a collaborative genealogy of spirituality

the ethnographic act

by Susan Harding

Museo di Santa Maria Novella, Florence, 2010 by <a href='' target='_blank'>Alan Thomas</a>
Museo di Santa Maria Novella, Florence, 2010 by Alan Thomas

One of the risks of doing anthropological fieldwork among fundamental Baptists is that you might undergo spiritual experiences similar to theirs. This is simply because you spend a lot of time with them, doing the things they do, listening very carefully and as generously as possible to the things they say, and learning to converse with them in their own terms. That’s what fieldwork requires, and it amounts to a compressed version of how fundamental Baptists themselves come to have their spiritual experiences.

I have admitted having one such fundamental Baptist-like experience while doing fieldwork among the Reverend Jerry Falwell’s church people in Lynchburg during the 1980s. That was when “God spoke to me” and I “came under conviction.” But other experiences I have mostly kept to myself. Like the time the devil got a hold of me. Or the time I had a feature-length, technicolor, premillennialist vision of the end of the world. Nor do I much discuss the fact that, after I came under conviction, I was twice (or was it thrice?) stricken by a powerful spiritual hunger, a craving for “something more,” that each time possessed me for weeks (or was it months?).

I wrote about coming under conviction because it taught me so much about how some orthodox Protestants are “born again” and come to inhabit their spiritually specific world, but that was all I dared visit upon my colleagues and readers. I held my tongue partly because the severe secular scrupulosity that my chosen field site aroused made me wary of revealing my site-specific spiritual experiences, lest I lose my audience. I was also enacting a constituitive disavowal – the refusal to “go native,” especially where anything religious is concerned—that is intrinsic to the modern practice of ethnography.

The irony is that while I lived and worked among the fundamental Baptists I often mused that I was engaged in another kind of spiritual practice, albeit a secular one. Or more precisely, that the profession of anthropology had contrived a complex of practices called ethnographic fieldwork that cultivated a particular state of mind in the individuals carrying it out and that gave them special access to otherwise invisible realities, such as “ritual,” religion,” and “culture.” And it was that set of ethnographic practices that led me to interrupt and rework the inward effects of fundamental Baptist-like practices, saying to myself things like, “Oh, that’s what they mean when they say ‘God spoke to me’, or ‘the devil got a hold of me’, or ‘the end is near’, or ‘my soul yearns for God’, rather than saying something like ‘God is real’, or ‘I’ve got to get right with God now’.”

When I underwent these experiences I did not completely merge with them. I, or some part of me, remained “outside” them, shaken and confused, but detached, observing. I was eavesdropping on my fundamental Baptist-shaped experiences. I listened to them with a second pair of ears and looked at them with a second pair of eyes given me by my secular professional spiritual practices.

But what’s the point of thinking about the act of ethnography as a spiritual practice?

Not to suggest that it produces a truth or subjectivity that is somehow religious rather than secular, but to call attention to the resonance, the uncanny likeness, of some of the practices that produce those respective truths and subjectivities. Ethnography is a spiritual practice if by that we mean a pious practice, or an embodied discipline, that gives one entry into another reality and invisible realms and that produces a kind of subjectivity, a particular sense of “self” in the process. In these two senses, ethnography is like religious practices. But in the case of the anthropological ethnographic act, the reality and realms accessed and the subject who is produced by experiencing them is specifically “not religious,” hence, in that narrow sense of the term, “secular.”

When Harry West carried out fieldwork on the Mueda plateau in rural Mozambique, both he and Muedans noticed the resonance between his research practice and the sorcery and countersorcery practices he was studying. Sorcerers cross over into the invisible world and become or create “sorcery lions” that bring ruin on individuals in the visible world. Countersorcerers, or healers, also cross over into the invisible world but attempt to undo –invert, overturn, negate, or annul—a sorcerer’s destructive work. Both sorcerers and countersorcerers, “by rendering themselves invisible, [transcend] the world inhabited by ordinary people, producing and inhabiting an invisible realm from which they gain a powerful perspective on the visible.”

As West became more conversant in the language of sorcery, he began to hear people say of him, “That one knows a little something!,” a euphemism that indicated he was a sorcerer or a countersorcerer. Muedans recognized that the tools of West’s trade—pen, notebook, recorder, and camera—were different but that he shared with them an urge to get outside their life-world in order to gain a perspective on it. They contested his versions of what they were doing in sorcery, but at the same time he and they came to see the resemblance between his stories and theories and theirs. He and they both were trying to gain interpretive ascendancy in and over the world around them through what West calls transcendent maneuvers. Muedans were making and remaking their world in line with their vision of the forces defining visible and invisible domains, and West was (re)making Muedens and their world in the terms of a vision of his own elaboration. When they saw “sorcery lions,” he saw “embodied (or literal) metaphors.”

Other anthropologists have noted the resemblance between their own interpretive practice and the story telling, sorcery, witchcraft, shamanistic, and religious practices of the people they study, but Harry West pushed his insight further than most, even calling his book Ethnographic Sorcery. Still many more anthropologists acknowledge—in fact it’s all but required—moments of perceptual crisis in which one inhabits the world from the point of view of another culture. In our writing, such moments are sometimes fraught, especially when we find ourselves entangled with, or “caught” in, practices and perceptions that we have been trained to think of as religious. On the one hand, we are discovering for ourselves anthropology’s founding principle of cultural relativism. On the other, we must take a step back; we may not “go native.” We must somehow disavow the cultural other’s point of view that we have just discovered to be equally “valid” as our own. Thus it becomes a moment of tender yet fierce secular subject making—anthropology’s contribution to secular modernity as a way of being in the world.

Although some anthropologists may think that a secular (aka scientific or “outside”) point of view is the only alternative to going “going native” after undergoing culturally relativizing ethnographic experiences, it is not. Nor did anthropologists invent what we now call fieldwork. According to Christopher Herbert, evangelical Protestant missionaries, among others, invented the practice, along with the contradictory subjectivity that emerged from it and “the culture doctrine,” in the course of living among and writing copiously about the natives of Tahiti, Fiji, Tonga, Samoa, New Zealand, and other islands of the South Pacific in the early 19th century. Decades later, anthropologists would name and codify the concept of culture and fieldwork as a research practice, but early missionaries in their writings had already revealed an awareness that they were “unfolding a new technique of scientific study—one that made at best an uneasy fit with their mission as evangelizers.” The technique also led them to an unstated awareness of “the homology” of native superstitions and their own Protestant beliefs, and, inadvertently, to undermine the very doctrine of innate sinfulness that had led them into their mission fields.

Early 19th century Protestant missionaries went to the South Pacific not only to save souls but also to document and portray the natural depravity of savage life, of life without the saving grace of Jesus Christ. The missionaries documented what they called idolatry, superstitions, cannibalism, promiscuity, sadistic violence, infanticide, the ritual killing of widows and aged parents, and many other “abominations” as evidence of the unbridled passions, lust, wickedness, sensual appetites, and evil tendencies that guided the lives of savages. However, even as the missionaries clung to their doctrines of man’s “sin nature,” they produced de facto cultural accounts of the wretched practices they witnessed, and, in the process, they discovered the cultural sources of their own practices. In the words of the missionary Thomas Williams, for example, the Fijians were “a people living, for many generations, under the uninterrupted power of influences different from any which we daily feel” and were “strangers to those motives and forces which have, more than anything else, modified the development of our own individual and social character.”

The early missionaries’ apprehension of culture included the relativizing recognition of oneself as well as the native as culturally formed. The recognition emerged from their having to learn savage languages virtually from scratch over an extended period of time in order to spread the gospel of Christ. The experience of firsthand language learning and analysis immersed the missionaries in everyday native lives and “almost inescapably” required them “to begin to conceive the society in all its bearings as a ‘culture’ of inseparably interlocked symbolic elements and to think of the language and the whole economy of extralinguistic cultural materials…as exact equivalents of one another.” All the missionaries stressed that their accounts were based on knowledge acquired experientially and to varying degrees articulated the de facto method of modern fieldwork based on long-term immersion in the everyday life of natives, linguistic competence, minute and comprehensive descriptions of all customs, and verbatim quotation of native statements.

So there is nothing inherently secularizing in this mix of what Clifford Geertz called “experience near” (immersion/participation) and “experience far” (observation/description) research practice. Early 19th century evangelical missionaries came to a de facto cultural understanding of the different ways of life they investigated but still condemned those ways of life as morally depraved. Their meticulous accounts, at times filled with admiration for native imagination and ingenuity, were no less bent on justifying the rapid dismantling of local rites, customs, and taboos by colonial authorities. The missionaries were re-enacting in their mission fields their own struggle with and victory over the human capacity for sin.

This “conflicted emotional structure,” which Herbert argues is “the distinctive sign of a characteristic religious sensibility,” is later reworked by anthropologists as they name and codify the practice of “fieldwork” and the concept of “culture” as a “complex whole” that emerges from fieldwork. Instead of condemning native ways, anthropologists insist on their validity, struggle to accept them while they are in the field, write accounts bent on describing, explaining, understanding them as testaments to human diversity and creativity, and direct their critical ire at persons and forces who would diminish that diversity and creativity in any way. The object and effect of disavowal changes, but disavowal remains at the heart of the practice. The mission ethnographer had to come to know native life firsthand and reject it as evil. For him, ethnography was a religious practice, and it produced him as an evangelical missionary. The anthropological ethnographer has to come to know native culture firsthand and accept it as “equally valid” but reject it as her point of view on native life. Going native, that is, adopting native modes of interpretative ascendancy, is taboo for both evangelical and anthropological ethnographers. But anthropologists have a second disavowal tucked away in their validation of native cultures, namely, a disavowal of the Victorian evangelical Protestantism and its presumption of moral superiority, and that is the disavowal that produces us as specifically secular anthropologists.

It is this second disavowal that draws the thin line between evangelical and anthropological ethnography, and it was probably the way in which my fundamental Baptist project muddied that line that so agitated my colleagues. Harry West’s colleagues asked him repeatedly whether or not he “believed” in the sorcery he studied, and all of us who examine religious topics are scrutinized for any evidence that our interpretative maneuvers were inappropriately contaminated by our close encounter with religious others. But in my case, the obligation to construe my native culture as “equally valid” contradicted the disavowal of evangelicalism hidden in that obligation, and, I now think, made it harder to construe my project—and me—as properly secular.

Still, even though I was occasionally caught in fundamental Baptist-like experiences I was always more thoroughly caught, both in the field and when writing about fundamental Baptists, in an anthropological drive for an interpretative ascendency that was secular and secularizing. I tried to do so in ways that troubled the terms of modern secular hegemony, but, nonetheless, I (re)made fundamental Baptists and their world in terms of an intellectual vision that was specifically secular. I (re)produced them as objects of a secular gaze and myself as a secular subject, and I added a drop to the ocean of American secularity. We like to think of that ocean as naturally occurring, but it’s not. The secular world we swim in is produced by millions of little practices, and the anthropological ethnographic act is one of them.