animism but recognising that the role of the shaman is often essential to a people’s understanding of animism.

The final chapters incorporate the academic spheres of philosophy, consciousness and environmentalism, within which he particularly draws upon feminist environmental philosophy, such as Val Plumwood’s Feminism and the Mastery of Nature. Animism: Respecting the Living world, as the title suggests, advocates a way of living in the world that espouses respect for other persons, whether human or other. This book provides an informative review of the recent animist literature and animist issues. Harvey successfully summarises the literature in a straight-forward, yet compelling way. According to Harvey, if we can set aside our dualist Cartesian mindsets in favour of an animist approach to the world, then we can ‘live a theory of personhood and selfhood that radically challenges the dominant point of view which is that of modernity; (p. xviii).


Natasha Fijn
Department of Archaeology and Anthropology
Australian National University

Animism: Respecting the Living World was published in New York by Columbia University Press in 2006 (248 pp, ISBN: 0-231-13701-X, $US 28.50)

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