Skip to main content

Transculturation and Religion: An Overview


The term transculturation was first used by the Cuban sociologist Fernando Ortiz to describe the formation of Cuban culture from the coming together of indigenous, Spanish, and African populations. (Ortiz gave prominence to the term in two chapters of his book Tobacco and Sugar, 1947: chapter two is entitled "The Social Phenomenon of Transculturation and Its Importance," and chapter seven has the title, "The Transculturation of Tobacco.") In his studies, Ortiz shows how these groups interrelated, adopted, and adapted themselves in modes of language, music, art, and agricultural production. The contemporary usage of the term owes its academic parlance to the work of Mary Louise Pratt, who, in her book Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation (1992), following Ortiz, tells us that processes of this kind occur within "contact zones," "zones where cultures meet, clash, and grapple." These zones, according to Pratt, express the improvisational dimensions of colonial encounters in the modern period. The contact zones show that the encounters between colonizers and colonized, while characterized by the domination of the colonizers, did not simply define separateness but many complex interlocking relations. Within this overall context of domination, Pratt foregrounds the copresence, interaction, and improvisational dimensions of the contact zones (p. 7).

Pratt and others who make use of the term use it primarily to describe the contact of Western culture with other cultures over the last five hundred years. These contacts have taken on several overlapping formsconquest, domination, reciprocity, adaptation, amalgamation, and so on. The phenomenon of the contact of cultures is not peculiar to the modern period, however. Given the human capacity for locomotion, different and diverse groups of people have been "in contact" since human beings have been on earth; cultural contacts have taken place throughout the history of humankind. Prior to the Neolithic period, when humans domesticated animals and began to practice agriculture, small transhumance bands of humans were in constant movement over designated parts of their regions. With the beginnings of early citied existence in China, Mesopotamia, and then in regions all over the world, the sedentary and centered human mode of being gained prestige. Though cities represented the human mode as sedentary and centered, movement, travel, and meetings and encounters with human groups outside the city centers increased rather than diminished.

Mary Helms's Ulysses' Sail (1988) examines the meaning of geographical distance and foreign places in premodern periods in several cultures of the world. Just as the vertical distance between the heavens and the earth expressed the spaces and loci for cosmological and theological speculation, the horizontal traversal of space revealed structures of power and knowledge. Long-distance spaces were traversed by long-distance travelers who were either themselves elite or represented the elite orders of society. Helms does not deny that trade went on through this travel but her emphasis is upon the creation of the symbolic spaces made through geographical travel.

Various kinds of knowledge, including literacy, navigation, the forging of metals, and astronomy, attended those who made these journeys, thus enhancing their power and prestige. The symbolic power also accrued from the knowledge of "outside phenomena." Thus, in Helms's study, boundaries are equal or even more important than zones. Long-distance travel involved going outside boundaries and thus the knowledge gained was understood to have the power of transformation. Helms's study "rest[s] upon the assumption that the significance of interchanges of people and material goods across geographical distances can better be understood if we know something of the qualities attributed to space and distance in various situations" (p. 10).


One aspect of the kind of long-distance travel discussed by Mary Helms has taken the form of pilgrimages in various cultures throughout the world. While Helms has pointed to long-distance travelers as people who went beyond, even transgressed, boundaries in their search for knowledge and power, the pilgrimage, though still emphasizing travel, specifies a definite destination and purpose for the traveler. It is this form of long-distance travel that is the precursor of the long-distance travels of Western peoples beginning in the fifteenth century of the Common Era.

The contact of Western cultures from the fifteenth century with the cultures of the world should be seen against the practice, rhetoric, and literature of pilgrimage. Pilgrimage has a long tradition in European cultures. By the fourteenth century one can discern two major meanings arising out of the pilgrimage: pilgrimage as a soteriological act or pilgrimage as an act of grace. The archetypal pilgrimage was the Christian pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Jerusalem for the Christian defined the symbolic and geographical center of the world; this space was saturated with the life and meaning of the Christian savior and thus was the most powerful and prestigious place in all Christendom. The pilgrimage to Jerusalem defined a penitential journey, where believers undertook a kind of ascesis en route that prepared them for the receptive beneficence of being in the Holy Land.

Following Helms, the pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and in like manner all other Christian pilgrimages, was based upon the vertical meaning of space, with the heaven above, the human as sinner in the middle, and the earth below. In the pilgrimage to Jerusalem, the penitent was congruent with the fundamental orders of divine power. At this center, the penitent could experience the most potent meanings of grace and redemption. The pilgrim nevertheless had to travel through space to arrive at Jerusalem, and in so doing, the old specter described by Helms in the horizontal traversal of the earth came back into play. The change of places and spaces through the journey of the pilgrimage piqued the curiosity of the traveler. Christian Zacher in Curiosity and Pilgrimage (1976) describes the tension between the soteriological and liturgical meaning of pilgrimage and the meaning of the pilgrimage as a journey of curiosity. The growing emphasis with curiosity as a major aspect of pilgrimage came to constitute another and often separate motivation for undertaking a pilgrimage.

Obviously, theological formulations were given for the liturgical meaning of pilgrimage; equal theological attention was paid to curiosity. It was pointed out that curiositywanting to know on one's ownwas the original source of human sin. It was human curiosity in the Garden of Eden that led to the first disobedience to God. Curiosity represented the human will to know apart from God's command, and thus in this independent mode of knowing, humans transgressed the meaning and roles of proper knowledge. These summary statements by Zacher show the marked difference between the two modes: "the temptation to curiositas referred to any morally excessive and suspect interest in observing the world, seeking novel experience, or acquiring knowledge for its own sake" (p. 4). Regarding the liturgical meaning of pilgrimage, Zacher states the contrast: "As a form of religious worship, pilgrimage allowed men to journey through this present world visiting sacral landscapes as long as they kept their gaze permanently fixed on the invisible world beyond" (p. 4). Pilgrimage as a movement through space expressed an inner and outer process of spiritual meanings.

Two major changes took place that began to transform the pilgrimage from a liturgical ritual of travel into a more purposeful and pragmatic endeavor. The first occurred when Pope Urban II in 1095 called for a pilgrimage from the armed knights of Christendom to free the Holy Land from the Muslims and by so doing reconstitute the meaning of the sacred center of Christendom. This action allowed armed knights to undertake a ritual act while still part of a military order (Elsner and Rubiés, 1999, p. 24). The other change took place when monks and priests from the eleventh century on began to undertake missionary movements to other lands to convert nonbelievers to the true faith of Christianity. Missions took on a more rationalistic ideological bent that led to rationalistic narratives. Missions and crusades were allied during the late medieval period and this pattern was adopted by explorers of Africa and the Atlantic in the fifteenth century.

Though liturgical ritual pilgrimages were undertaken for soteriological purposes, it is clear that a great deal of curiosity was always expressed through them. This curiosity had to do with the empirical observations of other lands and habits. Victor Turner in his anthropological analysis of pilgrimage suggests that a kind of tacit curiosity is part of the very structure of pilgrimage itself.

The language and style of the pilgrimage structure pervaded the travel narratives and discourses of Europeans commencing with the voyages of Columbus in the fifteenth century. The pilgrimage model from this time on entered into the travel stylistics and rhetoric of all long-distance travels of Europeans. Thus, from the earliest pilgrimage traditions of the church to the pilgrimage voyages of the Reformation Puritans to the New World, the pilgrimage model served as both umbrella and reservoir for the meanings of travel, discovery, conquest, and even scientific curiosity.

Henri Baudet has noted that the languages of travel and discovery embodied a duality that found expression in two relations of Europeans to the non-Europeans they "discovered."

One is in the realm of political lifein the concrete relations with concrete non-European countries, peoples and worldsThe other relationship is an expression of the domain of the imagination, of all sorts of images of non-western people not derived from observation, experience or perceptible reality, but from a psychological urgean urge that creates its own reality which may be different from the realities of the first category. (Baudet, 1988, p. 6)

Long-distance travel, the salvation of souls, and military missions coalesced into an amalgam of ideology and practice that became the basic structure of Western explorations, discoveries, and conquests over the last five hundred years. This ideological orientation led Daniel Defert to make the following remark concerning Western expansion:

The early Europeans were pilgrims, prudentia peregrandi. They were taught languages as languae pereginae, that is not languages of a given territory but language necessary for the activity of travelingThis vast universe, known only to a few people, absent from the sacred texts and of which Antiquity knew nothing could have provided a field of endless invention and exaggeration. But the writer's obligation to the truth was the result of a hierarchal network of competition and confrontation. No doubt the voyage of discovery should be situated historically between medieval crusades which it miniaturizes and the organization of a laboratory. (1982, p. 12)

Normative Modes of Western Time

From the time of Constantine through the medieval period the West was dominated by a Christian conception of the temporal process. Following the missionary commandment from the Gospels to preach and baptize all humanity, notions of time and space were made to conform to this injunction. Geographical space and the temporal process were believed to aid and abet this dictum. While other temporal modes among other peoples and cultures were acknowledged, they were understood as stages of preparation for the reception of the true time of Christian faith and practice. It was this conception and understanding of time based on a biblical paradigm that accompanied both the Roman Catholic missionary orders and Protestants in their explorations, discoveries, and conquests in various parts of the globe at least until the sixteenth century.

Following certain developments stemming from the Protestant Reformation and various technologies in the West, new notions regarding the temporal process emerged from the Western Enlightenment. Both had to do with the secularization of time. One conception offered a critique and alternative to the biblical structure of time from creation, to the passion and resurrection of Christ, to the last days; the other, while accepting the basic Christian ordering of time as formative and necessary for the West, nevertheless exorcised all the mystical and theological meanings from this temporal process, thus equating and identifying the time of Western culture with the meaning, structure, and order for a normative understanding of all human time.

It is a generally accepted notion in the Western social sciences that the history of humankind can be divided into four stages of development: the hunting-gathering, the pastoral, the agricultural, and the commercial. These stages did not arise from empirical observation but as a result of a kind of conjectural history. Ronald L. Meek in Social Science and the Ignoble Savage (1976) traces this conjectural history as it emerges from several thinkers during the eighteenth century. One prominent element in the development of the theory grew from various theories put forth to account for America, the lands across the Atlantic. America was seen as the first stage of some kind of development of human culture. Meek tells us that the decisive influence in the general adoption of the four-stage theory of cultural evolution and development was the Scottish moral philosophers, the most influential being Adam Smith. In his lectures on jurisprudence in 1762 and 1763, Smith used the four-stage theory as the underpinning for explaining the nature and meaning of property within several types of societies. With the growing acceptance of the theory, several scholars and literary authors undertook research and wrote texts that presupposed these stages as the "natural" evolution of human cultures. For the popular cultures of Europe, the four-stage theory could be turned into the binary of primitive/civilized. This theory and its shorthand became a convenient taxonomy for the classification of the cultures that Europeans encountered in various parts of the world.

While several events, technologies, and ideas contributed to the notion of a purely secular temporal process, the sustained treatment of this conception can be found in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century German philosophy, most especially in G. W. F. Hegel and those influenced by him. Karl Löwith's From Hegel to Nietzsche: The Revolution in Nineteenth-Century Thought (1964) traces the way in which these thinkers undertook a critical analysis of the meaning of time within Western culture. Their philosophies were not a simple rejection of a religious or Christian notion of time. While Christian notions of time and history were subjected to critique, they also attempted to show that for a certain period of Western history, Christianity was the bearer of what was objectively real in human time. This objective reality of history has in the modern period moved from the framework of the Christian faith and is now embodied within the secular structures of Western culture. While Hegel was the progenitor of these notions, Löwith points to Johann Friedrich Overbeck as the seminal thinker in the Hegelian school who summarized the theory of the ultimate reality of modern historical temporality.

When Europeans made contact with non-European cultures in various parts of the world, they were armed with ideological cultural notions not simply regarding what was normative for them but, in addition, their norms were understood to be normative for all humankind. While they were more often than not bearers of superior military, navigational, and other forms of technology, it was their normative understandings of time and space that they desired to enforce upon those whom they met. The encounter with others must perforce create a "contact zone," a zone of time/space that must be adjudicated regardless of the dominating power. Conquerors had to learn from the conquered if they were to maintain their authority and the conquered had to adjust, adapt, and respond to those who came from afar. It is clear that since the fifteenth century, the entire globe has become the site of hundreds of contact zones. These zones were the loci of new forms of language and knowledge, new understandings of the nature of human relations, and the creation and production of new forms of human community. These meanings have for the most part been ignored due to the manner in which the West, in an uncritical manner, absolutized its meaning of itself as the norm for all humankind.

Exchanges: Languages, Rationalities, and Materialities

The model of pilgrimage was always caught within a tension between curiosity, on the one hand, and the liturgical ritual meaning of a soteriology, on the other. It is equally the case that much travel was motivated by desire for the form of knowledge that came from visits to distant places. The narratives, discourses, and practices hardly revealed the kind of contingency and descriptions that would open these journeys to a full portrayal of the wide variety of exchange relations that were attendant to these travels.

Kathleen Biddick in The Typological Imaginary (2003) traces the origins of the stylization of the kind of "absoluteness" that became the favored narrative structure. In her research she shows that this stylization of the absoluteness of time and space can be traced back to what she calls the "Christian typological imagination." This form of historical thinking grows out of the way in which Christianity worked out its relationship to the history of Judaism and the Jews. The history of the Jews was subsumed into the Christian canon through their creation of the Christian Old Testament. From this perspective, the history of the Jews ended or should have ended with the coming of Jesus Christ. Though the history of Judaism continued and continues to this day, because of the canonization of the Christian Bible and the ensuing cultural power of Christianity, the Jews and Judaism were destined to always be seen as a people and tradition who were relegated to a temporal past, Christian time becoming the normative meaning of temporality as history. As Biddick put it, "They believed that the Christian new timeas 'this is now'superseded a 'that was then' of Israel" (p. 1). She makes it clear that Western secular time took over this meaning of supercession from the Christians. Now given the fact that Western historical time in either its mundane or philosophical modes carries this sense, modes of time in transcultural contact zones are often seen as "unhistorical." Biddick refers to this kind of time as temporalitiesones not about divisions between then and now, but about passages, gaps, intervals, in betweeness. "These unhistorical temporalities that do not use time as a utilitarian resource to ground identity are temporalities that can never be one" (p. 2).

Temporalities within contact zones are very complex. The time of the pre-Western contact is no longer normative, though dimensions of it may inhere within the language; inhabitants are forced to accept the official historical time of their conquerors, and those oppressed within these spaces must express a temporality of their own "lived time," which is neither the precontact time of their traditional cultures nor the official time of the conquest.

From the fifteenth century to the present several different Western empires have dominated various cultural areas of the world. While dominance and conquest were common traits, all empires did not undertake these modes of control in the same manner. Neither did all the cultures within the dominated areas respond or adapt in the same manner. The processes and dynamics of these interactions define the varying meanings from within the contact zones.

These contact zones had an effect upon the literary productions of Europeans, indicating how the Europeans were responding and the impact of these non-European cultures upon European sensibilities. Peter Hulme in his Colonial Encounters: Europe and the Native Caribbean, 14921797 (1986) shows how Europeans styled the encounters in literary form. For example, the encounters of Columbus and other Europeans in the New World are expressed in the dramas of Prospero and Caliban, John Smith and Pocahontas, Robinson Crusoe and Friday, and Inkle and Yarico; these dramas are attempts to express these encounters in ways that would fit within the orders of European cultures (p. xiii). Hulme makes it clear that there is much more going on than simply literary production. These literary forms, he says, should be seen as colonial discourses. By this he means,

an ensemble of linguistically based practices unified by their common deployment in the management of colonial relationship, an ensemble that could combine the most formulaic and bureaucratic of official documentsunderlying colonial discourse, in other words, is the presumption that large parts of the non-European world were produced for Europe through a discourse that imbricated sets of questions and assumptions, methods, of procedure and analysis, and kinds of writing and imagery. (1986, p. 2)

These literary productions taken on face value enabled Europeans to create stereotypical images of the non-Europeans encountered in colonial and imperial projects. These images enhanced the images of the exotic, the oriental, and the noble savage as products of the distances from the center of European metropolises. They fed into the stadial theories of the historical development of humankind, congealing this difference into cultural categories of the West.

The conjectural theory of history that formed the base upon which the stadial theory was erected was correlated with a cultural theory of human intelligence. Thus, various stages were expressions of forms of intelligence. This led to notions of "how natives think," or "prelogical mentality," and the like. Such theoretical postulations were based upon the normative structure and meanings of Western thought. Seldom were these issues of thought asked from within the contact zones, where oppressive administrative colonial structures, Europeans, and non-Europeans carried on their lives.

Thus, cultural, literary, philosophical, and scientific languages and discourses employing this supercessionary and absolute language of temporality normalized a Western understanding of the nature of the encounters with non-Western peoples. Interwoven and concealed within these linguistic productions were the actual and authentic relationships that were taking place in the contact zones. Two instances of the meaning of contact as it relates to the exchange of material products can be seen in the events and discourses surrounding the meaning of fetish and fetishism and the phenomena referred to as cargo cults.

The fetish and fetishism became popular in European discourses of the eighteenth century as a definition of the earliest form of religion. This definition and its usage was part and parcel of a stadial evolutionary variation of supercessionary history. The etymological origin of the word fetish is the Portuguese feitico, which means "manufactured" or "fabricated." William Pietz, who has recently undertaken the most extensive research into the history of this term and its various usages in modern times, traces its beginning with the Portuguese to its usage by the Dutchmen Pieter de Marees and Bosman through a succession of other European writers, finally appearing in the work of the first historian of religions, Friedrich Max Müller. It later becomes an important term in the writings on political economy of Karl Marx and in the theories of sexuality of Sigmund Freud. Given such a wide range of significations and connotations, Pietz notes that,

fetish has never been a component in a discursive formation. Fetish rather describes not societies, institutions, or cultures but cross-cultural spaces. From this standpoint, the fetish must be viewed as proper to no historical field other than that of the history of the word itself, and to no discrete society or culture, but to a cross-cultural situation formed by the on-going encounter of value codes of radically different social orders. (1985, p. 11)

At one level the fetish is about a new conception of matter and materiality as these notions undergo transformations within the Atlantic world of exchanges and discourses. While the religious world of Christianity was predicated upon the creation of all matter by God, a form of matter was necessary in the Atlantic that carried only an exchange and not an inherent value. The notion of the fetish, as originating in the Atlantic encounters with radically different cultural notions of the value of matter, developed into the language of the fetish, which performed the dual roles of hiding the true and authentic exchanges that took place in the Atlantic encounters, and creating a form of matter that would not bear the weight of any human meaning of tradition or origination. The fetish in Pietz's description fits perfectly the kind of significations that arise from transcultural contact zones.

Another phenomenon of such spaces is the cargo cult. The term cargo cult was coined in 1923 in The Vailala Madness and the Destruction of Native Ceremonies in the Gulf Division, a report by government anthropologist F. E. Williams, to describe what he considered to be strange ritual phenomena among the population in Papua New Guinea. These rituals involved an interpretation of matter from within the contact zone. Although Westerners brought a wide variety of material products to Melanesia during the colonial period, their notion of matter was under the sign of inanimate products whose value lay only in their potential for exchange. The natives of Papua New Guinea understood matter and exchange in very different ways. In addition, Westerners were accompanied by Christian missionaries, who preached a gospel of the inherent value of each human soul as the basis for salvation. The natives of this area quickly perceived that though Christians preached a message of the salvation of human souls, they acted in terms of a soteriology based upon the accumulation and distribution of material goods. From this perspective they were able to understand the strange and almost magical characteristics between money as a mode of exchange, the inanimate nature of material products, and the hidden relationship obtaining between these items. Their response to this conundrum was in the form of rituals involving Western made products, the cargo, and millenarian hopes.

All forms of human expression, including language, took on different forms within the contact zones. There were several languages: the language of the official colonizing culture, the original or indigenous languages, and languages that were mixtures of the official and indigenous languages. These mixed, creole, or pidgin languages were not simply derivatives from the mixture but equally a system of communication that was uniquely suited to render adequately the experiences of those who lived outside and underneath the official legitimated orders of officialdom.

Exchanges were not limited to languages, products, and services; there were exchanges of sexualities as well. Exchanges of sexualities produced offspring of the mixtures in the contact zones. Every situation of contact included classes of persons resulting from the union of Westerners and non-Westerners. These "illegitimate" offspring became in turn complex aspects of the communication systems of the other exchanges between dimensions of work, products, and sexualities. For example, Magali Carrera (2003) has demonstrated how the complex mixtures of Spaniards, Indians, and Africans in Mexico led to taxonomies of cultural valuation that were expressed and normalized in a genre of casta paintings. Exchanges were not limited to human expressions; in the United States human beings as enslaved persons were legally defined as chattel and exchanged as property. This mode of exchange created almost imponderable issues regarding definitions and meanings of human freedom in a democratic society. One can see how various forms of fetishism enter into and serve to hide the true situation, often making it impossible for the official linguistic traditions to deal with the meanings and expressions that lie hidden within their legal and civil pronouncements.

Karen Fields's Revival and Rebellion in Colonial Central Africa (1985) shows in a precise manner "how natives think." The "natives" were very capable of not only "living in," but also "thinking about" and reflecting upon their situation. As over against an anthropological wisdom that Africans had no objective knowledge of the forces determining their behavior, she shows that they not only possessed such knowledge but were capable of making creative, critical, and intelligent use of it. Her book also enables us to see that within the contact zone the cultural categories of the West are taken up and reinterpreted in ways that give them a freshness and novelty. In the search and desire for another source of power that is no longer derivative of traditional resources, nor simply acquiescent to colonial authorities, the native in question, Shadrack, saw the God of the Watch Tower Society as the foundation for a critical and revolutionary meaning within the contact zone.

Another example of reason and intelligence from the contact zone can be seen in Margaret J. Wiener's Visible and Invisible Realms: Power, Magic, and Colonial Conquest in Bali (1995), which demonstrates the persistence of the meaning of the "other" and the invisible world of value and orientation in the midst of contemporary life. She also makes clear that Klungkung, the Balinese kingdom, did not anticipate the entrance into Western civilization as a heralded event.

John D. Kelly (1991) studied the meaning of virtue as a value within the structures of imported indentured workers from India on the island of Fiji in the early part of the twentieth century. His discussion raises issues regarding the nature of virtue when one wishes to be modern and at the same time appreciates the authentic limits placed upon one by tradition. These issues bear upon the nature of work, sexuality, kinship systems, and anti-colonialist organization and agitation. This study from within a contact zone adds much to the range of the meaning of virtue. Michael Taussig's The Devil and Commodity Fetishism in South America (1980), following a neo-Marxist methodology, is able to show a new valorization of the meaning of the devil from within the contexts of several contact zones in South America. Fernando Cervantes's The Devil in the New World: The Impact of Diabolism in New Spain (1994) shows how this same figure of the devil brought by the Spanish missionaries developed in opposition, on the one hand, and in parallel, on the other hand, to the understandings of the Aztecs. Cervantes's thorough study lays the grounds for a mature notion of evil emerging from the realities of the contact zone.

One might identify transculturation and contact zones as corollaries of a creole or a creolization process. The term creole, from the Spanish criollo, was initially used to identify persons born in the Americas but who claimed white European ancestry. From this point of view, all of the "Founding Fathers" of the United States could be called creoles. The term took on other connotations from within the situations of transculturation and the many "contact zones" throughout the world. More often than not, it now refers to the processes and dynamics of the fluid improvisational meanings of cultures that express the survival, critique, and creativity of those who occupy these situations and sites.

The Martinican intellectual Edouard Glissant has proposed the term creolization to describe a more general philosophical stance of transculturation and contact zones. Such a stance undertakes a critique of the official histories and the implicit notions of time and space embedded within them. Glissant calls for a "creolization process" of relationship and relativity. In the introduction to Glissant's Caribbean Discourses, J. Michael Dash characterizes one of his positions: "But the world can no longer be shaped into a system. Too many Others and Elsewheres disturb the placid surfaceGlissant is a natural deconstructionist who celebrates latency, opacity, infinite metamorphosis" (Glissant, 1989, p. xii).

These works and several others of this genre are the result of serious questions asked from within contact zones rather than from the ideologically normative positions of Western categories. While the term globalization is used to refer to the various aspects of a worldwide capitalistic market-consumer system, the term might equally specify the myriad contact zones throughout the world where Western cultures and non-Western cultures have encountered each other. In these in-between spaces inhabited by both, exchanges, violent and reciprocal, have taken place. From places such as these a more authentic sense of humankind's place in the world might be forged.


In On the Social Phenomenon of "Transculturation" and its Importance in Cuba, Fernando Ortiz opened the door to the significance of cultural contact through his studies of the formation of the Afro-Cuban dimensions of Cuban culture. His publication, Tobacco and Sugar, translated from the Spanish by Harriet de Onis (New York, 1947) marks the first scholarly usage of the term "transculturation." The contemporary study of cultural contact within an orientation of transculturation as both a description and critique of colonialism and imperialism was initiated by Mary Louise Pratt's Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation (London, 1992). Pratt's work served as a catalyst for other works published before and subsequent to her work, including Fredi Chiapelli, ed., First Images of America: The Impact of the New World on the Old, 2 vols. (Berkeley, 1976). Henri Baudet's Paradise on Earth: Some Thoughts on European Images of Non-European Man, translated by Elizabeth Wentholt (New Haven, 1965; reprints, Westport, Conn., 1976, and Middletown, Conn., 1988), shows how travel leads to images of non-European peoples, even though these images are not based upon observation or perceptions. See also Nicholas Thomas's Entangled Objects: Exchange, Material Culture, and Colonialism in the Pacific (Cambridge, Mass., 1991). Charles H. Long devoted a section of his Significations: Signs, Symbols, and Images in the Interpretation of Religion, 2d ed. (Aurora, Colo., 1995), to an understanding of cultural contact and religion. Arjun Appadurai, ed., The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective (Cambridge, U.K., 1986), extends the meaning of transculturation to the nature and meaning of objects. The display and meaning that objects take in this process were enhanced by the "world fairs" that became international exhibits for exotic and esoteric objects. Two important works discuss this aspect, Paul Greenhalgh's Ephemeral Vistas: The Expositions Universelles, Great Exhibitions, and World Fairs, 18511939 (Manchester, U.K., 1988), and John Burris's Exhibiting Religion: Colonialism and Spectacle at International Expositions, 18511893 (Charlottesville, Va., 2001). The impact of studies of cultural contact on the discipline of anthropology can be seen in Johannes Fabian's Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes Its Object (New York, 1983) and Nicholas B. Dirks, ed., Colonialism and Culture (Ann Arbor, Mich., 1992).

The literature on travel as pilgrimage is extensive. Mary Helms's study of travel in Ulysses' Sail: An Ethnographic Odyssey of Power, Knowledge, and Geographical Distance (Princeton, 1988) adds a new dimension to the meaning of travel and the nature and quality of knowledge. Victor Turner's analysis of Christian pilgrimage in Image and Pilgrimage in Christian Culture: Anthropological Perspectives (New York, 1978) specifies the ritual elements and processes within the structure of Christian pilgrimages. For discussion of medieval European pilgrimages see, Christian Zacher, Curiosity and Pilgrimage: The Literature of Discovery in Fourteenth-Century England (Baltimore and London, 1976); Lionel Rothkrug's several studies include "Popular Religion and Holy Shrines: Their Influence on the Origins of the German Reformation and Their Role in German Cultural Development," in Religion and the People, 8001700, edited by Jim Obelkevich (Chapel Hill, 1979); and Religious Practices and Collective Perceptions: Hidden Homologies in the Renaissance and Reformation (Waterloo, Ont., 1980).

Two edited works on pilgrimage contain excellent articles with extensive bibliographies: Implicit Understandings: Observing, Reporting, and Reflecting on the Encounters Between Europeans and Other Peoples in the Early Modern Era (Cambridge, U.K., 1994), edited by Stuart B. Schwartz; and Voyages and Visions: Towards a Cultural History of Travel, edited by Jaś Elsner and Joan-Pau Rubiés (London, 1999)see in particular Elsner and Rubiés's introduction: "Travel and the Problem of Modernity." Daniel Defert's "The Collection of the World: Accounts of Voyages from the Sixteenth to the Eighteenth Centuries," Dialectical Anthropology 7 (1982): 1120, presages the world fairs mentioned above in the works of Greenhalgh and Burris. For a discussion of the tension in liturgical time that ensued in medieval societies under the impact of technology and trade, see Harald Kleinschmidt, Understanding the Middle Ages: The Transformations of Ideas and Attitudes in the Medieval World (Woodbridge, U.K., 2000). Norbert Elias's Time: An Essay, translated by Edmund Jephcott (Oxford, 1967), is a good discussion of social time; it should be read along with Fabian's work, cited above. Kathleen Biddick's The Typological Imaginary: Circumcision, Technology, History (Philadelphia, 2003) demonstrates how medieval Christian time, later inherited by secular time, was based upon the placement of Jews and Judaism in time and space; this work should be seen as a counter to the kind of conjectural history that produced a stadial theory of cultural development as discussed in Ronald L. Meek's Social Science and the Ignoble Savage (Cambridge, U.K., 1976). The relationship of time, travel, and literary images is explored in Peter Hulme's Colonial Encounters: Europe and the Native Caribbean, 14921797 (London and New York, 1986; reprint, 1992). The philosophical justification and amalgam of Christian time with secular time is the task of Karl Löwith's From Hegel to Nietzsche: The Revolution in Nineteenth Century Thought, translated by David E. Green (New York, 1964; reprint, 1991).

One of the earliest reports of a contact site in a transcultural situation is F. E. William's classic statement in The Vailala Madness and the Destruction of Native Ceremonies in the Gulf Division (Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, 1923). This report, which led to the notion of "cargo cults," was followed by several works, the most notable being Peter Lawrence's Road Belong Cargo: A Study of the Cargo Movement in the Southern Madang District, New Guinea (Manchester, U.K., 1964) and the following works by Kenelm O. Burridge: Mambu: A Melanesian Millennium (London, 1960; reprint, Princeton, 1995) and Tangu Traditions: A Study of the Way of Life, Mythology, and Developing Experience of a New Guinea People (Oxford, 1969). A comprehensive study of this area is found in G. W. Trompf, Payback: The Logic of Retribution in Melanesian Religions (Cambridge, U.K., 1994).

Examples of historical empirical studies of contact zones include: for Africa, Karen E. Fields, Revival and Rebellion in Colonial Central Africa (Princeton, 1985); for Fiji, John D. Kelly, A Politics of Virtue: Hinduism, Sexuality, and Countercolonial Discourse in Fiji (Chicago and London, 1991); and for Bali, Margaret J. Wiener, Visible and Invisible Realms: Power, Magic, and Colonial Conquest in Bali (Chicago and London, 1995), which shows in stark relief how religious powers and resources of an "invisible world" emerge and come to play decisive roles in the Dutch conquest of Bali. Magali Carrera's Imagining Identity in New Spain: Race, Lineage, and the Colonial Body in Portraiture and Casta Paintings (Austin, Tex., 2003) demonstrates not only how the complex issue of race, class, and gender were managed but equally how they were normalized in domestic portraiture in the Mexican colonial family. John Cowley's Carnival, Canboulay, and Calypso: Traditions in the Making (Cambridge, U.K., 1996) describes how the carnival tradition becomes the container, expression, and critique of an ongoing tradition in the Caribbean. Finally, Fernando Cervantes's The Devil in the New World: The Impact of Diabolism in New Spain (New Haven, 1994) and Michael Taussig's, The Devil and Commodity Fetishism in South America (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1980) present, on the one hand, theological ramifications of this Christian symbol in a contact zone, and, on the other, the popular manifestations of this meaning as related to work and the economic system.

No discussion of transculturation or contacts zones can proceed very far without dealing with the issue of the fetish or what is implied in the modern discourse about fetishism. The most profound researches on the fetish are those of William Pietz, whose essays have been published in several issues of the journal RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics. These include: "The Problem of the Fetish I," RES 9 (1985): 518; "The Problem of the Fetish II: The Origin of the Fetish," RES 13 (1987): 2341; and "The Problem of the Fetish, IIIa: Bosman's Guinea and the Enlightenment Theory of Fetishism," RES 16 (1988): 105124. The importance of Pietz's research is shown by the fact that it is made use of by Biddick (cited above) and constitutes a significant part of the discussion of another important text dealing with issues related to contact zones, Anne McClintock's Imperial Leather: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in the Colonial Context (New York and London, 1995).

Almost all of the above works state explicitly or imply theoretical or methodological positions. However, a few texts directly set forth theoretical and methodological positions based upon transculturation and the contact zones. These include Ashis Nandy's The Intimate Enemy: Loss and Recovery of Self Under Colonialism (Delhi, 1983). Another text containing an unique interpretation and extension of thought is Vinay Lal's Dissenting Knowledges, Open Futures: The Multiple Selves and Strange Destinations of Ashis Nandy (New Delhi, 2000). Edouard Glissant's Caribbean Discourse: Selected Essays, translated by J. Michael Dash (Charlottesville, Va., 1989), comes from a completely different experience of the contact zone, and expresses many of the same meanings and styles as does Nandy.

Charles H. Long (2005)

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Transculturation and Religion: An Overview." Encyclopedia of Religion. . 14 Aug. 2018 <>.

"Transculturation and Religion: An Overview." Encyclopedia of Religion. . (August 14, 2018).

"Transculturation and Religion: An Overview." Encyclopedia of Religion. . Retrieved August 14, 2018 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.