Any discussion / comments on the below topic would be appreciated:

Panel title:

The ontological turn - new ethnographic approaches, theories and analysis of spirit mediumship, shamanism, religious ritual and discarnate phenomena.

Panel 514:

(Photo: Taoist spirit medium in Singapore self-mortifying as it is held that when possessed by a deity, the spirit medium's blood carries the deity's power)  

Full Abstract

Ethnographic research into spirit-mediumship, shamanism, witchcraft and religious phenomena has undergone a paradigmatic shift reflective of the ontological turn in contemporary anthropology, new research giving recognition to the role of spirits and to the spiritual power of objects in religious practices. New ethnographic research methods and theoretical approaches are therefore developing to integrate emic ontological spiritual worlds into the broader scope of normative etic analysis.

Fiona Bowie has suggested that “Western academic approaches often rely on the juxtaposition between “our” rational and “their” irrational belief systems, and attempt to “explain away” or ignore emic interpretations with a subsequent loss of semantic density”, and suggests “adopting an emic interpretive lens in order to arrive at a “thick description” that does not shy away from aspects of experience outside the ethnographer’s Weltanschauung (world view)”. Such approaches remove the monopoly on sacred, spiritual and religious knowledge held by religious specialists as emic understandings and knowledge are increasingly integrated into ethnographic research and anthropological analysis. This disseminates into the public sphere through anthropological publications, conferences, and through new social media.

This panel would like to invite potential participants to explore dimensions of the privatization, revelation and dissemination of religious and spiritual knowledge through evolving ethnographic research methodologies and analyses based on previous or on-going research in any region of the world. Topics of specific interest include:

1. Spirit-mediumship and spirit possession
2. Shamanism
3. Religious ritual / magic
4. Religious / spiritual belief systems
6. Contemporary witchcraft
7. Spirit power and material culture

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Fabian, this proposal interest me, not least because during my dissertation fieldwork in Taiwan I was the apprentice to a Taoist huat-su (Mandarin, fa-shi, 法师). That was back in 1969-71. I returned to Taiwan in 1976-77. It was during that stay that I collected the text of a ritual called in Hokkien ce ngokui (controlling or propitiating the five ghosts), which I analyzed in detail in my article "Negotiating with demons: the uses of magical language." American Ethnologist, Vol 22, No.1, February 1995.

In that article I finesse the issue raised by the ontological turn as follows,

I start with a working assumption, nicely stated by Erving Goffman, that applies as well to the presentation of self in ritual as it does to everyday life:

"When an individual plays a part he implicitly request his observers to take seriously the impression that is fostered before them. They are asked to believe that the character they see actually possesses the attributes he appears to possess, that the task he performs will have the consequences that are implicitly claimed for it, and that, in general, matters are what they appear to be [The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, 1959:17]."

I assume, then, that the healer is doing, in fact, what he seems to be doing: negotiating with demons. He is neither charlatan, preacher, nor pedagogue; nor is he an actor performing a play that he and others know to be fiction. He is what he says he is: a magician, trying to achieve a certain effect in the he knows best, by magic. This leads me to my larger agenda, the implications of what he says for one of our discipline's oldest conundrums: the magical force or efficacy attributed to magical words.

I say "finesse" deliberately. I chose to avoid metaphysical commitments. I refused to embrace either the "thin" scientific approach that attempts to explain away what the text says and what the healer is doing as he speaks it or the,  it seems to me, excessively "thick" approach that assumes that spirits, the Five Ghosts and the god evoked as part of the exorcism, are actually present. It suffices, I still believe, for anthropologists to take Confucius' advice that while a gentleman behaves in ritual as if the spirits are present, he does not concern himself with the question of whether they actually exist or not. That participants in ritual believe in their presence is sufficient reason to analyze what they do, taking into account their beliefs.

I do not, however, claim to be a know-it-all. I am happy to entertain the idea that the ontological turn has implications that go beyond this modest methodological move. Could you, perhaps, give us a hint of what those implications might be?

Thank you for your reply to my post. First allow me to apologize for my laxness in replying. I have been, metaphorically speaking, up to my eyeballs in fieldwork in Malaysia, though, admittedly, that is a poor excuse.

I would love to have seen Taiwan back then in the 60s and 70s - I didn't get there myself until 1989. It is still my favorite place that I have visited, even though it has changed drastically since my first visit. I wonder what you would make f it now?

Regarding your ideas, they are fascinating. I will download your paper in the new year, and give it a read. As for the ontological turn, the expression was first used in the introduction to 'Thinking through things' ( and the introduction explains the ontological turn far better than I can. Also worth reading, and free from the journal HAU. They had an entire issue on the ontological turn in 2014 which can be downloaded here:

Particular authors to look out for include Holbraad, Pedersen, Descola, Laidlaw, Viveiros de Castro and Horton.

The best reply I can give you as a direct answer though would be to look at your Confucian approach, i.e., "for anthropologists to take Confucius' advice that while a gentleman behaves in ritual as if the spirits are present, he does not concern himself with the question of whether they actually exist or not. That participants in ritual believe in their presence is sufficient reason to analyze what they do, taking into account their beliefs". The ontological approach may in comparison may analyze how spirits exist, in what forms, and what world views are necessary for them to exist in the forms that they take. Another approach would to look at your ethnographic material 'recursively' (a term coined by Holbraad) meaning to conceptualize objects, entities and so forth based not on previous anthropological models (relativism /representationalism ), but from the ethnography itself.

In the meanwhile, I think your work sounds fascinating, and I would encourage you to enter an abstract for the IUAES panel.

I look forward to reading your paper, and wish you all the very best for 2016.


Fabian, good to hear from you, and deeply flattered at your response to my musings. Taking your advice, I have just downloaded Holbraad, et al, to my iPad.

At the moment, however, I am finding it difficult to distinguish between attempts to "analyze how spirits exist, in what forms" and to answer the question "what world views are necessary for them to exist in the forms that they take" and what, in practical terms, I am trying to do when I propose to take what the people I work with do and see seriously. That I must listen and probe carefully and do my best to understand the assumptions behind what they do and say and avoid the dismissive shift to "explaining away" what they say and do is something I take for granted. But never having myself experienced either divine revelation or ghostly possession, I am stuck with the evidence I have before me, i.e., what people do and what they say about it. Taking seriously the other's ontology does not, it seems to me, provide an escape from the hard hermeneutic labor of creating a convincing account based on the evidence before me. Neither does it compel me to agree that their ontology, assuming that I can piece it together, represents the way the world actually is.

And then, of course, there's another problem. The ontologies embraced by the individuals I work with may not be entirely the same; they may even be radically different. Thus, when writing a chapter on "Traditional Chinese Religion" for Ray Scupin, ed.,Religion and Culture: An Anthropological Focus, I included the following caveat,

As we look more closely at all these aspects of Chinese religion there are several key points to keep in mind. There are temples; there are sects. There are private belief and public practice. But there is no Church separate from the State, no sharp boundary line that separates religion from other institutions. Chinese religious cosmology reflects this social reality; there is no transcendent God, only spirits who are part of the social and natural order, just like the human beings whom they outwardly resemble and whose fundamental nature they share.

We should also bear in mind that while we speak of "Chinese religion," China is a very large country with a population that is now around 1.2 billion people, a quarter of the world's population. Chinese religious attitudes exhibit every conceivable shade from fervent belief to indifference and active atheism, and a wide range of variation can be found in rural villages as well as towns and cities. In a study of religious belief in a village in Taiwan, anthropologist Stevan Harrell interviewed fourteen villagers. Three, he found, were religious enthusiasts, village theologians who had each developed his own idiosyncratic version of Chinese religious cosmology. One, an old woman, was the village atheist; she stated bluntly that traditional religion is nonsense. The other ten participated in ancestor worship and festivals because, "It's the custom."

The communist revolutionaries who founded the People's Republic of China were heirs not only to Karl Marx's conviction that religion is "the opiate of the people" but also to a long indigenous tradition of scholarly skepticism. It was, after all, Confucius himself who said that while a gentleman acts as if the spirits are present in ritual, he devotes himself to worldly affairs and keeps the spirits at a distance. Many educated Chinese continue to follow his advice.

In attempting to understand Chinese religion we cannot, therefore, be satisfied with statements that say "The Chinese believe this" or "The Chinese do that." Our goal must be instead to discover the range of possibilities for religious belief and practice that the world of Chinese religion provides and to understand the motives that incline individuals who occupy different positions in Chinese society to act on some of these possibilities while, perhaps, rejecting others.</>

If you send me the email address you prefer, I will happily send you the whole chapter.

Happy New Year! Gongxi Facai!

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