Thursday, September 25, 2008

Cosmology and Anthropology:Towards a Definition

ETNY: In Anthropology a COSMOLOGY is an analytical construct but above all it is an object of study, and it can be defined as a set of knowledge, beliefs, interpretations and practices of a society or culture related to explanations about the origins and evolution of the universe as well as the role and the meaning of humans, life, and the world, within the universe or cosmos. A cosmology involves explanations of the past, present and future of a society, and these explanations are part of its understanding of cosmo-eco-ethnogenesis, and it deals with the origins as well as with the finality and destiny of humans and of other forms of existence.
If COSMOLOGY in Physics and Astronomy is a science for specialized researchers who study the origins and evolution of the universe and these specialists construct an interpretative framework for what is called a scientifically-based cosmology, thus, when using the word ‘cosmology’ we are dealing with two different approximations, one from Physics and Astronomy that refers to cosmology as a science or as a scientific process, and another one from Anthropology that usually defines cosmology as an object and as a socio-cultural phenomenon produced by all societies. Thus a cosmologist from Physics studies the universe; and an Anthropologist studies a cosmology.
SAGREDO defined 'cosmology' from the point of view of the disciplines of physics and astronomy, and in his definition he advocates for a strictly scientific approximation devoid of any interferences from ethics, philosophy, religion and such. Yet, in the last part of his text, he raises the issue of educating a general public and also decision-makers and politicians, as he notes with concern the rise of Creationism and other negationists who consciously negate modern scientific cosmologies. But before we debate more the relation between cosmologies and cultural dynamics, and also politics, in our contemporary world, in this blog, I will develop more my anthropological definition of cosmology.
Cosmology and Anthropology
In Anthropology, the term ‘cosmology’ is used to refer to the set of knowledge, beliefs, interpretations and practices, and to the set of overarching cognitive and behavioral templates which are reiterated, transformed and used, by a society to comprehend, interpret, and explain its role within: humanity, life, the world (planet Earth), and the cosmos. A cosmology involves explanations about the past, present and future of a society within these scales of encompassment and such it is a culture’s understanding of cosmo-eco-ethnogenesis, and deals with origins as well as the finality and destiny of their own society and of humanity within the grander whole.
Though possibly the Evolutionary Anthropologists would hold that as a common universal bases there are cognitive and behavioral universals for humans to manufacture cosmologies as an overarching system to give meaning to human existence within the grander world and universe, however anthropological particularists and relativists would hold that different types of societies construct different cosmologies and possibly for different purposes, and that cosmologies need not be coherent nor standard even within a society itself. Religious persons in turn, would argue that cosmologies involve spiritual parameters where the agency of a God or divinities and spiritual beings are held to be key parts of existence; they hold that there is another form of life after human death, that supernatural actors run the universe, world and also a good part of human destiny.
Anthropology analyzes the cosmologies of all of the world’s past and present cultures. Anthropologists consider that all cosmologies are social constructs, socially and historically situated (including those proposed by modern scientific cosmologists, Physics and Astronomy). Anthropology also analyses cosmological templates in their diverse levels of signification in rational, scientific, religious, artistic, ethical, emotional and sensorial terms (Reichel 2005).
All cultures have cosmologies which can be religious or non-religious, as means to interpret a society’s situatedness in the universe, Earth, biosphere and within humanity. Cosmologies are both ideational and operational systems, frameworks for thought and action, but in today’s world as the 10,000 or so cultures - that are, or were, somewhat homogeneous and territorially situated-, are now rapidly changing amidst new forms of cultural diversity including diaspora, hybrid cultures, virtual societies, migrants, cosmopolites, and such.
Evidently, in all societies a cosmology also changes along an individual’s life cycle, and according to his-her expertise, gender, rank, etc. Cosmologies also differ if they are based on the traditional big religions, new religions (including neo-paganism), or on traditional shamanic ones, or if they are not based on any religion or spiritual approximation.

Indigenous Peoples’ Cosmologies
What is clear in most anthropological research among a-modern, modern, and post-modern/post-industrial societies, is that though there can be one main or single prevailing cosmological template for example among small societies such as traditional indigenous hunting-gathering bands or among traditional indigenous tribes of shifting-cultivators, fishers, agriculturalists or pastoralists, however among most other societies, especially industrial and urban ones, there are no single, unique, standard, grand cosmological narratives shared by such large societies, In such complex societies several versions exist, not only in each society but also within a same individual, or they may be only fragmented and partial cosmologies as such (for example not including as much the concern for seeking meaning to belonging within the grander cosmos, or unclear about cosmic origins and cosmogony). In certain societies people use cosmologies to achieve a sense of belonging within nature, and of achieving socio-environmental wellbeing, while in other societies this endeavor is less evident.
The cosmologies of indigenous and traditional societies can invoke respect for nature and for human wellbeing, and there is often an appeal to keep a balanced coexistence between all parts of the universe, because people, ecosystems, the biosphere and cosmos are defined as being composed of common components of matter, energy and spirit. The common elements and forces are considered as shared cosmic synergies and humans must request permission and compensate for their use of resources which disrupt other beings or forces. It is not uncommon to find indigenous cultures that today still recreate cosmologies that correlate the existence of their society as part of a larger whole linked to socio-environmental contexts and to climatic, meteorological, astronomic and cosmic dimensions; which is not only a way of signifying their sense of belonging within nature, but of harnessing respect, admiration and responsibility towards it.
Cosmologies, for example, are used as key references for decision-making, when indigenous tribes, for example of the Amazon rainforests (Reichel-Dolmatoff, 1996, 1976) use natural resources and seek to achieve sustainable use of forests; and to decide human demographic levels and bio-social synergies; and also to establish peace among and within neighboring societies.
Myths and formal narratives, rituals, legends, folktales, proverbs, songs, and even children’s stories, are used to socialize, reiterate and to debate the cosmology while heightening individual’s and group’s socio-ecological awareness and to achieve balanced sense of existence within their societies, the world and universe. Anthropological analyses have indicated the sagacious foresight these cosmological systems have, along with the shamanic traditions they sustain, to resist acculturation imposed by non-indigenous societies, which along with colonization tend to impose other notions of the meaning of human existence within the Amazon rainforests, the world and universe.
Many indigenous cosmologies have a coherent scaffolding to include human experiences in rational, spiritual, artistic, emotional and ethical manners and also to invoke an awareness to minimize negative environmental impacts (Reichel 2005), however with the present accelerating social, economic, political, cultural and environmental changes due to globalization these cosmologies and the indigenous modes of life are increasingly endangered worldwide.
Among the world’s 400 million indigenous peoples there are over 6,000 languages and equal or more numbers of cosmologies, and many indigenous cultures, languages and cosmologies are now greatly threatened by extermination due to acculturation and forced displacement by dominant and mayoritarian cultures and languages, if present trends are not deterred.
In all historical times, cosmologies have been used to mobilize or immobilize normative directives and groups or individuals, and as such cosmologies have strategic socio-political functions and not only socio-environmental ones. They have been used to manage identitarian parameters, as there is power in defining the identity and role of a society within humanity, the world and universe, and in defining the sense of the evolution of humanity and of the universe. These parameters guide the imaginaries that relate the individual to the cosmos, and the microcosmos to the macrocosmos , which along with a complex use of cosmological symbols also encompass references that can cover knowledge of psychology, architecture, ecology, astronomy, philosophy, and other knowledge that societies harness to explain or monitor their position within humankind, ecosystems, and the world and universe (Aveni and Urton 1982, Douglas 1970, Schneider 1993). The ratio of rationality, science, religion and magic which are encompassed in a cosmology and in social systems, in turn, differ among and within cultures, and according to historical contexts in times of normality or of crisis.

Cosmologies in a Globalized World
Cosmologies that contain viable and wise forms of living and of conserving ecosystems and life on Earth, are today mainly held by some indigenous cultures, but in a globalized world and in urban contexts, cosmologies can –indeed must- have once again this wisdom in order to regain such vital functions for human survival, with a worldview and cosmology valid for present times and needs (see a debate about this in Goldsmith 1992). It remains to be seen how these cosmologies will allow diversity of responses of what it means to have a meaningful existence and a fulfilled life in a globalised world. As this human situatedness involves a worldview which relates to the dynamics of a society within humanity, life, and the world, and a cosmology which encompasses cosmic dimensions, it also rests to be seen if these modern cosmologies in the 21st century can also be composed with knowledge from modern scientific cosmologies.
Nowadays as some societies struggle to maintain their cosmologies while marginalizing, respecting, or exterminating those of others, others increasingly hold cosmological diversity, hybridity, or engage in re-cosmologizing by transposing cosmologies and fabricating others or parts of these. Individuals and groups use their cosmologies to define the meaning of human existence, within their society, humanity, the world, and in cases also within the greater universe and cosmos. But the response differs if there is a religious or spiritual approximation to supply the questions and answers to these matters.
Yet individuals and societies may continue to opt to forget, silence or ignore the lessons reaped for millennia by cultures that mitigated their impacts on the environmental and were vigilant of their daily practices in order to resonate with local ecosystems and with the basic laws of nature to avoid the collapse of whole cultures. At present the modernizing and modern and post-industrial societies in a globalizing world are faced with the challenges of achieving not only socio-ecological wellbeing, and conviviality among and across countries and cultures, but also in ensuring a sustainable humanity.
Though nowadays due to the advances of science, there is a significant amount of knowledge about the origins and evolution of the universe, and of its laws, forces, and structure and composition, however the vast majority of people, even in the Western world, do not concatenate this modern scientific cosmology into their personal or collectively-held cosmology. Except for some scientifically-minded persons and even then the issue of meaning is problematic, since modern cosmology is not engaged in such realms of meaning, whileas ethics, philosophy, religion, and other domains are, adding to the fact that science-making also entails non-scientific manners and negotiations (Latour 1993).
Nowadays there is also a rising amount of scientific knowledge about planet Earth, the biosphere, ecosystems, and also about humankind and cultures, but in spite of the relevance of such knowledge, many of it is not internalized into most peoples’ cosmologies and worldviews nor to mobilize their thoughts and actions, as can be seen for example, by the growing degradation of ecosystems, the lack of understanding of the relevance of conserving biocultural diversity, or the lack of responsibility in consumer, production, distribution, and transportation patterns, which are degrading ecosystems and have a huge ecological footprint.
However recently, among concerned scientists in natural and social sciences, and among ecologists, a significant process is occurring, where there appears to be an upgrading of cosmological referents to engage in socio-environmental ethics and also in a quest to achieve human wellbeing, justice and equity, where either in non-religious approximations, or in spiritual and religious approximations, there is a concern for human and environmental wellbeing and a sense of responsibility towards nature. There is also a concern to change towards a new paradigm for sustainability, and where people are considered as part of nature, and not as opposed to it (Descola and Palsson 1996). In such cosmologies knowing more about the universe, nature, Earth, and humanity would lead people to live sustainably and a balanced existence.
This knowledge and understanding can enhance a consciousness of the interdependencies and synergies between humans, ecosystems, and also the climate, atmosphere, and other dynamics, and contribute to correct the erred, short-sighted, risk-prone human activities that are degrading ecosystems, exterminating biodiversity, augmenting consumerism, rising human population and inequity, intensifying the use of fossil energies and natural resources, accelerating climate change, along with other human actions that in a historically unprecedented manner are endangering human survival itself.
As globalization is accompanied by wars, and possibly soon also by wars of cosmologies, and with the rising financial and energy crises, soaring food prices, impacts of climate change, and with the recent shifts in geopolitics with the emerging economies, as well as the rising pressures from social movements, privatization, and many other forces beyond and across countries, the dynamics relating cosmologies to cultures will increasingly become pivotal not only in the configuration of humankind’s profile, but of its own existence and of a significant part of life itself. Humankind’s capacity to make and to have cosmologies, is not only a means to give meaning to the existence of humans, and of life, the planet, and the larger universe and a means to achieve and accumulate knowledge and understanding of each of these levels of existence; it is also a means to work out ways by which humans can understand the universe, world and humanity in order to lead fulfilled lives individually and collectively in healthy environments. Thus cosmologies that further the understanding of nature and the universe can contribute to an awareness and a sense of marvel that makes persons increasingly conscious of their unique place in the cosmos, while also attending socio-environmental wellbeing and the plight of all human beings in this world.

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