ASA15: Symbiotic anthropologies: theoretical commensalities and methodological mutualisms

Exploring postsecular anthropology from the perspective of anthropologists with a faith commitment
Location Room 2
Date and Start Time 16 April, 2015 at 09:15
Sessions 1


  • Sharon Merz (University of Exeter) email
  • Johannes Merz (SIL International) email

Mail All Convenors

Short Abstract

This panel explores how anthropologists with a faith commitment contribute to postsecular anthropology. Even though they are sometimes marginalised, they are well positioned as they negotiate the demands and expectations of the different field situations and institutions they engage with.

Long Abstract

Can and should a "distinction between sacred and secular" (Marshall 2009: 3) be made? How are anthropologists engaging with the postsecular turn (Habermas 2008; McLennan 2010)? We propose that anthropologists with an explicit faith commitment are well positioned to contribute to postsecular anthropology, while recognising that having a faith commitment creates specific challenges.

The secular and the religious can no longer be treated as mutually exclusive categories. Rather, they directly depend on each other, with the secular being differentiated from the religious by degrees (Bangstad 2009; Hirschkind 2011). As anthropologists with a faith commitment, we seem ideally positioned to explore the symbiotic relationship between the secular and religious, as we are often confronted with its challenges in our own lives and work. These challenges result from the tensions and oppositions created by the shifting boundaries that we encounter when relating to different field situations and institutional bodies, whether these be academic, religious or developmental in nature. For example, it is not uncommon for secular academics to question our methodological and academic credibility, while non-anthropologists from religious institutions may be suspicious of our academic research methodology and reluctant to accept our findings. Such tensions, however, help reinforce "our ethnographic eye" as we reflect on our position and strive to exploit and account for our subjectivity in the discipline. In this panel we invite papers that explore these issues from a practical, applied and theoretical perspective.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


Professing experiences: exploring contemporary working life and professionalism(s) of medical general practitioners beyond the secular/religious divide

Authors: Roger Nascimento (University of Aberdeen)  email

Short Abstract

We explore medical professionalism of general practitioners (GP) from the perspective of their moral experience, also exploring into anthropological professionalism and, in their correspondence, seeking to decolonize our understandings and practices of professionalism.

Co-author: Oonagh Corrigan (University of Plymouth)

Long Abstract

In this paper, we enquiry on contemporary experiences of medical professionalism in everyday working life of general practitioners (GPs) in the National Health Service, drawing on ethnographic fieldwork with GPs based in Cornwall and Devon/England. We explore medical professionalism from the perspective of their 'moral experience' (Kleinman1999, Kleinman & Benson, 2006) within the 'moral horizon' (Matsuoka, 2007) and the space of manoeuvre of the lived 'moral world' (Hunt & Carnevale, 2011) in which they dwell. The experiential approach of participant observation involved an exploration into the moral experience of anthropological professionalism in carrying out this research, embarking on an anthropological 'practice of correspondence' (Ingold, 2014) of these experiences of professing, shared through the ethnographic encounter. It involved the negotiation around several imageries, among which those split between the religious and the secular, the sacred and the profane, the material and the spiritual. We seek to imagine the possibility of reconciling these dichotomies by attempting to decolonize our understandings and practices of professionalism.

'Framing experience': negotiating anthropological and Christian metaphorical landscapes

Author: Jamie Barnes (University of Sussex)  email

Short Abstract

This paper looks at the metaphorical moves that the Christian anthropologist, committed to a phenomenological approach that ‘takes seriously’ lived experience of transcendent realities, needs to make in terms of translating experience from one domain into another.

Long Abstract

Lakoff and Johnson (1980) argue that metaphor - the capacity to understand and experience one kind of thing in terms of another - is central to the ways in which we organize our lives. Our conceptual systems - which govern our thoughts, actions and perceptions - are fundamentally metaphorical in nature. For Fernandez (1972), metaphor works by connecting two distinct domains of experience, a process that involves relating inchoate experiences to more concrete, observable realms. "Thus," writes Fernandez (1974:122), "in 'mercy… droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven,' the 'gentle rain' gives to the abstract and vaguely conceived 'mercy' a concreteness that literal definition is hopeless to achieve." Stories about Jesus present him as a master of metaphor, continually connecting his experience of the inchoate ('heaven') to the more concrete ('earth'). Like Jesus, many Christians claim to live in worlds of 'heavenly' sensory experience that transcend more observable realms. For them, communication involves making metaphorical connections that move one domain of experience into another, a process that often involves appealing to metaphors available within the Christian tradition. For the Christian anthropologist, there is a different set of challenges. Situated within a social scientific milieu, such a person is compelled to utilize a different metaphorical toolset to that available within the Christian domain. This paper explores these processes, and argues that such work can be fruitful in generating new theory, whilst also challenging the Christian researcher to reflexively explore, in a new light, the existential groundings of his or her own faith.

Liminality, privilege, and vulnerability: reflections on research in a faith community

Author: Kayla Rush (Queen's University Belfast)  email

Short Abstract

Drawing on research performed at a Pentecostal church in Belfast, this paper examines the practical and methodological aspects of liminality, privilege, and vulnerability for researchers with faith commitments researching communities within their own faith traditions.

Long Abstract

In 2013-2014, I performed fieldwork at a Pentecostal Christian church in West Belfast. As a professing Christian, I found that I was, as the convenors of this panel have put it, "ideally positioned" to carry out this research. My multiple identities as both Christian "insider" and American academic "outsider" assisted me in gaining access and building trust, while also allowing me to critically examine the congregation's discourses and practices. At the same time, my liminal positioning as an academic researcher at times made it difficult to communicate my research to participants.

Both my academic and religious backgrounds raised questions of privilege. While much has been written on imbalances in education and class, less has been said on the topic of religion. As the "religiously privileged" graduate of a Christian university and daughter of a minister, I found this to be the more salient point of disparity, as most of the church's attendees converted in adulthood and had received less religious education than I had.

Yet another area that has garnered little attention is the mental, emotional, and at times spiritual vulnerability of the researcher in the field, and in particular the researcher of faith studying her own faith tradition. Clashes between my own beliefs and those of my participants were felt more deeply, as I have a personal investment in questions of religious belief. Further, my fieldwork experiences caused me to confront my own family history of religiously charged mental illness.

Secular and religious symbiosis: strengthening postsecular anthropology through commitments to faith

Authors: Johannes Merz (SIL International)  email
Sharon Merz (University of Exeter)  email

Short Abstract

The failure of secularisation theories and the resurgence of the religious have prompted social scientists to speak of the postsecular turn. This more theoretical paper explores how anthropologists with faith commitments can contribute to the development of this new theoretical framework.

Long Abstract

In this more theoretical paper we discuss how anthropologists with faith commitments can contribute to shaping an emerging postsecular anthropology. Such an anthropology draws inspiration from the recently advocated postsecular turn that recognises the failure of secularisation theories and the resurgence of the religious in public life. While some anthropologists have started to look to theology for such an endeavour (e.g. Fountain 2013), we propose that a deeper anthropological engagement with secularism and religion is equally foundational in the formation of a postsecular anthropology (Asad 1993, 2003). We propose that a postsecular anthropology needs to dissolve the constructed dichotomy between religion and secularism in favour of a secular and religious symbiosis. This does not mean that the notions of the religious and the secular should be discarded but rather applied to discuss their dynamic relationship and symbiosis in various research situations. Accordingly, the religious can be addressed and taken seriously in its own right, rather than reducing it to a purely social function, for example.

The proposed result of such a development is that the religious—as encountered in research and as reflexively engaged with—becomes more accessible, meaningful and theoretically relevant. Furthermore, we argue that this leads to better relationships during field research and a deeper engagement with the phenomena being studied. It also increases the opportunity for anthropologists with faith commitments to exploit their particular standpoint and contribute to a growing plurality of different ontological and epistemological considerations without neglecting the secular heritage of anthropology.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.