Anthropology of Religion

Throughout my academic career I have continually pursued research in the anthropology of religion, having conducted ethnographic fieldwork in Zambia (1993, 1995, 1999, 2001, 2012). This research has allowed me not only to address fundamental topics in this field (e.g. in an article published in the journal American Anthropologist on the concept of ‘belief‘) but also to explore a variety of different thematic dimensions in the anthropology of Christianity which had previously not received sufficient attention. In my publications on this research, I have focussed on the dynamics of a plural religious field, thus examining the co-existence and interactions of diverse claims to religious truths, Christian as well as non-Christian (e.g. ‘traditional‘ healers, possession cults). On the one hand, this has meant taking account not only of processes of religious boundary-making, but also of how local religious practitioners navigate within this field, thus giving rise to multiple and partly overlapping forms of religious affiliation.

On the other hand, I have examined religious authority as an ‘accomplishment‘ in the ethnomethological sense of this term, that is, as as a socio-religious status that is interactionally constructed and is at the same time characterized by an inherent fragility so that it requires constant re-adjustments and acts of self-authorization if this status is to be sustained. Taken together, therefore, I am interested in the dynamics of a religious field that is characterized by people‘s quest for religious empowerment in a context of ‘spiritual insecurity‘ (Ashforth), which to a significant extent is the result of the precariousness of religious leadership in the field of my research.               

Against the backdrop of this general orientation, I have published on a variety of different thematic aspects, some of which have previously not been made a topic in the anthropology of religion. For instance, I examined how the socio-spatial diffusion of Pentecostal-charismatic churches is related to the materiality of road infrastructure and the form of mobility of religious practitioners. Also, in an article published in the journal American Ethnologist, I have explored the use of denominational pamphets and other religious ‘grey literature‘ in order to show, with respect to the Jehovah‘s Witnesses and the New Apostolic Church, how an attempt is made by their respective headquarters to control the interpretation of these scriptures by regulating the reading practices associated with them.

In this article, as in several others, I have shown how local forms of African Christianity are transnationally connected, thus giving rise to ‘glocalized‘ religious practices. A good example of this is my work on the history of the diffusion of church constitutions in Africa, which is also linked to my more general interest in the previously neglected issue of Pentecostal-charismatic bureaucracy. As regards the latter, on the basis of my ethnographic research I have formulated a critique of the (post)-Weberian idea that ‘charisma‘ and ‘bureaucracy‘ are essentially incompatible.

My monograph on this topic has been reviewed in journals such as American Anthropologist, Ethos, Journal of Religion in Africa, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute and Social Anthropology. Finally, in my more recent publications in the field of the anthropology of religion, I have drawn attention to the crucial importance of pneumatological ideas in most African Christian churches. In doing so I have taken inspiration from anthropological debates on ‘ontology‘ to argue that conventional approaches to Pentecostal-charismatic geographies should be supplemented by taking account of how, for the religious practitioners in these churches, spiritual entities are conceptualized and experienced to locate themselves in and move through space. This latter work has led me to coin the term ‘socio-spiritual communities‘—that is, religious communities constituted by human beings and their interactions with spiritual entities.