Conference Dispatch: 2013 American Ethnological Society Meetings

2013 American Ethnological Society meetings, April 11-13, Chicago, Illinois.

By: Jessica Hardin (Brandeis University)

Just under 200 papers were presented in Chicago; only seven of which focused on Christianity, 10 on Islam and one on Candomble. This dearth of papers raised a number of questions for me. Mainly: given the conference theme “Anthropologies of Conflict in a New Millennium,” why weren’t more voices exploring the role of religion, religious mediation and spirituality in contemporary conflict? On a pragmatic level this may reflect the fact that the Society for the Anthropology of Religion meetings were being held the same weekend in California. But, it may speak to a limited engagement with how conflict has been treated in the anthropology of Christianity, and may also reflect the particular shape the anthropology of Christianity emerging today has taken thus far.

As I planned a panel for the conference I had to think hard about how my work related to conflict. In Samoa, where I conduct fieldwork, conflict arises from denominational diversity and competing spiritual economies. My panel sought to expand how we engage with conflict at the micro level through the topic of ritual failure. With this in mind, Hillary Kaell (Concordia U) and I organized a panel to explore the role ethnography can play in illuminating the meaning of failure for ritual participants. How do ritual actors navigate conflict as a context and conflict writ small? We also asked, what does the presence and categorization of failure reveal about humans as reflexive social actors who actively engage in social reproduction? The panel explored ritual action from a variety of perspectives, expanding how to think about failure, mistakes, and mishaps.

Casey Golomski (UMASS Boston) explored generational contest over ritual mistakes in a context of demographic change related to the enduring HIV/AID epidemic in the Kingdom of Swaziland. Elders are increasingly concerned about the lack of ritual socialization among youth. While this incompetence is a source of contestation, ritual efficacy is not contested but instead social action is focused on young ritual actors who require intervention. My paper explored multiple interconnected scales of ritual failure and conflict: (1) at the personal level of the practitioners who manage experiences and expectations and (2) at the social level where community boundaries are reified and contested. In the end I argue that ritual failure reveals a micro-level negotiation of denominational diversity in Samoa. Failed rituals do not just hinder social work but permit new forms of social action and formulations of the essence of social problems.

The panel shifted focus with Kristin Bloomer’s (Harvard U) exploration of the question of authenticity and discernment in ritual performances of Marian spirit possession in Tamil Nadu, South India. Bloomer considers the role of the constitution of subjects and communities in the performance and, more specifically, in the adjudication of ritual action. Elizabeth Brummel (U Chicago) explored the “how” of Pentecostal conversion through a linguistic analysis of how her interlocutors transformed a “mundane” narrative of salvation into an ideal narrative in Kenya. Brummel did not engage with failure but instead explored the social work accomplished in producing a narrative of rupture. Kaori Hatsumi (Kalamazoo C) ethnographically engaged with the unfolding ritual space of the Stations of the Cross in a paper titled “Tamil Catholic Easter in Postwar Sri Lanka.” She shows the regenerative processes engendered by the enactment of Easter rites.

Andrew Buckser (Purdue U) offered commentary on the panel, which highlighted the role of perspective. He asked, according to who are rituals deemed failures, inauthentic or mundane? Who controls such narratives and how is blame assigned or punished? What is the place of conflict in such ritual contestations? Shared across the papers is the problem of evaluation: who determines authenticity and success? Who adjudicates? How do participants themselves manage such expectations and evaluations? Buckser pointed to another common thread, the drive to document and fix narratives and the stories that emerge from ritual action.

Two papers that were part of larger organized panels also addressed Christianity. On a panel titled “Responsibility: Cultural Constructions of Agency and Conflict” organized by Ilana Gerhson (Indiana U), Sarah Bakker (UCSC) presented her work with Middle Eastern Christians in the Netherlands. Bakker explores how Syriac Christians are the targets of integration policies by the Dutch multicultural state. She revealed the conflicts and contestations that arise over distinct ideologies about freedom and responsibility, which require Syraic Christians to transform their embodied and social practices into more secular and private forms encouraged by the state.

Lauren Leve (UNC Chapel Hill) presented a paper on the panel “Interrogating the ‘Post-Conflict’: Temporality, Affect, and Social Transformation” organized by Amanda Snellinger (U Oxford) and Sara Shneiderman (Yale U).  Leve’s paper, “Of Conflict and Conversion:  Engaging the Post-Conflict through the Lens of Christianity in Nepal,” explores how rural Christian converts in post-conflict Nepal navigate emergent forms of democracy and citizenship through Christian orientations towards affect and temporality as well as religious practices including prayer.

The 2013 AES meetings was a vibrant conference exploring multiple facets of conflict and contestation in contemporary life. The papers addressing Christianity were rich and demonstrated the importance of incorporating the anthropology of Christianity into broader anthropological conversations about conflict, contestation, and social transformation