RELN.2110: Theoretical and Methodological Issues
According to Goulet & Young (1994, p.300), any rationalist interpretation of cross-cultural rituals, ceremonies and belief practices usually represent traditional pro-western beliefs, concepts and values. Anthropologists in the contemporary world are seeking to avoid historic ethnocentrism. Whilst the analysis of dreams remains in the psycho-analytical area, anthropologists have pursued explanations in how dreams and visions can inspire activities as therapy to enhance the social life of certain cultures. The core of this enquiry goes to the heart of a culture's way of life that can be interpreted more accurately by anthropologists who are prepared to participate in rituals to gain an understanding of their belief systems. Those who are prepared to experience mind-altering states, are more qualified about how the event affects them, and whether it is in unison with what their hosts describe. There may be spiritual values that contain the underlying motivations as to how a community and its culture lives and survives.
Goulet & Young (1994) present the paradox of how a participant anthropologist is to give an independent account of his/her experiences once embedded in the culture they are studying, which as an experience is highly subjective for all involved. This is the anthropologists' dilemma; how to be objective and how to present their accounts so that there is credibility for reasonable comprehension and understanding (pp.312-3). For this outcome it would seem critical, and in line with the authors' convictions, that anthropologists need to avoid ambiguity with their interpretations regarding spirit forms that arise independently and externally to those produced in visions induced by the experiences of rituals or dreams (pp.324-5). Whilst "shared experiences" of dreams and rituals in any culture allow for "hands on" participation, the nagging questions for scientific evidence will always arise to challenge the explanations of their spiritual claims. Perhaps any form of credible knowledge could be at least corroborated by the participation in "shared experiences" by many anthropologists who study in collaboration (p.329).
Townsend's (1997, p.430-1) account of Shamanism poses similar problems as does Goulet & Young's (1994) in choosing between studies that achieve objectivity and subjectivity when in fact it may well be a combination of both, depending on the cultural conditions that are present. As Shaman practices the spirit to material connection for the well-being of the community, resultant outcomes may well represent the reality of receiving material benefits even where this may have coincidentally arisen without Shamanism (Goulet & Young, 1994, p.327). It is feasible for Shamans to have expertise in weather forecasts (for hunting and harvests), herbal remedies (health), and an understanding of placebo effects. All of these factors would justify a community's foundation for beliefs. It is clear that Shamanism has limitations of access for participation or joining in any collective practices for altered states of consciousness, which remains the exclusive preserve of the practitioner, known as Shamistic States of Consciousness (Townsend, 1997, p.432).
This state is controlled by the Shaman as the acknowledged source of his powers alone, with all others in the ceremony acting as recipients. This event is known as a Shamanic seance (Townsend, 1997, pp.442,452). Underlying belief systems are no different to those in western societies and need to be understood in terms of how they specifically apply to each different community. Townsend (1997, p.459) highlights his experience and apprenticeship to Shamanism which relates to Goulet & Young's (1994) "experiental approach" which only tells us about the community through the eyes of Shaman. Individual apprenticeships cannot be shared with others, hence the mysticism surrounding Shamanism and which attracts negative responses from western societies, as outlined by Goulet & Young (1994, p.300). This bias is no different to that which mirrors similar fears and ignorance attached to mental illnesses within the developed world. Any knowledge that is derived from experiences and observations within cultures which explains individual or collective spiritual practices, needs to be assessed within the contexts that are compatible with that culture. Written interpretations need to be expressed with equality for comparative values both within and across all cultures.
THE MAGIC OF RITUAL. Our need for liberating rites that transform our lives and our communities.
Driver (1991), unlike Goulet & Young (1994), and Townsend (1997) attempts to avoid issues of subjectivity by focusing on rituals as agents for social change (p.166). He focuses on various interpretations of magical practices which are subtly segregated by their cultural association, yet these cross-cultural accounts are assimilated with those that are pro-western. To maintain clarity in this review, it is suffice to accept magic for what it is, which is just the skill of conjuring tricks as is used in commercial advertising (pp.167-8). A more dramatic presentation for television entertainment uses the example of a car being driven whilst the driver is blindfolded (lecture video).
More significantly, Driver (1991) explores the power of ritual which raises questions with consequences for those participating, and whose actions are influenced. He reports on a healing ritual in a Korean cultural setting whereby communal harmony is achieved as a by-product of this process, whether it achieves a cure or not (p.176). In describing this event, Driver (1991) goes into great detail about the behavioural traits and actions of the participants. His introduction of the term to "speak respectively of our own religion" (Christian) within the context of his observations, could influence a pro-western comparison in the interpretation. This aspect becomes more obvious in his second account from South Africa. Whilst he calls this a different example, he is still demonstrating the influence of ritual to transform actions of a community. The stark difference is that this time the process is Christian. The aim of the ritual is to counter anti-apartheid laws and, in this instance, contrasts as a nobler cause, above and beyond the demonstrated human frailties of the Korean community.
Both accounts are accurate reflections of transformations within their respective communities. The fault lies in the presentation of knowledge with built-in assumptions for cross-cultural negativity. This is what Goulet & Young (1994) and others wish to avoid within anthropological studies.
Driver, T.L., 1991, The Magic of Ritual: Our Need for Liberating Rites that Transform our Lives and our Communities, New York, HarperSanFrancisco, Ch. 9, Transformation, 166-194.
Goulet, J-G. & Young, D.E., 1994, 'Theoretical and Methodological Issues', in Young, D.E. & Goulet, J-G, Eds, Being Changed by Cross-Cultural Encounters: The Anthropology of Extraordinary Experience, Peterborough, ON, Broadview Press, 298-335.
Townsend, J., 1997, 'Shamanism' in S. Glazier, Ed., Anthropology of Religion: A Handbook, Westport, Conn., Greenwood Press, 429-469.