The Ethnographer and the Magicians

At the site, described as “a collaborative genealogy of spirituality” (“Ask scholars, writers, and artists what they think of when they think of the word spirituality.”), anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann glosses an anecdote from her time studying British occultists in the 1980s.

Her book Persuasions of the Witch’s Craft: Ritual Magic in Contemporary England (Harvard U. Press, 1989) still resonates, although not always in ways that Professor Luhrmann intended.

For some, it became a case study in how not to do research on new religious movement. In her article “Psychology of Religion and the Study of Paganism,” published in the collection Researching Paganisms, Melissa Harrington writes, “[Luhrmann’s] resulting thesis presents a rich ethnography, replete with original anthropological material, but with a weak conclusion that has been refuted by practitioners and academics alike.”

In the same volume, sociologist Douglas Ezzy critiques her “methodological atheism,” although he admits that “there is a long history of academic disciplinary boundary maintenance that this argument derives from.”

(Her faculty web page describes the work this way: “Her first project was a detailed study of the way reasonable people come to believe apparently unreasonable beliefs.”)

Ezzy continues, “The methodological atheism at the heart of Luhrmann’s thesis does not derive from an attempt to sensitively understand the experience of Witches, but from her enforced adherence, on pain of significant social sanction, to the atheistic tenets of academe.”

In her defense, you expect a PhD student to be acutely aware of “social sanction.”

I would have to say that Researching Paganisms (Google sample here) was party a response to Luhrmann’s 1980s work, or as the editors wrote, “In particular, it highlights the relationships of researchers with the communities researched, ‘ownership’ of knowledge so created, and problems in presenting a nonmainstream, and seemingly ‘nonrational,’ area within academic discourses across discipline boundaries.”

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