Teach us to pray: The cognitive power of domain violations

Robert Wuthnow

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

11 Scopus citations


Durkheim's famous assertion that a person who communes with the gods feels stronger has left unanswered questions about how or why this might be the case. Mary Douglas's argument about the power of classification systems provides an important clue. In her view, power lies not so much on one side of a boundary, but in the boundary itself; or, more precisely, in the act of crossing or violating a boundary. Recent work in cognitive anthropology adds the important insight that symbols representing domain violations stand out and thus may be more easily remembered. This insight suggests that domain violations may play a salient role in accounts about prayer and provide ways of investigating contemporary discourse about God. Exploratory evidence is presented drawing on semi-structured qualitative interviews conducted with 77 church members. Respondents were asked to recall anything about a prayer they could remember from a recent worship service. A majority of the interviewees recalled prayers for and about specific individuals, even though they often did not know these individuals. The language used to describe the prayers frequently included domain juxtapositions that emphasized the fragility of the object of prayer and thus provided ways of implying the power of God without having to include specific descriptions of that power.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)493-506
Number of pages14
Issue number5-6
StatePublished - Oct 2008

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Cultural Studies
  • Language and Linguistics
  • Communication
  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Linguistics and Language
  • Literature and Literary Theory


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