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Anyone who tries to understand the history, religion, and especially the “culture” of Southeast Asia, will soon encounter the phenomenon of animism, the belief that landscapes, natural objects, trees and plants, animals, and deceased ancestors, possess spirits that influence the human world. Yet “animism” is a Western analytical category, coined during the colonial period, and used by monotheistic and scientifically-minded Westerners to understand what they openly or secretly regarded as irrational indigenous religion. The relationship between animism and missionaries, colonial officials, and early anthropologists, has generally been antagonistic. The elimination of animist belief and its replacement with Christianity and scientific, rational thinking, was one of the aims of colonial rule. But with the development of a more reflexive anthropology and the rise of cultural relativism in the post-war period, anthropologists have come to a new understanding of animism.

Christopher J. Shepherd's provocative book, Haunted Houses and Ghostly Encounters: Ethnography and Animism in East Timor, 1860–1975 (NIAS Press, 2019), traces the history of how anthropologists have understood animism in East Timor. The book covers the era of colonial ethnography through to the rise of modern professional ethnography. But beyond East Timor and the subject of animism the book is also a critical narrative of the way that colonial anthropology emerged all over the colonized world.

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