Robin W.G. Horton

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Robin Horton
Residence Nigeria, Niger Delta, Africa
Nationality English
Fields Anthropology, psychology, cognitive science, religion, African studies, magic, mythology
Institutions University of Port Harcourt, University of Ife, University of Ibadan
Part of a series on
Anthropology of religion
Social and cultural anthropology

Robin Horton (born 1932), an English social anthropologist and philosopher, has carried out specialized study in comparative religion since the 1950s which has challenged and expanded views in the study of the anthropology of religion. He is notable for his scientific approach to the study of religion. This formed the basis for his analysis of African thought that he published in two installments in 1967.[1] His work continues to be viewed[by whom?] as important in understanding traditional African religious approaches. For more than four decades Horton has lived in Africa, where he continues to conduct research on African indigenous religions, magic, mythology and rituals.[2] During forty years of residence in Africa, he has worked as a researcher and a professor of philosophy and religion at several universities, including the University of Port Harcourt in Rivers State, Nigeria, and the University of Ife in Osun State, Nigeria.

Family Life

Robin William Gray Horton and his sister were born to William Gray Horton and Gwen Horton. His father was a Lieutenant Colonel of the Scots Guard[3] who was also part of the British Bobsleigh at the 1924 Winter Olympics national team and his grandfather was the American impressionist painter William Samuel Horton. His mother, Gwendolen Anna Le Bas Horton, was the elder daughter of an iron merchant from St. Brelade, Jersey and sister to Molly Brocas Burrows, the sculptor, and the painter Edward Le Bas (1904-1966).[1]. Horton's sister-in-law is renowned Nigerian sculptor Sokari Douglas Camp.

Theoretical Contributions

Robin Horton viewed religion from an ethnoscience approach, where he linked religious understanding with scientific inquiry. He viewed the two as having a similar approach of methodically unveiling the complex to achieve order and understanding from chaos. Horton's analysis of African magic (paranormal) and mythology concludes that there is an overarching theory that lies behind the commonly accepted theory and that forms the basis of these beliefs. He sees mystical systems that drive "primitive" religions as theoretical structures that are dictated by concrete rules and are used to understand, in an interactive way, revealed anomalies, much like scientific endeavors theorize the physical world. This literal approach is a reflection of striving to have a concrete and thus scientific method of studying and explaining the world they live in.

One of his classic works in the anthropology of religion is his supportive analysis of one of the works of noted anthropologist Edward Burnett Tylor published in 1968. In "Neo-Tylorianism: Sound Sense or Sinister Prejudice?", Robin Horton argues that the superimposition of a western mindset in the interpretation of non-western religion is misguided; for instance, he states that animism should be taken at face value without the rationalization that it symbolically represents a social or political structure and that this by no means indicates that the "primitive" religion is held by a less intelligent people group. Horton is quick to point out that for Edward Burnett Tylor in the 1800s, it was acceptable to perceive "primitives" as having an older version of the same thought processes of the "civilized" and that by looking at western religion with a background of "primitive" religions one is able to better ascertain universals in religious progression. Through this unity in the study of western and non-western religious systems, one can gain a better perspective of both. He faults the view that modern western religion provides the monopolistic dictionary useful in the interpretation of all other religious languages.[2]

When he lived in New Calabar among the Kalabari people, Horton studied the processes that lead to social change (Douglas 1969).[4] He attributes an intellectualist view to religion and rejects the symbolic, Durkeheimian, understanding of religion, as patronizing to the so-called "primitives" who have a literal approach to their beliefs. However, one of his critics who held to the symbolistic approach, anthropologist John H. Beattie, argued that traditional/primitive religions were symbolic because the cultures that held to these beliefs did so in cases where there was no empirical explanation to a phenomenon; thus it was attributed to the supernatural, such as spirits and any physical representations of such, were merely symbolic.

Professional career

Beginning in 1960s, Horton published his theories of religion in several journal articles and books. His scientific approach to the understanding of "primitive" religion was groundbreaking in an era during which the prevailing view was a Western elitist conceptualization of "primitive" religion as a construct of less intelligent "savages" and "barbarians" (terms now considered to be anachronistic and pejorative). Horton conducted his fieldwork in Nike in northern Igboland, Nigeria and among the Kalabari people of the eastern Niger Delta.

In 1965, under the commission of the Federal Republic of Nigeria's Department of Antiquities, Horton produced a compilation of 72 Kalabari Ijo Art photographs accompanied by a booklet explaining the meaning and utility of these artistic objects within the Kalabari culture.[5] The photographs provide a visual record of native art of the Kalabari people, serves as a reference for tradition practices that are continually subject to mutating influences through acculturation such as has happened in the region during the years that followed colonization. Some of his photographs are archived at the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland (RAI), labelled as MS 345, MS 349. [2]

Horton worked as a Senior Research Fellow and a lecturer in social anthropology at the Institute of African Studies for the University of Ibadan before moving to the University of Port Harcourt as a professor of philosophy and comparative religion. At the University of Ibadan he collaborated with Ruth Finnegan who, at that time (1965-1969) was also lecturing at the university in socio-anthropology. This collaboration lead to the work later published in 1973, titled "Modes of Thought: Essay of thinking in Western and non-Western societies". In the mid 1970s, Professor Horton served as faculty on the Department of Sociology at the University of Ife now known as Obafemi Awolowo University in Nigeria.

Published in 1997, his works Patterns of Thought in the Africa and the West: Magic, Religion and Science is a compilation of some of his classic essays published between 1960-1990. His work continues to influence new scholars in the field of anthropology of religion.[6] As of October 1, 2012, Professor Robin Horton's appointment as an Honorary Research Associate in the Department of Religious and Cultural Studies at the University of Port Harcourt was renewed for another 5 years.[7]


Selected Works

  • Patterns of Thought in Africa and the West: Essays on Magic, Religion and Science (1997) ISBN 9780521369268
  • Kalabari Sculpture. Dept. of Antiquities, Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1965
  • Destiny and the Unconscious in West Africa. Africa: Journal of the International African Institute, Vol. 31, No. 2 (Apr., 1961), pp. 110–116
  • African Traditional Thought and Western Science. Africa: Journal of the International African Institute, Vol. 37, No. 1 (Jan., 1967), pp. 50–71; Vol. 37, No. 2 (Apr., 1967), pp. 155–187
  • The Kalabari "Ekine" Society: A Borderland of Religion and Art. Africa: Journal of the International African Institute, Vol. 33, No. 2 (Apr., 1963), pp. 94–114
  • Ritual man in Africa. Africa: Journal of the International African Institute, Vol. 34, No. 2 (Apr., 1964), pp. 85–104
  • The Kalabari World-View: An Outline and Interpretation. Africa: Journal of the International African Institute, Vol. 32, No. 3 (Jul., 1962), pp. 197–220
  • African Conversion. Africa: Journal of the International African Institute, Vol. 41, No. 2 (Apr., 1971), pp. 85–108
  • On the Rationality of Conversion. Part I. Africa: Journal of the International African Institute, Vol. 45, No. 3 (1975), pp. 219–235
  • On the Rationality of Conversion. Part II. Africa: Journal of the International African Institute, Vol. 45, No. 4 (1975), pp. 373–399
  • The High God: A Comment on Father O'Connell's Paper. Man, Vol. 62, (Sep., 1962), pp. 137–140
  • Judaeo-Christian Spectacles: Boon or Bane to the Study of African Religions? (Les lunettes judéo-chrétiennes: aubaine ou fléau pour l'étude des religions africaines?) Cahiers d'Études africaines, Vol. 24, Cahier 96 (1984), pp. 391–436


  • Robin Horton, J. D. Y. Peel. Conversion and Confusion: A Rejoinder on Christianity in Eastern Nigeria. Canadian Journal of African Studies / Revue Canadienne des Études Africaines, Vol. 10, No. 3 (1976), pp. 481–498
  • Max Gluckman, G. Dieterlen and Robin Horton. "Daryll Forde: Further Tributes". Africa: Journal of the International African Institute, Vol. 44, No. 1 (Jan., 1974), pp. 1–10.
  • J. F. Ade Ajayi and Robin Horton. "Michael Crowder, 1934-88". Africa: Journal of the International African Institute Vol. 59, No. 1, 1989 pp. 110–118

See also


  1. Horton, R. (1967) "African Traditional Thought and Western Science." Africa 37(1-2), 50-71, 155-187. Rpt. as "African Traditional Thought and Western Science." Rationality. Ed. Bryan R. Wilson. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1984
  2. 2.0 2.1 Patterns of Thought in Africa and the West: Essays on Magic, Religion and Science (1997) ISBN 9780521369268
  4. [Man in Africa, edited by Mary Douglas and Phylis Kaberry, 1969].
  5. [Kalabari Sculpture. Dept. of Antiquities, Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1965]
  6. [Nyoye, Chinwe. Definitional ceremonies in Igbo Religion: A test of Robin Horton’s Theory]. International Journal of Sociology and Anthropology Vol. 4(4), pp. 116–133, April 2012.
  7. Uniport Weekly vol8no3feb12
  8. "Editorial Board" (PDF). Kiabara Journal of the Humanities. Rivers State, Nigeria: University of Port Harcourt. 4 (2): 1. 1981. Retrieved June 2013. Check date values in: |accessdate= (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. "NATIONAL SERVICE LIST (420056)" (PDF). supplement to the London Gazette: 506. 25 January 1952.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>


  • Wiredu, Kwasi. (1996) "Cultural Universals and Particulars : An African Perspective". In African systems of thought. Indiana University Press. ISBN 9780253210807
  • Carmody, Brendan Patrick. "Conversion and Jesuit Schooling in Zambia". Studies in Christian Missions. ISBN 90 04 094288
  • R.W Hefner, ed. "Conversion to Christianity: Historical and Anthropological Perspectives on a Great Transformation" (Berkeley, 1993).
  • Humphrey J. Fisher. (1985) "The Juggernaut's Apologia: Conversion to Islam in Black Africa". Africa: Journal of the International Institute Vol. 55, No. 2, pp. 153–173.
  • Cox, James L. (2001) "Missionaries, the Phenomenology of Religion and 'Re-Presenting' Nineteenth-Century African Religion: a Case Study of Peter McKenzie's Hail Orisha!". Journal of Religion in Africa Vol. 31, No. 3, pp. 336–353.
  • Meyer, Birgit. (2002) "Christianity and the Ewe Nation: German Pietist missionaries, Ewe converts and the politics of culture". Journal of religion in Africa Vol.33, No. 2, pp 167–199.
  • Klein, Martin A. (2001) "The slave trade and decentrialized societies". The Journal of African History Vol.42, No. 1, pp. 49–65
  • Hubbell, Andrew. (2001) "A view of the slave trade from the margin: Souroudougou in the late nineteenth-century slave trade of the Niger Bend". Journal of African History Vol. 42, No. 1, pp 25 – 47.
  • Kaplan, Steven. (1992) "Indigenous Categories and the Study of World Religions in Ethiopia: the Case of the Beta Israel (Falasha)". Journal of religion in Africa Vol. 22, No. 3, pp. 208–221.
  • Ellis, Stephen; Ter Haar, Gerrie. (1998) "Religion and politics in Sub-Saharan Africa". The Journal of Modern African Studies Vol. 36, No. 2, pp. 175–201.
  • Isichei, Elizabeth. (1988) "On Masks and Audible Ghosts: Some Secret Male Cults in Central Nigeria1". Journal of Religion in Africa Vol. 18, No. 1, pp. 42–70.
  • Wilcox, Rosalinde G. (2002) "Commercial transactions and cultural interactions from the Delta to Douala and beyond". African Arts Vol. 35, No. 1, pp 42–55, and 93-95.
  • Allsworth-Jones, P. (1996) "Continuity and Change in Yoruba Pottery". Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies Vol. 59, No. 2, pp 312–322.
  • Searing, James F. (2003) "Conversion to Islam: Military recruitment and general conflict in a Sereer-Safèn Village (Bandia), 1920-38". The Journal of African History Vol. 44, No. 1, pp 73–94.
  • Alagoa, E. J. (1971) "The Development of Institutions in the States of the Eastern Niger Delta". The Journal of African History Vol. 12, No. 2, pp 269–278.
  • Ellis, Stephen. (2008) "The Okije Shrine: Death and Life in Nigerian Politics". The Journal of African History Vol. 49, No. 3, pp 445–466.
  • Sieber, Roy ; Hecht, Barry. (2002) "Eastern Nigerian art from the Toby and Barry Hecht collection". African Arts Vol.35, No. 1, p. 56.

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