Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Article Review

Winkelman M 1997, ‘Altered States of Consciousness and Religious Behaviour’, in Glazier S (ed.), Anthropology of Religion: A Handbook of Method and Theory, Greenwood Press, Connecticut, pp. 393 - 428.

In the chapter titled “Altered States of Consciousness and Religious Behaviour”, Winkelman (1997) focused on demonstrating altered states of consciousness (ASC) as the origin and foundation of religious experience and behaviour. Through a cross-cultural, physiological and cognitive perspective, Winkelman employed shamanism to illustrate ASC’s physiological and functional factors since shamanism contain universal and cross-cultural characteristics like in hunting and gathering societies shamans are leaders who uses ASC to interact with the spirit world on behalf of the community (Winkelman, 1997, pp.393).

Winkelman discusses the physiological bases of ASC. The brain’s physiology when entering into ASC through induction procedures (examples: fasting, hallucinogens and alcohol) is altered as the brain’s “…frontal cortex is dominated by slow wave patterns originating in the limbic system and related projections into the frontal parts of the brain” (Winkelman, 1997, pp.394). Additionally, ASC’s functional basis is addressed. Through induction procedures, common ASC therapeutic functions includes facilitating shamanic tasks such as healing and improving well-being psychologically and physiologically such as relaxing stress. Furthermore, three ASC traditions (soul flight/journey, possession and meditation and mysticism) are outlined to identify ASC’s origin in religious experience and behaviour. Lastly, Winkelman points out social influences such as banning hallucinogens have on shamans in hunting and gathering societies.

A strength of Winkelman’s chapter is its consistency in linking cross-cultural and physiological perspective with ASC arguments by using words such as “cross-cultural” and “physiology” (Winkelman, 1997, p.393, 395-398). To reduce bias and reductionism, definitions of terms and concepts are presented with contrasting ideas followed by using a neutral definition. For example, the term shaman was firstly put forward from a cross-cultural perspective followed by opposing views and lastly using an empirical definition from cross-cultural research of shamanism where the term shaman is “…restricted to those practitioners empirically sharing similar characteristics” (Winkelman, 1997, pp.395).

Weaknesses within the chapter include limiting the ASC’s induction procedure functions to physiology and excluding its psychical aspects. For example, the auditory driving induction procedure containing rhythmic auditory such as drumming and chanting “…impose a pattern on the listener’s brain waves…[and] produce a driving response” (Winkelman, 1997, pp.398). However, as Metzner (1998, pp.5) identify, rhythmic auditory also “…give support for moving through the flow of visions, and minimizes the likelihood of getting stuck in frightening or seductive experiences”. Another limitation is addressing ASC’s therapeutic function as healings for psychological and physiological purposes only. In ASC, the shaman also performs spiritual healing by diagnosing and discovering the person’s sickness and restoring the person’s spiritual powers (Horrigan, 1997, pp.2).
Atkinson MJ 1992, ‘Shamanisms Today’, Annual Review of Anthropology, vol. 21, pp. 307-330.

In Atkinson’s article titled “Shamanisms Today” (1992), an ethnographic perspective is utilised to discuss shamanism and avoid reductionism by understanding shamanic practices as “…historically situated and culturally mediated social practice” (Atkinson, 1992, pp.309). Atkinson firstly discusses two studies which removed shamanism from it contexts in search for rational (physiological, psychological or medical) explanations of shamanic practices. The first study is studying the shaman’s behaviour in psychology, physiology and psychobiology. The terms “altered states of consciousness” and “trance” was developed to identify shamanic mentality (Atkinson, 1992, pp.310). Atkinson argues psychological studies has silenced shamanism’s social and cultural context and reduced its symbolism and ritual to psychobiological and neurophysiological bases. In addition, the second study is shamanism as therapy. Therapeutic functions of shamanism was explained with psychotherapy classifying shamanism been primarily based on healing.

Subsequently, shamanism is analysed in cultural and social frameworks by discussing political, gender and textual contexts. Atkinson argues that shamanism cannot exist in isolation since it is underpinned by political influences on shamanic practices. In gender context, it is argued that shamanism contains deep gender assumptions where the “classic” shaman is a male (predominant gender in shamanic societies). Lastly, shamanic texts is another context discussed where shamanic ritual is analysed through shamanic texts since textual material on shamanic rituals (verbal and non-verbal), thought and practice are underpinned by its social and cultural context.

Atkinson’s article strength in explaining ASC and trance is putting forward various definitions to demonstrate understandings that both terms are applicable to various cultural practices (Rock & Baynes, 2005). As Atkinson (1992, pp.310) states, “…the term “trance” …can apply to a vast range of cultural practices, including possession states”. Another strength is presenting opposing viewpoints to minimise bias and reductionism. An example is presenting different definitions of the shaman’s state of consciousness such as “shamanic ecstasy”, “…a single kind of trance state” or “…a religious or ritual state of consciousness” (Atkinson, 1992, pp.310).

A weakness identified is the use of the ethnographic perspective. Although trance and ASC is understood in its social and cultural framework, it is limited since it is also necessary to consider the role of ASC and trance in shamanism where the ASC facilitates the shamans to serve the community, perform divination and healing and promote collective experiences with the community (Jilek, 2005). Another limitation is the view that “Understanding the neurophysiology of trance is valuable, but it does not explain the associated structure or ritual, knowledge, and society” (Atkinson, 1992, pp.311). Trance and ASC does explain its knowledge and society since “…the mental imagery encountered in shamanic states of consciousness is shaped by one’s “cultural cosmology” and experiential knowledge from myths” (Walsh, 1990, pp.90, as cited in Rock & Baynes, 2005, pp.58).

Peters L & Price-Williams D 1980, ‘Towards an Experiential Analysis of Shamanism’, American Ethnologist, vol. 7, no. 3, pp. 397-418.

In Peters & Price-William’s article (1980), “Towards an Experiential Analysis of Shamanism”, the focus is discussing the shaman’s psychological and experiential factors with ASC in ceremonial ritual performances. Through a cross-cultural psychological and psychiatrical perspective, the article focuses on trance influenced by cultural beliefs called “shamanic ecstasy” (Peters & Price-Williams, 1980, pp.397). Shamanic ecstasy is “…voluntary control of entrance and duration of trance”, memories after trance and communication with the audience.

Furthermore, psychiatric concepts called role play and dissociation is presented to discuss the shaman’s experiences of ASC. Peters & Price-Williams (1980, pp.401) argues against the view that shamanic trance is hypnosis, a term also defined as “role playing”. However, drawing on Shor’s (1962, as cited in Peters & Price-Williams, 1980) view of two types of role playing (hypnotic and role playing involvement), the authors insists that shamanic ecstasy involves role playing involvement since it is controlled interaction with the audience rather than following the directions.

In addition, the second psychiatric concept is dissociation. Understanding difficulties in defining dissociation, psychiatric literature from psychoanalysis, anthropological and psychological is reviewed. It is identified that while shamanic ecstasy such as soul flight is not a dissociated state since the shaman controls the content and length of the shamanic state, spirit possession is dissociation due to memory loss. Soul flight is also identified as a therapeutic technique like psychotherapy’s “waking dreams” (internal process where visions are interpreted symbolically) (Peters & Price-Williams, 1980, pp.405). The shaman in soul flight is conscious of visions and remembers and interprets them objectively as symbolic events.

In defining and explaining the shaman’s experience in ASC, the article’s strength is stating its focus in the introduction and throughout the body to maintain logical flow of arguments. For instance the article states “…we concentrate upon the altered states of consciousness (ASC) experienced by the shaman during ceremonial performances [and]…certain experiential characteristics of the shaman’s trance” (Peters & Price-Williams, 1980, pp.397). In addition, maintaining the use of the cross-cultural perspective and shamanic ecstasy as the focal trance reduces misunderstandings or confusion about the shaman’s experience of ASC.

A weaknesses identified in the article is its contrasting idea around dissociation. When discussing dissociation and shamanism, it was firstly addressed spirit possession involves memory loss and is dissociation while soul flight is not. However, subsequently it is stated that soul flight “…and spirit possession are not dissociative states” (Peters & Price-Williams 1980, pp.406). Another weakness is stating shamanic trance been influenced only by cultural ideas. As Atkinson (1992) argues, shamanic practices should be understood in its historical, social and cultural contexts.
References Cited

Atkinson MJ 1992, ‘Shamanisms Today’, Annual Review of Anthropology, vol. 21, pp. 307-330.

Horrigan B 1997, ‘Shamanic Healing: We Are Not Alone’, Shamanism, vol. 10, no. 1, pp.1-4.

Jilek, WG 2005, ‘Transforming the Shaman: Changing Western Views of Shamanism and Altered States of Consciousness’, Articulo de Investigacion, vol. 7, no. 1, pp.8-15.

Metzner R 1998, ‘Hallucinogenic Drugs and Plants in Psychotherapy and Shamanism’, Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, vol. 30, no. 4, pp. 1-10.

Peters L & Price-Williams D 1980, ‘Towards an Experiential Analysis of Shamanism’, American Ethnologist, vol. 7, no. 3, pp. 397-418.

Rock A & Baynes P 2008, ‘Shamanic Journeying Imagery, Constructivism and the Affect Bridge Technique’, Anthropology of Consciousness, vol. 16, no. 2, pp. 50 – 71.

Winkelman M 1997, ‘Altered States of Consciousness and Religious Behaviour’, in Glazier S (ed.), Anthropology of Religion: A Handbook of Method and Theory, Greenwood Press, Connecticut, pp. 393 - 428.

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