ISSR 2015 Panel: Bodily Knowledge, Experience, and Ethnographic Research
International Society for the Sociology of Religion Conference 'Sensing Religion' Université Catholique de Louvain, Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium PANEL STS 51 2 July 2015, h.11.00 - 12.30
Session conveners: Alberto GROISMAN, Universidade Federal de Santa Catarina (Brazil) Emily PIERINI, University of Wales Trinity Saint David (UK)
The growing interest of researchers in reflecting upon and thickening their relationships with participants in religious groups has prompted a critical review of reductionist or rationalizing analytical perspectives concerning religious experience. It seems that the appeal of "taking seriously" what people say about their religious experiences is becoming increasingly consistent. Several dialogical forms are being developed to approach the use of techniques, resources, plants, substances and other strategies used in religious contexts to modify the states of consciousness and the practitioners' relationship with the world. Besides anthropologists, researchers in different fields have also considered bodily engagement in the field—and often in these practices—as an important opportunity for research and reflection, and ethnography as a way to present their findings. We invite researchers to reflect upon the construction of knowledge through sensory experience in the context of mediumistic and shamanic groups considering questions such as: how does the sensory experience of participants shape their religious knowledge? How does the researcher's bodily experience in researching among these groups inform the production of ethnographic knowledge? This session raises questions about the bodily involvement of researchers working with religious experiences. Papers may discuss the methodological implications of the body in the field and the ways in which to convey these experiences through ethnography, by addressing the empirical, ethical, epistemological and analytical implications of this significant aspect of fieldwork.
Arnaud HALLOY (University of Nice Sophia Antipolis) Full participation and ethnographic reflexivity. In this communication I examine how ethnographic knowledge is produced, and more specifically when the ethnographer is immersed into his fieldwork without restriction nor reserve, what I call “full participation”. Such a radical methodological attitude raises the central question of "objectivity" in at least two ways. First, it is readily acknowledged in anthropology that objectivity of ethnographic data can only be produced with the introduction of a distance – whether framed as a “right distance” or a “distant gaze” – with the anthropologist’s hosts. Another implication of this objectivist framework is the rejection of any first-person data produced by the ethnographer thanks to an introspective attitude. In my view, there is a methodological alternative to these two epistemological assumptions. As a matter of fact, I defend that “objectivity” of ethnographic knowledge does not depend on the distance with the natives in the first place, but with the knowledge produced itself. Such a distance can be introduced thanks to three forms of ethnographic reflexivity. First the ethnographer will only be able to reflect on his own experience in the field after introducing a temporal and spatial distance between him and his fieldwork (Favret-Saada 1977). The condition for this first form of reflexivity is the (conscious) education of an empathic resonance during fieldwork. A second reflexivity is based on crossing points of view, and more specifically on taking into account the ethnographer’s experience as seen in his hosts’ eyes. The condition for this second form of reflexivity is to engage into a reciprocal anthropology. The third form of reflexivity is based on a cross-referencing of all categories of ethnographic data. By comparing all categories of ethnographic data, the ethnographer will be able to identify what is actually part of a common experience with his hosts, and what belongs to individual and cultural discrepancies. A methodology anchored in full participation places the ethnographic encounter at the heart of the anthropological project, whose understanding is more akin to a pragmatic of action rather to a hermeneutic of knowledge.
Emily PIERINI (University of Wales Trinity Saint David) Embodied forms of encounter: Educating Perception in Researching among Brazilian Spirit Mediums. This paper discusses the methodological insights emerged from conducting fieldwork among Brazilian spirit mediums of the Spiritualist Christian Order Vale do Amanhecer (Valley of the Dawn). The mediums’ relationship with the spirit world is lived through on a bodily, sensorial and emotional dimension. Since embodiment is a way of knowing among mediums, the dimension of the ethnographer’s bodiliness in the process of knowing in the field should be addressed reflectively, and constitutes a resource for approaching a particular practice that is grounded in embodied forms of encounter with the sacred. This kind of reflexivity facilitated the construction of a common ground for interaction between researcher and mediums, which fostered the production of ethnographic knowledge.
Anna WALDSTEIN. University of Kent Cultivating the Rastafari Spiritual Body: Explorations in Embodied Ethnography. Mary Douglas, Nancy Scheper-Hughes and others have written about the individual and social bodies, as well as a body politic and a mindful body, all of which reflect significant theoretical streams in anthropology and other social sciences. In the contemporary era of the ontological turn, and within the ethnographic context of Rastafari, I have been experimenting with a theory of the spiritual body, largely based on my participation in a variety of bodily rituals. Rastafari is simultaneously a spiritual, social, political and environmental movement that began in 1930s Jamaica and has since spread throughout African diaspora communities across the planet. Members of the movement generally deny that Rastafari is a religion (or even a culture) and most often refer to and experience it as a day-to-day lived spirituality (livity). Much of my work with Rastafari in the United Kingdom over the past few years has been concerned with the question of whether Rastafari bodies can do things that other bodies cannot do and if so, how such spiritual bodies are cultivated. In their struggle to achieve the main political aims of the movement (repatriation of diaspora peoples to the African continent and other reparations for the trans-Atlantic slave trade) Rastafari people generally follow a number of spiritual prescriptions related to the body. The most significant include smoking (especially Cannabis spp.), meditating, growing matted hair, eating an Afro-centric vegan diet and drumming/chanting. A person does not have to follow all of these practices to be Rastafari, rather they are a means to achieve specific spiritual objectives, namely immortality, intuition/divination and the manifestation of divine will on earth. As a researcher, I have collected data on many of the ways the spiritual body is cultivated in Rastafari through observations, interviews and reasonings (ritual discussions). However, the most important insights have come through my own personal, bodily engagement in many of these practices. Communicating these experiences raised a number of epistemological, analytical and even ethical issues, which will be addressed in this paper.
Katerina HORSKA (Charles University, Prague) Bodily Aspects of Immersion into Neo-shamanic Practice. The proposed conference paper will draw upon an anthropological field study exploring new religious movements – in particular neo-shamanism – which I am currently undertaking. The research employs the participant observation method supplemented by semi-structured interviews, and deals with a typical feature of many of these movements: the intentional bringing about of altered states of consciousness and subsequent unusual experiences (visions) for use as part of spiritual practice. The aim of this research is to contribute to the resolution of one essential problem: the dynamic between experience, its production within a religious group, and its interpretation in a religious context. During my field research, I witnessed interesting dynamics during the process in which newcomers “learn” how to express and interpret their neo-shamanic experiences. Newcomers usually have a specific idea as to how shamanic journeys work, and what the bodily state will be during them. However, as I observe, their first experiences usually do not match their expectations. They tend to be hesitant at first, but in their subsequent journeys and during sharing sessions held by the group they begin to express their experiences in a more distinctive way, and start feeling various bodily sensations. For example, there is an interesting ritual - animal dance - in which practitioners are “lending” their bodies to their power animals. This process of bodily experience continues and is carried over into participants’ daily lives. I would therefore like to show in the paper how participants’ bodily experience is gradually influenced by practicing shamanic journeys, and how this process can be explained using P. Bourdieu’s conception of habitus. Using my field data, I will show that the level of bodily immersion into the respective discourse and practices (habitus) of neo-shamanism also acts as an entry-point into the groups’ theoretical framework. Groups’ teachings can be often understood only after reaching a certain level of embodied experience. Acknowledgement from the shaman and other group members also plays a major role in this process, which is strongly influenced by the social context of neo-shamanic groups.