Accepted Paper:

Listening: ethnographic methods for the study of silence and contemplation  


Paula Pryce (University of British Columbia)

Paper short abstract:

Research adaptations of contemplative practices prompt the ethnographer to develop intersubjective fieldwork and “deep listening” techniques to assist in the understanding of people living in the silence and stillness of American Christian monasteries.

Paper long abstract:

Years of ethnographic research in silent environments among American Christian monks has taught me to listen in ways beyond the aural. To grasp what was happening at silent field sites, I asked the same questions of myself, the anthropologist, that I did of contemplative Christians: How do human beings attune themselves to the subtle, ambiguous, and invisible? Are there ways of training ourselves to listen, see, and sense more acutely that will allow us to learn about the inner worlds of others? My approach was to become one non-monastic student among many who closely followed monastic teachers of contemplative Christianity so that I might learn through profound emulation. In addition to more standard methodologies, I engaged in an intensive version of participant-observation, what I call "intersubjective fieldwork," a form of watching and listening not unlike the very attunement practices which Christian contemplatives themselves practiced. Yet full immersion did not require me to put aside my critical mind. Monastic teachers of contemplative practices did not promote euphoric abandonment, what Rappaport called "radical identification of self and other," but instead instructed novices to foster an "awakened self" through sensorial awareness and a layered perception which paradoxically entwined detachment (a capacity for emotionally neutral observation) and the phenomenological fusion of self and other. Modifying such techniques for ethnographic enquiry requires intensive practice and long-term study, but assists one in learning to combine the intensive participation and critical observation that allows one to listen to silent communities.

Panel MB-AMS01
Between experiencing and ethnographizing in practice-based research