Ethnography of Religious Experience

Leela Prasad
LS 780-76
Fall 2017
Thursdays, 6:15-8:45 pm
Gray 319

*New Course*

How do people imagine, experience and theorize "the sacred"—sacred texts, spaces, times, beings and bodies? In what ways has anthropology represented such subjects? Some of the earliest accounts of lived religion were by from travelers and explorers--“proto” anthropologists—whose descriptions are filled with wonder, revulsion, and curiosity. Colonial conquests and so-called scientific explorations of humankind generated copious descriptions of the religious practices of colonized peoples. Recent anthropology has both taken stock of these early ‘phases,' and also tried to develop more self-reflexive and dialogic methods for the study of religion. The course will consider how the discipline of anthropology, developing in European socio-political contexts, has historically constructed a “religious subject”, a subject who is frequently rendered as the other of Angophonic and Abrahamic cultures. How have “ritual”, “magic”, or “belief” come to legitimize religion? How do different world locations challenge Euro-American theories of experience that are influenced by theorists such as Edward Tylor, Emile Durkheim, or Bronislaw Malinowski? 

Methodologically, we will study how ethnographic research shapes how we understand religious practices. What is the ethnographer’s relationship to the subject of her study? How do gender, political, religious, sexual orientations, and technological choices influence the ethnographic process? In what ways do authority, language and translational practices produce specific kinds of knowledge about religion and culture? By reading a wide variety of accounts of lived contexts of religious phenomena and practice across the Americas, Europe, South Asia, and the Middle East, this course will explore how ethnography—writing about culture—has become a crucial lens in the study of religion. There will be several aspects to this course: a historical study of ethnographic theory and practice, a close examination of ethnographic studies of varied religious locations, and possibly, a (mini) ethnographic project conducted over the duration of the course.

About Leela Prasad
Religious Studies