An overview of my areas of research: religions in Brazil, especially spirit-incorporation religions (Umbanda, Quimbanda, Kardecism, Neo-Pentecostalism etc.), as well as methodology and (meta)theory of religion.

Research Statement

My work on religions in Brazil starts from the premise that religions reflect their social and cultural contexts. The emphasis is first on “Brazilian” and secondarily on “religions.” As a result, I work extensively with the publications of Brazilian sociologists, anthropologists and cientistas da religião. The trajectory of my research is rooted in a view that scholarship should unite substantive, methodological, theoretical and meta-theoretical levels.

My larger project is an ethnographic study of a local market of religious services in Brazil: participation by Catholics in the rituals of spirit-incorporation traditions. It capitalizes on a fieldwork context that is neglected by both Brazilian and foreign scholars: middle-class religiosity in the interior cities of São Paulo. Outcomes to date include more than twenty articles/chapters. The permeability of religious boundaries in Brazil has led me to study and publish on four separate traditions in this religious field: popular Catholicism (emphasizing social context and engaging critically with the popular/elite distinction); Kardecism (an upper-class off-shoot of French Spiritism that serves as a relatively conservative doctrinal and ritual bridge to Afro-Brazilian traditions); Umbanda (a hybrid of Kardecism and Afro-Brazilian Candomblé); and Neo-Pentecostalism (which appropriates and inverts competing religions’ doctrines and rituals in a “religiophagic” manner).

I recently received two research grants (SSHRC Explore and AAR Collaborative International) for a project on “Ritual Polyphony in Afro-Brazilian Religions,” with fieldwork in two cities in the state of Minas Gerais. A small number of Afro-Brazilian terreiros (“grounds” or temples) hold the rituals of one religion one day and another the next, each with distinct beliefs, roles and artifacts. The four religions most commonly involved in this part of Brazil are Candomblé, Umbanda, Quimbanda and Congado. The same leaders organize and lead these sessions, and many members participate in both. This ritual polyphony (as I call it) is little studied, and it challenges how scholars frame religions as discrete entities and religious identities as mutually exclusive. In addition, there are few published studies on Quimbanda and Congado. Initial fieldwork starts this (northern) summer, 2019. The research team includes three Brazilian colleagues: Ângela Cristina Borges, Professor of Religious Studies at the Universidade Estadual de Montes Claros (UNIMONTES), a specialist in Afro-Brazilian religions; Guaraci M. Dos Santos, doctoral student in Religious Studies at PUC-Minas and pai de santo (“saint father”) of one of Belo Horizonte’s oldest multi-religious terreiros; and Alexandre Frank Silva Kaitel, Associate Professor of Psychology and doctoral student in Religious Studies at PUC-Minas, in addition to being an Umbandist medium.

My study of religion in Brazil has forced me to rethink what “religion” refers to and how to study it. Early interviews made it clear that my conceptual and methodological tools were inadequate. I jettisoned assumptions and rebooted in four ways: by immersing myself in Brazilian scholarship on Brazilian society and culture; by starting with my informants’ own definitions of “religion” and “religious”; by working with multiple methods (interviews, participant observation, surveys, free-listing); and by using grounded theory. As I wrote in the Introduction to the Handbook of Contemporary Religions in Brazil (Brill, 2016, co-edited with Bettina Schmidt), “the meaning of ‘religion’ shifts depending upon the network of contingent associations that it inhabits in specific regional, national and cultural contexts.”

My study of methodology motivated my co-editing The Routledge Handbook of Research Methods in the Study of Religion with Michael Stausberg (2011; 2nd ed. in preparation), for which I wrote the chapter on grounded theory. I am writing an additional chapter on “Theory Building” for the 2nd edition.

My focus on theory has resulted in more than two dozen articles/chapters: on constructionism, cognitive science of religion, Bourdieu, and on key concepts like religion, discourse, hybridity, tradition and agency. This focus was central in my co-editing the The Oxford Handbook of the Study of Religion (2016, again with Michael Stausberg), including co-authoring the “Theories of Religion” chapter. I am also currently co-editing a book on the phenomenology of religion, featuring interviews with scholars from ten countries (a project led by Satoko Fujiwara, assisted by David Thurfjel and me).

A meta-theoretical frame emerges from my collaborative cross-disciplinary work with philosopher of language Mark Gardiner. This has resulted in sixteen co-authored articles/chapters and a book contract (De Gruyter, submission 2020). This interdisciplinary project is having an impact on both the study of religion and philosophy. We have published on implications of theories of meaning for specific areas in theory of religion—e.g., cognitive theory, theory of ritual, the insider/outsider problem and the concept of “the sacred”—and we argue that this approach offers resources for assessing the use of theories and methods. This meta-theoretical stance informs my Brazilian research by underpinning the view that meaning is rooted in networked connections between words (and actions) in specific contexts.

In sum, my view of what constitutes well-rounded scholarship—dialogue between data, method and theory—shapes my research and my teaching.

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