Saturday, July 12, 2008

The Cultural Mandate: A View from the Field

In general, I support the idea of a kind of society or group or formally recognized body of self-identified "Christian Anthropologists" and those sympathetic to its interests. I don't intend to debate definitions of or threshold criteria for membership with this posting. Rather, I aim to bring about a bit of discussion about some other reasons in support of this group, as opposed to the informal Fishnet or Network that we have going. From my perspective, there are three additional reasons not yet discussed:
1. As a someday-PhD holder, in the midst of fieldwork, I have come to realize several of the ways that I could benefit from this group. Fieldwork - particularly in a setting where other people are actively trying to convert the researcher out of Christianity - can have some very alienating moments. I remember in a previous Fishnet posting someone mentioned that Christian PhD students struggle to maintain a personal faith, particularly during the fieldwork period. Given that I am set in the heart of the Muslim Middle East and travel within some of the most religiously disputed spaces in the world, I can appreciate how that happens. If it's all socially constructed around me, then how is what I believe any different from what those around me believe? A group of Christian Anthropologists could serve as a group of people who actively dialogue, share experiences, and engage the question of working in a profession that - at times - makes personal faith and professional activities difficult to reconcile or even antithetical.
2. A fellow PhD student and good friend involved in fieldwork in South Africa was struggling with how to make sense, theoretically speaking, of the intersections between discourses of hope in communities with high rates of HIV/AIDS and their testaments of personal faith. She sought out assistance from her advisors. Much to her disappointment, her committee members insisted that testaments of faith in her fieldwork communities need not enter her theoretical orientation. This group of Christian Anthropologists could help identify new theoretical possibilities for the place of religion more generally, and for Christianity specifically. I envision an ecumenical approach that could be adopted by Jewish or Muslim anthropologists (among other religious adherents) who seek to identify the theoretical possibilities for the religious life that they live and work in, balancing it with the idea that they themselves may be adherents of the same religion. I realize that we are not all oriented towards Anthro of Religion. However, a group that shares an openness to the possibilities for faith in anthropology would be welcomed by some who find the academy rather unsympathetic towards religious orientations more generally.
3. Finally, I believe that a group of Anthropologists Who Also Happen to be Christians or Sympathizers (which is a definition I prefer; although the acronym "AWAHCS" is more than a bit awkward...) could provide some of the kinds of networking and exposure for students and new PhDs that we are all striving for, as well as match faculty postings with a wider applicant pool. Some of this happens on Fishnet; I am grateful to have heard and be in dialogue with several of you (and needing to reply to emails from even more...). Where are some new opportunities for publishing? For jobs? And furthermore ... treading lightly here ... what about the kinds of challenges that arise when working in a Christian college or setting? How might one teach evolution - a vital aspect of anthropology - if the institution bars or restricts it's teaching? A society could be a strong forum for boosting the professional caliber of Christian anthropologists as well as a forum for collectively discussing ways to address the unique issues that I do believe we have.

1 comment:

Brian Howell said...

I'm particularly interested in the second point: providing intellectual resources. How do we not only make resources available, but continue to encourage the development of new resources in the theoretical issues of Christianity, faith, ethnography and theory?