Elderly couples sat in the rows behind me, all dispersed throughout the back rows. A few elderly gentlemen were scattered in between. I, sitting eagerly in the front row, was accompanied by an elderly woman – who I later discovered had been attending the church for close to fifty years. The whispers and chatter of others in the audience slowly began to fade away as my mum stood forth for platform and began to connect with spirit. Directing her attention to an elderly gentleman in the crowd, she began to bring evidence through and asked for confirmation of a little boy in the spirit world, with long white socks and sandy hair, that she could see running excitedly around her in circles. She continued on to describe and confirm his cause of death to the gentleman and brought through the little boy’s message…
What I have described above is a common ritual practice amongst spiritualist communities both in Australia and around the world. Often on a Sunday afternoon or evening, the community gathers for a ‘church’ service that often includes a philosophical talk on spiritualism, a meditation, singing and a demonstration of mediumship (‘platform’). During the demonstration of mediumship, the medium is connecting to the spirit world and may either bring through evidence of deceased loved ones – now ‘spirits’ in the ‘spirit world’ – or channel a philosophical message from a spirit, entity or other consciousness.
For the members of this community (including myself), our loved ones and the spirit world are always accessible to us and always present in our day-to-day lives. This world, in many respects, forms part of what Deborah Dixon (2007) termed ‘extra-geographies’ – spaces of experience that we do not necessarily see with our physical eyes or truly understand, yet have a significant influence on the ways we experience the world. Many individuals attending the services will come to hear from their loved ones in the spirit world; many may speak of their ‘spirit guides’ who in meditation provide them with wisdom for their problems. Some may even ask their angels to reserve a parking spot for them in an otherwise packed carpark. For me and many others in this community, these are the ‘normal’ day-to-day practices of our lives. However, I imagine that the multiple aspects of this ‘spirit world’ may prompt many ‘outsiders’ to wonder where on earth it is and how do you access it?
Asking a spiritual medium (my mum) to locate the spirit world, she described:
“This spirit world is all around us. Most people can’t see it and generally we can’t see it with our real eyes. To me, it’s like walking through an invisible door and there’s the spirit world (some people call it heaven). It’s a different dimension, if you like. It’s all around us…the spirit world is a form of energy, so it’s everywhere. It’s not like heaven is up in the sky like Catholics are taught – it can be in your heart, it can be in your aura, it can be anywhere and everywhere.”
The spirit world is, therefore, part of our modern social landscape. It is a world, a space and a ‘cultural site’ existing in the everyday lives of many individuals. If this world is so real for so many people, in all its physical, spiritual and mental domains, why does it remain such as under-investigated ‘field’ in anthropology? Why aren’t ethnographers venturing into this space? From an anthropological perspective, should exploring the cultural and symbolic complexities within these unearthly worlds be “off limits”?
If you were engaging with more traditional ethnographers, perhaps the answer would be ‘yes’. From a historical perspective, the ‘field’ in anthropology has been described as a physical location that includes a specific group of people, language and culture that are bounded to one area (e.g. think Margaret Mead’s research in Samoa). As a result, ethnographic material has often been retrieved from participant observation that relies heavily on information from the ethnographer’s five senses: taste, touch, sight, sound, smell. This grounded evidence is what has often made anthropology unique from other disciplines, enabling many anthropologists to claim ‘authority’ from their personal experiences within a cultural field.
This old-hat way of approaching ethnographic research restrains our ability to explore ideological (e.g. ideas of spirituality) and phenomenological (e.g. experiences of a subject/object) fields, which consequently limits the “philosophical scope of anthropology”. Zygmunt Bauman (2000) briefly touches on this in his conceptualisation of ‘fluid modernity’, whereby individuals around the world now engage in constantly changing locations, relationships, identities and cultures. As Bauman (2000) describes, our understandings and sensations of space are now rapidly changing and becoming irrelevant in a world where our socio-cultural relations are being experienced in virtual realities, online interactive spaces and multi-located cultures. In many ways, we have already moved beyond material places and into a domain where the ‘field’ is defined by communities of shared interests and ‘virtual’ or ‘imagined’ worlds (e.g. World of Warcraft or the Spiritual World).
Maybe it’s time now for us, as young anthropologists, to start dipping our toes in these unfamiliar worlds that transcend the earthy realms we have become so comfortable within!
Baumann, Z 2007, Liquid times: Living in an age of uncertainty, Polity, Cambridge, Cambridge: Polity.
Dixon, D 2007, ‘A benevolent and sceptical inquiry: exploring Fortean Geographies’ with the Mothman, Cultural geographies, vol. 4, no., pp.189-210.
See Also (for more on spirituality and religion): Lionel’s article Tio Gong Tao: Using Witchcraft to Rationalise Sexual Objectification in Singapore; Lani’s article Do you believe in ‘Magic’?; and Sarah’s article Ursula Le Guin and the ethnography of future worlds