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Dr Richard Irvine

Profile summary

Professional biography

I am an anthropologist by training. I now teach at the University of St Andrews, but retain my connection with Religious Studies through the department here at the Open University. I work across three ethnographic fieldsites: Orkney and East Anglia in the UK, and Tuv aimag in Mongolia, and my interests span environmental change and religious life.

Research interests

The recent research I carried out at the OU explored the role of magic in the lives of people who define themselves as non-religious. This fieldwork, part of the ‘Understanding Unbelief’ project, has provided me with a new perspective on the ways in which people navigate the relationship between enchantment and rationalisation. Perceived in their ideal forms, rationalisation and magic might seem to oppose one another. In this project, however, rather than placing these forces in sterile opposition, I am interested in how rationalisation – the dominant epistemological force of modernity – in certain cases provides the conditions of doubt, opacity, and unknowability that allows magic to become manifest in the everyday mundane. 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.

My current work in the area of Religious Studies is as a contributor the Religion and Extinction network, and expands my interest in the deep time of geological formation. I want to confront the ethical implications of living in an age of mass extinction, and to address the urgent question of how we should act in the face of ecological crisis. What are the particular characteristics of the current mass extinction (the present one we are now facing/ are part of/ implicated in), and those mass extinctions that went before? In trying to understand our moral responsibility for mass death, why does human agency matter in particular, and what if anything is different from the previous ‘big 5’ events? In taking a deep-time perspective, we open up the possibility of a non-anthropocentric ethic that decentres human exceptionalism and the sense that our species is the only thing that matters – yet here, this could also have the effect of ‘normalising’ unfolding mass death by rendering it merely a recurring feature of earth’s history.


Following the Bear: the revival of Plough Monday traditions and the performance of rural identity in the East Anglian fenlands (2018-06-18)
Irvine, Richard D.G.
EthnoScripts: Zeitschrift für aktuelle ethnologische Studien, 20(1) (pp. 16-34)

Seeing environmental violence in deep time: perspectives from contemporary Mongolian literature and music (2018-06-01)
Irvine, Richard D.G.
Environmental Humanities, 10(1) (pp. 257-272)

Our Lady of Ipswich: devotion, dissonance, and the agitation of memory at a forgotten pilgrimage site (2018-06)
Irvine, Richard D.G.
Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 24(2) (pp. 366-384)