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The Legacy of Edward Tylor – Roundtable

Edward Burnett Tylor (1832-1917) in many respects has a fixed place in the academic memory of religious studies and cultural anthropology yet acknowledgement of his role is often purely historical, as a key ancestor of little direct relevance to contemporary discussions. This has left us with a limited narrative about the man and his work; a particular received or canonical Tylor defined by his introduction of the concept of animism, his intellectualist approach to religion, his armchair research and staunch social evolutionism. The year of his centenary is an opportunity to begin the task of critically examining the legacy left by Tylor’s work on religion and culture, how much the received Tylor matches his body of work, whether other Tylors can be extracted from these texts which undermine such a limited perspective on a long and eventful career and whether contemporary scholars can find anything of ongoing relevance in the work of such a historically distant figure.

This roundtable recorded at the annual BASR conference at the University of Chester 2017 brought together a group of scholars interested in different perspectives on the legacy of Tylor. Topics discussed included his impact on indigenous societies, the debates over animism, monotheism and the definition of religion as well as his relevance to the cognitive sciences of religion and the degree to which Tylor can be classed as an ethnographer and more. This roundtable includes contributions from Dr Miguel Astor-Aguilera of Arizona State University, Dr Jonathan Jong of Coventry University’s Brain, Belief, and Behaviour Lab, James L. Cox Professor Emeritus at the University of Edinburgh, Liam T. Sutherland – PhD Candidate at the University of Edinburgh, Professor Graham Harvey and Dr Paul Tremlett at the Open University and the much appreciated audience!

The centenary of Tylor’s death was also the theme for a new volume edited by Tremlett, Sutherland and Harvey ‘Edward Tylor, Religion and Culture’ published with Bloomsbury which features contributions from all of the roundtable participants (apart from the audience) and several other scholars, which was launched at the conference.

*This week’s podcast is sponsored in part by, Cen SAMM. Through their collaboration with INFORM, they’ve created a searchable database of millenarian movements available online.*

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A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.

Podcast with Graham Harvey, Liam T. Sutherland, Paul-Francois Tremlett, Jonathon Jong, James L. Cox and Miguel Astor-Aguilera (22 January 2018).

Chaired by Graham Harvey

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Tylor_Roundtable_1.1.

Graham Harvey (GH): So this is the Roundtable for our discussion of Edward Tylor for the anniversary of his death, 100 year commemoration. And including myself, we have contributors to this book: Edward Tylor: Religion and Culture. Paul, you had a suggestion for what we should do first?

Paul-Francois Tremlett (PT): I did. My suggestion, as a point of departure, was thinking about this Tylor project as part of a wider question about our relationship to classical theory. And I just thought that might be a nice place to begin. What do we do with early scholarship in Anthropology of Religion/Sociology/Religious Studies, etc? And what’s our relationship to it?

GH: OK, would you like to show us how that’s done?

PT: Well, I don’t think it’s a question of showing you how it’s done. But for me anyway, being involved in this project made me read Tylor in a different way. I’d been used to particular kind of accounts of Tylor’s work in secondary literature. I’d been used to allowing those works to direct me to Primitive Culture and a couple of other things that Tylor wrote. And my Tylor, as it were, was framed by that secondary literature. For this project I read Primitive Culture, two volumes, and a couple of other books- the book Anthropology, a few articles. And I started to get a sense that there were other Tylors, apart from the sort of canonical account. And I found it a really refreshing process. At the same time as doing that, I was actually involved in a slightly different project which meant that I was also reading The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, by Emile Durkheim. And I was reading that – also from cover to cover – and a few other things by Durkheim. And I started to get a very different picture of the kinds of conversations taking place between scholars at the end of the 19th, early 20th century. And it changed my relationship with that theory, and I think I got a hell of a lot out of it, frankly. And I’d thoroughly recommend it to others: read that material. Yes, of course you need the secondary literature – it’s there for a reason and it’s helpful – but at the same time you also need to de-familiarise yourself, and go through the texts as freshly as possible.

GH: It was also interesting, as well as doing some of that re-reading – I wouldn’t say I’ve read both the volumes and all the other work – but reading more of Tylor, but also reading other people’s work as we were editing the book. And being pointed to other parts to look up, and thinking, “OK, so that enriches my understanding of what he was trying to do, and the data he was using and the way he used it.” But also, it’s been interesting . . . A lot of the chapters in the book do this comparative thing – as Jim’s does, and as mine does and other people’s do – to think about Tylor’s practice and his argument alongside other peoples, and to see that. So that, too, was quite an interesting experience: seeing selective reading, sometimes, by other people and thinking how our theories and work arises out of these interesting conversations.

Liam Sutherland (LS): Well, I mean, I came at this very much from a different stage in my career, because I looked at the relationship between modern theory and EB Tylor for my Master’s project. So this really came out from my undergraduate exposure to Theory and Method, which was one of the elements I found the most interesting. But I was quite fascinated with the bits of Tylor that had been presented. But it was very much – as Paul has touched on – in a very kind of codified, boxed in way. But I thought there was a lot of explanatory potential there, so I wanted to go back and pursue this at a deeper level with my Master’s. And I think it was when I actually, really had to get to grips with this, with the primary sources, with the two volumes of Primitive Culture, (5:00) that it really became apparent to me, sort-of really just how much can be lost without necessarily being wrong. It’s not – as we touch on in the book – it’s not necessarily the case that the canonical Tylor, as we’ve called it, is completely, is an inaccurate depiction; it’s a limited one, and perhaps a necessarily limited one. But it’s the fact that when you go and read the primary sources in context, it’s quite a different experience. And sometimes the kind of voice, the nuances, and the humanity of some of the early scholars that you look at can really get lost; that they’re actually far more persuasive, especially in their own context, than we actually give credit for. So, as much as my particular focus has been Tylor, I hope that I’ve at least internalised these lessons. So that with other key theorists that I’m only dimly aware of, or that I’m only aware of the canonical version of, that I might already begin to suspect that there’s more to the picture that I’m missing, and at least try to look for that in future.

Jonathan Jong (JJ): So Liam, you discovered Tylor during your undergraduate studies,

LS: Yes.

JJ: . . .which is to say that your lecturers put him on the reading list, right?

LS: Yes, that’s true.

JJ: And for that reason, I think, it’s kind of surprising that we are surprised that we get a lot out of reading Tylor. Because we must have known this at some level, assuming- I don’t do this kind of work – but, like, the rest of you around this table presumably assign Tylor. So why do you do that?

GH: No, I haven’t.

Miguel Astor-Aguilera (MAA): I assign him, but it’s in the same manor that it was when I was in graduate school in seminars: little snippets. Nobody assigned a complete work of Tylor, Malinowski or Evans-Pritchard, or Frazer. Oftentimes they wind up in readers where: “This is what they meant, so that’s what you get.” So this is one of the fantastic things about not only being in the volume, but it’s also, as you mentioned, going in and actually reading exactly what he said, which makes a world of difference.

JJ: But what motivates people who design syllabi to put the classical – even if snippets of the classical texts – what motivates people who construct theses syllabi to put them there in the first place? Is it for historical interest? Do scholars like yourselves think that there is something of value for today? How does it come about that these people appear in our textbooks? I ask this question because, in the Sciences, this doesn’t really happen. We don’t assign Darwin’s Origin, really, any more, in biology classes, right? We don’t really assign Freud in Psychology classes.

MAA: The question would be: Why not?

JJ: Indeed. But if the question is, what is it that we get out of it, I think it is precisely as you say: why, and why not? Pros and cons of putting in, or omitting the venerable texts of our intellectual traditions in the syllabi. I don’t think we should take it for granted that all the things of the past should be jettisoned in a sort of . . . . Like, Dan Dennet likes to say that he’s never read any philosophy within 60 years prior, or something like that. But that’s ridiculous, right? But just because those two positions are ridiculous it doesn’t mean that we don’t need reasons for there to be no position.

GH: One of the answers to your question, I think, is Liam’s phrase, “the canonical Tylor”. There are a number of canonical figures who are set as readings. So there has been . . . . I don’t know if people are still producing readers, maybe they are – I’ve produced a couple – in which we select short extracts from canonical texts – very rarely saying, I think, that the issues that they engaged with, or the methods that they practised are still current, or should generate more work. However, some of them do do that, very clearly, and I think we’ve demonstrated that very well. Tylor and others do, clearly, have the potential to generate new questions, or to bring us back to the nub of the question we are asking now. So, in my case: what does animism mean? In James’ case, what does monotheism mean? How do they define it? How do they – putatively – among whom you research, what do they think those terms mean?

James L. Cox (JC): Well I think, part of the approach has been, for example, in Eric Sharpe’s classic Comparative Religion: A History, is to provide a kind of basis and understanding of what’s gone before. Sot that the students don’t think that we’re just inventing things as they come along, and: “Aha! Here’s a new idea!” Because many of the new ideas are old ideas (10:00). And they’ve been reworked, and thought through, and so on. And so I think that students need a background, but of course they can make the mistake of – which we sometimes make – just simply critiquing them in the light of a hundred-and-some years later, and applying theories and methods, and ignoring everything that’s come in between. But I do think it’s important to study the classical and important figures in the history. Another thing that I’ve done has been to use these figures, because my area of development has been the phenomenology of religion. And many of the key phenomenologists of religion, writing in the early to mid-20th century, bounced themselves off (early ethnographers), particularly criticising them for their assumptions about evolutionary ideas about development, advancement according to almost an application of Darwinian theory in social contexts. And part of the theory there was to say: “Well, unless we’re aware of these presuppositions that influence the way we think, we won’t be able to critique our own ways of thinking.” And so, just one other thing, and that is – I have most recently been doing work on Australia – the practical effect of these writers. For example, the theories of Baldwin Spencer and his colleague Frank Gillen, about the aboriginal peoples of Australia being the lowest form of human development. And there’s a very famous quote that I use: “Just like the platypus has gone and faded away, so will these people inevitably be taken over by the more advanced civilisations.” And if one thinks about the social consequences of this idea, it could be argued, and has been argued that this way of thinking led to justification for genocide. Because aboriginal peoples are going to be made extinct anyway, naturally: “so we can take over”. And it could be said that these theories are not just in the air – just up in the air – but they actually have social consequences. So these are the three things I would say: they need a foundation; we need to be able to critique them according to other theories; and we need to know the social consequences of our thinking.

PT: That’s interesting. I mean, the way I encountered Tylor as an undergraduate was in a class about definitions. So you had the substantive Tylorian definition, the functional Durkheimian definition, and the pinnacle, at that point, was Clifford Geertz. And maybe we read Talal Asad alongside that, if we had a particularly brave tutor!

All: (Laughter)

JC: Which you probably, usually didn’t! (Laughter)

PT: So, that’s the kind of way in which Tylor would appear in undergraduate curricula. I was thinking of readers. The last anthropology of religion reader I recall is Lambek’s: Michael Lambek. And I think Tylor’s in there. And I think, again, it’s around this definition of religion as belief in spiritual beings – as we all know. And that’s part of the history, the conversation – Eric Sharpe’s is a good example; Brian Morris’ anthropology . . . .

JC: Fiona Bowie

PT: Exactly. And Tylor’s in all of them one way or another.

LS: But that’s exactly how I encountered it first. It was in a class talking about the definition of religion and I . . . because sometimes you’re just given a slight quote. And obviously, students can’t be interested in every quote that they’re fed. The thing is that sometimes you’re only given a little piece and then you’re not given the materials to read them on your own. You might not be given a chapter to read or anything like that. In my case, though, it really sparked my curiosity, because I wanted to know a bit more about what this actually meant. And when we went on to explore theories, for example, in greater detail, I found that James Fraser . . . . One of the texts we were using was Daniel Pals’ Eight Theories of Religion, and I think it’s a very, very good introduction, actually. But he puts Tylor and Fraser together, because they do have similar theories in many respects, but they’re actually quite different. So they just a get a chapter in and of themselves. And he rushes through the material, because he has to, at quite a pace (15:00). So the issues and the nuances can really get lost.

JC: They can, but undergraduates need to have this. And they can be introduced to the primary sources, but if they don’t have the foundation . . . . You’re not going to assign a first year undergraduate student to read two volumes of Primitive Culture!

PT: No!

JC: So you have to give them a kind-of basis. And that can generate their interest and go further. And they might go on to post-graduate work.

MAA: There are seminars where I have colleagues that assign Pals. But it’s because, at the introductory level, they may be coming in from other disciplines.

JC: That’s right.

MAA: So Graham, as you mentioned, you have a reader. And this is where I was actually introduced to your work, and others. So, like a stepping stone to many of these larger works, I think they certainly have their place. Within being a third year into a graduate school, I think it’s certainly time to start reading some of the major heavyweights that we’re talking about, certainly including Tylor.

GH: That’s interesting that we, in the book, most of us engage with primitive cultures and we go right back on that. But you went somewhere very different, somewhere that I’m not even sure that I knew that you’d written anything on it before!

All: (Laughter)

JJ: Well, indeed!

GH: And you’d been to London to hang out with spiritualists and so on, but the whole idea of going to Cuba and Mexico . . . . So is that book used by anthropologists?

  1. No. Most of my colleagues, when I told them about this chapter that I was writing, they were like: “He did what?!”

All: (Laughter)

JJ: “Are you talking about that Tylor??” “Yes, yes!”

GH: The father of armchair anthropology!

JC: I know; it’s all you hear!

JC: But it was not one – that (Pals) book – that was a reader. But we used it in a first year course many years ago. But it had little introductions, and in the introduction it mentioned that Tylor went to Mexico, and that he wasn’t just an armchair anthropologist. It was trying to give the students and idea that: he’s noted for that, he’s criticised for that, but he actually did do some field studies.

All: Absolutely, yes.

JJ: The Pals thing is interesting I think. Because one way of reading the Pals book, as opposed to An Introduction to – now Nine, I believe – Theorists of Religion– of course the title is now Theories of Religion, right? So what Pals does with these figures is uses them as paradigmatic examples of ideas. And that seems like a perfectly reasonable way to think about what to do with these classical texts: as just very good examples of – maybe a terrible thing – but, nonetheless, very good examples of the thing.

LS: I think you’re both absolutely correct. But because you’re introducing these ideas to students you can only package them in so many ways. And obviously, you cannot cover everything to the same degree. And actually, I think what was interesting is, that there’s actually . . . . Because Tylor seems to be one of these figures that people develop a periodic interest in that sometimes is not quite as sustained as figures such as Durkheim. And there’s not even, necessarily, always the scholarship to cover every kind of theorist that has had an input in the process. No, I certainly agree that you cannot . . . that you have to package these ideas in one way or another, and you’re always going to leave something out. So I don’t mean that as a critique of Pals, per se.

GH: There seems to be something different between the ways that Durkheim and others in Sociology, as kind-of the founding figures, are much more positively quoted. Whereas Tylor, my impression is, is usually set up as: “Ok, that was fine in the 19th-century, but we don’t do that anymore!”

LS: (Laughs)

PT: Yes. Absolutely.

GH: “He was stuck in his armchair” – and even if we know (differently), he didn’t do enough of it to allow us to be enthusiastic.

PT: I want to mention Anne Kalvig’s chapter at this point, because Anne’s chapter is all about the séances and Tylor’s interest in spiritualism

GH: Don’t tap the table!

PT: Indeed! Well if the chairs dance, what are we going to do?

All: (Laughter)

PT: And I think – like Miguel’s chapter – that it really contributes to . . . . All I remember, as an undergraduate student, was that Tylor didn’t do any fieldwork. Turns out he actually did quite a lot!

LS: Quite a lot, yes!

PT: And the posthumously published fieldwork notes about the séance that were published by Stocking – that Anne Kalvig works with – I thought they were really interesting. And there’s a very ambivalent Tylor there – about what’s taking place – that reveal quite a lot about his own relationships with mortality,(20:00) with his class, with his background as a Quaker, with what he wants to, I think, perhaps, believe about science and superstition – but at the same time being emotionally and intellectually challenged by being at these events.

GH: I think that’s like in Mexico. Things happened in the séances and things happen when he’s wandering about, he gets a taste for certain kinds of food and these experiences that he has. And he obviously wants to be more celebratory. And then, perhaps, retreats into this more distant version, for whatever reason, I mean.. So that’s the kind-of interesting “multiple Tylors” that we discover. And maybe there wasn’t one, even for him – that he’s a kind-of conflicted figure, being attracted to things that he then wants to dismiss as superstition, you know: “They must have been manipulating the table for this to happen!” So yes, a very interesting character.

MAA: So coming back to what gets assigned and why, these are very . . . . he’s obviously a genius, but like most people of that intellect, he’s very complicated. In Mexico, it would be great to have a photo of him in a sarape as he says he used to wear. I can just see him (Laughter- audio unclear) to the Mexican gods.

GH: There’s a quest there, in the archive, is to find such a picture!

MAA: So one of the things that happens, I think, in studies – and I think it’s a symptom just of academia – is having a knee-jerk reaction to who these people were : “This is what I learned in a seminar: Tylor was this – or this other academic – however great they were in their time. But I want nothing to do with them!” Without actually ever reading their work.

JJ: Well Freud would have a field day with that!

All: (Laughter)

JJ: I don’t know about the other classical thinkers but certainly one good reason to read the Victorian theorists is that nobody writes like that anymore!

LS: That’s true!

JJ: I don’t want to give the audience the impression that the two-volume, dusty Primitive Cultures – four inches of book – is a hard read, because it’s not. But it’s a cracking read! And this is true of so many Victorian theorists. I don’t know what happened, really. I don’t know why we started writing terribly, but it isn’t true of Tylor.

GH: There’s a wealth of examples that he brings together, and whether he does that in the strange cabinet of curiosities thing sometimes, not quite like The Golden Bough, but something of that flavour, with all these weird and wonderful things. And you think, some of it, he’s got this information, data that has been sent to him and he’s presenting it back to people to say, “Look. Humans do amazing things! What are we going to do with that?” So yes, very rich.

JJ: I’m going to be so bold – as the person who is not an anthropologist – to suggest that it is entirely Durkheim’s fault!

All: (Laughter)

JJ: So in scholarship we generally learn about thinkers from the debates that they get into, right? So we read Tylor and Durkheim at the same time. If we work on early Christianity, a lot of what we know about early Christian heresies are from orthodox people who write about them, and not from them themselves. And a similar thing has happened, I think, and has always happened in academic work. So, because we learn about and teach about figures via these debates, I think what you get, necessarily, are these polarised caricatures, which by necessity lack richness, depth and nuance. So I don’t know if there’s something in particular about our history, per se. I think it has something to do with our pedagogical tools, and our tools of the transmission of ideas. So, for whatever reason, this is how we transmit ideas: by pitting people against each other.

MAA: So within anthropology . . . . So, when I was an undergrad I never heard of any of these folks, or just very slightly. Going into graduate school at phase one at the MA level, one of the people who turned into one of my professors – not on my advisory or my supervisory committee – but when I told him I was interested in religion, the first thing that came out of his mouth was (25:00): “You must really love Durkheim!” And I was like, “Durkheim? Who’s Durkheim?”

All: (Laughter)

MAA: But then, it’s curious as to why Durkheim? He becomes like the champion of actually studying religion, where apparently Tylor is dealing with other things.

LS: That’s kind of understandable in the 20th century, I think. Because if you have a book that’s called The Elementary Forms of Religious Life and you have book called Primitive Culture, there’s, like, a political zeitgeist which means you might want to recommend one book and not the other, for purely optics reasons.

GH: There’s also the thing about the armchair in the early 20th century and mid-20th century – that the whole Oxford style is just put aside, demonised in that sense. So then, I don’t know, maybe it becomes impossible to find that other Tylor again out of old Stockings’ notes, there’s a few bits of a diary, or whatever it was. Somebody else has to represent it.

JJ: But Durkheim didn’t go to Australia!

All: Exactly! (Laughter)

LS: He focussed on one case study and drew all his conclusions about all of human religion from it!

PT: Brilliantly!

LS: Brilliantly – yes! I think we should not get into Durkheim bashing!

All: (Laughter)

GH: But does Sociology . . . . Do you have to do that? Can’t Sociology stay in the study?

JC: What I was trying to do in my paper was to underscore that Tylor, like many others, had certain criteria for determining the validity of a statement, you might say. So, in the issue of the question of whether humans were originally monotheistic, or whether they were at lower levels and developed higher a social evolutionary scale, what I tried to argue was that Tylor had already decided the answer to this, not on the basis of his empirical investigations – although he cited empirical investigations, as so did Lang, both did, and so did Wilhelm Schmidt. Wilhelm Schmidt was fantastic in his ethnographies – but he started from a position and he proved his position. So one way that I tried to look at these influential scholars is to try to help students see these fundamental starting points. And show how, therefore, the starting point produces the conclusion. And then examine how it would be possible to insert actual empirical evidence into this, in order to determine the value of their arguments. That’s one thing. But then, the other point I tried to make in the paper was that all of these things, all of these discussions – at least in the study of indigenous peoples – is about people who are just there as sort of laboratory agents and not really agents themselves. But they’re there to be studied to prove the theory with which I began. And what I’ve tried to do is to say, if we look at the some of the ways in which indigenous people have been depicted: as passive; as powerless; as incapable of thinking, or dreaming, or whatever; and they just do things because they’re caught in this horrible existence, and they have to solve their problems. But actually, to let them have the voice, or a voice, a prominent voice in how these questions are addressed and answered. And to my mind, if you go back to Tylor or any of these classical theorists, one can begin looking at ways which will impact on the ways we do our own studies. And that, to me, is an important way of using these scholars.

LS: A point that another contributor to the book, Martin Stringer, likes to point out is that it’s very easy to classify Tylor in certain respects because he was writing at was the very early stage in the generation of the social sciences. That he, in some ways, lacked the kind of language to actually discuss some of the things he wanted to get at (30:00). So one of the things that can get quite . . . . Actually reading the text, and then comparing that with the way Tylor was often interpreted, he was interpreted as someone who’s just talking about individuals, who are just kind of reflecting . . . . The term “savage philosopher” makes you think of an individual. If I actually recall the text accurately, I think he actually only uses this expression once or twice. I don’t think he uses it very often.

GH: That’s right.

LS: It’s quite an over-played term, because it’s the term to explain Tylor. But he actually only refers to it once or twice. I think something that really gets missed . . . . Martin likes to talk about the fact that Tylor was fascinated with language and with different groups – always remember that these were ethnological examples. So sometimes these things were far more social than they sometimes appeared. And to relate that to the kind of work that is going on in the cognitive sciences of religion now, we seem to be talking about “cognitive capacities”. This is where the psychic unity of mankind comes in. What are patterns of thought that are widely shared? But behind this is very much a social context. So there’s a brilliant quote where he talks about the fact that when people encounter dreams and visions, these are always in a very, very specific local form. If you’re a Catholic you’re encountering dreams of the Virgin Mary, and this is produced by your social context. So, for example, a 1st century Catholic – inasmuch as you can talk about Catholicism at the that time – is not encountering the kind of 16th century vision of the Madonna with all of the tiaras and the stylised – the stylised depiction of the Madonna has already become an important part – and that’s inherently social, what he’s talking about. If I may just expand on one point: in terms of his, he actually, at one point tried to explain the evolution of the concept of ideas. That’s a word that we take for granted: idea. But actually, we trace that to . . . I think it was Democritus, I think – one of the Pre-Socratic Greek philosophers. And he actually tried to explain this as a product of a sort of animistic culture, where what would be termed ideas were actually encountered as almost personalities. And he tried to locate this in the context of Greece itself.

JC: One thing that appears, at least, when we talk about Tylor’s projection theory, that of the inner individual – you have dreams, you see somebody die, breath goes out of them – it seems to imply that there is a spirit or a soul or that there’s a body and soul and so on. That seems to me, at least, that what appears lacking in this part of it, is the social context, the ritual context, in which these dreams or visions, or relationships with the dead or ancestors, is all, in a sense, socially validated, socially constructed. And then becomes lived out in ritual contexts. For example, the work that I’ve been doing on Australian Aboriginal religions and, in the 1930s what this man I’ve been looking at, TGH Draylaw, has discovered was that the ancestors who then went back into the ground after creating – and then come forth again in the rituals – are actually reincarnated in their ancestors. But these reincarnations in the ritual now become the original ancestor. But none of this, it seems to me, would make sense to . . . . It’s very difficult to make sense of anyway. But to make sense of it in strictly individualistic ways of thinking, it has to be understood in the whole way that this society’s constructed, and the relationships that people have amongst one another, and with other groups within that society. So it’s not directly related to your question, but it is sort of looking at this idea. If you say that Tylor was using a projection theory – that is, projecting out of the individual experience, to create this – it seems to me that, insofar as he did that, he overlooked and was deficient in the concept of the social construction of which these experiences occur. I’m not saying that these experiences don’t occur, but I’m saying that they can only be interpreted and, in a sense, made useful and meaningful in the social context.

PT: And I think that’s what Tylor shows us about the history of anthropology. (35:00) In the beginning Tylor and others are collecting instances of beliefs or practices of X kind, of Y kind and then plotting where they are in populations. And as people start to look at the kind of methodologies, the evolutionist methodologies, then you get that moment where ethnography starts to become, you know . . . . Perhaps following Boas in the United States – the idea that rather than collecting and arranging ethnographic data in that way, one should contextualise it, rather than see it as individual units that have that kind of distribution. But understand them as holistically interdependent with one another. In other words, ethnography fieldwork: going to a particular place, staying there for a sustained period of time during which one learns the language and understands how this data is all connected relationally. That’s partly what studying a figure does, isn’t it? It allows you to have access to the history of a discipline in a slightly different light, and seeing it unfold.

GH: We’ve actually come to end of the time allotted for this conversation. And that maybe actually a perfect point, that we’ve reached, to stop: this thought about why these classic figures remain important and what we pick up from them. So thank you all for joining me in the conversation.

All: Thank you. A pleasure.

LS: Thanks to our audience, as well, for participating!

All: (Laughter)

Citation Info: Harvey, Graham, Liam T. Sutherland, Paul-Francois Tremlett, Jonathon Jong, James L. Cox and Miguel Astor-Aguilera. 2018. “Tylor Roundtable”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 22 January 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 19 January 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/tylor-roundtable/

All transcriptions for THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT are currently produced by volunteers. If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with these efforts, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial- NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. The views expressed in podcasts are the views of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT or the British Association for the Study of Religions.

Beyond ‘Faith-Based Organizations’: Religion and NGOs in comparative perspective

Produced by R. Michael Feener

Religious NGOs play significant roles in service delivery, community organization, advocacy and mediating flows of information and resources across the globe. Their religious inflections can both enhance the effective reach of particular projects and complicate the already fraught policy environment in which NGOs operate.While policy frameworks influence the kinds of activities that religious NGOs are able to undertake and aim to govern practice, the way this takes place in context is an empirical question. In this interview, we talk with Erica Bornstein about her studies of religious giving and social activism in India and Africa, and what the results of her research contribute to our understanding of the complex configurations of ‘Faith-Based Organizations’ across diverse religious contexts.

Since the turn of the twenty-first century, there has been a remarkable surge of interest among both academics and policy makers in the effects that religion has on international aid and development. Within this broad field, the work of ‘religious NGOs’ or ‘Faith-Based Organisations’ (FBOs) has garnered considerable attention. This series of podcasts for The Religious Studies Project seeks to explore how the discourses, practices, and institutional forms of both religious actors and purportedly secular NGOs intersect, and how these engagements result in changes in our understanding of both ‘religion’ and ‘development’. These interviews with leading scholars working on the topic across diverse contexts in Asia (and beyond) have been conducted by Dr. Catherine Scheer & Dr. Giuseppe Bolotta of the National University of Singapore’s Asia Research Institute. Our work on this has been generously supported by a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation.

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, Athlete’s foot powder, hot sauce, and more.

A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.

Beyond ‘Faith-Based Organisations’: Religion and NGOs in Comparative Perspective

Podcast with Erica Bornstein (16 October 2017).

Interviewed by Giuseppe Bolotta and Catherine Scheer.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Transcript available at: Bornstein_-_Beyond__Faith-Based_Organisations__1.1

 

Catherine Scheer (CS): Welcome to the Religious Studies Project. We are Catherine Scheer

Giuseppe Bolotta (GB): And Giuseppe Bolotta

CS: And this is the second instalment of our series on religion and NGOS. A few words on this series: Since the turn of the twenty-first century there has been a remarkable surge of interest among both policy makers and academics into the effect that religion has on international aid and development. Within this broad field, the work of religious NGOS or so-called faith-based organisations has garnered considerable attention. This series of podcasts for the Religious Studies Project seeks to explore how the discourses, practices and institutional forms – both of religious actors and purportedly secular NGOs – intersect, and how theses engagements result in changes in our understanding of both religion and development.

GB: Religious NGOs play significant roles in service delivery, community organisation, advocacy and mediating flows of information and resources across the globe. Their religious inflections can both enhance the effective reach of particular projects and  complicate the already flawed policy environment in which NGOs operate. While policy frameworks influence the kinds of activities that religious NGOs are able to undertake, they rarely dictate practice. In this interview we talk with Professor Erica Bornstein about her studies of religious giving and social activism in South Asia and Africa,and about what the results of her research contribute to our understanding of the complex configurations of faith-based organisations across diverse religious contexts. So, before formally introducing our guest for today’s interview, we would like to thank the Arias Foundation for supporting our research into this topic and the production of this series. Now, speaking with us today about religion and NGOs is Professor Erica Bornstein. She’s an Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Her research critically examines non-profits, non-government organisations and groups working in the voluntary sector. She has written several books on humanitarianism, philanthropy and economic development, including the monograph The Spirit of Development: Protestant NGOS, Morality and Economics in Zimbabwe, first published by Routledge in 2003 and later reprinted by Stanford University Press in 2005; and more recently Disquieting Gifts: Humanitarianism in New Delhi, published by Stanford University Press in 2012. She’s one of the major experts on intersections between religion, economy and politics in humanitarian fields and we are greatly looking forward to speaking with her today. Thank you very much for being here with us at the Religious Studies Project, Erica.

Erica Bornstein (EB): My pleasure.

GB: So, Catherine will start with our first questions.

CS: Sure, thank you. Your book, The Spirit of Development was a groundbreaking ethnography exploring the intersections between religion and development in  Zimbabwe. You have since gone on to author Disquieting Gifts and also added to a collection of chapters titled Forces of Compassion, which includes some rich essays analysing the entanglements between religion and humanitarianism. How did you first become interested in this field?

EB: I originally wanted to study the relationship between religion and politics and I was looking for an ethnographic site to think through a series of questions. More broadly, I’m interested in what motivates people to make social change, to change someone’s religion – as in evangelical organisations – or to change someone’s beliefs. In the case of faith-based organisations, like World Vision Zimbabwe, I wanted to understand what motivates people to want to change people’s lives economically and spiritually. For religious people, economics can’t be disaggregated from cosmological understanding. The distinction between material and spiritual realms doesn’t make sense in many parts of the world. I’ve been fascinated by the conviction it takes to want to change someone’s religion. Personally, I never understood it until I conducted my fieldwork in Zimbabwe, and I’d actually been rather afraid of it: the extreme force of the conviction. One finds similar conviction in other realms: humanitarianism and social activism. It has this utter urgency.

GB: At first sight,  a religious NGO might look like a strange hybrid between faith and socio-political activism within an apparently secular policy framework. These organisations with religious inflections can both enhance the effective reach of particular projects and complicate the already flawed policy environment in which NGOs operate. Now, if we consider the development scenario in Zimbabwe in the nineties, compared to the very different humanitarian context of contemporary India, how do you see global, national and local policy frameworks shape the form taken up by religious NGOS and the projects they engage in?

EB: Well, the world was really a different place in the mid 1990s, especially for NGOS. It was a hopeful time and a growth period in both Zimbabwe and India. Zimbabwe achieved its independence much later than India, but both countries were former British colonies, both had periods of socialism that later shifted to rapidly liberalising economies. And NGOS were considered hopeful forces in the liberalisation process. They multiplied in both settings. In Zimbabwe and in India, religious NGOs were involved in development education and healthcare etc. I can’t say much about what’s happening in contemporary Zimbabwe as I’m not in touch with the NGO community there any more. But in India – and in other parts of the world that have strong states and strong civil society traditions such as Russia, Egypt and Turkey – the state has become very suspicious of the non-profit sector. And the non-profit sector has come to signify an arena of potential dissent. Of course, this varies according to the religious orientation of the state, or if it’s secular. There are laws protecting non-profits in each context. So global policy frameworks are less influential these days than national ones, which can restrict funding that crosses borders. And this is a really big change since the 1990s, because NGOS can’t survive without donor support. They’re donor-dependent.

GB: Right

CS: In your work on Christian NGOs in Zimbabwe, and humanitarianism in India, you shed light on different intersections of religion and development, by examining how different cultures of charitable giving operate within specific policy frameworks, institutional arrangements and socio-economic contexts. Religious NGOS emerge as important brokers of these intersections. How would you describe the nature, of these organisations, their specific position within global humanitarianism and the impact of the intervention in the context in which you conducted your research?

EB: Transnational NGOs like World Vision are very powerful because they move across contexts. They’re a lot like corporations. And, increasingly, such types of institutions are structured like corporations with international boards and national offices. At times the national office has to be incorporated as a local organisation in each country, thus World Vision Zimbabwe will look and operate very differently than World Vision India. It will have a local board, it will be staffed by local people. It will also abide by national laws. And this isn’t any different from non-religious or secular NGOs like Oxfam or MSF.

GB: Right.

EB: But what might be different is the way that faith and faith-based activities can be carried out in each national setting. And for anthropologists like me this makes a lot of sense. Because context really matters. It poses specific and careful questions for anthropologists. If one studies a faith-based organisation one must ask what that means in each particular context.

GB: Thank you so much, Erica. Another question for you. You have problematised the tension between global religious humanitarianism and the business of everyday life. The concepts of a “liberal altruism” and “relational empathy” you introduced in your book, on humanitarianism in India, seem to echo this tension. Do religious NGOs position themselves in a specific way within this tension?

EB: So, based on my last answer to the question about context, I’m reluctant to make huge generalisations. But if I must try, I’d say that religious organisations operate within a framework within a community of believers, and in this sense they’re relational. However, we have to be attentive to minor differences. Some religions, like Christianity, are congregational. Relationality could be in terms of the congregation, and organisations like World Vision raise their money through church  congregations  for their child sponsorship programmes. Hinduism is not a congregational religion. Nonetheless, I would say that the language of belonging and kinship can be extended to relationships in Hinduism as well – perhaps with deities, for example. Now liberal altruism, the way I’ve conceived of it, privileges institutions over people, and individual or cause over known relationships. It’s more abstract. In this sense, it could be a motivating force for Christian philanthropy as well. So these are empirical questions that have to be explored in context. When we understand patterns of motivation and social action it’s easy to see larger social processes at work. So it’s an empirical question: what’s motivating for people to help others. Liberal altruism might motivate someone to give to a cause or volunteer millions of miles away. I venture to say that more local practices of humanitarianism are almost always guided by relational empathy.

CS: Well, this was a fascinating introduction into how you got to your initial book. Now it would be interesting to understand how you moved from this ethnography, this pioneering ethnography of Protestant NGOS in Zimbabwe, to the broader topic of . . .  giving in the Indian context. How did that go?

EB: It’s a good question. As a matter of fact, in anthropology it’s not very common to change such regional areas of research. So it was, I think, either a brave or a stupid thing for me to do. But I did it because there was some unresolved issue from my first book, The Spirit of Development, that I felt I needed to explore. And  in my first book, when I was studying child sponsorship, I realised that the gift could mean something very different for the person who’s giving the gift and then for the recipient. So for example, in Zimbabwe, when a sponsor gives to a family it might displace power relationships within the family. And I know that World Vision has since changed its practices to try to avoid this, but in the mid 1990s it was a real issue. It was creating jealousies and it was really disrupting all sorts of relationships on the ground, in communities, between children. And that really fascinated me. Also there was some hesitation to start child sponsorship programmes within Zimbabwe because of people’s understandings of ancestral relationships. And, “ how could one take care of a child if one didn’t know the ancestral relationship?” So the whole sense of relationality extended out into the spirit realm as well as the local community, and that really stuck with me. And that was a part of my project, but it wasn’t the entire book. So I wanted to study giving, I knew that. And I wanted to go to a place that was radically different, that wasn’t Christian – because I ‘d thought so much about Christian ideas of giving and charity. But I knew that there were other places where people do this kind of activity and it’s very different looking. So, India: not a Christian nation, it’s majority Hindu although it has a missionary history as well. It has this British colonial history. But the gift, ideas of giving . . . some of them are radically influenced by Hindu ideas of freedom and liberation from the material realm. So it presented a completely different environment to try to test some of my questions. When I got to India I had a lot to learn. And that was good , as an ethnographer: you have to be humble, and you learn, and you realise how complicated the world can be. But what I was really struck by is how people in New Delhi, Indians – mostly Hindus that I was talking with in religious contexts like temples as well as in secular arenas like orphanages – Indians had really different ideas of what it meant to donate their time and their efforts and even their funds than the volunteers from . . .

CS: Coming from abroad?

EB: Exactly. So that became the comparative relationship. Which is kind of similar to what I was looking at in Zimbabwe, with its sponsors. But because the cultural, historical context was so radically different it really opened my mind up to think about giving differently. And humanitarianism as well.

CS: Right. Coming up from the ground?

EB: Coming up from the ground and not the ground, right? From all over the world, landing in  aeroplanes, and not knowing how to behave properly in a humanitarian context. People expecting to volunteer and NGOs not really knowing how to integrate volunteers.

CS: And channel the energies.

EB: Yes.

CS: Thank you

GB: Do you want, maybe, to tell us – because this is an interesting story – how you positioned yourself as an anthropologist, as a mother, as a wife, within the humanitarian Indian context in its plural manifestations? Because this was a very interesting introductory part of your book on humanitarianism in New Delhi.

EB: Sure, I mean that was another aspect of the fieldwork for my second book that was just very different than my first one. My first book was my dissertation, and I went all by myself to a place where I had no connections except for some scholar friends who had introduced me to people. And I was viewed by many people as a kind of oddball, right? “What kind of woman comes so far away and leaves all of their relationships to spend a year in this place, trying to understand our world?” And when I went to India I was a lot older, married, had a kid. And my partner is from India, so I had a kind of network of social relationships that I was sort of thrust into and embraced by. And those relationships taught me a lot about what it meant to participate in society as a good human being. And what it meant to give: what the duty of giving meant to family – a kin-based kind of giving which is not humanitarian – and then giving to strangers. And I think that was something that also helped me understand the distinction between the kinship of humanitarianism and more liberal ideas of giving to strangers.

CS: And I think in this book, in your concluding notes, you kind-of put into context the Western perception of giving emphasising agency, putting it in a larger context. Could you maybe say a few words on the broad picture . . .?

EB: Well the broad picture comes out of the tradition of liberal thought. And this is something that I encounter when I teach my classes on humanitarianism and human rights. And I teach the canon of these traditions. And students really understand it and it comes naturally to them. But then, when they’re forced to think about giving practices, or humanitarian caring practices, in other cultural contexts, they start to get more confused, right? And that’s the comparative relationship that I was trying to explore. I was really struck also, as I wrote this book – and writing ethnographies takes years – so I would go to the field for a year and then come back and write, and then go back and explore and come back and write . . . and teach in my job. And it was teaching students who really, really were desperate to go and volunteer somewhere, and participate in the world, and experience the world through charitable dynamics and charitable engagement that made me think about this liberal altruism as well. And some of my students had actually been on mission trips. So they come to classes on human rights or humanitarianism with their own religious-based experience of doing humanitarianism.

CS: Wow!

EB: But they’re forced to think critically about it for the first time. And it’s very exciting to see their worlds opening up. Because they’re beginning to really analyse their own experience and the experience of others.

GB: Maybe a last question, Erica. You told us before that you are working on a new exciting project, so maybe you can tell us a little bit more about this, and how this project is departing from your previous projects in both Zimbabwe and India? How these projects, if they are, are related somehow?

EB: Sure, they’re definitely related. So, if I could create a narrative arc of my books, the first one was really about NGOs, and I compared two NGOs, and I really looked at what it meant to be a religious NGO. What it meant for the people who worked for the organisation in different office locations, and for people who engaged with the organisation kind-of peripherally – as sponsors or donors – and then, also, as beneficiaries. So the NGO, as a central form, I really wanted to put on the map, with that book, and say this is important. We need to understand what these kind of institutional actors are doing in the world, because they’re doing a lot. And they’re very powerful. And World Vision at the time was the biggest Christian NGO in the world. It was the big fish. So I wanted to look at something that was good at what it did. Then I – to be honest, it’s hard to study not for profits. And I just got a little sick of it. And when I was in India I decided for my second book, Disquieting Gifts, I wanted to really explode the category of humanitarianism and giving, and not get constrained by the category of the NGO and the institution. So my fieldwork was very different. I didn’t sit down in one organisation, I went all over the place. I talked to as many people as possible. I tried to think about humanitarianism in all of its possible incarnations.

GB: Including your family circles, right?

EB: Right. Within my family circles. And they honestly were very helpful in introducing me to people who did this kind of work. It was through those networks that I could find people doing the daily practices, the ordinary practices of humanitarianism. And the Indian ideas of dān or sava – they’re not extraordinary, right? They’re ordinary. And that’s important to think about as well. But then, just like my first project where there was an unresolved question that I had to explore, I found another one for my second project, which has turned into my third one, which is: this incredible pressure by the state and by other NGOs in India, to figure out how to do their work better; how to regulate this crazy unruly dynamic diverse sector called the non-profit sector. How does one . . . ? In the non-profit sector they’re not elected, they’re not assessed in any coherent way. And that’s part of their power in that arena, is that it’s so diverse and so dynamic and so responsive to what happens. So I decided I wanted to look at that process itself. And this book I’m writing now is an ethnography of regulation. And it looks at laws. And I’ve been studying advocacy and research organisations [who are] trying to work with the government, trying to create laws that are helpful to the non-profit sector. I also have been interviewing tax accountants, civil servants and people who really try to help NGOs abide by the laws. And looking at it over time – it’s like a kind-of decade long view that I’m exploring – how did these laws change? How does the engagement with the laws affect people doing this kind of work, this kind of non-profit work?

CS: In the Indian context?

EB: In the Indian context, yes. I think civil society is changing, as I mentioned, in the world as well. So it’s part of a much larger shift that I see taking place of the relationship of non-profits in society. And religious non-profits are part of this. They’ve always been a big part of it.

GB: We are greatly looking forward to this book now!

EB: Thank you

GB: So, one could listen to Erica for hours but our time is over. So once again, thank you very much, Professor Bornstein, for joining us at the Religious Studies Project.

EB: Thanks very much for inviting me.

Citation Info: Bornstein, Erica, Giuseppe Bolotta and Catherine Scheer. 2017. “Beyond ‘Faith-Based Organisations’: Religion and NGOs in Comparative Perspective”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 16 October 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 4 October 2017 Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/beyond-fath-based-organisations-religion-and-ngos-in-comparative-perspective/

All transcriptions for THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT are currently produced by volunteers. If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with these efforts, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial- NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. The views expressed in podcasts  are the views of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT or the British Association for the Study of Religions.

Evangelical Christian Space is Not a Category, It’s a Relationship – But With What?

The topic of religion and space has been tackled a couple of times by the Religious Studies Project, with interviews and responses featuring Kim Knott and Katie Aston, Peter Collins and David McConeghy. In fact, I drew on the latter interview-and-response pair earlier this year while working on an article on Christianity, space/place, and anthropology, in order to show the bemusing gap that exists between, on the one hand, many scholars in religious studies who rightfully state that much work has been done on religion and space, and, on the other hand, anthropologists (including myself) who still feel confident claiming that there is a dearth of work on this topic. As I explain in the article, it seems to me that this contradiction is not purely the result of anthropological ignorance (though we shouldn’t rule that out completely). Rather, I think it comes down to the ethnographic emphasis: anthropologically-inclined researchers are looking for a sustained, ethnographically-informed discussion about how religious practitioners themselves think about and use their spaces.

And this is why, in my opinion, sociologist Anna Strhan’s greatest contribution to the debate on religion and place is precisely the underlying question that she identifies in this interview as permeating all her work, across different groups: What are their ethics and values? What matters to them? What is it like – for them? This strong ethnographic focus is particularly evident in her most recent book, a study of evangelical Anglicans in London entitled Aliens and Strangers? The Struggle for Coherence in the Everyday Lives of Evangelicals.

So – what matters to them? What do evangelicals in London want? What does place-making mean to them? As part of Strhan’s broader answer to this question, it seems to me that she positions evangelical place-making using a time-honored sociological move: by seeing it not as a category, but as a relationship. And this allows her to give a number of insightful answers.

1. Evangelical place-making is a relationship with coherence

Strhan explains in this interview that Aliens and Strangers started out as a study focused on evangelical subjectivity, but gradually came to include a focus on space as she realized that a central concern for the evangelicals she was interacting with was a search for coherence in the midst of modern, chaotic London. And this evangelical search for coherence is grounded, she argues, in their image of God as coherent.

In Strhan’s analysis the search for coherence is double-edged. On the one hand there is a sense in which evangelicals’ investment in certain marked places – churches, Bible study groups, schools – in the midst of London life gives them an opportunity to “cohere” with other evangelicals. They draw on relationships within the church to support them in an urban modern environment that in some ways runs “counter” to their faith. And their physical coming-together in certain places is a way of orienting themselves toward God’s (existing) coherence as well as their own (desired) coherence – both in themselves and with God. On the other hand, however, the very act of focusing on coherence prompts a rising awareness of fragmentation – both in the city environment as well as in themselves – and the impossibility of achieving complete coherence while still in this world.

Coherence, in other words, is a goal that begins to both shine and recede at the very moment you begin to reach for it. And evangelicals use place-making – delimiting certain Christian places in the city – partly as a way of negotiating their complex relationship with this goal.

2. Evangelical place-making is a relationship with “the good life”

Physical bodies meeting together in material places are important, and are part and parcel of what “the good life” encompasses for these conservative Protestants. Contrary to the common notion that Protestants live out a more disembodied or dematerialized version of Christianity, Strhan demonstrates that evangelicals rely on both a disciplining of their own body (especially in order to hear God) as well as a crafting of physical places where they can come together. These places range from famous “brand” churches with large buildings, through homely dinner tables where church groups share food, to a corner of a cafe where two church members can meet for a cup of tea.

Again, however, Strhan’s work draws out the double-edged nature of this goal. Evangelicals, she argues, are profoundly shaped by secular sensibilities (a point that has been followed up by Omri Elisha). For example, they find it awkward to talk about their “private” faith in certain “public” places, such as at their work. In this sense, one might say they mesh well with modern, secular, multicultural, urban London life. At the same time, they invest the places they fashion as Christians with a type of meaning that marks these spaces as being “outside” – outside the secular, outside the city, outside this world – and, again, as specifically “counter.” Moreover, they view the other spaces of the city through a Christian lens, turning “secular” vistas into potentially lost or redeemed ones.

Reaching for “the good life” as an evangelical Christian in London encompasses both these senses at once: working with secular sensibilities while also countering them. Negotiating a relationship with “the good life” in particular urban Christian places is not easy.

3. Evangelical place-making is a relationship with God

Strhan is especially good on God. To an innocent outsider, a focus on God might not seem like much of an achievement in a study of evangelical Christians, but anyone reading the Religious Studies Project will know otherwise. An ethnographic focus on the social role of God might rightly be considered innovative in religious studies (and I include here the anthropology and sociology of religion).

And as Strhan demonstrates, an attempt to understand evangelicals’ relationship with God is central in trying to understand what matters to them. This is not to say that it is straightforward. These conservative Anglicans do not usually resort to absolute religious certainty in the way that, say, self-proclaimed fundamentalist Protestants might do. Their faith in God, as Strhan sums it up in the interview, is “hard work,” and they come together in marked places and envision certain urban vistas precisely in order to continuously identify this relationship with God, which cannot be taken for granted. Moreover, it is important to them (and has social effects) that their God is pure, perfect, holy coherence. This conservative evangelical Anglican image of God is different, as Strhan has pointed out, from other images, such as that found in charismatic evangelical neo-Pentecostalism in the United States, where God might be your intimate, best friend (which has slightly different social implications).

So, in the end, what matters to them? Why are spaces important to evangelical Christians? Strhan’s thoughtful ethnographic work shows us that evangelicals’ place-making is, amongst other things, a relationship with coherence and fragmentation. It is a relationship with secularism, religion, and “the good life” in the modern city. And it is a relationship with an invisible God, whose existence may be doubted in twenty-first-century London, but of whom a meaningful image (which is not to say a simple one) may also be formed in twenty-first-century London.

References

Elisha, Omri. 2016. “Onward Christian strangers: Omri Elisha on Anna Strhan’s Aliens and Strangers?” Marginalia Review of Books, April 23.

Hovland, Ingie. 2016. “Christianity, space/place, and anthropology: Thinking across recent research on evangelical place-making.Religion 46 (3), 331-358.

Strhan, Anna. 2015. “Looking for God in the sociology of religion and in Game of Thrones.” Oxford University Press Blog, June 14.

Strhan, Anna. 2015. Aliens and Strangers? The Struggle for Coherence in the Everyday Lives of Evangelicals. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Podcasts

The Legacy of Edward Tylor – Roundtable

Edward Burnett Tylor (1832-1917) in many respects has a fixed place in the academic memory of religious studies and cultural anthropology yet acknowledgement of his role is often purely historical, as a key ancestor of little direct relevance to contemporary discussions. This has left us with a limited narrative about the man and his work; a particular received or canonical Tylor defined by his introduction of the concept of animism, his intellectualist approach to religion, his armchair research and staunch social evolutionism. The year of his centenary is an opportunity to begin the task of critically examining the legacy left by Tylor’s work on religion and culture, how much the received Tylor matches his body of work, whether other Tylors can be extracted from these texts which undermine such a limited perspective on a long and eventful career and whether contemporary scholars can find anything of ongoing relevance in the work of such a historically distant figure.

This roundtable recorded at the annual BASR conference at the University of Chester 2017 brought together a group of scholars interested in different perspectives on the legacy of Tylor. Topics discussed included his impact on indigenous societies, the debates over animism, monotheism and the definition of religion as well as his relevance to the cognitive sciences of religion and the degree to which Tylor can be classed as an ethnographer and more. This roundtable includes contributions from Dr Miguel Astor-Aguilera of Arizona State University, Dr Jonathan Jong of Coventry University’s Brain, Belief, and Behaviour Lab, James L. Cox Professor Emeritus at the University of Edinburgh, Liam T. Sutherland – PhD Candidate at the University of Edinburgh, Professor Graham Harvey and Dr Paul Tremlett at the Open University and the much appreciated audience!

The centenary of Tylor’s death was also the theme for a new volume edited by Tremlett, Sutherland and Harvey ‘Edward Tylor, Religion and Culture’ published with Bloomsbury which features contributions from all of the roundtable participants (apart from the audience) and several other scholars, which was launched at the conference.

*This week’s podcast is sponsored in part by, Cen SAMM. Through their collaboration with INFORM, they’ve created a searchable database of millenarian movements available online.*

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, comic books, tiny dinosaur figurines, and more.

A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.

Podcast with Graham Harvey, Liam T. Sutherland, Paul-Francois Tremlett, Jonathon Jong, James L. Cox and Miguel Astor-Aguilera (22 January 2018).

Chaired by Graham Harvey

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Tylor_Roundtable_1.1.

Graham Harvey (GH): So this is the Roundtable for our discussion of Edward Tylor for the anniversary of his death, 100 year commemoration. And including myself, we have contributors to this book: Edward Tylor: Religion and Culture. Paul, you had a suggestion for what we should do first?

Paul-Francois Tremlett (PT): I did. My suggestion, as a point of departure, was thinking about this Tylor project as part of a wider question about our relationship to classical theory. And I just thought that might be a nice place to begin. What do we do with early scholarship in Anthropology of Religion/Sociology/Religious Studies, etc? And what’s our relationship to it?

GH: OK, would you like to show us how that’s done?

PT: Well, I don’t think it’s a question of showing you how it’s done. But for me anyway, being involved in this project made me read Tylor in a different way. I’d been used to particular kind of accounts of Tylor’s work in secondary literature. I’d been used to allowing those works to direct me to Primitive Culture and a couple of other things that Tylor wrote. And my Tylor, as it were, was framed by that secondary literature. For this project I read Primitive Culture, two volumes, and a couple of other books- the book Anthropology, a few articles. And I started to get a sense that there were other Tylors, apart from the sort of canonical account. And I found it a really refreshing process. At the same time as doing that, I was actually involved in a slightly different project which meant that I was also reading The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, by Emile Durkheim. And I was reading that – also from cover to cover – and a few other things by Durkheim. And I started to get a very different picture of the kinds of conversations taking place between scholars at the end of the 19th, early 20th century. And it changed my relationship with that theory, and I think I got a hell of a lot out of it, frankly. And I’d thoroughly recommend it to others: read that material. Yes, of course you need the secondary literature – it’s there for a reason and it’s helpful – but at the same time you also need to de-familiarise yourself, and go through the texts as freshly as possible.

GH: It was also interesting, as well as doing some of that re-reading – I wouldn’t say I’ve read both the volumes and all the other work – but reading more of Tylor, but also reading other people’s work as we were editing the book. And being pointed to other parts to look up, and thinking, “OK, so that enriches my understanding of what he was trying to do, and the data he was using and the way he used it.” But also, it’s been interesting . . . A lot of the chapters in the book do this comparative thing – as Jim’s does, and as mine does and other people’s do – to think about Tylor’s practice and his argument alongside other peoples, and to see that. So that, too, was quite an interesting experience: seeing selective reading, sometimes, by other people and thinking how our theories and work arises out of these interesting conversations.

Liam Sutherland (LS): Well, I mean, I came at this very much from a different stage in my career, because I looked at the relationship between modern theory and EB Tylor for my Master’s project. So this really came out from my undergraduate exposure to Theory and Method, which was one of the elements I found the most interesting. But I was quite fascinated with the bits of Tylor that had been presented. But it was very much – as Paul has touched on – in a very kind of codified, boxed in way. But I thought there was a lot of explanatory potential there, so I wanted to go back and pursue this at a deeper level with my Master’s. And I think it was when I actually, really had to get to grips with this, with the primary sources, with the two volumes of Primitive Culture, (5:00) that it really became apparent to me, sort-of really just how much can be lost without necessarily being wrong. It’s not – as we touch on in the book – it’s not necessarily the case that the canonical Tylor, as we’ve called it, is completely, is an inaccurate depiction; it’s a limited one, and perhaps a necessarily limited one. But it’s the fact that when you go and read the primary sources in context, it’s quite a different experience. And sometimes the kind of voice, the nuances, and the humanity of some of the early scholars that you look at can really get lost; that they’re actually far more persuasive, especially in their own context, than we actually give credit for. So, as much as my particular focus has been Tylor, I hope that I’ve at least internalised these lessons. So that with other key theorists that I’m only dimly aware of, or that I’m only aware of the canonical version of, that I might already begin to suspect that there’s more to the picture that I’m missing, and at least try to look for that in future.

Jonathan Jong (JJ): So Liam, you discovered Tylor during your undergraduate studies,

LS: Yes.

JJ: . . .which is to say that your lecturers put him on the reading list, right?

LS: Yes, that’s true.

JJ: And for that reason, I think, it’s kind of surprising that we are surprised that we get a lot out of reading Tylor. Because we must have known this at some level, assuming- I don’t do this kind of work – but, like, the rest of you around this table presumably assign Tylor. So why do you do that?

GH: No, I haven’t.

Miguel Astor-Aguilera (MAA): I assign him, but it’s in the same manor that it was when I was in graduate school in seminars: little snippets. Nobody assigned a complete work of Tylor, Malinowski or Evans-Pritchard, or Frazer. Oftentimes they wind up in readers where: “This is what they meant, so that’s what you get.” So this is one of the fantastic things about not only being in the volume, but it’s also, as you mentioned, going in and actually reading exactly what he said, which makes a world of difference.

JJ: But what motivates people who design syllabi to put the classical – even if snippets of the classical texts – what motivates people who construct theses syllabi to put them there in the first place? Is it for historical interest? Do scholars like yourselves think that there is something of value for today? How does it come about that these people appear in our textbooks? I ask this question because, in the Sciences, this doesn’t really happen. We don’t assign Darwin’s Origin, really, any more, in biology classes, right? We don’t really assign Freud in Psychology classes.

MAA: The question would be: Why not?

JJ: Indeed. But if the question is, what is it that we get out of it, I think it is precisely as you say: why, and why not? Pros and cons of putting in, or omitting the venerable texts of our intellectual traditions in the syllabi. I don’t think we should take it for granted that all the things of the past should be jettisoned in a sort of . . . . Like, Dan Dennet likes to say that he’s never read any philosophy within 60 years prior, or something like that. But that’s ridiculous, right? But just because those two positions are ridiculous it doesn’t mean that we don’t need reasons for there to be no position.

GH: One of the answers to your question, I think, is Liam’s phrase, “the canonical Tylor”. There are a number of canonical figures who are set as readings. So there has been . . . . I don’t know if people are still producing readers, maybe they are – I’ve produced a couple – in which we select short extracts from canonical texts – very rarely saying, I think, that the issues that they engaged with, or the methods that they practised are still current, or should generate more work. However, some of them do do that, very clearly, and I think we’ve demonstrated that very well. Tylor and others do, clearly, have the potential to generate new questions, or to bring us back to the nub of the question we are asking now. So, in my case: what does animism mean? In James’ case, what does monotheism mean? How do they define it? How do they – putatively – among whom you research, what do they think those terms mean?

James L. Cox (JC): Well I think, part of the approach has been, for example, in Eric Sharpe’s classic Comparative Religion: A History, is to provide a kind of basis and understanding of what’s gone before. Sot that the students don’t think that we’re just inventing things as they come along, and: “Aha! Here’s a new idea!” Because many of the new ideas are old ideas (10:00). And they’ve been reworked, and thought through, and so on. And so I think that students need a background, but of course they can make the mistake of – which we sometimes make – just simply critiquing them in the light of a hundred-and-some years later, and applying theories and methods, and ignoring everything that’s come in between. But I do think it’s important to study the classical and important figures in the history. Another thing that I’ve done has been to use these figures, because my area of development has been the phenomenology of religion. And many of the key phenomenologists of religion, writing in the early to mid-20th century, bounced themselves off (early ethnographers), particularly criticising them for their assumptions about evolutionary ideas about development, advancement according to almost an application of Darwinian theory in social contexts. And part of the theory there was to say: “Well, unless we’re aware of these presuppositions that influence the way we think, we won’t be able to critique our own ways of thinking.” And so, just one other thing, and that is – I have most recently been doing work on Australia – the practical effect of these writers. For example, the theories of Baldwin Spencer and his colleague Frank Gillen, about the aboriginal peoples of Australia being the lowest form of human development. And there’s a very famous quote that I use: “Just like the platypus has gone and faded away, so will these people inevitably be taken over by the more advanced civilisations.” And if one thinks about the social consequences of this idea, it could be argued, and has been argued that this way of thinking led to justification for genocide. Because aboriginal peoples are going to be made extinct anyway, naturally: “so we can take over”. And it could be said that these theories are not just in the air – just up in the air – but they actually have social consequences. So these are the three things I would say: they need a foundation; we need to be able to critique them according to other theories; and we need to know the social consequences of our thinking.

PT: That’s interesting. I mean, the way I encountered Tylor as an undergraduate was in a class about definitions. So you had the substantive Tylorian definition, the functional Durkheimian definition, and the pinnacle, at that point, was Clifford Geertz. And maybe we read Talal Asad alongside that, if we had a particularly brave tutor!

All: (Laughter)

JC: Which you probably, usually didn’t! (Laughter)

PT: So, that’s the kind of way in which Tylor would appear in undergraduate curricula. I was thinking of readers. The last anthropology of religion reader I recall is Lambek’s: Michael Lambek. And I think Tylor’s in there. And I think, again, it’s around this definition of religion as belief in spiritual beings – as we all know. And that’s part of the history, the conversation – Eric Sharpe’s is a good example; Brian Morris’ anthropology . . . .

JC: Fiona Bowie

PT: Exactly. And Tylor’s in all of them one way or another.

LS: But that’s exactly how I encountered it first. It was in a class talking about the definition of religion and I . . . because sometimes you’re just given a slight quote. And obviously, students can’t be interested in every quote that they’re fed. The thing is that sometimes you’re only given a little piece and then you’re not given the materials to read them on your own. You might not be given a chapter to read or anything like that. In my case, though, it really sparked my curiosity, because I wanted to know a bit more about what this actually meant. And when we went on to explore theories, for example, in greater detail, I found that James Fraser . . . . One of the texts we were using was Daniel Pals’ Eight Theories of Religion, and I think it’s a very, very good introduction, actually. But he puts Tylor and Fraser together, because they do have similar theories in many respects, but they’re actually quite different. So they just a get a chapter in and of themselves. And he rushes through the material, because he has to, at quite a pace (15:00). So the issues and the nuances can really get lost.

JC: They can, but undergraduates need to have this. And they can be introduced to the primary sources, but if they don’t have the foundation . . . . You’re not going to assign a first year undergraduate student to read two volumes of Primitive Culture!

PT: No!

JC: So you have to give them a kind-of basis. And that can generate their interest and go further. And they might go on to post-graduate work.

MAA: There are seminars where I have colleagues that assign Pals. But it’s because, at the introductory level, they may be coming in from other disciplines.

JC: That’s right.

MAA: So Graham, as you mentioned, you have a reader. And this is where I was actually introduced to your work, and others. So, like a stepping stone to many of these larger works, I think they certainly have their place. Within being a third year into a graduate school, I think it’s certainly time to start reading some of the major heavyweights that we’re talking about, certainly including Tylor.

GH: That’s interesting that we, in the book, most of us engage with primitive cultures and we go right back on that. But you went somewhere very different, somewhere that I’m not even sure that I knew that you’d written anything on it before!

All: (Laughter)

JJ: Well, indeed!

GH: And you’d been to London to hang out with spiritualists and so on, but the whole idea of going to Cuba and Mexico . . . . So is that book used by anthropologists?

  1. No. Most of my colleagues, when I told them about this chapter that I was writing, they were like: “He did what?!”

All: (Laughter)

JJ: “Are you talking about that Tylor??” “Yes, yes!”

GH: The father of armchair anthropology!

JC: I know; it’s all you hear!

JC: But it was not one – that (Pals) book – that was a reader. But we used it in a first year course many years ago. But it had little introductions, and in the introduction it mentioned that Tylor went to Mexico, and that he wasn’t just an armchair anthropologist. It was trying to give the students and idea that: he’s noted for that, he’s criticised for that, but he actually did do some field studies.

All: Absolutely, yes.

JJ: The Pals thing is interesting I think. Because one way of reading the Pals book, as opposed to An Introduction to – now Nine, I believe – Theorists of Religion– of course the title is now Theories of Religion, right? So what Pals does with these figures is uses them as paradigmatic examples of ideas. And that seems like a perfectly reasonable way to think about what to do with these classical texts: as just very good examples of – maybe a terrible thing – but, nonetheless, very good examples of the thing.

LS: I think you’re both absolutely correct. But because you’re introducing these ideas to students you can only package them in so many ways. And obviously, you cannot cover everything to the same degree. And actually, I think what was interesting is, that there’s actually . . . . Because Tylor seems to be one of these figures that people develop a periodic interest in that sometimes is not quite as sustained as figures such as Durkheim. And there’s not even, necessarily, always the scholarship to cover every kind of theorist that has had an input in the process. No, I certainly agree that you cannot . . . that you have to package these ideas in one way or another, and you’re always going to leave something out. So I don’t mean that as a critique of Pals, per se.

GH: There seems to be something different between the ways that Durkheim and others in Sociology, as kind-of the founding figures, are much more positively quoted. Whereas Tylor, my impression is, is usually set up as: “Ok, that was fine in the 19th-century, but we don’t do that anymore!”

LS: (Laughs)

PT: Yes. Absolutely.

GH: “He was stuck in his armchair” – and even if we know (differently), he didn’t do enough of it to allow us to be enthusiastic.

PT: I want to mention Anne Kalvig’s chapter at this point, because Anne’s chapter is all about the séances and Tylor’s interest in spiritualism

GH: Don’t tap the table!

PT: Indeed! Well if the chairs dance, what are we going to do?

All: (Laughter)

PT: And I think – like Miguel’s chapter – that it really contributes to . . . . All I remember, as an undergraduate student, was that Tylor didn’t do any fieldwork. Turns out he actually did quite a lot!

LS: Quite a lot, yes!

PT: And the posthumously published fieldwork notes about the séance that were published by Stocking – that Anne Kalvig works with – I thought they were really interesting. And there’s a very ambivalent Tylor there – about what’s taking place – that reveal quite a lot about his own relationships with mortality,(20:00) with his class, with his background as a Quaker, with what he wants to, I think, perhaps, believe about science and superstition – but at the same time being emotionally and intellectually challenged by being at these events.

GH: I think that’s like in Mexico. Things happened in the séances and things happen when he’s wandering about, he gets a taste for certain kinds of food and these experiences that he has. And he obviously wants to be more celebratory. And then, perhaps, retreats into this more distant version, for whatever reason, I mean.. So that’s the kind-of interesting “multiple Tylors” that we discover. And maybe there wasn’t one, even for him – that he’s a kind-of conflicted figure, being attracted to things that he then wants to dismiss as superstition, you know: “They must have been manipulating the table for this to happen!” So yes, a very interesting character.

MAA: So coming back to what gets assigned and why, these are very . . . . he’s obviously a genius, but like most people of that intellect, he’s very complicated. In Mexico, it would be great to have a photo of him in a sarape as he says he used to wear. I can just see him (Laughter- audio unclear) to the Mexican gods.

GH: There’s a quest there, in the archive, is to find such a picture!

MAA: So one of the things that happens, I think, in studies – and I think it’s a symptom just of academia – is having a knee-jerk reaction to who these people were : “This is what I learned in a seminar: Tylor was this – or this other academic – however great they were in their time. But I want nothing to do with them!” Without actually ever reading their work.

JJ: Well Freud would have a field day with that!

All: (Laughter)

JJ: I don’t know about the other classical thinkers but certainly one good reason to read the Victorian theorists is that nobody writes like that anymore!

LS: That’s true!

JJ: I don’t want to give the audience the impression that the two-volume, dusty Primitive Cultures – four inches of book – is a hard read, because it’s not. But it’s a cracking read! And this is true of so many Victorian theorists. I don’t know what happened, really. I don’t know why we started writing terribly, but it isn’t true of Tylor.

GH: There’s a wealth of examples that he brings together, and whether he does that in the strange cabinet of curiosities thing sometimes, not quite like The Golden Bough, but something of that flavour, with all these weird and wonderful things. And you think, some of it, he’s got this information, data that has been sent to him and he’s presenting it back to people to say, “Look. Humans do amazing things! What are we going to do with that?” So yes, very rich.

JJ: I’m going to be so bold – as the person who is not an anthropologist – to suggest that it is entirely Durkheim’s fault!

All: (Laughter)

JJ: So in scholarship we generally learn about thinkers from the debates that they get into, right? So we read Tylor and Durkheim at the same time. If we work on early Christianity, a lot of what we know about early Christian heresies are from orthodox people who write about them, and not from them themselves. And a similar thing has happened, I think, and has always happened in academic work. So, because we learn about and teach about figures via these debates, I think what you get, necessarily, are these polarised caricatures, which by necessity lack richness, depth and nuance. So I don’t know if there’s something in particular about our history, per se. I think it has something to do with our pedagogical tools, and our tools of the transmission of ideas. So, for whatever reason, this is how we transmit ideas: by pitting people against each other.

MAA: So within anthropology . . . . So, when I was an undergrad I never heard of any of these folks, or just very slightly. Going into graduate school at phase one at the MA level, one of the people who turned into one of my professors – not on my advisory or my supervisory committee – but when I told him I was interested in religion, the first thing that came out of his mouth was (25:00): “You must really love Durkheim!” And I was like, “Durkheim? Who’s Durkheim?”

All: (Laughter)

MAA: But then, it’s curious as to why Durkheim? He becomes like the champion of actually studying religion, where apparently Tylor is dealing with other things.

LS: That’s kind of understandable in the 20th century, I think. Because if you have a book that’s called The Elementary Forms of Religious Life and you have book called Primitive Culture, there’s, like, a political zeitgeist which means you might want to recommend one book and not the other, for purely optics reasons.

GH: There’s also the thing about the armchair in the early 20th century and mid-20th century – that the whole Oxford style is just put aside, demonised in that sense. So then, I don’t know, maybe it becomes impossible to find that other Tylor again out of old Stockings’ notes, there’s a few bits of a diary, or whatever it was. Somebody else has to represent it.

JJ: But Durkheim didn’t go to Australia!

All: Exactly! (Laughter)

LS: He focussed on one case study and drew all his conclusions about all of human religion from it!

PT: Brilliantly!

LS: Brilliantly – yes! I think we should not get into Durkheim bashing!

All: (Laughter)

GH: But does Sociology . . . . Do you have to do that? Can’t Sociology stay in the study?

JC: What I was trying to do in my paper was to underscore that Tylor, like many others, had certain criteria for determining the validity of a statement, you might say. So, in the issue of the question of whether humans were originally monotheistic, or whether they were at lower levels and developed higher a social evolutionary scale, what I tried to argue was that Tylor had already decided the answer to this, not on the basis of his empirical investigations – although he cited empirical investigations, as so did Lang, both did, and so did Wilhelm Schmidt. Wilhelm Schmidt was fantastic in his ethnographies – but he started from a position and he proved his position. So one way that I tried to look at these influential scholars is to try to help students see these fundamental starting points. And show how, therefore, the starting point produces the conclusion. And then examine how it would be possible to insert actual empirical evidence into this, in order to determine the value of their arguments. That’s one thing. But then, the other point I tried to make in the paper was that all of these things, all of these discussions – at least in the study of indigenous peoples – is about people who are just there as sort of laboratory agents and not really agents themselves. But they’re there to be studied to prove the theory with which I began. And what I’ve tried to do is to say, if we look at the some of the ways in which indigenous people have been depicted: as passive; as powerless; as incapable of thinking, or dreaming, or whatever; and they just do things because they’re caught in this horrible existence, and they have to solve their problems. But actually, to let them have the voice, or a voice, a prominent voice in how these questions are addressed and answered. And to my mind, if you go back to Tylor or any of these classical theorists, one can begin looking at ways which will impact on the ways we do our own studies. And that, to me, is an important way of using these scholars.

LS: A point that another contributor to the book, Martin Stringer, likes to point out is that it’s very easy to classify Tylor in certain respects because he was writing at was the very early stage in the generation of the social sciences. That he, in some ways, lacked the kind of language to actually discuss some of the things he wanted to get at (30:00). So one of the things that can get quite . . . . Actually reading the text, and then comparing that with the way Tylor was often interpreted, he was interpreted as someone who’s just talking about individuals, who are just kind of reflecting . . . . The term “savage philosopher” makes you think of an individual. If I actually recall the text accurately, I think he actually only uses this expression once or twice. I don’t think he uses it very often.

GH: That’s right.

LS: It’s quite an over-played term, because it’s the term to explain Tylor. But he actually only refers to it once or twice. I think something that really gets missed . . . . Martin likes to talk about the fact that Tylor was fascinated with language and with different groups – always remember that these were ethnological examples. So sometimes these things were far more social than they sometimes appeared. And to relate that to the kind of work that is going on in the cognitive sciences of religion now, we seem to be talking about “cognitive capacities”. This is where the psychic unity of mankind comes in. What are patterns of thought that are widely shared? But behind this is very much a social context. So there’s a brilliant quote where he talks about the fact that when people encounter dreams and visions, these are always in a very, very specific local form. If you’re a Catholic you’re encountering dreams of the Virgin Mary, and this is produced by your social context. So, for example, a 1st century Catholic – inasmuch as you can talk about Catholicism at the that time – is not encountering the kind of 16th century vision of the Madonna with all of the tiaras and the stylised – the stylised depiction of the Madonna has already become an important part – and that’s inherently social, what he’s talking about. If I may just expand on one point: in terms of his, he actually, at one point tried to explain the evolution of the concept of ideas. That’s a word that we take for granted: idea. But actually, we trace that to . . . I think it was Democritus, I think – one of the Pre-Socratic Greek philosophers. And he actually tried to explain this as a product of a sort of animistic culture, where what would be termed ideas were actually encountered as almost personalities. And he tried to locate this in the context of Greece itself.

JC: One thing that appears, at least, when we talk about Tylor’s projection theory, that of the inner individual – you have dreams, you see somebody die, breath goes out of them – it seems to imply that there is a spirit or a soul or that there’s a body and soul and so on. That seems to me, at least, that what appears lacking in this part of it, is the social context, the ritual context, in which these dreams or visions, or relationships with the dead or ancestors, is all, in a sense, socially validated, socially constructed. And then becomes lived out in ritual contexts. For example, the work that I’ve been doing on Australian Aboriginal religions and, in the 1930s what this man I’ve been looking at, TGH Draylaw, has discovered was that the ancestors who then went back into the ground after creating – and then come forth again in the rituals – are actually reincarnated in their ancestors. But these reincarnations in the ritual now become the original ancestor. But none of this, it seems to me, would make sense to . . . . It’s very difficult to make sense of anyway. But to make sense of it in strictly individualistic ways of thinking, it has to be understood in the whole way that this society’s constructed, and the relationships that people have amongst one another, and with other groups within that society. So it’s not directly related to your question, but it is sort of looking at this idea. If you say that Tylor was using a projection theory – that is, projecting out of the individual experience, to create this – it seems to me that, insofar as he did that, he overlooked and was deficient in the concept of the social construction of which these experiences occur. I’m not saying that these experiences don’t occur, but I’m saying that they can only be interpreted and, in a sense, made useful and meaningful in the social context.

PT: And I think that’s what Tylor shows us about the history of anthropology. (35:00) In the beginning Tylor and others are collecting instances of beliefs or practices of X kind, of Y kind and then plotting where they are in populations. And as people start to look at the kind of methodologies, the evolutionist methodologies, then you get that moment where ethnography starts to become, you know . . . . Perhaps following Boas in the United States – the idea that rather than collecting and arranging ethnographic data in that way, one should contextualise it, rather than see it as individual units that have that kind of distribution. But understand them as holistically interdependent with one another. In other words, ethnography fieldwork: going to a particular place, staying there for a sustained period of time during which one learns the language and understands how this data is all connected relationally. That’s partly what studying a figure does, isn’t it? It allows you to have access to the history of a discipline in a slightly different light, and seeing it unfold.

GH: We’ve actually come to end of the time allotted for this conversation. And that maybe actually a perfect point, that we’ve reached, to stop: this thought about why these classic figures remain important and what we pick up from them. So thank you all for joining me in the conversation.

All: Thank you. A pleasure.

LS: Thanks to our audience, as well, for participating!

All: (Laughter)

Citation Info: Harvey, Graham, Liam T. Sutherland, Paul-Francois Tremlett, Jonathon Jong, James L. Cox and Miguel Astor-Aguilera. 2018. “Tylor Roundtable”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 22 January 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 19 January 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/tylor-roundtable/

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Beyond ‘Faith-Based Organizations’: Religion and NGOs in comparative perspective

Produced by R. Michael Feener

Religious NGOs play significant roles in service delivery, community organization, advocacy and mediating flows of information and resources across the globe. Their religious inflections can both enhance the effective reach of particular projects and complicate the already fraught policy environment in which NGOs operate.While policy frameworks influence the kinds of activities that religious NGOs are able to undertake and aim to govern practice, the way this takes place in context is an empirical question. In this interview, we talk with Erica Bornstein about her studies of religious giving and social activism in India and Africa, and what the results of her research contribute to our understanding of the complex configurations of ‘Faith-Based Organizations’ across diverse religious contexts.

Since the turn of the twenty-first century, there has been a remarkable surge of interest among both academics and policy makers in the effects that religion has on international aid and development. Within this broad field, the work of ‘religious NGOs’ or ‘Faith-Based Organisations’ (FBOs) has garnered considerable attention. This series of podcasts for The Religious Studies Project seeks to explore how the discourses, practices, and institutional forms of both religious actors and purportedly secular NGOs intersect, and how these engagements result in changes in our understanding of both ‘religion’ and ‘development’. These interviews with leading scholars working on the topic across diverse contexts in Asia (and beyond) have been conducted by Dr. Catherine Scheer & Dr. Giuseppe Bolotta of the National University of Singapore’s Asia Research Institute. Our work on this has been generously supported by a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation.

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A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.

Beyond ‘Faith-Based Organisations’: Religion and NGOs in Comparative Perspective

Podcast with Erica Bornstein (16 October 2017).

Interviewed by Giuseppe Bolotta and Catherine Scheer.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Transcript available at: Bornstein_-_Beyond__Faith-Based_Organisations__1.1

 

Catherine Scheer (CS): Welcome to the Religious Studies Project. We are Catherine Scheer

Giuseppe Bolotta (GB): And Giuseppe Bolotta

CS: And this is the second instalment of our series on religion and NGOS. A few words on this series: Since the turn of the twenty-first century there has been a remarkable surge of interest among both policy makers and academics into the effect that religion has on international aid and development. Within this broad field, the work of religious NGOS or so-called faith-based organisations has garnered considerable attention. This series of podcasts for the Religious Studies Project seeks to explore how the discourses, practices and institutional forms – both of religious actors and purportedly secular NGOs – intersect, and how theses engagements result in changes in our understanding of both religion and development.

GB: Religious NGOs play significant roles in service delivery, community organisation, advocacy and mediating flows of information and resources across the globe. Their religious inflections can both enhance the effective reach of particular projects and  complicate the already flawed policy environment in which NGOs operate. While policy frameworks influence the kinds of activities that religious NGOs are able to undertake, they rarely dictate practice. In this interview we talk with Professor Erica Bornstein about her studies of religious giving and social activism in South Asia and Africa,and about what the results of her research contribute to our understanding of the complex configurations of faith-based organisations across diverse religious contexts. So, before formally introducing our guest for today’s interview, we would like to thank the Arias Foundation for supporting our research into this topic and the production of this series. Now, speaking with us today about religion and NGOs is Professor Erica Bornstein. She’s an Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Her research critically examines non-profits, non-government organisations and groups working in the voluntary sector. She has written several books on humanitarianism, philanthropy and economic development, including the monograph The Spirit of Development: Protestant NGOS, Morality and Economics in Zimbabwe, first published by Routledge in 2003 and later reprinted by Stanford University Press in 2005; and more recently Disquieting Gifts: Humanitarianism in New Delhi, published by Stanford University Press in 2012. She’s one of the major experts on intersections between religion, economy and politics in humanitarian fields and we are greatly looking forward to speaking with her today. Thank you very much for being here with us at the Religious Studies Project, Erica.

Erica Bornstein (EB): My pleasure.

GB: So, Catherine will start with our first questions.

CS: Sure, thank you. Your book, The Spirit of Development was a groundbreaking ethnography exploring the intersections between religion and development in  Zimbabwe. You have since gone on to author Disquieting Gifts and also added to a collection of chapters titled Forces of Compassion, which includes some rich essays analysing the entanglements between religion and humanitarianism. How did you first become interested in this field?

EB: I originally wanted to study the relationship between religion and politics and I was looking for an ethnographic site to think through a series of questions. More broadly, I’m interested in what motivates people to make social change, to change someone’s religion – as in evangelical organisations – or to change someone’s beliefs. In the case of faith-based organisations, like World Vision Zimbabwe, I wanted to understand what motivates people to want to change people’s lives economically and spiritually. For religious people, economics can’t be disaggregated from cosmological understanding. The distinction between material and spiritual realms doesn’t make sense in many parts of the world. I’ve been fascinated by the conviction it takes to want to change someone’s religion. Personally, I never understood it until I conducted my fieldwork in Zimbabwe, and I’d actually been rather afraid of it: the extreme force of the conviction. One finds similar conviction in other realms: humanitarianism and social activism. It has this utter urgency.

GB: At first sight,  a religious NGO might look like a strange hybrid between faith and socio-political activism within an apparently secular policy framework. These organisations with religious inflections can both enhance the effective reach of particular projects and complicate the already flawed policy environment in which NGOs operate. Now, if we consider the development scenario in Zimbabwe in the nineties, compared to the very different humanitarian context of contemporary India, how do you see global, national and local policy frameworks shape the form taken up by religious NGOS and the projects they engage in?

EB: Well, the world was really a different place in the mid 1990s, especially for NGOS. It was a hopeful time and a growth period in both Zimbabwe and India. Zimbabwe achieved its independence much later than India, but both countries were former British colonies, both had periods of socialism that later shifted to rapidly liberalising economies. And NGOS were considered hopeful forces in the liberalisation process. They multiplied in both settings. In Zimbabwe and in India, religious NGOs were involved in development education and healthcare etc. I can’t say much about what’s happening in contemporary Zimbabwe as I’m not in touch with the NGO community there any more. But in India – and in other parts of the world that have strong states and strong civil society traditions such as Russia, Egypt and Turkey – the state has become very suspicious of the non-profit sector. And the non-profit sector has come to signify an arena of potential dissent. Of course, this varies according to the religious orientation of the state, or if it’s secular. There are laws protecting non-profits in each context. So global policy frameworks are less influential these days than national ones, which can restrict funding that crosses borders. And this is a really big change since the 1990s, because NGOS can’t survive without donor support. They’re donor-dependent.

GB: Right

CS: In your work on Christian NGOs in Zimbabwe, and humanitarianism in India, you shed light on different intersections of religion and development, by examining how different cultures of charitable giving operate within specific policy frameworks, institutional arrangements and socio-economic contexts. Religious NGOS emerge as important brokers of these intersections. How would you describe the nature, of these organisations, their specific position within global humanitarianism and the impact of the intervention in the context in which you conducted your research?

EB: Transnational NGOs like World Vision are very powerful because they move across contexts. They’re a lot like corporations. And, increasingly, such types of institutions are structured like corporations with international boards and national offices. At times the national office has to be incorporated as a local organisation in each country, thus World Vision Zimbabwe will look and operate very differently than World Vision India. It will have a local board, it will be staffed by local people. It will also abide by national laws. And this isn’t any different from non-religious or secular NGOs like Oxfam or MSF.

GB: Right.

EB: But what might be different is the way that faith and faith-based activities can be carried out in each national setting. And for anthropologists like me this makes a lot of sense. Because context really matters. It poses specific and careful questions for anthropologists. If one studies a faith-based organisation one must ask what that means in each particular context.

GB: Thank you so much, Erica. Another question for you. You have problematised the tension between global religious humanitarianism and the business of everyday life. The concepts of a “liberal altruism” and “relational empathy” you introduced in your book, on humanitarianism in India, seem to echo this tension. Do religious NGOs position themselves in a specific way within this tension?

EB: So, based on my last answer to the question about context, I’m reluctant to make huge generalisations. But if I must try, I’d say that religious organisations operate within a framework within a community of believers, and in this sense they’re relational. However, we have to be attentive to minor differences. Some religions, like Christianity, are congregational. Relationality could be in terms of the congregation, and organisations like World Vision raise their money through church  congregations  for their child sponsorship programmes. Hinduism is not a congregational religion. Nonetheless, I would say that the language of belonging and kinship can be extended to relationships in Hinduism as well – perhaps with deities, for example. Now liberal altruism, the way I’ve conceived of it, privileges institutions over people, and individual or cause over known relationships. It’s more abstract. In this sense, it could be a motivating force for Christian philanthropy as well. So these are empirical questions that have to be explored in context. When we understand patterns of motivation and social action it’s easy to see larger social processes at work. So it’s an empirical question: what’s motivating for people to help others. Liberal altruism might motivate someone to give to a cause or volunteer millions of miles away. I venture to say that more local practices of humanitarianism are almost always guided by relational empathy.

CS: Well, this was a fascinating introduction into how you got to your initial book. Now it would be interesting to understand how you moved from this ethnography, this pioneering ethnography of Protestant NGOS in Zimbabwe, to the broader topic of . . .  giving in the Indian context. How did that go?

EB: It’s a good question. As a matter of fact, in anthropology it’s not very common to change such regional areas of research. So it was, I think, either a brave or a stupid thing for me to do. But I did it because there was some unresolved issue from my first book, The Spirit of Development, that I felt I needed to explore. And  in my first book, when I was studying child sponsorship, I realised that the gift could mean something very different for the person who’s giving the gift and then for the recipient. So for example, in Zimbabwe, when a sponsor gives to a family it might displace power relationships within the family. And I know that World Vision has since changed its practices to try to avoid this, but in the mid 1990s it was a real issue. It was creating jealousies and it was really disrupting all sorts of relationships on the ground, in communities, between children. And that really fascinated me. Also there was some hesitation to start child sponsorship programmes within Zimbabwe because of people’s understandings of ancestral relationships. And, “ how could one take care of a child if one didn’t know the ancestral relationship?” So the whole sense of relationality extended out into the spirit realm as well as the local community, and that really stuck with me. And that was a part of my project, but it wasn’t the entire book. So I wanted to study giving, I knew that. And I wanted to go to a place that was radically different, that wasn’t Christian – because I ‘d thought so much about Christian ideas of giving and charity. But I knew that there were other places where people do this kind of activity and it’s very different looking. So, India: not a Christian nation, it’s majority Hindu although it has a missionary history as well. It has this British colonial history. But the gift, ideas of giving . . . some of them are radically influenced by Hindu ideas of freedom and liberation from the material realm. So it presented a completely different environment to try to test some of my questions. When I got to India I had a lot to learn. And that was good , as an ethnographer: you have to be humble, and you learn, and you realise how complicated the world can be. But what I was really struck by is how people in New Delhi, Indians – mostly Hindus that I was talking with in religious contexts like temples as well as in secular arenas like orphanages – Indians had really different ideas of what it meant to donate their time and their efforts and even their funds than the volunteers from . . .

CS: Coming from abroad?

EB: Exactly. So that became the comparative relationship. Which is kind of similar to what I was looking at in Zimbabwe, with its sponsors. But because the cultural, historical context was so radically different it really opened my mind up to think about giving differently. And humanitarianism as well.

CS: Right. Coming up from the ground?

EB: Coming up from the ground and not the ground, right? From all over the world, landing in  aeroplanes, and not knowing how to behave properly in a humanitarian context. People expecting to volunteer and NGOs not really knowing how to integrate volunteers.

CS: And channel the energies.

EB: Yes.

CS: Thank you

GB: Do you want, maybe, to tell us – because this is an interesting story – how you positioned yourself as an anthropologist, as a mother, as a wife, within the humanitarian Indian context in its plural manifestations? Because this was a very interesting introductory part of your book on humanitarianism in New Delhi.

EB: Sure, I mean that was another aspect of the fieldwork for my second book that was just very different than my first one. My first book was my dissertation, and I went all by myself to a place where I had no connections except for some scholar friends who had introduced me to people. And I was viewed by many people as a kind of oddball, right? “What kind of woman comes so far away and leaves all of their relationships to spend a year in this place, trying to understand our world?” And when I went to India I was a lot older, married, had a kid. And my partner is from India, so I had a kind of network of social relationships that I was sort of thrust into and embraced by. And those relationships taught me a lot about what it meant to participate in society as a good human being. And what it meant to give: what the duty of giving meant to family – a kin-based kind of giving which is not humanitarian – and then giving to strangers. And I think that was something that also helped me understand the distinction between the kinship of humanitarianism and more liberal ideas of giving to strangers.

CS: And I think in this book, in your concluding notes, you kind-of put into context the Western perception of giving emphasising agency, putting it in a larger context. Could you maybe say a few words on the broad picture . . .?

EB: Well the broad picture comes out of the tradition of liberal thought. And this is something that I encounter when I teach my classes on humanitarianism and human rights. And I teach the canon of these traditions. And students really understand it and it comes naturally to them. But then, when they’re forced to think about giving practices, or humanitarian caring practices, in other cultural contexts, they start to get more confused, right? And that’s the comparative relationship that I was trying to explore. I was really struck also, as I wrote this book – and writing ethnographies takes years – so I would go to the field for a year and then come back and write, and then go back and explore and come back and write . . . and teach in my job. And it was teaching students who really, really were desperate to go and volunteer somewhere, and participate in the world, and experience the world through charitable dynamics and charitable engagement that made me think about this liberal altruism as well. And some of my students had actually been on mission trips. So they come to classes on human rights or humanitarianism with their own religious-based experience of doing humanitarianism.

CS: Wow!

EB: But they’re forced to think critically about it for the first time. And it’s very exciting to see their worlds opening up. Because they’re beginning to really analyse their own experience and the experience of others.

GB: Maybe a last question, Erica. You told us before that you are working on a new exciting project, so maybe you can tell us a little bit more about this, and how this project is departing from your previous projects in both Zimbabwe and India? How these projects, if they are, are related somehow?

EB: Sure, they’re definitely related. So, if I could create a narrative arc of my books, the first one was really about NGOs, and I compared two NGOs, and I really looked at what it meant to be a religious NGO. What it meant for the people who worked for the organisation in different office locations, and for people who engaged with the organisation kind-of peripherally – as sponsors or donors – and then, also, as beneficiaries. So the NGO, as a central form, I really wanted to put on the map, with that book, and say this is important. We need to understand what these kind of institutional actors are doing in the world, because they’re doing a lot. And they’re very powerful. And World Vision at the time was the biggest Christian NGO in the world. It was the big fish. So I wanted to look at something that was good at what it did. Then I – to be honest, it’s hard to study not for profits. And I just got a little sick of it. And when I was in India I decided for my second book, Disquieting Gifts, I wanted to really explode the category of humanitarianism and giving, and not get constrained by the category of the NGO and the institution. So my fieldwork was very different. I didn’t sit down in one organisation, I went all over the place. I talked to as many people as possible. I tried to think about humanitarianism in all of its possible incarnations.

GB: Including your family circles, right?

EB: Right. Within my family circles. And they honestly were very helpful in introducing me to people who did this kind of work. It was through those networks that I could find people doing the daily practices, the ordinary practices of humanitarianism. And the Indian ideas of dān or sava – they’re not extraordinary, right? They’re ordinary. And that’s important to think about as well. But then, just like my first project where there was an unresolved question that I had to explore, I found another one for my second project, which has turned into my third one, which is: this incredible pressure by the state and by other NGOs in India, to figure out how to do their work better; how to regulate this crazy unruly dynamic diverse sector called the non-profit sector. How does one . . . ? In the non-profit sector they’re not elected, they’re not assessed in any coherent way. And that’s part of their power in that arena, is that it’s so diverse and so dynamic and so responsive to what happens. So I decided I wanted to look at that process itself. And this book I’m writing now is an ethnography of regulation. And it looks at laws. And I’ve been studying advocacy and research organisations [who are] trying to work with the government, trying to create laws that are helpful to the non-profit sector. I also have been interviewing tax accountants, civil servants and people who really try to help NGOs abide by the laws. And looking at it over time – it’s like a kind-of decade long view that I’m exploring – how did these laws change? How does the engagement with the laws affect people doing this kind of work, this kind of non-profit work?

CS: In the Indian context?

EB: In the Indian context, yes. I think civil society is changing, as I mentioned, in the world as well. So it’s part of a much larger shift that I see taking place of the relationship of non-profits in society. And religious non-profits are part of this. They’ve always been a big part of it.

GB: We are greatly looking forward to this book now!

EB: Thank you

GB: So, one could listen to Erica for hours but our time is over. So once again, thank you very much, Professor Bornstein, for joining us at the Religious Studies Project.

EB: Thanks very much for inviting me.

Citation Info: Bornstein, Erica, Giuseppe Bolotta and Catherine Scheer. 2017. “Beyond ‘Faith-Based Organisations’: Religion and NGOs in Comparative Perspective”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 16 October 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 4 October 2017 Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/beyond-fath-based-organisations-religion-and-ngos-in-comparative-perspective/

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Evangelical Christian Space is Not a Category, It’s a Relationship – But With What?

The topic of religion and space has been tackled a couple of times by the Religious Studies Project, with interviews and responses featuring Kim Knott and Katie Aston, Peter Collins and David McConeghy. In fact, I drew on the latter interview-and-response pair earlier this year while working on an article on Christianity, space/place, and anthropology, in order to show the bemusing gap that exists between, on the one hand, many scholars in religious studies who rightfully state that much work has been done on religion and space, and, on the other hand, anthropologists (including myself) who still feel confident claiming that there is a dearth of work on this topic. As I explain in the article, it seems to me that this contradiction is not purely the result of anthropological ignorance (though we shouldn’t rule that out completely). Rather, I think it comes down to the ethnographic emphasis: anthropologically-inclined researchers are looking for a sustained, ethnographically-informed discussion about how religious practitioners themselves think about and use their spaces.

And this is why, in my opinion, sociologist Anna Strhan’s greatest contribution to the debate on religion and place is precisely the underlying question that she identifies in this interview as permeating all her work, across different groups: What are their ethics and values? What matters to them? What is it like – for them? This strong ethnographic focus is particularly evident in her most recent book, a study of evangelical Anglicans in London entitled Aliens and Strangers? The Struggle for Coherence in the Everyday Lives of Evangelicals.

So – what matters to them? What do evangelicals in London want? What does place-making mean to them? As part of Strhan’s broader answer to this question, it seems to me that she positions evangelical place-making using a time-honored sociological move: by seeing it not as a category, but as a relationship. And this allows her to give a number of insightful answers.

1. Evangelical place-making is a relationship with coherence

Strhan explains in this interview that Aliens and Strangers started out as a study focused on evangelical subjectivity, but gradually came to include a focus on space as she realized that a central concern for the evangelicals she was interacting with was a search for coherence in the midst of modern, chaotic London. And this evangelical search for coherence is grounded, she argues, in their image of God as coherent.

In Strhan’s analysis the search for coherence is double-edged. On the one hand there is a sense in which evangelicals’ investment in certain marked places – churches, Bible study groups, schools – in the midst of London life gives them an opportunity to “cohere” with other evangelicals. They draw on relationships within the church to support them in an urban modern environment that in some ways runs “counter” to their faith. And their physical coming-together in certain places is a way of orienting themselves toward God’s (existing) coherence as well as their own (desired) coherence – both in themselves and with God. On the other hand, however, the very act of focusing on coherence prompts a rising awareness of fragmentation – both in the city environment as well as in themselves – and the impossibility of achieving complete coherence while still in this world.

Coherence, in other words, is a goal that begins to both shine and recede at the very moment you begin to reach for it. And evangelicals use place-making – delimiting certain Christian places in the city – partly as a way of negotiating their complex relationship with this goal.

2. Evangelical place-making is a relationship with “the good life”

Physical bodies meeting together in material places are important, and are part and parcel of what “the good life” encompasses for these conservative Protestants. Contrary to the common notion that Protestants live out a more disembodied or dematerialized version of Christianity, Strhan demonstrates that evangelicals rely on both a disciplining of their own body (especially in order to hear God) as well as a crafting of physical places where they can come together. These places range from famous “brand” churches with large buildings, through homely dinner tables where church groups share food, to a corner of a cafe where two church members can meet for a cup of tea.

Again, however, Strhan’s work draws out the double-edged nature of this goal. Evangelicals, she argues, are profoundly shaped by secular sensibilities (a point that has been followed up by Omri Elisha). For example, they find it awkward to talk about their “private” faith in certain “public” places, such as at their work. In this sense, one might say they mesh well with modern, secular, multicultural, urban London life. At the same time, they invest the places they fashion as Christians with a type of meaning that marks these spaces as being “outside” – outside the secular, outside the city, outside this world – and, again, as specifically “counter.” Moreover, they view the other spaces of the city through a Christian lens, turning “secular” vistas into potentially lost or redeemed ones.

Reaching for “the good life” as an evangelical Christian in London encompasses both these senses at once: working with secular sensibilities while also countering them. Negotiating a relationship with “the good life” in particular urban Christian places is not easy.

3. Evangelical place-making is a relationship with God

Strhan is especially good on God. To an innocent outsider, a focus on God might not seem like much of an achievement in a study of evangelical Christians, but anyone reading the Religious Studies Project will know otherwise. An ethnographic focus on the social role of God might rightly be considered innovative in religious studies (and I include here the anthropology and sociology of religion).

And as Strhan demonstrates, an attempt to understand evangelicals’ relationship with God is central in trying to understand what matters to them. This is not to say that it is straightforward. These conservative Anglicans do not usually resort to absolute religious certainty in the way that, say, self-proclaimed fundamentalist Protestants might do. Their faith in God, as Strhan sums it up in the interview, is “hard work,” and they come together in marked places and envision certain urban vistas precisely in order to continuously identify this relationship with God, which cannot be taken for granted. Moreover, it is important to them (and has social effects) that their God is pure, perfect, holy coherence. This conservative evangelical Anglican image of God is different, as Strhan has pointed out, from other images, such as that found in charismatic evangelical neo-Pentecostalism in the United States, where God might be your intimate, best friend (which has slightly different social implications).

So, in the end, what matters to them? Why are spaces important to evangelical Christians? Strhan’s thoughtful ethnographic work shows us that evangelicals’ place-making is, amongst other things, a relationship with coherence and fragmentation. It is a relationship with secularism, religion, and “the good life” in the modern city. And it is a relationship with an invisible God, whose existence may be doubted in twenty-first-century London, but of whom a meaningful image (which is not to say a simple one) may also be formed in twenty-first-century London.

References

Elisha, Omri. 2016. “Onward Christian strangers: Omri Elisha on Anna Strhan’s Aliens and Strangers?” Marginalia Review of Books, April 23.

Hovland, Ingie. 2016. “Christianity, space/place, and anthropology: Thinking across recent research on evangelical place-making.Religion 46 (3), 331-358.

Strhan, Anna. 2015. “Looking for God in the sociology of religion and in Game of Thrones.” Oxford University Press Blog, June 14.

Strhan, Anna. 2015. Aliens and Strangers? The Struggle for Coherence in the Everyday Lives of Evangelicals. Oxford: Oxford University Press.