EASA2014: Collaboration, Intimacy & Revolution


Ethnography of the invisible

Location S-116
Date and Start Time 02 August, 2014 at 09:00


Susanne Ådahl (University of Turku) email
Vibeke Steffen (University of Copenhagen) email
Marja-Liisa Honkasalo (University of Turku. Finland) email
Mail All Convenors

Short Abstract

The panel aims to discuss theoretical and methodological possibilities of studying human experience that is at the limit of our understanding; experiences of a so called "supranatural", "paranormal", "extraordinary", or "otherworldly" nature. How to study experience of something that does not exist?

Long Abstract

The aim of the panel is to discuss the theoretical and methodological possibilities of studying human experience that is at the limit of our understanding or perhaps beyond it. In European countries people report frequently having had experiences of the "supranatural", "paranormal", "extraordinary", or "otherworldly"; that which in the classical anthropological conception would be termed magic. Anthropological research shows that adult belief in magic is still high in contemporary societies. Due to rapid social change and a consequent increased secularisation institutions of modern society, such as the church, are presently lacking or searching for an interpretative space in which to deal with boundary experience. In anthropological research, there is a lack of unambiguous concepts to describe or understand these phenomena. The notions when applied are problematic, skewed, and largely stigmatizing, which consequently affects the everyday life situation of people reporting having had these kinds of experiences. This subjugated knowledge is often written off as madness and is highly stigmatising. In this panel we ask: how to study the invisible; presence (visual, auditory, tactile) that is experienced convincingly as being true, but that is weird? How to study experience that is elusive, dream-like, subtle or simply impossible to define with words; experience of something that does not exist? We welcome submissions for papers on topics that include, but are not limited to:

• Boundary experience/ sensory experiences and expressions

• Contemporary experiences of magic

• Methodological and epistemological challenges of researching boundary experiences

Discussant: Professor Emerita Vieda Skultans (University of Bristol)

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


Saintly visions in Malta: ontology, alterity and contestation

Author: Jon Mitchell (Sussex University)  email

Short Abstract

This paper looks at debate surrounding visions of the Virgin Mary in contemporary Malta. It argues that attention to these debates might afford us multiple 'ways in' to understanding such 'extraordinary' religious phenomena, in contrast to the singularity of approaches that focus on ontology and alterity.

Long Abstract

This paper examines contemporary Catholic visionaries, and particularly the visions associated with the Maltese Angelik Caruana, who since 2006 has been having visions of, and receiving messages from, the Blessed Virgin Mary during prayer meetings at the Neolithic hill site of Borg-in-Nadur, in Malta. The visions are highly routinized - taking place according to a regular weekly cycle - and draw pilgrims from across Malta and abroad, who gather to bear witness to the episodes, and bear testimony to their own experiences of Our Lady's presence.

The paper takes as its departure the 'ontological turn' within anthropology, which effectively argues that 'invisible' phenomena such as visions are 'really there' in the worlds of those who experience them. The job of ethnographers - or ontographers - in this account is to think ourselves into a position from which we can see/acknowledge this. It is a methodological step forwards from the old debate between rationalists and relativists, but rather hangs on a notion of absolute alterity that although relevant when discussing Amazonian, Cuban or Mongolian ethnography, might be less so in the Christian European context of Malta.

The paper argues that attention to the points of debate, scepticism, disagreement about phenomena such as Angelik's visions, rather than singularly account for - or 'infine', as the ontological turn has it - them, provides a variety of 'ways in' to understanding such extraordinary religious events.

The dilemma of reporting of extraordinary experiences in the field: researching John of God's spiritual surgeries in Brazil

Author: Cristina Rocha (Western Sydney University)  email

Short Abstract

There has been a growing body of anthropological literature which endeavours to take seriously other peoples' beliefs. Here I discuss my research with John of God, a Brazilian healer. I argue that we must engage with extraordinary experiences in the field to decolonise anthropology.

Long Abstract

There has been a growing body of anthropological literature which endeavours to take seriously other peoples' beliefs, religious practices and cosmology and by doing so decolonise anthropology. Many researchers have documented the efficacy of rituals, sacred words, and incantations they encountered (and sometimes learned) in the field. Here I follow the insights of experiential anthropology, anthropology of humanism and of consciousness to challenge the positivist Cartesian dichotomies of supernatural/natural, unreal/real, and the West/the Rest, which have constituted our discipline. I do so by discussing my fieldwork research with followers of John of God, a Brazilian Spiritist healer who has become famous worldwide by performing physical surgeries in which he cuts people open, scrape their eyes with a kitchen knife, or inserts surgical scissors deep in their noses, all without asepsis or anaesthetics. I argue that we should think the supernatural as an extension of the natural and refrain from explaining it through our Western Enlightenment heritage. We must engage with and report extraordinary experiences in the field in order not only to understand the Other, but importantly to decolonise anthropology.

Experiences of the invisible in a Moroccan field (God, jnun, evil eye)

Author: Isabelle Jabiot (Université Nanterre Paris Ouest la Défense)  email

Short Abstract

In this communication, I will demonstrate how an ethnography of the invisible (god, jnun, evil eye) is possible from an investigation in a Moroccan field based on the methods of existential anthropology, anthropology of believe and ordinary religion.

Long Abstract

This communication is a methodological and theoretical reflexion on the ethnography of the invisible beings in a small mountain town in Morocco. The invisible is a daily experience, whether its comes from god, the jnun or the evil eye, three kinds of invisible beings, which are of different natures and who are bound to the Muslim religion. The methods of existential anthropology are relevant to seize and characterize this experience of the invisible (importance granted to details, to the individual in situation and to his shaping course of life, daily follow-up method). Likewise, the anthropology of the ordinary religion (Piette 2010, 2012 and Ferrié 2004) and the anthropology of believe (Veyne 1983, Piette 2014, Mair 2013, Candea 2013), offer perspectives to rethink what is consider as extraordinary, and characterize the modalities and the "program of truth" who are specific according to contexts and individuals who experiment the invisible.

The contributions of these approaches are multiple. In one hand, they push back the boundaries of the ethnography of the invisible. In an other hand, the questions of the existence of the invisible beings and the experience that are made, are reformulated: how could the existence of the invisible become sometimes tangible and obvious? How these experiences, in which the materiality is blurred, could leave tracks, and what role do they play in the everyday life of the individuals who experience it? The ethnographical data that will serve as support for this communication provides some elements of the answers to these questions.

Strategies of psychic self-sufficiency in times of upheaval: the case of Serbia

Author: Maja Petrović-Šteger (The Scientific Research Centre of the Slovenian Academy of Sciences and Arts)  email

Short Abstract

The paper examines some of the practices and narratives of psychological and spiritual defence and of psychic self-sufficiency in contemporary Serbia. It focuses on particular forms of mental discipline, intended to spiritually fortify the national psyche in the times of upheaval.

Long Abstract

Ten years of my off-and-on fieldwork in Serbia have amassed an ethnographic archive recording the feelings of oppression and frustration felt by many Serbs about the country's political, legal and economic future. Many Serbs blame both local politicians and global political actors for their sorry past and contemporary plights. In pushing for a public response to certain unacknowledged 'wounds' and injustices, they both disavow and begin more obliquely to articulate feelings of guilt and culpability in relation to the country's part in the wars of the 1990s. Some claim that during the wars of the 1990s, alongside official fighting on battlefields, the Serbs had allegedly endured invisible attacks, in which they were mind-mapped and biophysically poisoned—through infected objects invested with subliminal commands that were making people ill. These so called 'astral attacks' were coordinated by Serbia's enemies involving magicians and parapsychologists. The locus of psychological warfare, the argument went, was not Serbia's land but Serbia's consciousness. In response, some groups of people were particularly interested in forming a so called 'psychological shield' capable of warding off negative influences (including black magic). Widely dismissed after the wars as fanciful, this concept of astral attacks and of psychological shields seems to be enjoying a revival in some circles of contemporary Serbian society as a bulwark against the most corrosive effects of the current global economic slowdown. Proposed paper proposes to examine some of the practices and narratives of psychological and spiritual defence and of psychic self-sufficiency in the times of upheaval.

Psychosis and spirituality: views from a self-help group for psychosis

Author: Margreet Peutz  email

Short Abstract

This paper explores the relationship between psychotic and spiritual experiences, based on a study of a Dutch self-help group for psychosis. It discusses relevant perspectives from the research literature and addresses the methodological difficulties of researching boundary experiences.

Long Abstract

Both psychotic and mystical experiences can be considered boundary experiences and individuals who have experienced psychosis may have a special relationship with spirituality.

In my doctoral research I worked with a Dutch self-help group for psychosis where this relationship was a prominent issue amongst its members. Within the group any experiences of a supernatural or paranormal nature were discussed freely and the boundary of these experiences with psychosis was considered fluid. Psychotic experiences were frequently hard to put into words and an important aspect of the work of the group was to find a common language to capture these experiences. Some members had clear ideas about the spiritual nature of their psychotic experiences and supernatural explanations provided meaning and a sense of control over apparently uncontrollable events. Furthermore, exploring these experiences in terms of encounters with the mysterious instilled hope of healing or of routes left open to something new. Some members made use of spiritual literature to further develop their understanding of their psychotic episodes.

In this paper I will discuss the ways in which the self-help group members dealt with boundary experiences. In the light of this material I will briefly review a number of relevant perspectives on the relationship between psychosis and spirituality derived from the research literature. Finally, I will comment on the difficulties I encountered in studying boundary experiences while not having had these experiences myself, bringing the issue of reflexivity to the fore.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.