Anthropology of Conversion edited by Andrew Buckser,
Stephen D. Glazier (Rowman & Littlefield) paints a picture of conversion far
more complex than its customary image in anthropology and religious studies.
Conversion is very seldom simply a sudden moment of insight or inspiration; it
is a change both of individual consciousness and of
social belonging, of mental attitude and of physical experience, whose unfolding
depends both on its cultural setting and on the distinct individuals who undergo
it. This book explores religious conversion in a variety of cultural settings
and considers how anthropological approaches can help us understand the
phenomenon. Fourteen case studies span historical and geographical contexts,
including the contemporary
List of Contributors: Robert T. Anderson; Diane Austin-Broos; Thomas K. Brown;
Andrew Buckser; Simon Coleman; Maria Pia Di Bella; Charles Farhadian; Stephen D.
Glazier; Roger Ivar Lohmann; Marcela Mendoza; Kalyani Devaki Menon; Rebecca
Sachs Norris; Robert J. Priest; Lewis R. Rambo; Mary Ann Reidhead; Van A.
Reidhead; Don Seeman About The Editors: Andrew S. Buckser is an assistant
professor of anthropology at Purdue University. Stephen D. Glazier is a
professor of anthropology at the
The volume begins with a general introduction to the anthropological study of conversion by Diane Austin-Broos. Austin-Broos argues that conversion research raises issues of central importance to contemporary anthropological theory, especially its interaction with nationalism, state formation, and the construction of authority. Her discussion deftly positions the chapters in this volume and the field of conversion studies as a whole within a larger disciplinary context. The book then turns to fourteen detailed case studies, each of which considers conversion in a distinct ethnographic setting. These studies have been divided into three sections according to their primary ethnographic emphases. These sections represent a rather artificial division, however, since common questions run through them all, and readers will find elements in many chapters that bridge all three sections.
The first section considers conversion and its relationship to social processes. Much of the literature on conversion has focused on its psycho-logical dimensions, the transformation in individual consciousness that a religious change implies. That transformation takes place, however, within a social matrix, as converts detach themselves from one group of believers and affiliate with another. In many cases, that matrix has considerably more impact in motivating the conversion than any individual religious experience. In all cases, the social group structures the intellectual and experiential process through which conversion occurs. The papers in this section explore some of the questions that this social dimension of conversion implies. In what ways, for example, does conversion influence group identity and solidarity? How do the social and political divisions within groups affect the ways that particular individuals convert? How does the individual agency so central to most conversions articulate with the authority of religious leaders and bureaucracies? And how do relationships of power more generally influence the under-standing and practice of conversion?
in this section approach these issues from several different directions. Simon
Coleman begins with a penetrating analysis of a charismatic Protestant church in
case study underscores the political implications of conversion, a theme that
also animates the chapters by Kalyani Menon and Charles Farhadian. Menon
analyzes understandings of conversion among Hindu nationalists in contemporary
The final two papers in this section explore the role of conversion in defining boundaries, both within and among religious groups. For the Copenhagen Jews of Andrew Buckser's study, group boundaries are the subject of ongoing dispute among community factions. On a daily basis, the proprieties of community life paper over such differences; the process of conversion, how-ever, brings them vividly to the surface. Buckser discusses two typical cases of conversion to Judaism and the debates over the nature of Jewishness and rabbinical authority that accompany them. Although these debates can and do produce hard feelings—at times even schism—they also create opportunities for expressing family solidarity and consolidating political power. Marie Pia Di Bella's study focuses on the marginality involved in the boundary-crossing of conversion, suggesting that the marginal position of the convert can be crucial to understanding the linguistic and symbolic patterns associated with the process. In one of her two case studies, marginality is essential to the conversion—the converts are convicts, living in jail cells for the short interval between their condemnations and their executions. In the other, marginality derives from the requirements of group membership, as Pentecostal converts who have not experienced glossolalia find themselves excluded from the center of their new group. Di Bella explores the ritual and symbol-ism of conversion in both settings, highlighting the ways that marginality both informs and reflects the social experience of the converts.
Cross-cultural analyses of conversion inevitably encounter difficulties when
they try to define their subject. Academic models of conversion tend to draw
heavily on Christian imagery, particularly on such dramatic scenes as Paul's
vision on the road to
Priest, for example, looks at the transformation of the notion of sin among
Aguaruna converts to Christianity in
Conversion, therefore, is not a matter of rethinking the nature of reality, but of "turning the belly," changing the individual's relationship with the spiritual beings who direct his or her volition. Lohmann presents a model of conversion based on relationships with spiritual beings, one that he finds truer not only to Asabano experience but to many facets of Western experience as well.
Anderson and Thomas Brown focus on contexts much more familiar to American
section of the book addresses the subject that has dominated most of the
academic research on conversion: the place of conversion in personal experience.
How does conversion make sense and feel to those who go through it? What
motivates them to convert, and what sorts of emotional and cognitive changes
does conversion involve? The chapters here take an anthropological approach to
these questions, asking how different cultural and historical settings shape the
conversion experience. The answers are seldom simple. Steven Glazier, for
example, finds conversion taking a variety of forms for Rastafarians and
Spiritual Baptists on the
and Van Reidhead illustrate this process with an extended case study from the
American Midwest. They follow a woman from her initial con-version to
Catholicism to her subsequent decision to join a Benedictine monastic order. In
both cases, her conversions (the first from Jehovah's Witness to Roman
Catholicism, and the second to Benedictine monasticism) involve the kinds of
overpowering religious experiences that conversion studies have generally
explored and that might seem to suggest a total transformation of worldview
before and after. Yet even as a Benedictine postulant, the subject of the study
acknowledges the profound ongoing impact of her Jehovah's Witness upbringing on
her understanding of religion. Despite changes in affiliation and practice, her
activist approach to religion and her personal relationship with the Holy
Spirit—the cornerstones of her childhood religion—have remained central to her
experience. Marcela Mendoza describes a similar pattern on a broader scale in
the final case study of the volume. Among the
The book ends with an afterword by the eminent psychologist of religion Lewis Rambo, the only one of our contributors from outside anthropology. Rambo puts conversion studies in a broader context, suggesting ways in which anthropology can inform and learn from the other disciplines that have analyzed the subject. He calls strongly for more interdisciplinary work on conversion; the virtual blindness of academics to developments outside their fields, he suggests, has deprived anthropologists, sociologists, historians, and others of excellent methodological and theoretical resources. A concerted effort to build bridges among these isolated disciplines could produce major advances in conversion studies and a corresponding enrichment of each.
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