Since the emergence of the study of religion and the social sciences, magic has been a "central theme in the theoretical literature" produced by scholars operating in these academic disciplines. According to the scholar of religion Randall Styers, attempting to define magic represents "an act of demarcation" by which it is juxtaposed against "other social practices and modes of knowledge" such as "religion" and "science". Scholars have engaged in extensive debates as to how to define magic, with such debates resulting in intense dispute. Throughout such debates, the scholarly community has failed to agree on a definition of magic, in a similar manner to how they have failed to agree on a definition of religion. Even among those throughout history who have described themselves as magicians, there has been no common understanding of what magic is. Thus, as the historian Michael D. Bailey describes it, "magic" represents "a deeply contested category and a very fraught label"; the fellow historian Owen Davies stated that the word was "beyond simple definition".
"Magic has often been dismissed as either primitive and irrational and therefore alien to modern society, as inherently opposed to the Judeo-Christian traditions of the West, or as incompatible with religion in general. These antipathetic sentiments are deeply embedded in Western culture, and the term magic has typically been used to describe non-mainstream beliefs and practices — non-Christians, heretics, non-Westerners, indigenous, ancient or 'primitive' cultures — any that might be considered 'Other.' The image of magic as inherently linked with the Other has functioned as an important factor in the construction of the self-identity of Western culture, for by defining magic as something alien, exotic, primitive, evil, deviant or even ridiculous, our society also makes a tacit statement as to its self-perceptions."
– Historian of religion Henrik Bogdan
Many scholars have argued that the use of the term as an analytical tool within academic scholarship should be rejected altogether. The scholar of religion Jonathan Z. Smith for example argued that it had no utility as an etic term that scholars should use. The historian of religion Wouter Hanegraaff agreed, stating that "the term magic is an important object of historical research, but not intended for doing research." The scholars of religion Berndt-Christian Otto and Michael Stausberg suggested that it would be perfectly possible for scholars to talk about amulets, curses, healing procedures, and other cultural practices often regarded as magical in Western culture without any recourse to the concept of magic itself. The idea that "magic" should be rejected as an analytic term developed in anthropology, before moving into Classical studies and Biblical studies in the 1980s. Since the 1990s, the term's usage among scholars of religion has declined.
The concept and term "magic" developed in European society and thus using it when discussing non-Western cultures or pre-modern forms of Western society raises problems, as it may impose Western categories that are alien to them. While "magic" remains an emic term in the history of Western societies, it remains an etic term when applied to non-Western societies. During the twentieth century, many scholars focusing on Asian and African societies rejected the term "magic", as well as related concepts like "witchcraft", in favour of the more precise terms and concepts that existed within these specific societies. A similar approach has been taken by many scholars studying pre-modern societies in Europe, such as Classical antiquity, who find the modern concept of 'magic' inappropriate and favour more specific terms originating within the framework of the ancient cultures which they are studying. Alternately, this term implies that all categories of magic are ethnocentric and that such Western preconceptions are an unavoidable component of scholarly research.
Within Western culture, the term "magic" has been linked to ideas of the Other, foreignness, and primitivism. In Styers' words, it has become "a powerful marker of cultural difference". It has also been repeatedly presented as the archetypally non-modern phenomenon. Among Western intellectuals in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, magic was seen as a defining feature of "primitive" mentalities and was commonly attributed to marginal groups, locations, and periods.