Immersion in Experiencing the Sacred. Insights into the Ethnography of Religion
This article was inspired by an analysis of my interrupted conversion to Reconstructors in Prayer – a new Catholic movement – which took place during ethnographic research. My own experience of conversion, followed by my distancing, thus became ethnographic material to be studied and recounted. I shall narrate the ‘natural history’ of my meeting with the group and my interrupted conversion, touching upon the dilemmas and contingencies of my fieldwork; rather than dwell upon my autoethnographic methodology or my research findings, I shall discuss the advantages and disadvantages of the participant immersion ethnographical technique in studying religious phenomena. Thus I have a double aim. On the one hand, I shall show that the bodily engagement implied in autoethnography furnishes the researcher with a privileged perspective from which to examine religious experiences, especially when they become extraordinary experiences resulting from initiatic knowledge. On the other hand, I shall point out the risks, dilemmas and costs to a researcher of ethnography based on participant immersion. These reflexions will lead me to the conclusion that the researcher’s total immersion is not compulsory for the ethnography of religion, but is particularly useful in cases where the experiential component is central because spiritual knowledge-acquisition is mediated by the experience of the body. I shall then argue that the reflexive dimension of ethnographic accounts is welcome if, and only if, it enriches and problematises cognitive effort cultivating research.
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