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Grand schemes and everyday lives

In this video, you will learn more about the conceptual framework of grand schemes and everyday lives, and see how it applies to the Philippines case.
Kim Knibbe: In studying the influence of religion on sexual well-being, it is important to keep in mind two general points about the relationship between religion and other areas of life. The first is that official religion, or what we call grand schemes, and what people actually believe and practise may be quite different and heterogeneous. The second point is that how grand schemes relate to everyday life may similarly be quite different and interact with several other grand schemes and cultural influences. Concerning the first point, let me give an example. In my own research many years ago, I witnessed some of the ways official religion interacted with local beliefs and practises in quite unpredictable ways.
This was in one particular region of the Philippines, where we interviewed healers and visionaries in several villages along the forest frontier in the Sierra Madre on the main island of Luzon. One visionary, many years ago, had found a stone that seemed special somehow, so he took it home. After dinner, while chewing betel nuts, an old woman appeared to him in a vision. She told him that he should build a special house for the stone to honour her, just like a church. When the local Catholic priest heard of this story, he came to see the stone and declared that the apparition must have been the Virgin Mary, Mother of God, a young woman usually.
He wanted to move the stone to the parish church. However, according to the visionary, the old woman wanted to stay in the place where the stone was found and in the hut they had built in her honour. In this way, their very humble sitio became a place with something very special. To this day, she is carried around in procession yearly during Holy Week and dressed up in nice clothes. This is an interesting example of how world religion, such as Catholicism, can come to be mixed up with local cosmologies.
While the visionary had seen an old woman, which is common in many parts of the Philippines in the sense that spirits and ancestors are often felt to be close by and interfering with the lives of people, the priest decided this must have been an apparition of Mary. Concerning the second point, namely how grand schemes interact with other grand schemes and influences, it is important to be mindful of the fact that while institutionalised religion often aims to encompass every aspect of life, in practice, they do not. In the anthropology of religion we often use the distinction between grand schemes and everyday lives to draw attention to this fact.
World religions such as Christianity, Islam, Judaism consist of more or less systematised bodies of thought related to specific practices and linked to particular institutionalised structures. Religious professionals, theologians, priests, clerics have created these systematised grand schemes and try to promote and reinforce them in various ways as the only right version of relating to the divine. Even within each world religion, we can identify different traditions and movements. Within Christianity, there’s Orthodox Christianity, Protestantism, Catholicism, and within each of these big strands, numerous smaller ones. Within Islam, people generally distinguish between Sunni Islam and Shiite Islam. Within Judaism, between Orthodox Judaism, Reformed Judaism, and many other varieties.
However, overwhelmingly, scholars find that how religion is part of everyday life is quite unpredictable and cannot be derived from studying the texts and liturgies. In other words, from understanding the systematic nature of the grand schemes promoted by religious professionals. For example, Catholics may use condoms, and Muslims may drink alcohol. Therefore, in order to understand how people are shaped by religion and use religion to shape themselves, anthropologists and scholars interested in understanding religion in the contemporary world increasingly focus on the study of religion in the context of everyday life. They look into how it can be both a foreground presence, explicitly alluded to, but also very much a background presence. Even when not mentioned, religious practices and orientations may be influential.
In the interviews we conducted with pregnant women in Baguio, we saw that one woman, for whom religion was not a very important part of her identity, nevertheless, was influenced by the narrative spread among Catholics that condoms may cause infertility. Another woman very consciously turned to religious doctrines and practices of the Iglesia ni Cristo to shape her life to the extent that it distanced her from her own family but brought her much closer to her in-law family. Nevertheless, she may also be influenced by the daily interactions with people in her workplace, her neighbourhood, by consumer culture, and the local culture of her region. Therefore, we cannot know exactly how her religious affiliation shapes her life unless we research it.
Similarly, we can understand the sexual and reproductive health and rights approach as a grand scheme. A more or less systematised body of ideas and practices related to sexual health and reproductive rights that has emerged through a global conversation between women’s movements, governments, and NGOs. In this case, too, we do not know how this grand scheme works out in the practice of daily life. Just like a Catholic may use condoms, a reproductive rights activist may get unintentionally pregnant.
In some, we do not know how religious ideologies or other grand schemes, such as the discourses on sexual and reproductive health and rights, shape people’s lives and their sexual wellbeing until we have understood how they interact with the particular cultural context, relationships, and daily life practices of people.

In this video, dr Kim Knibbe gives more background on the ways ‘grand schemes’, such as world religions, interact with local contexts, and how they may be appropriated and modified by various actors.


  • Schielke, Joska Samuli, and Liza Debevec. Ordinary Lives and Grand Schemes: An Anthropology of Everyday Religion Berghahn Books, 2012.
  • Knibbe, Kim, and Helena Kupari. “Theorizing Lived Religion: Introduction.” Journal of Contemporary Religion 35, no. 2 (Routledge 2020): 157–76.
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Religion and Sexual Wellbeing: Pleasure, Piety, and Reproductive Rights

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