UCL Anthropology


Orthodox Christian Material Ecology and the Sociopolitics of Religion

This project, funded by the UKRI (Grant Ref: MR/S031669/1), examines the relations between humans, the material world, and concepts within Orthodox Christianity. It asks how the properties (qualities) of materials and their affordances (what the material can do) influence larger discourses in theology, politics, society and medicine.

Orthodox Christianity is a tradition based on discourse, but there has been very little research looking at the specifics of how it works. Focusing on discourse also tends to over emphasise words and belief. However, following Max Muller, we insist that the study of religion must start with what is perceived, not with concepts like ‘belief in the supernatural’. This means we situate discursive traditions like Orthodoxy not in concepts but in the material culture of local and global religious groups. This reframes how we understand religion, and forefronts the impact that religious practice has upon material aspects of our experience like health, the environment and geopolitics.

Led by Dr Timothy Carroll, the project team seeks to understand the material conditions of Orthodox Christian sociopolitics. The project is framed in terms of three research domains: (1) the body, (2) the person, and (3) the environment:

  1. The body as a cultural artefact becomes a place for negotiating the hierarchy of ethical commitments, such as questions concerning extending the length of one’s life, fertility and family planning, and honouring the body as a ‘temple of the Holy Spirit’ and image of God.
  2. The theology and culturally held views of the person, and especially its relation to the wider social organisation of the Church, are marshalled as the grounding for certain perspectives that are both historically contingent and scientifically inflected. In this way, the biology and social behaviour of the person are used as the basis for allowing or disallowing certain behaviours related to gender, sexuality, and family.
  3. Issues concerning the environment, such as Global Warming, can take an explicitly religious imperative, as emerging voices in Orthodox environmentalism interpret scientific data as indicative of human failure to fulfil their God-given role as caretakers. In a context where stewardship is a religious imperative, the control of land (e.g. the Crimea, or Jerusalem) also becomes a religious duty.
Project Members

Alexandra Antohin has conducted ethnographic research with Orthodox Christian communities in north-eastern Ethiopia and the Russian Far East and historical research on the Russian Church in Alaska. These projects studied how liturgical participation in various modalities, such as at places of worship and pilgrimages events, play a dynamic and sustained role in peoples’ devotional engagements, namely the significance of vows and other bonded commitments. Recent scholarly contributions include analyses of the centrality of the covenant as a prevailing principle in narrative, ritual, material and social dimensions for Ethiopian Orthodox Christians, the culture of commemoration, such as popular observance of feast and fast, and the role of lay associations in mobilizing diocese projects and church expansion. Her current research explores how Orthodox Christian ideas of custodianship inform local church positions on environmental justice issues, drawing from case studies in the Northeastern United States.

Timothy Carroll’s research focuses on the role of materials within Orthodox Christianity. He has worked mostly with Antiochian Orthodox and Greek Orthodox, though is interested in the wider array of local Churches, including both 'Eastern' and 'Oriental' Orthodox. Previous research focused on the use of textiles (such as priestly vestments), icons, and ritual substances (e.g. holy water and oil) within the creative production of Orthodox Christians as art-like subjects. This approach to religious formation draws heavily on the anthropology of art and ethical formation, in dialogue with Orthodox notions of sacred art and the ‘image and likeness’ of the person. In this new research, he examines the hermeneutics of the ‘material ecology’, and the way the properties and affordances of material influence the discursive traditions of global religions.

Nicholas Lackenby’s research sits at the intersection of the anthropologies of ethnicity and morality. In particular, he has interests in Orthodox Christianity, nationalism, and local claims about ethno-spiritual belonging, especially in postsocialist contexts. Whilst earlier work focussed on Russian Orthodoxy, his doctoral project examined the question of peoplehood amongst practising Orthodox Christians in Serbia. Drawing on extensive ethnographic fieldwork, the thesis explored discourses of repentance, suffering, and history, as well as practices of fasting and memorialization. In the present project he is especially interested in the materiality of Orthodox reading practices, as well as tensions surrounding Orthodox material heritage and territory, both in Serbia and Kosov.

Sotiris Mitralexis combines a specialisation in philosophical anthropology, a research background in the social sciences and an expertise in the sociopolitics of Orthodox Christianity. He holds a doctorate in philosophy from the Freie Universität Berlin (2014), a doctorate in political science and international relations from the University of the Peloponnese (2018), a doctorate in theology from the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki (2017), and a degree in classics from the University of Athens (2010). Sotiris is also Visiting Professor at IOCS Cambridge and he has been Seeger Fellow at Princeton University, Visiting Scholar at the University of Cambridge, Visiting Senior Research Associate at Peterhouse, Cambridge, Visiting Fellow at the University of Erfurt, Teaching Fellow at the University of Athens and Bogazici University, as well as Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Istanbul Sehir University. His publications include the monograph Ever-Moving Repose (Cascade, 2017) and, inter alia, the edited volumes Ludwig Wittgenstein Between Analytic Philosophy and Apophaticism (CSP, 2015), Maximus the Confessor as a European Philosopher (Cascade, 2017), Polis, Ontology, Ecclesial Event (James Clarke & Co, 2018), Between Being and Time (Fortress, 2019) and Slavoj Žižek and Christianity (Routledge, 2019), as well as books in Greek.

Publications and public talks


Project publications will be posted as they come available. For those interested in reading previous works by the team, please see the respective staff profile pages.

Public Talks:

Lackenby, N. 2020. ‘The living, the departed, and eternity in central Serbia’. Senior Seminar, Department of Social Anthropology, Cambridge. 6 November 2020.

Carroll, T. 2020. ‘Common cups, shared spoons, and dual discourses of contagion’. Glasgow Anthropology Network. 13 November 2020.

  1. This project develops a novel theory concerning the properties inherent in material and their impact on religion. It examines the socio-political impact of these properties as they are marshalled within the discursive tradition of multilingual, multinational religious bodies.
  2. The goal of this project is to transform the anthropological study of religion, providing new frameworks for analysing religion and religious practice.
  3. Through fieldwork conducted across multiple local contexts, the project will collect a new body of ethnographic data on the material dimension of sociopolitics of religion. This data will contribute to our knowledge about Orthodox Christian material ecology and the material groundings for the global Orthodox discursive tradition. Alongside this ethnographic research, the project will also gather and compile archival records and historical documents concerning key case studies in order to provide a historical account for the development of these social issues long-term.
  4. This project will produce a series of academic publications as well as public-facing and community resources.
  5. The project aims to contribute new understandings of international politics around Orthodox ethnic groups in Eastern Europe, Asia, and Africa, as well as the growing diaspora communities in Western Europe, Oceania and the Americas. We aim to help shape health policy around topics such as sexual health, fertility treatments, infant mortality, and refugee/migrant wellbeing.