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

Research Statement

The trajectory of my research is rooted in a view that scholarship should unite substantive, methodological, theoretical and meta-theoretical levels.

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. contracted for 2019), for which I wrote the chapter on grounded theory. (Grounded theory generates concepts and categories from the bottom up, by close analysis of a data set that is fine-tuned as conceptual work proceeds. Theory emerges from the case as opposed to being applied to it.) I started using grounded theory in my dissertation—analyzing charity in early modern England as an index of changing conceptions of religion—but I worked with Weber and Bourdieu upon being directed to present a traditional application of theory. I have since reclaimed and extended the grounded theory in a thorough revision (accepted by Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, submission 2018). It develops a relational view of religion, arguing that what made almsgiving and aspects of poor relief “religious” was the supra-normality or specialness of certain features of exchange relations.

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 now co-editing a book on the phenomenology of religion, featuring interviews with scholars (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 fifteen co-authored articles/chapters and a book contract (De Gruyter, submission 2019). Our joint work is having an impact on both the study of religion and philosophy because we remain rooted in our respective disciplines. 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. The resulting meta-theoretical stance informs my Brazilian research by suggesting that meaning is rooted in networked connections between words (and actions) in specific contexts. This holistic perspective underpins my view that meanings of “religion” and lists of things that qualify as “religious” are empirical findings not presuppositions.

My current 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 twenty articles/chapters, two under review. This is part of a book project that will be the first to look at this phenomenon. Reflecting a holistic approach to meaning and an emphasis on grounded theory as method, the book takes a revisionist stance on how religion is best defined and studied: it recommends and models the use of insider categories, the rejection of sharp distinctions between first- and second-order and between religious and non-religious discourses, and the elaboration of conceptual work from close analysis of empirical materials.

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); Neo-Pentecostalism (which appropriates and inverts competing religions’ doctrines and rituals in a “religiophagic” manner); and Umbanda (a hybrid of Kardecism and Afro-Brazilian Candomblé). I focus more on the latter for several reasons. Umbanda is seldom studied, though it is more than twice as large as Candomblé and all other Afro-Brazilian religions taken together. Beyond those members, millions of Catholics attend its rituals each week for religious services. Umbanda is markedly hybrid in origin and trajectory, motivating my work on the concept of “hybridity.” Kardecist and esoteric groups are most prominent where I do fieldwork, but these variants receive only passing mention in the published literature, which almost universally categorizes Umbanda as Afro-Brazilian: I argue in several publications that its Kardecist roots are more central. All these characteristics make Umbanda a valuable case for critiquing the stability of scholarly categories like “Afro-Brazilian,” “religion” and “healing.” My next research project will extend this work on Umbanda in a rigorous multi-city study of this largely unstudied but numerically prominent world of Umbandist practitioners and their Catholic clients.

The religious-services project has reoriented my research, as early interviews made it clear that my conceptual and methodological tools were inadequate. I jettisoned assumptions about the nature and scope of religion and rebooted: by starting with my informants’ own definitions of “religion” and “religious”; by immersing myself in Brazilian scholarship on the specificities of that society and culture; by working with multiple methods (interviews, participant observation, surveys, free-listing); and by using grounded theory. The people I work with tell me that they belong to one religion, Catholicism, yet they regularly attend the rituals of others, as they seek relief from health, financial, family, romantic, psychological, and work problems. This pulls apart religions and the religious: for them, religion involves past-oriented issues of identity, emphasizing heritage; and religious involves future-oriented views of this-worldly healing, emphasizing embodiment. This commitment to my subjects’ own categorizations roots the book’s theoretical and methodological reflections. As I write in the Introduction to Handbook of Contemporary Religions in Brazil (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.” I frame my Brazilian informants’ views of religion using a novel analysis of tradition. Tradition is a mode of ideological construction that, like ritual, displaces the intentionality of human action: to cite my monograph on the concept (Equinox, contracted for 2018), “tradition and ritual invoke a ‘we’ by creating the illusion that none of ‘us’ are acting in a self-interested manner: we are all following the same script together.”

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

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