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Encountering Extraordinary Worlds: The Rules of Ethnographic Engagement and the Limits of Anthropological Knowing

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AbstractThis article explores the ways anthropology might both draw on and contribute to current debates on religion by asking how the ethnographic encounter provides a perspective from which to address “bigger” questions about the place of religion in modern lifeworlds. In particular, the article addresses situations in which the gap between anthropological “construals” of the world and those of its research subjects becomes impossible to ignore. I begin by the phenomenological strategy of “suspending disbelief.” This turns out to be problematic in the light of the postmodern/poststructuralist critique of phenomenology, which suggests that “experience,” being so tightly bound up in context, cannot be shared across cultural, linguistic, and ontological boundaries. However, to refuse to take our respondents’ claims about extraordinary experience seriously is hardly the democratizing move that anthropologists and others claim it to be. How, then, is the experiential dimension to be incorporated into ethnographic practice? Acknowledging the multiple ways in which anthropologists are bound up in an already constituted world of encounters challenges many of the received understandings of ethnography. It allows us to bring experience back into the anthropological frame by allowing us to see that experiences deemed extraordinary — “ours” as well as “theirs” — are a valid and crucial component of human existence. If “we” are part of “their” world and they are part of ours, can we really not share experiences across the ontological divide?

Affiliations: 1: University of Melbourne, Asia Institute, Faculty of ArtsVictoria


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