Chava Green: Unit 8- Vernacular Religion and Theological Discourse

This week’s readings offer us a number of methodological, analytic and ethnographic openings within the discourses of public health, women’s reproduction and theological anthropology.  Each article brings another facet to bear upon the thematic questions of agency, intentionality and contingency in women’s reproductive lives. As a number of authors have noted, women’s experience in childbirth is a privileged location to address such concerns since it is an experience that is often imbued with a range of cross-cutting meanings in their social and spiritual lifeworlds.

Jennifer Johnson-Hanks article, “When the Future Decides Uncertainty and Intentional Action in Contemporary Cameroon,” introduces these topics through the lens of women’s reproductive action and intention in the uncertain world of Cameroon at the end of the 1990s.  She approached her fieldwork within the typical language of family-planning literature common in public health discourse about intentionality, namely that women engage in family planning in order to enact their intentions regarding their family size and timing. She was met with a very different reality in the field when women responded to her questions about desired family size with a blanket uncertainty about the future and what it holds.  She uses theoristics in the phenomenological and philosophical schools, namely Schutz and Searle, to build a complex notion of what constitutes intention. Her conclusion, which is that there is a meaningful relationship between intentional projects and behaviors, is called into question when it is brought into ethnographic situations in which uncertainty and particularly economic and social instability are pervasive. She also raises the inconsistency between experiential uncertainty and the uncertainty measured in models in social statistics which quantify uncertainty in charts and scales.  In a skillful analysis, Johnson-Hanks shows the disciplinary limits of fields that speak in numbers and abstractions compared to the lived-experiences of women in Cameroon; however, I was left wondering if her response that uncertainty and “judicious opportunism” are the primary ways to tell a more “true” story.

In conversation with “Blessing Unintended Pregnancy: Religion and the Discourse of Women’s Agency in Public Health” and Don Seeman’s,“Divinity Inhabits the Social,” it seemed that some discussion or recognition of the way that divine players are part of the uncertainty in women’s reproductive discourse in Cameroon might be useful.  Although we were not privy to her full ethnographic data, in a few of the accounts or interviews Johnson-Hanks relates point to God or local religious beliefs as actors in people’s lives. For example, when she replied to questions about how many children she would like to have with the number two, “any bystanders would laugh uproariously and tell me that it was God who gave children” (pg 369).  In the article “Blessing Unintended Pregnancy,” a team of researchers from various backgrounds investigated the experience of unintended pregnancies among women in a homeless shelter in the American Southwest and found that such recourse to divine agency and the category of “blessing” was, in fact, an important analytic frame. Seeman posits in his article that to engage theology in anthropological work could involve using it as a prism through which to generate more accurate insights into the complexities of human affairs.  This appears to be the way that “Blessings Unintended Pregnancy” sought to bring to light the experiences of women in Naomi’s House, the homeless shelter.

What is raised here most prominently for me in the above discussion is the usefulness and validity of different methodological tools.  The crux seems to be what the scholar of a certain discipline or field seeks to accomplish through their work. A social statisian may be less concerned with how women experience uncertainty than with how a quantifiable graft of uncertainty can be used to track economic growth or decline over time.  A public health official might need to divide pregnancies into intended/unintended in order to distribute resources for contraceptives to locations with higher need. The question, then, is what does an ethnography, which serves to complicate and blur such binary or rigid analysis, hope to accomplish?  I think in both cases it serves a valuable tool. There must be an awareness of what categories people use to frame their lives in order to accurately ask questions and provide them resources. As the women in the homeless shelter showed, access to medical help or contraceptives does not necessarily mean they will use or trust them.  In Cameroon, Johnson-Hanks found that her questions may have failed because “numbers simply do not matter very much… whereas the social goal of honorable motherhood—being a woman who bears all her children within monogamous marriage” does.

Theological discourse and the attending vernacular language attached to it may be a critical way to read ethnographic data.  Don Seeman makes this point powerfully in his article when he writes that, “revered ancestors, village goddesses, and possessing spirits are all encountered as actors, moral agents, and participants—sometimes overwhelmingly important participants—in the social order that anthropologists study” (pg 336).  This is evidenced in the experience of the homeless women in Naomi’s House who experience pregnancy often as an act of divine agency that they do not want to or are not able to resist. Don also raises important distinctions between the use of strong doctrinal theology compared to the more vernacular language used by people in the field.  They can both be mobilized in ethnographic analysis but not to the exclusion of one of the other or to define to narrowly the factors in people’s lives. This balance is something I hope to explore more in class and I wonder how much this is also a divide between discursive readings and phenomenological readings of events.

For my own work, I found Seeman’s discussion of non-Christian uses of theology compelling.  He defines theology there more broadly as “a family of different kinds of expert discourse about religion” (pg 353).  This sort of engagement is at the heart of his article “‘Where is Sarah Your Wife?’ Cultural Poetics of Gender and Nationhood in the Hebrew Bible” where the use of open and closed imagery is explored across biblical and anthropological locations.  Read in conjunction with the other articles this week, its discussion of motherhood as blessing in a biblical context was perhaps the theological backdrop that could be employed to better understand cultural realities surrounding reproduction. I am interested in looking at the ‘cultural poetics’ of birth in Hasidic texts, which relate it to a larger redemptive project, as they may play out in the lives of Hasidic women for whom childbirth and rearing are overwhelmingly large parts of life.  I am curious to see how much they use the language of Hasidus, which may be a “Jewish Theology,” and how much they employ their own vernacular language.

Some closing questions I am left with from our readings are about how to attribute agency to different actors and how to read divine agency in ethnographic settings.  As Don wrote, using a theological lens is just one of many analytic tools available to an anthropologist upon their secondary step of work then their own analysis comes into play.  How does this push up against methodological atheism that we have discussed? Can we employ a theology that we are actively engaged with personally without entering into the danger of using the wrong analytic tool?  Or perhaps our privileged position will help us see what other cannot.  

Precis for Devaka Premawardhana and Joel Robbins – Jackson Wolford

Theoretical Terms

First, I thought it might be useful if I listed some of the theoretical terms from this book that I thought were particularly interesting or helpful, along with some page #s (although they appear throughout the book mostly):

Theories of continuity (6-8): According to Robbins (and Premawardhana seems to agree), anthropology has often assumed cultural continuity in a way that denies the possibility of radically discontinuous events like conversion. This produces a form of stasis, where it is unclear how change can ever occur.

Theories of rupture (6-8): Opposed to this, Robbins and others have suggested models of rupture, radical discontinuity, and change. Premawardhana suggests these theories can become complicit in promoting stasis by identifying rupture too closely with modernity. This would seem to suggest that rupture is only ever a transformation that is on its way to settling into a new, perhaps more modern, state.

Existential mobility (161-3): This is Premawardhana’s alternative model for a kind of continuous rupture in which the Makhuwa, and perhaps all of us, are in some ways able to neogtiate between various historical and contemporary experiences and affiliations. The experience is neither a total break from continuity, nor an unchanging stasis, but a navigation of multiple and multiplying pasts and presents.

Polyontology (100-1): An alternative to terms like syncretism or hybridity coming from Janet McIntosh. It is a belief that we maintain fluid access to distinct realms of experience. Premawardhana crafts this into a notion of polyontological mobility. There is an acceptance of distinct spheres of religion. But no sense of personal taboo, located in a static identity, is viewed as coming from transgressing those boundaries.


Context: Circularity and Circumstance

In his chapter on global Pentecostalism, Joel Robbins discusses three primary “threads” of anthropological approaches to the subject—cultural process, everyday life, and the relation of Pentecostalism to modernity (Robbins 173). In Faith in Flux, Devaka Premawardhana explores the first two of these categories by challenging approaches to the last, particularly a common claim, expressed here by Robbins, that, “Pentecostalism was born in modernity and could not exist without it” (Robbins 172). Instead, Premawardhana echoes Pentecostal theologian Nimi Wariboko that, “The pentecostal principle predates pentecostalism and is likely to outlive it” (Premawardhana 163, quoting Wariboko 2012:4). To Premawardhana, Robbins’ claim borders on or perhaps falls right into the trap of modernization narratives, narratives that tie the growth of global (and particularly African) Pentecostalism to a rupture of modernity (Premawardhana 13). Time, or at least our experience in it, must not be imagined with a linear trajectory. Instead, we are mobile, returning constantly in “circular and situational” ways to elements of the past, dependent on the context in which we find ourselves (Premawardhana 14).

Premawardhana elaborates this mobility as characteristic of a way of life among those with whom he worked. It is present not only in time, but in space, religious affiliation, and identity. The opening chapter encapsulates many of these dynamics in the tragic story of death of Fatima and Jemusse’s 10 year old daughter, Luisinha. Spatially, Jemusse and Fatima leave the village as a way of dealing with situational problems of sorcery (Premawardhana 39). Likewise, in their response to their daughter’s death the couple cross boundaries between Pentecostal practice and local spiritual practices considered off limits by their Pentecostal preacher (Premawardhana 49). Finally, this story serves as an example of Premawardhana’s general argument for a consideration of the constant formation of disposition rather than the static language of semi-mutable identity. The tragic moment, in Premawardhana’s conception, “stretches individuals in ways not always predictable by or reducible to their ascribed identities” (Premawrdhana 17). What is evidenced at this moment of stress is not a static identity, whereby Jemusse and Fatima could be thought of as behaving as discretely “village” agents, or “Pentecostal” agents, where “villager” or “Pentecostal” constitute a feature of a static identity. Instead, they are navigating their experience with a quality of mobility—the ability to return to various features of their lives to negotiate the particular circumstance.

For the purposes of our course and the consideration of the ethnography of religious experience, it is important to take Premawardhana at his word: This is not, for us, just or even primarily a book about the pitfalls of approaches to the study of Pentecostalism, but rather, “This is a book about change” (Premawardhana 4). While this is true, I will add that I think it is also a book about a particular model of relation.


Change: Rupture and Continuity

What is the role of change in religious experience, and how does Premawardhana explore it? Essentially, Premawardhana is looking to negotiate between the models of rupture—defined by Robbins as “radical discontinuity with what has come before” (Robbins 159)—and continuity, which creates a sort of cultural stasis where “certain people, usually labeled ‘traditional,’ are prone only to reproducing their past” (Premawardhana 7). While Premawardhana wishes to develop, not discard, the work of Robbins and others theorists of rupture, he believes that they rely too much on “modern catalysts” as prompting rupture (Premawardhana 7). Premawardhana asserts instead that the very possibility of rupture is not a new modern development, but a “mundane extension of an already convertible way of being” among the people he lived with (Premawardhana 8). This leads Premawardhana to an attention to the complex relationship between rupture and continuity, the paradoxical fact that capacity for rupture is continuously present.

Whatever may be said about this paradox, it is certainly not static. A model of pure continuity is almost definitionally in stasis. But Robbins’ notion of modern rupture is also static in its own way by conceiving of both modernity and conversion as trajectories that end in a final deposit. Premawardhana highlights Robbins’ important work on rupture and conversion, but questions the fact that Robbins’ notion of conversion seems both: 1) too much informed by easily-identified Christians with ready theological stories to tell (the same problem as Turner finding the one villager with a story of the meaning of ritual that we have discussed in class), and 2) permanent (Premawardhana 106). I think Robbins evidences this static tendency in his article for today as well, in a telling line. He dedicates a final section to looking at “what kind of culture” Pentecostal ideologies and practices “produce” (Robbins 168). Even if the process of production is continuous, “culture” here is a static product, one that can be defined by terms like “modern.”

Premawardhana situates existential mobility as his way of maintaining both rupture and continuity. This mobility is not a description appended to an object called “culture.” Instead, existential mobility is a way of being that takes change and transformation not as challenges, but as “a precondition for wellbeing” (Premawardhana 161). It is a dispositional suitability to change, one Premawardhana identifies with the “Pentecostal principle” (162). But Premawardhana is also aware that he is making a point not wholly limited to the Mahkuwa with whom he lived. He draws on both Western philosophical and local experiential knowledge to try and create an account of this existential mobility, but its implications are already in conversation with basic existential questions about human existence. He writes that there is nothing radically new, uniquely modern, or uniquely Pentecostal about the notion of rupture present in “radical renewal” (Premawardhana pp. 162-3). The implication we are left with is that this existential mobility, navigating and returning and oscillating between facets of our being, is a feature of all human existence, and always has been. It is, again, the paradoxically continuous presence of change.


Relation: Doctrine of the Unity of…?

While Premawardhana locates his book as being about change, I think it is also about a particular model of relation. This is most clear as the book concludes, where he writes, “Thus some of the most widely assumed antinomies dissolve and fall away—roots versus routes, structure versus agency, continuity versus discontinuity” (Premawardhana 162). The move is to disrupt easy categories and dichotomies, which we can see as an inheritance from Michael Jackson’s through our reading from last week. But it is more nuanced than this. With the question of change, Premawardhana doesn’t allow continuity and rupture to exist as poles that we navigate between in a kind of dialectical model. Instead, continuity and rupture both collapse into mobility, which is both at once, a continuous rupture. This move is replicated in conversation on structure and agency through Bordieu and habitus. Premawardhana doesn’t argue for a middle way between poles of structure and agency, but rather that agency and structure exist always together. This move is applied to enough topics throughout the work that, as much as it is making a theoretical point about change, it seems to also be making one about relation.

Because it is typically so present, it is notable when it is absent. When it comes to the question of experience and identity, Premawardhana uses the frame of polyontology. This model of polyontology maintains “fluidity” between “distinct compartmentalized essences” (Premawardhana 100).  He crafts this into the slightly different notion of polyontological mobility, which emphasizes that certain distinctions are taken as real, but allowed to be transgressed. This frame allows him to speak about distinct “cultural or religious formations” as being tools in a “repertoire” that “may be foregrounded at one time and backgrounded at another” (162) in what he calls a “serial” (100) manner, without a sense of contradiction. While he narrates experiences in the field that substantiate that something close to this is going on, this model of polyontological mobility seems at odds with his framing of the relation between things or concepts that is in play more generally. If the general relational move is to collapse distinction, such that experience is not congealed in identity but rather is experiencing continuous rupture, then how can there be multiple, distinct, ontological categories of “cultural or religious formations” to fit as objects into our “repertoire”? Even if they are taken as socially real, their inscription in experience through habitus is, by Premawardhana’s own account, a messy non-distinct business where agency, experience and social structure are not separate from one another such that the purity of these religious dimensions can be maintained. The static, object-language that Premawardhana consistently avoids in describing features of experience seems to emerge when he begins to speak about our mechanism of drawing upon disparate experiences.



This last point leads into some of the questions I have for these readings that I hope might be helpful for discussion:

  • Does Premawardhana’s framing of continuity and rupture complicate or deny our ability to speak about particular, discrete religious experiences?
  • What implications might Premawardhana’s approach to change and relation have for our discussion of the Self/Other divide in ethnography?
  • To what degree should we treat religious experiences, such as conversion, as distinct and complete events within the lives of those we work with? Premawardhana is guided to contest the permanence of conversion because it’s not an accurate frame for the experiences he observes. But if we were to work with communities that both speak and (at least superficially) act as if conversion is “permanent,” to what degree ought we to seek out potential discontinuities?
  • Building off of conversations from last class, how does Faith in Flux combine Western philosophical work and local experiences? How does this compare to Michael Jackson’s efforts at the same? Are there places where it is more or less effective?
  • Are Premawardhana’s critiques of Robbins fair, based on the article we read for today? What from Robbins should we be careful to hold onto?

Greg Coates, The Palm at the End of the Mind

The penumbra is where light fades into darkness—the most elementary metaphor we possess for the threshold that separates the familiar realms in which we live and those impinging realms that we subject to endless speculation, but that ultimately elude our grasp. (Jackson, 238)

Ever since the beginning of the semester, the concurrent question that has been addressed is, “What is at stake?” My answer based upon the past six weeks is the reality or sacredness of people’s religious experiences.” After all, William James concluded at his Gifford Lectures that the specialists, or what I would call the truth-holders are the people who are observed (James, 438). If one holds James premise as true, there are a few questions that confront the ethnographer. The first question is who defines “the real?” A second question is, “what methodologies best observe and record the realities of the sacred?” The third and final question focuses on the limitations and biases of the ethnographer her/himself and the very methodological and analytical tools she/he uses to gather what can be observed and more importantly that which cannot. I argue that the tension embedded in the third question is necessary for safeguarding the real and sacred of the people who are observed as well as the humility and integrity of the researcher. With these questions in mind, I know to look at Michael Jackson’s The Palm at the End of the Mind, Robert H. Sharf’s The Rhetoric of Experience and the Study of Religion, and Don Seeman’s Otherwise than Meaning: On the Generosity of Ritual.
The Palm at the End of the Mind is anthropologist Michael Jackson’s attempt to understand the connectedness between people’s relationships, religions, and how those interactions create the real. He writes “I only have a sense of being grounded in something I can only call ‘the real’ that connects my life to the life of the earth itself, its generations succeeding one another over time, its multiple geographies and cultures” (Jackson, 1). Jackson continues by associating ‘the real’ with one’s well-being. He writes, “Basic to all these reflections is the view that one’s well-being depends on one’s relationships or connected ness to an ‘elsewhere’ or ‘otherness’ that lies beyond the horizons of one’s own immediate lifeworld” (Jackson,7). This is remarkable since the author stated with great integrity about his own bias. In his approach to this ethnography, the author writes, “as an anthropologist, I was intrigued with whether something one might call ‘religious experience’ could be identified in all cultures and all people (including skeptics like myself), and what meaning could be ascribed the term ‘religion’” (xi).
The focus of his research is what Jackson refers to as ‘border situations’ that brings an ethnographer up against the limitations of language and knowledge (something greater than empirical observation) and yet opens up new ways on understanding one’s self and her/his relationships with others including the divine (xii) that can be empirically observed in the human experience. The image that the author uses is penumbral which is existentially described as “an area in which something exists to a lesser or uncertain degree” and “an outlying or peripheral region.” (xii). In addition, the author locates the penumbral in the “shifting spaces between statements, descriptions, and persons, and in the course of events.” (xiv). His methodology was primarily through interviewing people and reading stories of his own family.
What strikes me as unique about Jackson’s research on the universal experience of connectedness and suffering is that he is trying to understand his own personal issues like the death of his maternal grandfather (48), his first wife’s death (61), the summary of his mother’s journal (93), and finally his own journal (158). As he works on his own experiences, he summarizes the ethnographer’s dilemma in quantifying the penumbral regions as mystery. He writes, “What we call a mystery is the result of a refusal to translate phenomena, either external or intrapsychic, into shared meanings . . . Yet, for all this, there always remains something that cannot be explained away—something residual, irreducible, and fugitive” (167-68).
Yet, as I read Sharf’s article, I could not help but draw a connection of Jackson’s penumbral regions as Sharf’s mystical experience and his argument against the biases of anthropologists. He writes, “If we can bracket our own presuppositions, temper our ingrained sense of cultural superiority, and resist the temptation to evaluate the truth claims of foreign traditions, we find that their experience of the world possesses its own rationality, its own coherence, its own truth. (Sharf, 268). Unfortunately “The perennialist’s position on the mystical experience is “wholly shaped by a mystic’s cultural environment, personal history, doctrinal commitments, religious training, expectations, aspirations, and so on” (Sharf, 271). This is the same warning and Seeman makes to the cultural anthropologists. Seeman writes, “As a hermeneutic enterprise, cultural anthropology tends to assume that ordered and coherent meaning is the primary desideratum of social life. (Seemans, 55)
Yet in his argument against the perennialist position, Sharf introduces a theory called Quaila. He writes, “Qualia (the singular form is quale), penumbral is a term proposed by philosophers to designate those subjective or phenomenal properties of experience that resist a purely materialistic explanation . . . In short, qualia refer to the way things seem . . . qualia are construed as essentially private, ineffable, and irreducible properties of experience” (Sharf, 283).
The same private, ineffable, and irreducible properties of experience can also be seen in Seeman’s article titled Otherwise than Meaning: On the Generosity of Ritual. Once again we encounter Jackson’s penumbral region and Sharf’s “other’s experience” as Seeman describes Rabbi Shapria’s overwhelming experience of suffering—his qualia—during the Holocaust. Seeman writes, “Suffering ‘beyond measure’ simply devastates the subject with no hope for bearableness . . . this becomes paradoxically the ground for a different kind of relationship to agency in suffering, based not on the quest for meaning—or even the meaningfulness of ritual—but on the ethical gesture that Levinas calls ‘the medical’” (Seeman, 66). Seeman continues, “In the shadow of that collapse, only ritual gestures—the act sacred study rather than its content, the act of self-sacrifice rather than its potential for success, or the act of ritual observance without hope of efficacy—remain in place (Seeman, 67).

Precis: Seeman, One People, One Blood and “Coffee and the Moral Order”

Precis: Seeman, One People, One Blood and “Coffee and the Moral Order”

Chelsea Mak

Both One People, One Blood: Ethiopian-Israelis and the Return to Judaism (Seeman, 2009) and “Coffee and the Moral Order: Ethiopian Jews and Pentecostals Against Culture” (Seeman, 2015) enter our classroom conversation self-consciously. Seeman locates his own work within what he calls the “broad ‘phenomenological’ or ‘experience-near’ school of anthropological writing” (2009, 3), drawing on works such as Unni Wikan’s Managing Turbulent Hearts, and contributing both methodological and analytical insights to our discussion of the ethnography of religious experience. Specifically, Seeman’s self-aware exploration of the position of the ethnographer in relation to the subject enlarges our understanding of several key questions, namely, what is at stake for those whose lives, religions, and cultures are studied; what is the nature of a “experience-near” (Kleinman and Kleinman, 277; Seeman 2009, 3) anthropological method, including how it might both expand and limit what can be said with academic certainty; and how the particularity of individual experience is both shaped by and shapes religious and cultural forms or, how might the anthropologist develop an “analytic frame better attuned to the shifting registers of freedom and constraint in the experience of everyday life” (Seeman 2015, 743).

Seeman’s two works both contribute to studies of Ethiopian Jews, while also departing from previous foci and method because of an emphasis on richly and thoroughly describing what is at stake for this community (Seeman 2009, 6). One People, One Blood tells the story of the “Feres Mura,” a sub-community within the larger group of Ethiopian Jews, who have sought and, with various levels of success, achieved a return to Judaism and integration into Israeli society. The book length ethnography has several significant goals: first, to demonstrate that “interpretations of religious agency lie at the heart of [the “Feres Mura” dilemma]” (Seeman 2009, 2); second, to shift the course of the conversation about Beta Israel and Ethiopian Jews “in a more analytic direction” in order to “drive theoretical reflection about religious  and moral experience in context” (Seeman 2009, ); and, third, to contribute and perhaps influence the public dialogue surrounding the “Feres Mura” dilemma (Seeman 2009, 7). Thus, the book focuses on the experience of the “Feres Mura” in relation to state immigration policy, public health, and Israel’s religious establishment, and concludes that the “return to Judaism was intended as a ritual-bureaucratic system for the transformation of apostates to penitents, nominal Christians into Jews” (Seeman 2009, 205). As such, it was successful, despite the disappointment expressed by some of its administrators and observers, who desired a greater demonstration of “single-minded religious devotion” (Seeman 2009, 205). Seeman’s article, “Coffee and the Moral Order,” published six years later, returns to one of the driving theses of One People, One Blood, namely, the question of religious and moral agency. Thus, in the article, Seeman begins to develop an analytical framework for attending to agency in a subject’s experience of everyday life (Seeman 2015, 743) by exploring the role of buna drinking in the lives of Ethiopian Jews and Pentecostals. He argues that buna serves as “no less than a material medium for disputes about the limits of moral agency, the experience of kin relations that have been broken or restructured, and the eruption of dangerous potencies in the social world” (Seeman 2015, 734). Seeman’s studies are deeply informed by his attention to the question of “what is at stake” for his subjects and thus serve as a fruitful ground for discussions of ethnographic method and analysis.

Kleinman and Kleinman describe the importance of considering what is at stake for the subjects of ethnographic study as a matter of producing anthropological work that is either dehumanizing or humanizing (276-77). They thus argue that “. . . a contextual focus on experience-near categories for ethnography should begin with the defining characteristic of overbearing practical relevance in the processes and forms of experience. . . [which is to say] something is at stake for all of us in the daily round of happenings and transactions” (Kleinman and Kleinman, 277). That this theoretical framework is a driving factor for Seeman’s work with the “Feres Mura” community is strikingly evident, not only in Seeman’s introductory comments, but also in the telling of the story itself—that is, that the story begins with a death and ends with a refurbished grave. Seeman highlights that what is at stake for this community is more than the ability to relocate and settle in a new country, and more than religious conversion, but includes grief and suffering, kinship and belonging, and politics and health. Indeed, such a question, and the gravity it lends to the ethnographic task, led Seeman to give more space to the question of “cultural politics” than is typical in anthropological works and to reflect on the shifting role of the ethnographer as the stakes for the subjects are revealed: “Knowing what is at stake for informants must include the political contexts of their lives, as well as the Heisenberg-like effects of participant observation, which turns the observer into a part of the social scene” (Seeman 2009, 7). In tangible ways, a focus on what is at stake in people’s daily lives shaped the nature of Seeman’s work, influencing what content was most important to include and also the goals of his project, that is, the hope that such a work might also shape public dialogue.

Such questions and concerns are a mark of the “experience-near” approach to ethnographic writing and are essential for understanding Seeman’s project (2009, 3). This approach diverges from the assumptions of anthropologists like Clifford Geertz, who sought a thick description of culture. In contrast, the first obligation of Seeman’s approach is to “the thick and detailed description, not of culture but of what is at stake for people in local settings [see above]—stakes that are patterned in important ways but never wholly defined by cultural considerations” (Seeman 2009, 3). Seeman argues that this approach works to safeguard the anthropological task through “a rigorous theoretical and methodological approach to lived experience” that prevents “significant misunderstandings of the distinctive life-worlds in which human habitation and meaning occur” (2009, 3). That such “significant misunderstandings” are possible was illustrated clearly and profoundly in Wikan’s work on the Balinese (Managing Turbulent Hearts, xv-xxvi). One area where this framework is particularly evident in One People, One Blood is Seeman’s focus on shifting the conversation about the true identity of the “Feres Mura” away from the topic of origins and onto the “here-and-now, where Ethiopian Jews, “Feres Mura,” and Beta Israel Pentecostals . . . all struggle to define themselves—and also struggle just to get by” (Seeman 2009, 61). Similarly, “Coffee and the Moral Order” is structured around thick descriptions of the subjective experience of participation in buna drinking that reveals how one such aspect of culture is not sufficiently explained without attention to the nuances with which subjects and groups experience or disavow its observance. In this case, buna drinking or abstinence is revealed as more than “a mechanism for ensuring peace within families and ensuring solidarity among women” (Seeman 2015, 735), but also as a site wherein individuals and the groups to which they belong may actively engage in cultural negotiation (Seeman 2015, 740). As such, buna drinking/abstinence opens an avenue for the exploration of religious and moral agency.

Already in Seeman’s earlier work, One People, One Blood, the question of religious and moral agency (and, especially, how the religious and moral agency of another might be determined and evaluated) emerged as a significant theme for analysis. With regard to the “Feres Mura,” this was because, at the very heart of the dilemma, lay questions of authentic kinship and religious conversion for which no “truly objective and unqualified criteria” could be offered (Seeman 2009, 62). Thus, for the “Feres Mura,” the motivation for a return to Judaism has frequently been reduced in public political and religious dialogue to a matter of the truly penitent heart or the utilitarian desire to escape poverty in Ethiopia (Seeman 2009, 92–3). However, a careful analysis, according to Seeman, must include and consider the complexities which attend such a profound and life-altering decision—one which must be tied to “a more situated account of their lives in historical and ethnographic context” (2009, 83) and which reveals the way those who immigrated to Israel were required to navigate “broader and overlapping—yet not identical—fields of social expectation” (Seeman 2009, 108). Such a lived reality as that experienced by the “Feres Mura” draws the complexity of individual decision making and its relation to religion and culture into sharp relief and brings us to the question of freedom—a fundamental issue at the heart of Seeman’s article on buna drinking.

The focused nature of Seeman’s article allows for a close analysis of the Ethiopian practice of buna drinking as a cultural observance either embraced or rejected by Ethiopian Jews and Pentecostals in Israel. Indeed, the negotiation of cultural, religious, and familial identity are evident in the varied responses to buna drinking and its rejection (a decision that may be made because of one’s past experience of the practice as hurtful, the shifting generational values necessitated by employment, or observance of religious commitments requiring denouncing the spiritual aspects of buna drinking). Seeman here argues that the Pentecostal notion of freedom highlights a “more basic tension between the human desire for autonomy as well as stable systems of relatedness” (Seeman 2015, 744) that, while never entirely divorced of its particularity in time, place, and history, may also provide a means to reflect upon the complexities of agency and constraint in socio-cultural and religious contexts. Seeman emphasizes that he does not intend to “deny the power of culture in human affairs but, rather, to insist on its conditionality,” which is to assert that cultures cannot be satisfactorily described as mere semiotic systems, but also as the “differing textures of constraint, freedom, and compulsion that characterize their lived horizons” (Seeman 2015, 745). Such an assertion, then, demonstrates the necessity of an “experience-near” approach to the study of agency, freedom, and constraint.

Given the ethnographic emphasis on illuminating the human condition (Kleinman and Kleinman, 278, 280) and Seeman’s own claim that “the stories we tell ourselves about belonging and kinship are at the very heart of the story [One People, One Blood] aims to tell” (Seeman 2009 12–3), it is prudent to ask to what degree Seeman’s analytical framework succeeds in an adequate account of the “Feres Mura” community, but also to what degree his framework may have explanatory power for ethnographic research in other areas. In other words, how might Seeman’s insights regarding complexity and experience-near descriptions of subject choices assist the ethnographer in other contexts? What are the pitfalls and advantages of an “experience-near” approach to anthropology? Or, specifically, to agency? Seeman himself notes that “the contingency of interpretation . . . has important analytical and ethical implications for the world we study” and that it necessitates caution regarding statements of academic certainty (Seeman 2009, 8 and 208). This implies that a greater awareness on the contingency of the researcher is also necessary for ethnographic work. Indeed, Seeman also highlights several of the challenges and complexities that come with ethnographic research and participant observation—some of which emerged as questions in last week’s forum discussion on Wikan, and Kleinman and Kleinman. For example, Seeman’s work with Ethiopian Pentecostals in Israel was cut short by tensions that emerged because of divergent religious commitments that resulted in a “rupture that no ethnographic methodology could bridge” (2009, 134). Seeman’s experience thus highlights some of the unique research challenges presented by participant observation, namely, how the particularities of the researcher’s person (gender, religion, ethnicity, etc.) and experience (among others, the ability to make friends or the length of the study) impact the results of one’s work. How can such challenges be mitigated to ensure the best possible contribution to the field of ethnography?

One People, One Blood & Coffee and the Moral Order

One People, One Blood & Coffee and the Moral Order Precis

Tala AlRaheb

In One People, One Blood: Ethiopian – Israelis and the Return to Judaism, Don Seeman creates an ethnography which sheds light on the lived experiences of Ethiopian Israelis, specifically the “Feres Mura” through examining the cultural and political challenges that they face. In fact, Seeman’s book focuses on “the ‘Feres Mura’ experience of three separate but closely related spheres of state policy and bureaucratic practice that impinge upon them in mutually reinforcing ways: state immigration policy, public health practice, and the power of Israel’s religious establishment.” (3-4) Seeman, furthermore, wishes to examine claims of kinship as well as agency in religious transformation with regard to “Feres Mura” that go beyond the question of “Are they Jewish?” (29) Instead, Seeman argues that the “Feres Mura” dilemma is a “moral discourse” (32) and only when we stop reducing it to fit “fixed categories” (32) will we truly understand what is at stake for individuals. In fact, he criticizes individuals and scholars who have inadequately deciphered the dilemma of the “Feres Mura.” He writes, “In most cases, debates have focused on privileged moments of religious change – the moment of apostasy to Christianity or of return to Judaism —that are treated as starkly definitive and binary, either purely religious or completely instrumental.” (206) Therefore, Seeman argues that we cannot separate the “Feres Mura” dilemma from the broader cultural and political context that surrounds it and create orderly patterns of behavior; the choices of agency and religious decisions happen in social situations, not in a vacuum.

Seeman offers the same argument in his article, “Coffee and the Moral Order: Ethiopian Jews and Pentecostals Against Culture.” In discussing why Ethiopian Jews and Pentecostals often refuse to drink buna, Seeman pushes against framing such practices through cultural or theological patterns since they do not incorporate the disorganized and often confusing ways in which people think and behave every day in the world. Seeman writes,

Recognizing this everyday potential is not at all to detract from the uniqueness of Pentecostal conversion or to deny the importance of distinctive religious and ascetic practices to the emerging conversation about freedom… But it is intended to suggest that our consideration of these specialized practices should be reoriented to an existential and not just ritual or theological register so that continuities with everyday experience might be made more visible and examined across a broader social field. (11).

Thus, Seeman, similar to the point he makes in his book, argues that the choice not to drink buna is undeniably linked to the social context surrounding the individuals. While the case of the “Feres Mura” must be understood in conjunction with “state immigration policy, public health practice, and the power of Israel’s religious establishment” (3-4), the abstention of buna consumption “need[s] to be understood against an intersubjective horizon of emotionally fraught relationships with kin or neighbors, economic pressures, and the shifting, embodied experience of gender and sexuality.” (10-11)

Throughout his book, Seeman successfully achieves his aim of explaining the “Feres Mura” dilemma within the broader context in which it exists. In fact, not only does Seeman explain the “Feres Mura’ life, he also offers the readers an account of ethnographic research within this specific context. Seeman describes unique challenges for ethnography and leaves us with thought-provoking insights into the field of study.  Similar to Kleinman and Wikan, the question of what is at stake for individuals is at the heart of Seeman’s book. Furthermore, methodologically, Seeman argues that in order to understand the experience of the “Feres Mura”, one must engage in an experience- near approach. Seeman writes, “Experience – near or cultural – phenomenological approach to ethnographic writing presumes that our first obligation is to the thick and detailed description not of culture but of what is at stake for real people in local settings – stakes that are patterned in important ways but never wholly defined by cultural considerations.” (6) Furthermore, Seeman concludes his book with the claim that “participant observation – by which I mean living intimately and in conjunction with strangers… is a necessary condition for the very possibility of understanding.” (209)

Living among individuals and trying to understand what is at stake for them means that we are also translating this understanding to readers who have not lived among those communities. Thus, our research bears ethical implications to the lives of the people we study. Not only are we writing about them, but we ought to think about how our writing influences them as well. Seeman brings our attention to this conundrum by stating, “We are also constrained – in a powerful and morally invigorating way – by the fact that the worlds we describe have lives that continue to grow beyond our texts and, with increasing frequency, to talk back.” (208) That being said, what happens when our interpretation of communities, although partially true, is not able to provide a full description of their experiences and thus does not do complete justice to their lives?

Another methodological challenge that Seeman has encouraged me to consider is the question of insider vs. outsider researcher. In chapter three, Seeman describes Messing’s encounter with the descendants of converts. Messing explains that his knowledge of the kin and his positionality helped form trust with his informant. Seeman, furthermore, writes, “Personal relationships are the very medium of knowledge for anthropology, and there is no reason at all for surprise that the existential position of the researcher – here a Jew, tentatively seeking contact with another Jew – made a crucial difference to what he was able to learn about this topic.” (78) A similar issue is brought up again in chapter six, during an Ethiopian-Israeli protest against racism. Seeman writes,

During the chaos of the demonstration, I mustered the courage to ask one young man with a placard what he meant by invoking the Holocaust, and he told me that for him, this was really a protest against racism. Yet when a persistent foreign journalist who had overheard our conversation began to ask leading questions about racism in Israel, he refused to repeat that assertion. Certain accusations, apparently, were still meant for local ears only. (154)

The two accounts of the interaction between researcher and informants beg several questions. How do we form trusting relationships with our informants? What happens if we cannot create trust with our informants? Is it more favorable to be an insider researcher or an outsider researcher? Who decides what it means to be an insider or an outsider? How does our ethnicity, race, religion, gender, and other factors of our identity as future ethnographers influence our research? Can we truly understand what is at stake for individuals if informants don’t trust us as researchers to reveal to us their experiences? I ruminate on these questions because I believe they bring helpful insights into my future research project and help me reflect on the kind of ethnography in which I’ll be involved.


Wikan/Kleinman and Kleinman (Kimberlain)

In Managing Turbulent Hearts, Unni Wikan writes an account of Balinese culture which advocates for an anthropological turn to lived experience. Wikan argues that there is a discrepancy between the ways in which Balinese life has been depicted in western media and anthropological literature and the ways in which life in Bali is actually lived. Wikan initially set out to build on an existing study undertaken by Geertz, but realized once she arrived that her experience brought to light claims that were different from—and even contradictory to—evidence previously presented by her colleagues. Wikan’s purpose is to decenter anthropology’s tendency to stereotype and overgeneralize which, according to Wikan, has been historically characteristic of the discipline. In order to accomplish this goal, she turns to a theory which is not so concerned with “culture” as it is concerned with people. Wikan states that cultural models like symbols and ideas serve to order people’s lives, but that they are only partially operative in shaping people’s lives. She states, “I argue that the truly significant meanings of symbols, signs, and events are such as propel and constrain people, and thus it is to theirlives one must look to grasp what is entailed.” (Wikan 19). In her turn to “their” lives, she develops certain major themes.

An important aspect of Wikan’s methodology is her attention to the particularities of people’s lives and circumstances. In order to accomplish this, she puts effort in to cultivating relationships and abandoning her own preconceived notions. One of the most salient relationships she cultivates is that with Suriati. While she acknowledges that the data she draws is concerning one particular person’s life and experiences, she hopes that within this particularity various aspects of Balinese life will be illuminated in an “experiential whole” (Wikan 26).

One important theme threaded through Wikan’s work is her attention to what is at stake in the lives of her informants. In Suriati’s case, she notes that from the outside Suriati embodies the Western stereotype of Balinese—graceful, aesthetically-minded, and poised. It is only through Wikan’s prioritization of Suriati’s lived experience that she became contextualized, multivalent, and humanized. She sought to acknowledge the concerns and feeling-thoughts of individuals in their relationships to others as they navigate the world: one which is never organized or seamless. Saliently, Wikan argues that we should take the category of feeling-thinking seriously in place of our own western notion of “experience”. This move, Wikan states, allows us insights into the human condition that cannot be realized unless we choose to abandon, temporarily, our own cultural knowledge.

Kleinman and Kleinman also advocate for a turn to lived experience in their critique of medical anthropology. They argue that both anthropologists and medical professionals participate in a “process of professional transformation” which “trivializes the experience of their subjects” (Kleinman and Kleinman 276). Echoing Wikan, they argue that there are things at stake for people in their lives, and that we should ask what things are at stake in order to advance an ethnography of experience. In their analysis of human suffering, Kleinman and Kleinman present the case of Huang Zhenyi, a survivor of China’s Cultural Revolution. Through this illustration, they seek to argue that “the anthropological tendency to create cultural archetypes out of the always messy and uncertain details of a personal account of illness…is as invalid an interpretation of the human core of suffering as is the biomedical tendency to create a purely biological metaphor for pain.” (Kleinman and Kleinman 280). For the authors, suffering is complex, narrative, and has a multiplicity of meanings. It is not enough to stop at culture or biology, they argue, for “There is something definitively human at the core of experience…that would emerge as universal from cross-cultural translation…if we focused ethnographic descriptions more self-consciously on experience and its modes.” (Kleinman and Kleinman 292).

In comparing these works to the literature we have read in previous weeks, I found many of Wikan’s and the Kleinmans’ arguments refreshing. I agree that the best way to get at a description of the experience of another is not only through their own words, but through their own conceptual frameworks. These works also prompted me to ask questions about the task of ethnography and its implications. Certainly, Wikan holds that overcoming exoticism and creating resonance are central to her task. Her work suggests that she is writing not only for the sake of contributing to the discipline, but that the discipline should not be removed from the moral and political worlds which authors navigate. What happens when ethnography becomes not merely “thick description” but an attempt to un-other? I admire Wikan for her contributions but I also wonder how she is received in the academy at large.

Wikan and Kleinman & Kleinman

Tala AlRaheb

Wikan and Kleinman & Kleinman

Unni Wikan, in her book, Managing Turbulent Hearts: A Balinese Formula for Living, and Arthur and Joan Kleinman, in their article, “Suffering and its Professional Transformation: Toward an Ethnography of Interpersonal Experience”, argue for the reevaluation of the traditional anthropological model. They propose this reassessment in response to the work of anthropologists such as Clifford Geertz and others, who argue for a “view of culture as webs woven into a coherent structure.” (Wikan, 12) Instead, all three scholars call for the privileging of the complex experiences of individuals as they occur in certain contexts, i.e. an anthropology/ethnography of experience. In critiquing Geertz’s methodology, Wikan writes, “Perhaps a direct approach to the lived significance of other people’s concerns should be granted as much primacy as those other approaches.” (xxiv) Additionally, she states that the aim of the book is to “try and grasp how people actually experience their lives, lives lived according to Balinese ideas, concepts, and conventions. How can we best develop a degree of understanding, a resonance, for the events that happen in Balinese worlds, the meanings they have, and the experiences they induce?” (xxiv) Furthermore, in arguing for an ethnography of experience, Kleinman and Kleinman highlight a question often missed in traditional anthropological models, which is: What is at stake for the individuals we are studying?  They write, “It is our opinion that a contextual focus on experience-near categories for ethnography should begin with the defining characteristic of overbearing practical relevance in the processes and forms of experience.” (277) Wikan incorporates this question in her study of the Balinese, as well.  Failing to incorporate individual experiences in the study of anthropology/ethnography runs the risk of “delegitimating” as well as “dehumanizing” those individuals it seeks to study (Kleinman&Kleinman, 276). Or as Wikan writes in reference to Suriati, “we would come close to reducing her to an automaton: a mere embodiment of “her culture.” (Wikan, 13)

In order to exemplify her point, Wikan begins her book with Suriati’s narrative. Suriati, who is suffering due to her boyfriend’s death, cries herself to sleep at night. Yet, when she leaves the house, “she put[s] on that sparkling shine” and shows no signs of grief (9). What is at stake if Suriati shows signs of grief in public? Suriati fears black magic, and she is also concerned with “health, morality, and self-value.” (Wikan, 50) Wikan, furthermore, stresses that Suriati (and Balinese individuals in general), utilize a process of feeling-thoughts. She writes, “feeling-thoughts are regarded as precisely the choice and responsibility of the person and her closest kin. They are moral acts, truly the structures through which one lives in the world.” (139) Later she states, “A Balinese ethnotheory of feeling-thoughts is thus sustained by (super)natural sanctions. The microcosm of the self is linked with the macrocosm of society and the (super)natural world through a construction of individual emotional expression as a force to shape health or undermine it, make or break social relations…” (144) Thus, feeling-thoughts functions as a type of therapy that helps them cope with their suffering and offers them a way of living. If Wikan was content with the observation of Suriati’s public life and neglected to consider her private life and feeling-thoughts, she would have fallen into the shortcomings of traditional anthropological understandings of Balinese practices as “aesthetic at base.” (192) Wikan, however, did not stumble over these traditional pitfalls. Rather, by paying attention to Suriati’s private life, Wikan was able to refute the “anthropological generalization that the Balinese do not cry at death.” (10)

Similarly, in reporting their case study in China, Kleinman and Kleinman, oppose the conclusion which regards, “emotions in Chinese society as irrelevant to the legitimation of the social order.” (288) To combat this, they examine the “Third Century text, Renwu zhi” which argues that one must balance emotion in the face of suffering in order to remain in control (288). Through an analysis of the text, they delve deeper into personal experiences of suffering and arrive at the conclusion that, “uncontrolled emotional displays threaten one’s position in a world of power.” (288)  As we can see here, the anthropology and ethnography of experience shatter false ideas regarding culture and un-otherize cultures by explaining the process by which individuals choose to display emotion. It makes the individuals being studied more relatable and more human. Reading this book made me realize that I too will be engaging an anthropology and ethnography of experience in studying Christian women in a patriarchal Palestinian society. Therefore, I cannot help but wonder, can the study of experience become too individualistic? Does such a methodology have its limitations?

Nonetheless, through the study of experience, Wikan is able to go beyond the reach of the study of individuals within public spaces. In doing so, she is able to see into their private lives and spaces. Wikan, argues that there is a connection between the public and private spheres within Balinese culture that governs their behavior and makes them choose to “make [their] face look bright and clear.” (51) Without the anthropology of experience, one, like Geertz, would apply Western understanding of the public and private to Balinese culture. Therefore, she argues, “for the abandonment of the public/private dichotomy in the study of Bali and for a general restraint in using the pair as an analytical tool in any cross-cultural study.” (62) Wikan, thus, stresses the need to disregard the Western notion of public/private in order to understand people’s concerns and actions in a certain context and what is at stake for them. Furthermore, in studying both the public and private life, one arrives at the same conclusion that both Wikan and Kleinman come to, which is intersubjectivity. This means that while each experience is unique, it shares certain aspects with regard to feelings and concerns that make them generalizable to others. Wikan writes, “ The complex world of individual concerns, feelings, passions, and fears of Balinese, though private in the sense of being shielded from the scrutiny of strangers, is also essentially shared and intersubjective, hence cultural” (116) Kleinman and Kleinman take the idea of intersubjectivity a bit farther than Wikan and claim that “the intersubjective experience of suffering… is itself a defining characteristic of human conditions in all societies.” (280) Thus, while the anthropology/ ethnography of experience begins with the individuals, it also points to shared cultural and universal experiences.

Thus, the starting point for the scholars is experience. Wikan writes, “I argue, that we should start, methodologically, with people’s compelling concerns as they are evinced through their everyday life experiences.” (Wikan, 47) This necessitates a certain engagement with individuals within a culture that goes beyond participant observation. Wikan, instead, engages in interpersonal interactions and interviews in order to understand the various experiences of her subjects. She writes, “I tried as much as possible to be a friend and sympathetic listener to people. I never used a tape recorder and rarely took notes on the spot. Thus most of the conversations and observations I relate are rendered from memory.” (xxv) Reading this statement elicited several questions for me. What are the possible implications of becoming friends with those we are studying? Do we lose a certain objectivity when the lines between researcher and subject are blurred? Or do we gain more insight into the lives of the individuals we are studying when we take the researcher goggles off, and instead become a part of their daily lives? The second claim in Wikan’s statement was problematic for me. If these interviews were mostly “rendered from memory,” can we truly rely on her analysis of these conversations? Could she have forgotten or misremembered some of the conversations thus leading her to a different conclusion regarding Balinese society? Or did the fact that she was not using a tape recorder, generate a more natural flow of situations, since people did not feel watched by her?

With these questions being raised, however, the method of Wikan clearly achieves her aim of understanding how Balinese live their lives and what is at stake for them when they make their faces bright and clear. She un-others the Balinese to the Western audience and helps us connect with them in order to achieve her final aim which is resonance. She writes, “Resonance thus demands something of both author and reader: a joint effort at feeling-thought; a willingness on the part of both to engage with another world, life, or idea: to use one’s own life experience… to try to grasp the meanings…evoked in the meeting of an experiencing subject with the text; in the next instance, then, to share such understandings with others.” (269) Wikan prompts us to engage with the narratives in the book and understand why a project that begins with experience is essential. How did you interact with the stories and the text? Did you resonate?

** NOTE** Please feel free to also engage any other parts of the book or article you found intriguing in your comments. (Black magic, feeling-thoughts, the contributions of Wikan and Kleinman to medicine and Psychology)