The Afterlife Research Centre (ARC) is an international network of researchers exploring anthropological and ethnographic approaches to the study of the afterlife, the spirit world, mediumship, trance, possession, shamanism, healing, and religious experience. Founded in 2007 by Dr Fiona Bowie and a group of research students working in the Department of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Bristol, the ARC became a growing independent network of researchers from the UK and elsewhere in the world.
As anthropologist Edith Turner puts it, there is a ‘cringe factor’ for anthropologists when it comes to talking or writing about religion. It is easier to bracket it out, to ignore people’s actual experience, including our own, for fear of ridicule, or in order to appear objective or scientific. In fact there is nothing scientific about ignoring what matters to people, in failing to take seriously explanations given for phenomena, or in dismissing our own intuitions and perspectives. We need to have the courage, in Turner’s words, to treat religious experience as ethnographic fact. The afterlife is perhaps a surprising but nevertheless important field for ethnographic inquiry. How people approach death, what they believe happens to them when they die, and the purpose and value they give to life, profoundly affect how individuals and societies behave. Fear of death, of the process of dying and the dead lie at the heart of many of our psychological and social processes. Attitudes, beliefs and practices surrounding death and the afterlife are something that can be studied empirically and ethnographically. We have coined the term ‘cognitive empathetic engagement’ to describe our methodology. It requires the ethnographer to make an imaginative leap in order to see and interpret the world through the eyes of those they are studying. This is an act of cognition, which requires imagination and integrity, openness to new perspectives and to other ways of thought, and engagement with the people or material studied. Our methodology does not suppose any particular background of belief on the part of the ethnographer. Nor does it necessarily imply participation, although the ethnographer will often take part in the activities he or she describes. It is based on an assumption of respect and a willingness to enter into a dialogue with people and ideas, without predetermining any particular outcome. The study of psychic phenomena has had something of an underground existence within the academy. This is now changing. Ignoring a matter so central to our existence as human beings because we do not have an adequate methodology to study it, or because we have not found a theoretical basis to ground our data within Western science and philosophy, is an inadequate response to the study of human society.
How to Join
Researchers with a background in anthropology or ethnography interested in linking their research project to the ARC may contact us for information on Membership. Researchers and practitioners interested in our debates or in receiving updates on our events may join our online Forum or subscribe to our Mailing List. Research students interested in supervision may also contact us.