Just Out of Reach

An Ethnographic Theory of Magic and Rationalisation


  • Richard D. G. Irvine The Open University
  • Theodoros Kyriakides The Open University




magic, rationalisation, epistemology, memory, Orkney, Cyprus


Perceived in their ideal forms, rationalisation and magic might seem to oppose one another. In this paper, however, rather than placing these forces in sterile opposition, we instead explore the social and relational dynamics through which rationalisation-the dominant epistemological force of modernity-in certain cases provides the conditions of doubt, opacity, and unknowability that makes magical thinking manifest in the everyday mundane. We explore such theoretical suggestions through ethnographic research conducted in Orkney and Cyprus. By examining connections between rationalisation and magic as these historically unfolded in these two different island settings, we initially provide a depiction of how the project of rationalisation led to the decline of magic in our two fieldsites. Then, focusing on everyday manifestations of magical thinking, we nevertheless proceed to showcase how rationalisation and magic appear to sustain one other through an unresolved, generative tenson, emergent of the incapacity of the former to fully sublate the latter in its requirement to "know" the world. The trajectory of rationalisation means that there is nothing unknowable in the world, and yet, from the position of any given person, there is no knowable whole. It remains out of reach. We conclude by discussing how the tensions inherent in the relation between rationalisation and magic allow for further theorising about the dimension of unknowing that permeates contemporary public epistemologies and subjectivities.

Author Biographies

Richard D. G. Irvine, The Open University

Richard D.G. Irvine, Department of Religious Studies, The Open University, Milton Keynes, UK.

Theodoros Kyriakides, The Open University

Theodoros Kyriakides, Department of Religious Studies, The Open University, Milton Keynes, UK.


Argyrou, V. 1993. “Under a spell: The strategic use of magic in Greek Cypriot society.” American Ethnologist 20: 256–271. https://doi.org/10.1525/ae.1993.20.2.02a00030

Barrett, J. 1999. “Theological Correctness: Cognitive Constraint and the Study of Religion.” Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 11: 325–339. https://doi.org/10.1163/157006899X00078

Bastide, R. 1955. “Le Principe de coupure et le comportement afro-brésilien.” In Anais do XXXI Congresso internacional de Americanistas, edited by Herbert Baldus, 493–503. São Paulo: Anhembi.

Bryant, R. 2004. Imagining the Modern: The Cultures of Nationalism in Cyprus. New York: I.B. Tauris.

Benavides, G. 1998. “Modernity.” In Critical Terms for Religious Studies, edited by M. Taylor, 186–202. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Berliner, D., M. Lambek, A. Piette, R. Irvine, and R. Schweder. 2016. “Anthropology and the study of contradictions.” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 6: 1–27. https://doi.org/10.14318/hau6.1.002

Bruce, S. 2014. Scottish Gods: Religion in Modern Scotland, 1900-2012. , Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Bubandt, N. 2014. The Empty Seashell: Witchcraft and Doubt on an Indonesian Island. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Carroll, A. 2007. Protestant Modernity: Weber, Secularization, and Protestantism. Scranton, PA: University of Scranton Press.

Clements, B. 2017. “Religious Change and Secularisation in Scotland: An Analysis of Affiliation and Attendance.” Scottish Affairs 26: 133–162. https://doi.org/10.3366/scot.2017.0175

de Martino, E. 2015. Magic: A Theory from the South, translated by Dorothy Louise Zinn. Chicago: Hau.

Evans-Pritchard, E. 1937. Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic among the Azande. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Fabian, J. 1983. Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes Its Object. New York: Columbia University Press. https://doi.org/10.1080/13537900120040645

Field, C. 2001. “‘The Haemorrhage of Faith?’: Opinion Polls as Sources for Religious Practices, Beliefs and Attitudes in Scotland since the 1970s.” Journal of Contemporary Religion 16: 157–175.

Fleming, A. 1973. “Tombs for the Living.” Man New Series 8: 177–193. https://doi.org/10.2307/2800845

Forsythe, D. 1980. “Urban Incomers and Rural Change: The Impact of Migrants from the City on Life in an Orkney Community.” Sociologia Ruralis 20: 287–307. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9523.1980.tb00716.x

Frazer, J. 1922. The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion. Abridged Edition. London: Macmillan.

Good, B. 1994. Medicine, Rationality and Experience: An Anthropological Perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hadjipavlou, M. 2007. “The Cyprus Conflict: Root Causes and Implications for Peacebuilding.” Journal of Peace Research 44: 349–365. https://doi.org/10.1177/0022343307076640

Højer, Lars. 2009. “Absent Powers: Magic and Loss in Post-Socialist Mongolia.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 15: 575–591. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9655.2009.01574.x

Irvine, R. 2018. “Our Lady of Ipswich: Devotion, Dissonance, and the Agitation of Memory at a Forgotten Pilgrimage Site.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 24: 366–384. https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-9655.12815

Jones, G. 2017. Magic’s Reason: An Anthropology of Analogy. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Kasselstrand, I. 2018. “‘We Still Wanted That Sense of Occasion’: Traditions and Meaning-Making in Scottish Humanist Marriage.” Scottish Affairs 27: 273–293. https://doi.org/10.3366/scot.2018.0244

Keane, W. 2007. Christian Moderns: Freedom and Fetish in the Mission Encounter. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Kyriakides, T. 2016. “Jeanne Favret-Saada’s Minimal Ontology: Belief and Disbelief of Mystical Forces, Perilous Conditions, and the Opacity of Being.” Religion and Society: Advances in Research 7: 68–82. https://doi.org/10.3167/arrs.2016.070105

———. 2018. “Directing the Future of Gene Therapy in Cyprus: Breakthroughs, Subjunctivities and the Pragmatics of Narrative.” Cultural Anthropology 33: 680–704. https://doi.org/10.14506/ca33.4.10

Lee, D. 2015. “Northern Worldviews in Post-medieval Orkney: Toward a More Holistic approach to Later Landscapes.” Historical Archaeology 49: 126–148. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF03376976

Lee, L. 2014. “Secular or Nonreligious? Investigating and Interpreting Generic ‘Not Religious’ Categories and Populations.” Religion 44: 466–482. https://doi.org/10.1080/0048721X.2014.904035

Mooney, J. 1923. Eynhallow: The Holy Island of the Orkneys. Kirkwall: W.R. Mackintosh.



How to Cite

Irvine, R. D. G., & Kyriakides, T. (2019). Just Out of Reach: An Ethnographic Theory of Magic and Rationalisation. Implicit Religion, 21(2), 202–222. https://doi.org/10.1558/imre.37139