Just out of reach: an ethnographic theory of magic and rationalisation

Richard Denis Gerard Irvine, Theodoros Kyriakides

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

4 Citations (Scopus)
3 Downloads (Pure)


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, by 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.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)202-222
JournalImplicit Religion
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 5 Feb 2019


  • Magic
  • Rationalisation
  • Epistemology
  • Memory
  • Orkney
  • Cyprus


Dive into the research topics of 'Just out of reach: an ethnographic theory of magic and rationalisation'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this