Category Archives: Ethnographies

Coco & Woodward – Discourses of Authenticity in a Pagan Community

Discourses of Authenticity Within a Pagan Community: The Emergence of the “Fluffy Bunny” Sanction

by Angela Coco & Ian Woodward

[Coco, Angela, and Ian Woodward. 2007. “Discourses of Authenticity Within a Pagan Community: The Emergence of the ‘Fluffy Bunny’ Sanction.” Journal of Contemporary Ethnography 36 (5): 479–504.]

Points

  • Discussing “fluffy bunnies” is “a group boundary defining exercise based on moral judgments.”
    • It explores pagan ethics associated with the deployment of pagan artifacts and spiritual understandings.
    • Implicit in the discussion is a sense of a “them” who are seduced by media images and popular practices, or implicated in producing them, and a (serious, authentic) “us” who presumably distance ourselves from such things (480).
  • “In a consumer society one purchases objects—commodities such as Tarot cards, ritual tools, medieval dress—that enhance, edify, improve, and sustain self.
    • These objects then act as material boundary markers that suggest things people wish to cultivate about themselves and exclude polluting aesthetics/others” (482).

 

  • pagans are conscious of and practically engage in discussions about constructions of pagan identity and commodification of the craft which is exemplified in the notion of the “fluffy bunny” (499).
  • “A range of tensions emerges which we argue indicates the ways pagans in late-capitalist (or postmodern) society reflexively create meaning-structures around the production and consumption of goods and services that have become popularized as “pagan.” The nuanced features of these tensions reveal the conceptual distinctions and symbolic boundaries pagans create in establishing an “authentic” pagan identity” (483).
  • “The establishment of an “authentic” pagan identity is formed partly by one’s ability to discern the proper limits of commodification and consumerism in the pursuit of religious practice” (499).

 

  • Fluffy Bunnies defined:
    • “those people who gain a surface grasp of pagan practices but fail to incorporate pagan beliefs into their day-to-day life practices” (500).
    • “uninformed, immature, and lacking in their understanding of the forces of nature and consequently dangerous because they may misuse magic”—informant (500).
    • “a person who doesn’t know what they are talking about, or as was said not steadfast in there (sic) beliefs. I am sure that we have all met the 12 year old who is a high priestess and the leader of huge demonic armies and has alliances with the elves!!!!”—informant (500).
    •  “perhaps what bugs me most about these type (sic) is not so much the superficiality (which the ‘fashion-witch’ has in spades) but the hyposcrisy (sic) which often enables them todo harm whilst preaching love and light, and never once recognizing the results of their own actions”—informant (501).
    • “They refer to the superficial practitioner’s tendency to focus only on the light, happy side of life without balancing it with the dark and difficult aspects of experience” (501).

 

Abstract

The commodification of the religious impulse finds its most overt expression in the New Age movement and its subculture neopaganism. This article examines discourses in the pagan community in an Australian state. Pagans, who have been characterized as individualist, eclectic, and diverse in their beliefs and practices, network through electronic mail discussion lists and chat forums as well as through local and national offline gatherings. We explore community building and boundary defining communications in these discourses. In particular, we examine interactions that reveal the mobilization of pagans’ concern with authenticity in the context of late-capitalism, consumer lifestyles, and media representations of the “craft.” Our analysis highlights a series of tensions in pagans’ representations of and engagement with consumer culture which are evident in everyday pagan discourse. These notions of in/authenticity are captured by invoking the “fluffy bunny” sanction.

Continue reading Coco & Woodward – Discourses of Authenticity in a Pagan Community

Advertisements

Viveiros de Castro—Immanence and Fear

Immanence and Fear: Stranger-events and Subjects in Amazonia

by Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, translated by David Rodgers

[Viveiros de Castro, Eduardo. 2012. “Immanence and Fear: Stranger-Events and Subjects in Amazonia.” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 2 (1): 27–43.]

“As we know, a minimal amount of imagination is needed to be afraid” (28).

“I wish to talk about the forms of fear in the native societies of Amazonia, or more precisely, about another way of relating to fear exemplified by these societies” (29).

Quem tem cu tem meed,””Anyone with an asshole feels fear” (29).

“Here I need to return to a typical motif of indigenous cosmopraxis, one about which I have already written so exhaustively that the reader might be already familiar with it. I refer to Amerindian “cosmological perspectivism,” the idea according to which each species or type of being is endowed with a prosopomorphic or anthropomorphic apperception, seeing itself as a “person,” while it sees the other components of its own eco-system as non-persons or non-humans. Some are seen as prey animals or predatory animals (everything has its own jaguar), or as spirits (invariably cannibal, or sexually voracious). Other components of the eco-system are seen as artefacts of one‘s self-own culture: jaguars see humans as peccaries, and see the blood of the prey that they kill as maize beer; the dead see the crickets as fish, the tapirs see the salt licks where they gather as large ceremonial houses, etc. (Much of what I say here about animals can also be said about the dead since, in various aspects, animals are like the dead and the dead are like animals. That is, the dead are not human.) Thus, each species occupies “in” culture the position that humans (that is, the humans‘ humans) see themselves as occupying in relation to the rest of the cosmos. Hence, it is not just a question of each species identifying itself as a culturally defined humanity: perspectivism also means that each species possesses a particular way of perceiving alterity, a “consensual hallucination” device which makes it see the world in a characteristic way” (33).

“Having different eyes, however, does not mean seeing “the same things” in a different “way”; it means that you don‘t know what the other is seeing when he “says” that he is seeing the same thing as you: we do not understand anacondas. The problem is one of perceptive “homonymy,” not “synonymy.” Perspectivism is not a trans-specific multiculturalism stating that each species possesses a particular subjective “point of view” of a real objective, unique and self-subsistent world. It is not Anthropology 101—”various cultures and one nature.” Perspectivism does not state the existence of a multiplicity of points of view, but the existence of the point of view as a multiplicity. There is just “one” point of view, the one which humans share—like the anus—with every other species of being: the point of view of culture. What varies is the objective correlative of the point of view: what passes through the optic nerve (or digestive tube) of each species, so to speak. In other words, perspectivism does not presume a Thing-in-Itself partially apprehended by the categories of understanding proper to each species. I do not believe that the Indians imagine that there is a thing-in-itself which humans see as blood and jaguars see as beer. There are not differently categorized self-identical substances, but immediately relational multiplicities of the blood-beer, salt lick-ceremonial-house, cricket-fish type. There is no x which is blood for one species and beer for the other: there exists a blood-beer which is one of the singularities characteristic of the human-jaguar multiplicity. [  … paragraph ] What defines these perspectival multiplicities is their incompatibility. A human and a jaguar cannot be people at the same time; it is impossible to experience blood as beer without having-already-become a jaguar. Perspectivism states that each species sees itself as people. However, it also states that two species cannot see each other simultaneously as people. Each species has to be capable of not losing sight, so to speak, of the fact that the others see themselves as people and, simultaneously, capable of forgetting this fact—that is, of “no longer seeing it.” (34).

Supernatural regime—”a situation in which the subject of a perspective, or “self,” is suddenly transformed into an object in the perspective of another being” (36).

Appearances deceive because one can never be sure whose or which is the dominant point of view. One can never be sure, that is, which world is in force when one interacts with the Other.”

“I see these supernatural encounters in the forest, where the self is captured by an other, and defined by it as its ―second person,‖ as a kind of indigenous proto-experience of the State” (37).

“In an earlier work, I argued that the constitutive problem of Western modernity, namely, solipsism—the supposition that the other is merely a body, that it does not harbour a soul like that of the self: the absence of communication as an anxiety-ridden horizon of the self—had as its Amazonian equivalent the (positive or negative) obsession with cannibalism and the affirmation of the latent transformability of bodies. In a cosmos totally impregnated with subjecthood, the dominant supposition-fear is that what we eat are always, in the final analysis, souls: an excess of communication, the dangerous transparency of the world …

“I wish to suggest that the true equivalent of the “indigenous category of the supernatural” are not “our” extraordinary or paranormal experiences (alien abductions, ESP, mediumship, premonition), but the quotidian experience, perfectly terrifying in its very normality, of existing under a State. The famous poster of Uncle Sam with his finger pointing in your face, looking directly at anyone who allowed their gaze to be captured by him, is for me the perfect icon of the State: “I want you.” An Amazonian Indian would immediately know what this evil spirit is talking about, and, pretending not to hear, would look elsewhere” (37).

“the world of immanent humanity is also a world of immanent divinity, a world where divinity is distributed under the form of a potential infinity of non-human subjects. This is a world where hosts of minuscule gods wander the earth; a “myriatheism,” … This is the world that has been called animist, that is, now to use the terms of our inanimist tradition, a world where the object is a particular case of the subject, where every object is a subject in potentia. Instead of the solipsistic formula “I think, therefore I am” the indigenous cogito must be articulated in animistc terms, as in, “It exists, therefore it thinks.” But there, where on top of this the Self is a particular case of the Other, such “animism” must necessarily take the form of—if you excuse the pun—an “enemism”: an animism altered by alterity, an alterity that gets animated insofar as it is thought of as an enemy interiority: a Self that is radically Other. Hence the danger, and the brilliance, of such worlds” (41).

Abstract

This article proposes to explore the political correlates of Amazonian perspectival ontologies. From a Taulipang mythical narrative about the origin of the anus (as transcribed by Koch-Grünberg) to a Nambikwara explanation of Brazilian I.D. cards (as reported by Joana Miller), Amazonian ethnography allows us to perceive how “bodily” affects and “spiritual” encounters conspire to project a particular conception of power, sociality and truth.

Continue reading Viveiros de Castro—Immanence and Fear

Kohn—How Forests Think

How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human

by Eduardo Kohn

[Kohn, Eduardo. 2013. How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human. Berkeley: University of California Press.]

Points

“How other kinds of beings see us matters. Th at other kinds of beings see us changes things. If jaguars also represent us—in ways that can matter vitally to us—then anthropology cannot limit itself just to exploring how people from different societies might happen to represent them as doing so” (1).

“This book is an attempt to ponder the Sphinx’s riddle by attending ethnographically to a series of Amazonian other-than-human encounters. Attending to our relations with those beings that exist in some way beyond the human forces us to question our tidy answers about the human. Th e goal here is neither to do away with the human nor to reinscribe it but to open it. In rethinking the human we must also rethink the kind of anthropology that would be adequate to this task. Sociocultural anthropology in its various forms as it is practiced today takes those attributes that are distinctive to humans—language, culture, society, and history—and uses them to fashion the tools to understand humans. In this process the analytical object becomes isomorphic with the analytics. As a result we are not able to see the myriad ways in which people are connected to a broader world of life, or how this fundamental connection changes what it might mean to be human. And this is why expanding ethnography to reach beyond the human is so important. An ethnographic focus not just on humans or only on animals but also on how humans and animals relate breaks open the circular closure that otherwise confines us when we seek to understand the distinctively human by means of that which is distinctive to humans” (6).

“I seek to contribute to these posthuman critiques of the ways in which we have treated humans as exceptional—and thus as fundamentally separate from the rest of the world—by developing a more robust analytic for understanding human relations to nonhuman beings. I do so by refl ecting on what it might mean to say that forests think. I do so, that is, by working out the connection between representational processes (which form the basis for all thought) and living ones as this is revealed through ethno-graphic attention to that which lies beyond the human. I use the insights thus gained to rethink our assumptions about the nature of representation, and I then explore how this rethinking changes our anthropological concepts. I call this approach an “anthropology beyond the human” (7).

“But symbols, those kinds of signs that are based on convention (like the English word dog), which are distinctively human representational forms, and whose properties make human language possible, actually emerge from and relate to other modalities of representation. In Peirce’s terminology these other modalities (in broad terms) are either “iconic” (involving signs that share likenesses with the things they represent) or “indexical” (involving signs that are in some way affected by or otherwise correlated with those things they represent). In addition to being symbolic creatures we humans share these other semiotic modalities with the rest of nonhuman biological life (Deacon 1997) … though signs may be extralinguistic (with the consequence that language can be treated as something more than symbolic) the contexts that make them meaningful are human sociocultural ones” (8).

“Life is constitutively semiotic” (9).

“This way of understanding semiosis can help us move beyond a dualistic approach to anthropology, in which humans are portrayed as separate from the worlds they represent, toward a monistic one, in which how humans represent jaguars and how jaguars represent humans can be understood as integral, though not interchangeable, parts of a single, open-ended story” (9).

“In sum, an anthropology beyond the human is perforce an ontological one. That is, taking nonhumans seriously makes it impossible to confine our anthropological inquiries to an epistemological concern for how it is that humans, at some particular time or in some particular place, go about making sense of them. As an ontological endeavor this kind of anthropology places us in a special position to rethink the sorts of concepts we use and to develop new ones. In Marilyn Strathern’s words, it aims “to create the conditions for new thoughts” (1988: 20)” (10).

“My argument is that we are colonized by certain ways of thinking about relationality. We can only imagine the ways in which selves and thoughts might form associations through our assumptions about the forms of associations that structure human language. And then, in ways that often go unnoticed, we project these assumptions onto nonhumans. Without realizing it we attribute to nonhumans properties that are our own, and then, to compound this, we narcissistically ask them to provide us with corrective reflections of ourselves … Forests are good to think because they themselves think. Forests think. I want to take this seriously, and I want to ask, What are the implications of this claim for our understandings of what it means to be human in a world that extends beyond us?” (21-22).

“Signs don’t come from the mind. Rather, it is the other way around. What we call mind, or self, is a product of semiosis. Th at “somebody,” human or non-human, who takes the crashing palm to be significant is a “self that is just com-ing into life in the fl ow of time” (CP 5.421) by virtue of the ways in which she comes to be a locus—however ephemeral—for the “interpretance” of this sign and many others like it. In fact, Peirce coined the cumbersome term interpretant to avoid the “homunculus fallacy” (see Deacon 2012: 48) of seeing a self as a sort of black box (a little person inside us, a homunculus) who would be the interpreter of those signs but not herself the product of those signs. Selves, human or nonhuman, simple or complex, are outcomes of semiosis as well as the starting points for new sign interpretation whose outcome will be a future self. They are waypoints in a semiotic process” (34).

“We need to provincialize language because we conflate representation with language and this conflation finds its way into our theory. We universalize this distinctive human propensity by first assuming that all representation is some-thing human and then by supposing that all representation has language like properties” (39).

“To summarize: signs are not exclusively human affairs. All living beings sign. We humans are therefore at home with the multitude of semiotic life. Our exceptional status is not the walled compound we thought we once inhabited. An anthropology that focuses on the relations we humans have with nonhuman beings forces us to step beyond the human. In the process it makes what we’ve taken to be the human condition—namely, the paradoxical, and “provincialized,” fact that our nature is to live immersed in the “unnatural” worlds we construct—appear a little strange. Learning how to appreciate this is an important goal of an anthropology beyond the human” (42).

“Thinking with images, as I do here with the Sphinx’s riddle, and as I do throughout this book, with all kinds of images—be they oneiric, aural, anecdotal, mythic, or even photographic (there are other stories being “told” here without words)—and learning to attend to the ways in which these images amplify, and thus render apparent, something about the human via that which lies beyond the human, is, as I’ve been arguing, also a way of opening ourselves to the distinctive iconic logics of how the forest’s thoughts might think their ways through us. How Forests Think aims to think like forests: in images” (222).

Continue reading Kohn—How Forests Think

boyd—None of This Is Real

None of This Is Real: Identity and Participation in Friendster

by dana boyd

[Boyd, Danah. 2008. “None of This Is Real.” In Structures of Participation in Digital Culture, edited by Joe Karaganis. Social Science Research Council.]

Points

  • Based on fieldwork among users of the social networking site Friendster, specifically during the year 2003
  • Explores how the built in affordances of what was intended to be a dating site both constricted user communication and provided avenues for creative expression

Initial design of Friendster

  • Friendster allows users to see people at up to four degrees distance from themselves, which is much more than is possible in face-to-face social engagement
  • however—”Friendster flattens those networks, collapsing relationship types and contexts into the ubiquitous “Friend.” More problematically, Friendster does not provide ways of mapping or interpreting the contextual cues and social structural boundaries that help people manage their social worlds” (134).
  • So—”Not surprisingly, participants responded to the lack of differentiating texture and shared reference points in Friendster’s flattened social networks by negotiating new social norms and rules of conduct, communicable through the existing features of the system” (134).
  • This lead to the invention of fakesters—”fake profiles that signaled not the individuals behind the profile but communities, cultural icons, or collective interests” (139).

Participatory Performance

  • “The performance of identity relies on the active interpretation of social contexts. Familiarity with a context increases a person’s ability to navigate it—to understand what is appropriate or advantageous within it—and thereby shapes choices about the persona one tries to present within it (boyd, 2002). Contexts are not static backgrounds, but constantly evolve through this process (Duranti & Goodwin, 1992). Digitally mediated performance is no different, but the novelty and narrower channel of interaction affect our capacity to interpret context” (141).
  • The user interface started to interfere with users’ performance of impression management (Goffman 1956)
    • “A growing portion of participants found themselves simultaneously negotiating multiple social groups—social and professional circles, side interests, and so on. Because profiles presented a singular identity to the entire network, however, this diversification brought with it the potential for disruption of individuals’ carefully managed everyday personas” (142-43)

Articulated Participation

  • “Although transparency of information poses an interesting challenge, where the information comes from is also a problem. As Jenny Sundén (2003) noted, digital embodiment requires writing yourself into being. On Friendster this means an explicit articulation of who you are and how you relate to others, using the predefined mechanisms for expression. Through a series of forms, profiles must be crafted to express some aspect of identity and relationships must be explicitly acknowledged in order to exist within the system. Unlike everyday embodiment, there is no digital corporeality without articulation. One cannot simply “be” online; one must make one’s presence visible through explicit and structured actions” (bold added 145).
  • Friendships became strategic—”Impression management is encoded into articulated networks. The variable ways in which people interpret the term friend play a critical role, as does the cost of signaling the value of a relationship” (147).

Rise of the Fakesters

  • Many Fakesters began as practical endeavors to connect groups of people; alumni networks were constituted through Fakesters representing universities, and Burning Man was crafted to connect Burners .., Fakesters were a way of “hacking” the system to introduce missing social texture. These purposes were not limited to group networking: The vast majority of Fakesters were exercises in creative and usually playful expression” (148).
  • Friendster began cracking down on the Fakesters, deleting profiles that seemed fake, and the Fakesters became political.
    • “the Fakester Revolution … crafted “The Fakester Manifesto” (Batty, 2003) “in defense of our right to exist in the form we choose or assume” which included three key sections:
      1.  Identity is Provisional
      2. All Character is Archetypal, Thus Public
      3. Copyright is Irrelevant in the Digital Age (151).
    • Fakesters created Fraudsters, who impersonated other people on the service. Fraudsters were meant to confuse both the Friendster service and serious users …
    • Pretendsters combined random photos from the Web and random profile data. They were not fraudulent portrayals of any particular person, but automated Fakesters that mimicked real profiles” (152).
  • “Although Fakesters had taken on a collective impression of resistance, their primary political stance concerned authenticity. In discussing Fakesters, Batty was quick to point out that there’s no such thing as an authentic performance on Friendster—“None of this is real” …
    • “Through the act of articulation and writing oneself into being, all participants are engaged in performance intended to be interpreted and convey particular impressions” (153).

BIG POINTS

  • The abolition of distance—the classic Internet virtue—rendered many social distinctions invisible; the impact of Friends’ performances on individual profiles undermined the individual’s control over social performances; and the binary social network structure—Friend/not-Friend—erased a broad field of relationship nuances. Absent these strong orienting features, participants negotiated new norms and reintroduced new forms of social complexity” (154).
  • “digital networks will never merely map the social, but inevitably develop their own dynamics through which they become the social. The interaction of people with information systems is recurrently marked by play and experimentation, as people test the limits of their settings and manage the consequences of unexpected interactions and altered contexts” (155).

Continue reading boyd—None of This Is Real

Luhrmann—Persuasions of the Witch’s Craft

Persuasions of the Witch’s Craft: Ritual Magic in Contemporary England

by Tanya Luhrmann

[Luhrmann, Tanya M. 1991. Persuasions of the Witch’s Craft: Ritual Magic in Contemporary England. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.]

Points

  • based on 4 years of participant observation among magicians (Wiccan, Pagan, various occult groups) in London in the 1980s
  • “This study looks at ordinary middle-class English people who become immersed in a netherworld of magic and ritual, and asks a classic anthropological question: why do they practise magic when, according to observers, the magic doesn’t work?” (4).
  • “Magicians are ordinary, well-educated, usually middle-class people. They are not psychotically deluded, and they are not driven to practise by socio­economic desperation. By some process, when they get involved with magic—whatever the reasons that sparked their interest—they learn to find it eminently sensible. They learn to accept its core concept: that mind affects matter, and that in special circumstances, like ritual, the trained imagination can alter thephysical world” (7).
  • “The real issue is not that magicians become comfortable practising an irrational activity, but that when someone becomes a specialist, he finds his practice progressively more persuasive through the very process of interpreting and making sense of his involvement; this changing understanding may become progressively more opaque to outsiders” (7-8).
  • Magical ideas begin to seem normal in the process of becoming a magician: in this way, the involvement is more similar to becoming a certain sort of specialist than to producing a new theory” (312).
  • “How can a magician take his ideas seriously? Part of the answer is that the very process of learning to be a magician elicits systematic changes in the way that the magician interprets events. Interpretation depends upon a complex set of assumptions, biases, conceptual frames, knowledge, heuristics and attributive tendencies—intellectual habits in paying attention, in organizing what one notices, and in remembering it” (115).
  • “There seem to be three outstanding changes in intellectual habits.
    1. The magician learns what events count as evidence that the ritual has worked, and begins to find new patterns in sets of events, to see connections where previously he has only seen coincidence.
    2. Then, he acquires the knowledge shared by fellow practitioners—their common knowledge—which gives a depth and complexity to his practice, and allows him to discriminate between events in new ways, armed with these new categories and distinctions.
    3. Finally, he begins to use a battery of new assumptions—some of them explicitly formulated, others implicit in the conversation—which alter the types of remarks he takes for granted and does not question. The cumulative effect is as if the magician acquires new spectacles.” (115 numeric points added).
  • “I would argue that the rift between magician and non-practitioner is carved out by the very process of becoming a specialist in a particular kind of activity. Becoming a specialist often makes an activity seem sensible. The specialist learns a new way of paying attention to, making sense of and commenting upon her world” (115-16).
  • Becoming this type of specialist is important, “But as, if not more, important are the unsystematic experiences which, although they may have little to do with intellectual analysis, make the magician want to justify the practice, and which motivate him in the end to rationalize his commitment. These are the experiences which create bias” (176).
  • “Certain aspects of magical practice turn it into an engagement which many practitioners find compelling. They find the rituals deeply moving, the pre-ritual ‘homework’ engrossing, they dream with the images of magic’s potent symbols” (177).
  • There are four “distinctive categories of experiential response” to ritual magic practice. (All pg. 179).
    1. meditation and visualization—”the two techniques which magicians always learn upon becoming involved in practice. These are remarkable techniques: they change the practitioner’s phenomenological experience in relatively well-understood ways, and magicians are notably affected by their use.”
    2. magician’s language—”the linguistic style with which magicians describe their rituals and meditations. This style evokes a significant imaginative involvement with the ritual’s narrative and gives the magician concrete experience of the abstract terms of magical theory, like ‘contact’ or ‘power’. At the same time, the magician is told that no understanding of magical theory is complete or accurate: she can have confidence that the term refers to something, but she need not state unequivocally what it is.”
    3. ritual—There are three specific strategies a magician goes through to plan a ritual
      1. He is concerned to create a separate space and time,
      2. to exploit mind-altering techniques like chanting,
      3. and to alter the personality of the ritualist.
        • All these techniques take their central task to be setting ritual apart as something different, to be experienced almost as if it involved a different reality superimposed on the everyday.
    4. symbolism—”The use of symbolism is the most important element of the magician’s magical engagement. Symbolism plays many roles, and evokes many responses, and probably bears most responsibility for magic’s excitement. Magicians invent a mythopoeic history, talk about intimate feelings in symbolic terms, therapeutically reorganize their lives with symbolic ‘archetypes’. They also create a secrecy-shrouded mystery religion and talk of the ‘esoteric knowledge’ which their rites provide.”
  • “Throughout all this, the implication should be clear: magic is far more than a theory, and the pleasures of these other aspects—difficult to verbalize, difficult to forget—wed the magician more strongly than any intellectual analysis to a commitment to the validity of his practice” (179).
  • So… “Systematic changes in the style of intellectual interpretation make the ideas seem more believable; the satisfactions of involvement make the desire to justify the involvement even greater. Nevertheless, despite magic’s growing appeal, at some point in their practice – for some, throughout their practice – magicians confront scepticism, other people’s or their own” (270).
  • “magicians do not produce an elaborate philosophy which would describe all their beliefs, actions and desires as consistent, and substantively rational—oriented towards a genuinely desirable goal in the most effective manner possible. Instead, they justify the inconsistency with a range of arguments and make efforts to separate magic off and make efforts to separate magic off from the mundane by ritual and metaphor. Through practice, theory and styles of arguments, magicians insulate their magic from hostile criticism, real or imagined, and they acquire reasons to explain this separation … People rationalize rather than acting rationally, and strive for local consistency with a patchwork job of post hoc rationalization” (273).
  • “people tend to conceptualize themselves as unitary selves, coherent and all-of-a-piece. In order to understand their actions as part of that self, directed towards an end suitable to that self, they talk about ‘beliefs’ and ‘attitudes’ and ‘desires’, proposition-like assertions which explain why someone performs an action. If you see an aborigine eating grubs, you assume that he believes that the grub is nourishing, delicious, or imbued with sacral power” (307).
  • “In order to function effectively, humans—these interpreters of culture—must act as if humans do not act randomly, but in a way they can learn to anticipate and to which they can learn to respond. This involves attributing to them a set of proposition-like assertions about the state of the world – he is carrying an umbrella, he must believe that it will rain this afternoon – which they maintain over time” (307).

“the ethnography presented on modern magic and the persuasiveness which the practice obtains elicits three observations about belief. Let me summarize” (309).

  1. “First, it is optimistic to think that people have an ordered set of beliefs abouta particular endeavour which forms a consistent set with other beliefs which together describe the totality of thought and action. People are much fuzzier, and more complex, than that. The ethnographer can legitimately identify something like a belief when someone argues for a proposition, at least during the period when they are doing the arguing. But magicians argue in different ways at different times; some of them claim to believe one thing when practising magic, and another thing when not practising magic; others seem to be firmly committed to their practice, and produce arguments about relativism which do not seem entirely plausible in the face of their behaviour. “
  2. “Second, it is hubris—and bad ethnography—to assume that people act first and foremost because they are motivated by belief. The material on modern magic suggests particularly dearly that people often argue for a belief as a means to legitimize, and even to understand—to rationalize—the practice in which they have been involved … If someone goes to church as a regular part of his life, he is likely to argue for a belief in God. If he feels deeply spiritual when praying to God, he is more likely to be persuaded that God exists, for the religious framework provides a way to interpret that unusual feeling.”
  3. Third, magicians have beliefs; it is not true that becoming a magician simply involves learning to speak a new ‘language’ … That is more than a bow towards relativism: the assertion claims that apparently strange beliefs say nothing startling, but simply express conventional beliefs in new and surprisingways. Or, the assertion can be that in becoming a shaman, a Scientologist, a believer in something, someone is simply acquiring new terms to describe new experiences” (309).

interpretive driftslow, often unacknowledged shift in someone’s manner of interpreting events as they become involved with a particular activity. As the newcomer begins to practice, he becomes progressively more skilled at seeing new patterns in events, seeing new sorts of events as significant, paying attention to new patterns … there seems to be a slow, mutual evolution of interpretation and experience, rationalized in a manner which allows the practitioner to practise. The striking feature, I found, was how ad hoc, how seemingly unmotivated, this transformation became. Magicians did not deliberately change the way they thought about the world”

cognitive dissonanceIn the fifties, Leon Festinger (and others) developed a sociological theory of ‘cognitive dissonance’ to understand intellectual discomfort. Its most famous application concerned an American flying saucer cult which predicted that the world would end on 21 December. On 22 December—after the prophetic failure—the adherents began to proselytize, for the first time, claiming that the world had been miraculously redeemed. Festinger interpreted this as an attempt to reconcile their considerable commitment to their belief with the embarrassing evidence of its falsity by creating social support for a somewhat transformed version of it” (271).

Continue reading Luhrmann—Persuasions of the Witch’s Craft

Fine—Small Groups and Culture Creation

Small Groups and Culture Creation: The Idioculture of Little League Baseball Teams

by Gary Alan Fine

[Fine, Gary Alan. 1979. “Small Groups and Culture Creation: The Idioculture of Little League Baseball Teams.” American Sociological Review 44 (5): 733–45.]

Points

  • based on participant (kind-of) observation over three years with little league baseball teams in three different communities in America
  • “in order to avoid treating cul­ture as an amorphous, indescribable mist which swirls around society members, it is necessary to ground the term in interac­tion” (733).
  • To do this, Fine asserts that each small group has an intercation based culture of its own, and calls this the group’s idioculture. 
    • “Idioculture consists of a system of knowledge, beliefs, behaviors, and customs shared by members of an interacting group to which members can refer and employ as the basis of further interaction” (734).

Rationale for the deployment of idioculture as a classificatory tool

  • “Five arguments are proposed here for the utility of the construct of idioculture in sociological research” (735).
    1. specificity of cultures
      • The relatively limited extent of the par­ticularistic aspects of small-group culture lends itself to examination by the partici­pant observer, and thus idiocultures can be specified by the researcher to a much greater extent than is true for either societal cultures or subcultures” (736).
    2. Comparative analysis of groups
      • “By comparing groups in terms of their experiences and shared meanings as influencing their culture, one is able to explicate the process of cultural differentiation—a process Fischer (1968) has termed microethnography” (736).
    3. Cultural creation and diffusion in societies and subsocieties
      • “In ob­serving a small group one can pinpoint precisely and with confidence the circum­stances under which an item of culture was created” (736).
      • esp. informal cultural products like jokes or slang.
    4. Groups as cultural units
      • “groups do not exist in a content-free con­text, but are continuously engaged in the construction of a social reality, a history, and a sense of meaning …
      •  Following interactionist theory, we assume that cultural content derives its shared social meaning through interaction, rather than through an a priori assignment of meaning. Groups negotiate meanings, and this ongoing negotiation structures the culture of groups” (737).
    5. Culture as mediation between environment and action
      • “Idioculture is proposed as a mediating element between constraints external to the group and the behavior of the group in dealing with these constraints. It is the process by which collective decisions ares elected, and thus permits an under­standing of how a group increases its sense of “groupness,” cohesion, and commitment” (737).

The Social Production of Idioculture

  • “At the inception of any group, an idioculture does not exist; however, the formation of a culture may occur from the opening moments of group interaction …
  • Eventually idioculture becomes self ­generating, and direct solicitation and re­ciprocal inquisition are no longer neces­sary for social solidarity” (737).
  • Five Filtering elements that establish a piece of idioculture—it must be perceived as:
    1. Known
      • either the item or components of the item must be based on information poreviously known by one or more members of the group
      • ” Since members have access to other idiocultures (or latent cultures)through previous or concurrent member­ships, the range of potentially known in­formation may be extensive” (738).
    2. Usable
      • i.e. must be mentionable in the context of group interaction
      • “Some elements of the latent or known culture, although shared by mem­bers of a group, may not be shared pub­licly because of sacred or taboo implica­tions” (739).
      • this can lead to strategic avoidance of the item (situational racism or foul language)
    3. Functional
      • “its perceived congruence with the goals and needs of some or all group members, and whether it is defined as facilitating the survival and successful operation of the group as a unit” (740).
      • If something is arbitrary or extraneous to group functioning, members won’t feel the need to adhere to it, and it won’t survive
    4. Appropriate
      • “Some potential elements of a group’s culture, while func­tional for satisfying group goals or per­sonal needs, do not occur or continue be­ cause they undermine the group’s social structure in not supporting the interper­sonal network and power relations in the group. Those potential cultural elements which are consistent with the patterns of interaction of the group are the appropri­ate culture of the group” (741).
      • example – the ironic nickname “Tiny” for an overweight member cannot survive if that member loses weight.
    5. Triggered
      • Some event has to bring the item into the group’s use—best if the event is notable or unusual
      • creates a type of genesis mythology for the item
  • These elements are contingent and hierarchical, in that “K>U>F>A>T” (738).

Final thoughts

  • “For both theoretical and methodological reasons, an examina­tion on the level of the small group seems desirable. Small groups can be examined adequately, and they represent locations where much culture, subsequently spread to larger social units, has its origin. This procedure, in addition to increasing understanding about the social role of culture itself, also has the potential for bettering knowledge about small groups …
  • Culture is a construction based upon the consensual meaning sys­tem of members; it comprises the interac­tional products that result from a verbal and behavioral representation of that meaning system.” (744).

Abstract

Following interactionist theory, this study argues that cultural creation and usage can be examined by conceptualizing cultural forms as originating in a small-group context. Those cultural elements which characterize an interacting group are termed the idioculture of the group. This approach focuses on the content of small-group interaction, and suggests that the meanings of cultural items in a small group must be considered in order to comprehend their continued existence as communication. Five characteristics of cultural items affect which items will become part of a group culture. Cultural forms may be created and continue to be utilized in situations if they are known to members of the interacting group, usable in the course of group interaction, functional in supporting group goals and individual needs, appropriate in supporting the status hierarchy of the group, and triggered by events which occur in group interaction. These elements have impact only through the interpretations of group members oftheir situations. Support for this approach is drawn from a participant observation study of Little League baseball teams.

Continue reading Fine—Small Groups and Culture Creation

Fox—Real Punks and Pretenders

Real Punks and Pretenders: The Social Organization of a Counterculture

by Kathryn Joan Fox

[Fox, Kathryn Joan. “Real Punks and Pretenders The Social Organization of a Counterculture.” Journal of contemporary ethnography 16, no. 3 (1987): 344-370.]

Points

  • Based on participant observation in a Southwestern American punk scene in 1983
  • broke the punk counterculture in a ‘social organization’ of four typologies
    1. hardcore punks
      • core of the group, small in number
      • exclusively wore punk clothing and hairstyles (mohawks, etc.), often had tattoos (swastikas—not because of anti-semitism, but embracing a symbol that the mainstream found offensive)
      • fully committed (through conversion) to the punk lifestyle and ideology (belief that the punk movement stood for something politically important, anarchic and anti capitalist)
      • usually into hard drugs (glue huffing) and living in poverty by choice
    2. softcore punks
      • linked socially with the hardcore, but larger in number
      • exclusively wore punk clothing and hairstyles, rarely had tattoos
      • committed to the punk lifestyle temporarily, and often ambivalent about the ‘meaning’ of the punk movement
      • softer drugs (marijuana, binge drinking) and living in semi-poverty by choice temporarily
    3. preppie punks
      • peripheral to the hard and softcore members, even larger in number, often the butt of core members’ jokes
      • wore punk clothing only when attending punk events, wore hair in punk styles that could be restyled into a mainstream look during the week for school or work
      • not interested in the punk lifestyle beyond the fashion and spectacle
      • usually younger, middle class, lived with parents or went to school
    4. spectators
      • on the scene regularly, but not identified as punks
      • sometimes became punks over time
      • punks liked having them around, “every type of punk thrived on an audience. The punks needed people to shock” (364).
  • As a group, central members (hard & softcore) provided ideology and mentorship to the peripheral members—in turn, peripheral members served to insulate central members from larger society.
    • peripheral members often helped the central members financially through money, food, drugs, and rides
    • says Fox: “The peripheral groups thus filled ironically polarized roles: buffering the central mem­bers from contact, yet, at the same time, maintaining contact for them with the conventional society” (366).
    • and “It is, I believe, characteristic of antiestablishment counter­ cultures in general for members to subsist parasitically on the societies that they oppose” (366).
  • Fox believes that, for a counterculture to be successful, it needs to have this dual strata (core and marginal—the core to provide a ‘counter’ ideology and opposition to the status quo, and the marginal to facilitate dialogue between the counterculture and the dominant culture that it opposes.

Abstract

Very little has been written from a sociological perspective about the punk counterculture in the United States. Further, few studies of antiestablishment style cultures deal with their implicit social organization. In this essay I describe and analyze the informal stratification of a local punk community. I based members’ positions within the hierarchy on their perceived level of commitment to the scene. Within the group, three categories of punks emerged: hardcore punks, softcore punks, and preppie punks. Another type appeared that was peripheral to the scene, referred to as “spectators.” In discussing each type, I describe their appearance, lifestyle, and attitude and how these factors affected members’ positions in the larger scene. I conclude by analyzing the function of each group for the social organization of the scene, and for antiestablishment cultures more generally. Continue reading Fox—Real Punks and Pretenders