Accepted paper:

When the spirit speaks: anthropology from within alternative knowledge systems


Jamie Barnes (University of Sussex)

Paper short abstract:

This paper asks what an anthropology from within ‘alternative knowledge’ systems – in this case non-secular – could actually look like. Positioned in a world in which the “Spirit Speaks” the author proposes moving beyond the secularist roots of the discipline towards more nuanced, and engaged, ethnographic explorations and representations of other worlds.

Paper long abstract:

However much the secularist bias within anthropology has been brought into question (Evans-Pritchard 1962; Stewart 2001; Kapferer 2001), those who practise anthropology whilst at the same time explicitly living in non-secularist ontologies are few and far between (the exceptions include Favret-Saada 1980; Stoller 1987; West 2007).  Does this reveal an inherent tension within the anthropological domain itself?  What would an anthropology from within an “alternative knowledge system” (Jordan 1997:56) actually look like?  And is such an anthropology even possible within this current epistemological moment?  This paper argues that it is not only possible but entirely necessary, since an anthropology from within ‘alternative’ ontologies not only offers a deeper respect for the lived worlds of research participants (Henare, Holbraad and Wastell 2007), but also has the potential to enliven the anthropological field itself.

Drawing both upon eighteen months of anthropological fieldwork in Greece and Albania and fourteen years of living and working amongst Christian spiritual communities in the Balkans, I seek to move beyond mere justification into the beginnings of just such an ethnographic exploration of “another world” (Santayana 1982 [1905]).  In considering a world in which “the Spirit speaks” what are the theoretical lenses most appropriate for effectively observing and understanding this world?  Can these lenses be found within the already existing anthropological domain?  And if lenses from within other social domains are equally efficacious, what is the effect – authoritatively – of employing these lenses within anthropology?  This paper argues that such work may produce further tensions, but ones that are nonetheless necessary for the continued vitality of a discipline which has always sought to engage seriously with the worlds of others.

panel P79
The best of 'Ideas in Movement': papers from the RAI Postgraduate Conference