Problematising the category of 'popular piety', this panel attempts to develop new and meaningful approaches to the anthropological study of mass appeal, subaltern discourses, and knowledge and social hierarchies in the field of religion.
Christianity has a long tradition in designating saint veneration, pilgrimages, magic, etc, to the ambiguous category of 'popular piety', a field once associated with and distinguished from 'proper' Christianity by the virtue of its 'popularity'. Also many anthropologists of Islam have found it convenient to distinguish 'popular' from 'orthodox' Islam. But how come is it that there are no self-proclaimed practitioners of popular Christianity or popular Islam? How come magic and mysticism, often practised only by a few marginalised people, are popular while the mass movements of Evangelical Christianity and Salafi Islam are not? Many recent ethnographies of religious practice show that the category of 'popular' is rarely applicable to the complex dynamics of scriptural tradition, charismatic movements and everyday negotiation of religious norms. Heir to the problematic distinction of 'great' and 'little' traditions and based on a dichotomy of 'correct' normative religion and 'popular' deviation from the norm, 'popular' is a term so strongly embedded in the normative language of social and knowledge hierarchies that it seems questionable whether it should be used at all. And yet the very frequency with which people around the world label practices and ideas as 'popular' in order to legitimise, discredit, exoticise or sanitise them, compels us to enquire what exactly it is that makes popular religion popular. Rather than simply rejecting the category of 'popular', this panel attempts to develop new and meaningful approaches to the anthropological study of mass appeal, subaltern discourses, and knowledge and social hierarchies in the field of religion.