Zum Inhalt springen

Kalpana Ram

Thursday, August 27, 11:30 a.m. | CT
Religion, Human Agency and Change: the importance of intermediary experiences

Anthropology has traditionally privileged a relationship between opening ourselves, as scholars, to the ‘emic’ perspective of those whose experiences we write about, and our own scholarly critical discourse. Yet in relation to some of the more ‘extreme’ phenomena such as spirit possession, magic, witchcraft and sorcery – which remain widespread across societies - we have managed to preserve ourselves and our critical discourse remarkably intact from their intrinsic challenge. More typically, we have represented possession as responses to social tensions, further intensified by social change (encroachment of capitalism, industrial forms of work, intensification of patriarchal controls over women, migration, globalisation). Seldom are they considered as forms of change in themselves. This is despite the dramatic alterations in individual behaviour, dispositions and forms of consciousness, all of which are hallmarks of the phenomenon. How might we shift our scholarly discourses on change and agency, particularly female agency, by allowing a more open attitude of attention to such dramas? Anthropology’s privileging of long term engagement, which allows us to come to know individuals in intimate ways over time, adds further methodological potential for the study of change as well as religion. How does individual experience, taken over time, alter the way we view agency in possession? This is not only a matter of critically examining our own intellectual inheritances, but also of finding better ways of imagining and conceptualising human experience as we find it. Possession may seem an extreme phenomenon – and it is that. But it also mediates between death and life, between the dead and the living. For scholars, it points in the direction of the importance of ‘intermediary’ categories that can describe the bulk of human experience, which lies somewhere between the polarities of change vs. stasis, innovation vs. tradition, individual vs. society, agency vs. victimhood.