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Taking the supernatural seriously (academically speaking)

Ontologi — Should anthropologists take shamans, spirits and other supernatural phenomena seriously? For some, the idea is absurd, but, as University of Copenhagen anthropologist Morten Axel Pedersen explains, it might not be as far out as it sounds

As an anthropologist, Morten Axel Pedersen often runs into situations that, at first glance, appear paradoxical.

“What do you do when you’re doing field work in Mongolia, and you meet a shaman who also happens to be the head of a company that has been given a World Bank loan? Or what about when you find yourself at the University of Moscow talking to a someone getting their PhD in quantum physics, and they ask if you’d like to talk about what to do when you find yourself in the mountains, surrounded by spirits?”

Pedersen is now a professor at the University of Copenhagen. His days of field work in the Mongolian taiga and speaking with Russian academics are long past, but the idea that something can be considered by one person to be paradoxical or illogical can be completely realistic for others has stuck with him.

If we were to seriously believe that twins are birds, then it isn’t sufficient for us to understand the belief symbolically

Morten Axel Pedersen, Professor of Anthropology

During his studies at Aarhus University in the 1990s, much of the focus on myth and legend that had always been at the core of anthropology had been replaced by trendier, post-modern literature that dealt with things like ‘narrative’, ‘identity’ and ‘discourse’.

Rather than get caught up in all that, Pedersen transferred to Cambridge, where anthropologists had begun taking an interest in just the type of paradox he had experienced during his field work.

In 1998, while at Cambridge, Pedersen attended four lectures by Brazilian anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, who spoke about the manner in which Amazon Indians view the world. In their perspective, all beings – humans, animals, spirits – consider themselves to be humans, who perceive the other non-humans as symbiotic partners.

“De Castro argued that if you assumed the same worldview the Amazon Indians had, you could actually develop a better method for analysing not just their society, but, in fact, society at large. When an anthropologist is presented with a paradox, the paradox isn’t necessarily the view held by the group being studied. In fact, their views serve as a litmus test that can show whether there is a problem with the way the anthropologist is observing them. It’s a little like The Matrix. There, it was the glitch in the system that showed there was something wrong with the way we understood the world.”

Taking people’s ideas seriously

Even with anthropology’s storied past, it was there, at Cambridge, during those lectures, that many believe the field experienced one of its most important moments. It was there that the seed of a new analytic approach to the field was planted. Today, that approach has come to be known as the ‘ontological turn’.

Before we go further, it’s important to explain just what ontology is. The term comes from the Greek word for ‘being’, so, the study of being , or the nature of being. Most people explain that the ‘turn’ was the realisation that there can be more than one ontology, more than one theory to explain the nature of things. That’s why something that is paradoxical to one person can make perfect sense to someone else.

It’s a little like The Matrix. There, it was the glitch in the system that showed there was something wrong with the way we understood the world
Morten Axel Pedersen, Professor of Anthropology

Pedersen, however, sees things differently. The turn, he feels, was the realisation that anthropologists needed to think ontological questions into their ethnographic descriptions and theories. In other words, the need to question the ideas that we take for granted. The view is one that he describes in more depth in his recent book, The Ontological Turn: An Anthropological Exposition, which he wrote together with fellow anthropologist Martin Holbraad.

“The ontological turn is a matter of taking people’s ideas seriously. Anthropologists have always tried to do this, but the difference is that we suggest they take people’s ideas seriously for just a little bit longer.”

Twins are birds

When the earliest anthropologists were sent into the field in the service of colonial powers, their job was to study the people that had always been living in these new colonies. The basic assumption was that if someone was talking to spirits, they must either be mad or primitive.

As the science has evolved, it has tried to eliminate that sort of thinking. One emerging school of thought to explain this sort of behaviour is that ‘spirits’ in such instances are in fact symbols of something else.

“These sorts of symbolic interpretations have been the basis for a number of good analyses, but there’s a limit,” Pedersen says.

One classic example is the belief among the Nuer people of northern Africa that twins are birds. For a long time, people treated the belief as a form of metaphor, arguing that twins were like birds, rather than twins were birds, which made it possible to understand the belief symbolically.

If we studied Nazism, for example, we’d find it just as incomprehensible as the world of spirits and shamans, and we’d be wrong to just regurgitate what we saw without providing any sort of analysis. Doing that puts you on a slippery slope.

Inger Sjørslev, Associate Professor in Anthropology

“If we were to seriously believe that twins are birds, then it isn’t sufficient for us to understand the belief symbolically. The point is that there are some Nuer who see birds and twins differently than anthropologists see birds and twins. That is why it makes more sense for them to describe twins as birds sometimes, while the anthropologist will always see such a description as nonsense.”

Seen in that manner, the ontological turn is a matter of finding new ways to analyse and compare ideas.

“Anthropologists aren’t philosophers, and the ontological turn is not about describing the true nature of being. It is about a developing a precise way of expressing the ethnographic realities that anthropologists meet when they are out in the field, regardless of whether they are in provincial Denmark, Siberia or together with an interdisciplinary group here at the university,” Pedersen says.

This last bit is important, because it underscores his point that ontology has nothing to do with spirits in some remote bush.

“Ontological questions play an important role in the discussions I have as part of my work at the newly established Copenhagen Centre for Social Data Science. There, your understanding of what data is varies based on whether your background is in the social sciences or in the natural sciences.”

A provocative debate

The Cambridge lectures touched off a firestorm. In Manchester, the new thinking about ontology was taken up by an academic debating society. Scholars were asked to square off against each other in order to convince the audience of the benefits and drawbacks of accepting ontology.

In the US, the ontological turn was made the theme of the 2013 American Anthropology Congress, while, in Denmark, Tidskriftet Anthropologi, a journal, dedicated an entire issue to the topic.

Before long, debate over ontology’s merits turned into a simple matter of whether one was for or against the concept. Debate raged.

“There are probably several reasons why the ontological turn has provoked so many people,” says Inger Sjørslev, a reader in anthropology at the University of Copenhagen.

Some derided the debate for being nothing more than naval gazing – an argument Sjørslev believes is misplaced. Others expressed concern that the idea could lead to a form of apolitical anthropology, which she reckons is more relevant.

“Of course we need to be careful not to go out and study another society and then come home and write a book about it, without taking a critical look at what we experienced. If we studied Nazism, for example, we’d find it just as incomprehensible as the world of spirits and shamans, and we’d be wrong to just regurgitate what we saw without providing any sort of analysis. Doing that puts you on a slippery slope.”

But, the ontological turn is, in and of itself, not an apolitical project, according to Sjørslev. She explains that while with the UN in the 1990s she worked with indigenous rights, and she recalls that when people came to explain their situation, they often described the Earth as their mother.

If someone believes the Earth is their mother, then it makes sense that they want to give nature rights.
Inger Sjørslev, Associate Professor in Anthropology

“Imagine being a UN bureaucrat and hearing that. They must have thought it was irrelevant to their reason for being there. In a situation like this, being able to see things from an ontological perspective can help understand different people see nature differently. If someone believes the Earth is their mother, then it makes sense that they want to give nature rights. In fact, one of the ideas underpinning the ontological turn is that ontological self-determination, the right to maintain that one’s own view of the world is legitimate, is a step towards political self-determination,” Sjørslev says.

Lies and jokes

If Sjørslev has a criticism of the ontological turn, it is that it can lead to a tendency to take what people say a little too literally.

“If we always take our informants at their word, and reject things like symbolism or the idea that there can be a difference between language and reality, then what do we do when an informant lies? Or tells a joke? There are lots of stories about ethnographers who sat and listened to an informant go on and on about jaguar men or some such, only to have the informant fall off his seat laughing when he was done. How do you fit that sort of thing into the ontological analysis?”

It is a question Sjørslev believes has yet to be answered.

“For me, the ontological turn is a reaction to the trend towards symbolism and linguistic representation. For that reason, I see the ontological turn, even though there are a lot of unanswered questions related to it, expanding our understanding of the world.”

Pedersen agrees that the ontological turn can give the impression that some people do get taken too seriously.

There are a lot of practical things that need to be accomplished before something can become stable enough to be incorporated into your worldview

Brit Ross Winthereik, Associate Professor at the IT University of Copenhagen

“But that’s not the same as saying that irony and humour are incompatible with an ontological approach. In fact, I’d argue that the ontological turn makes it possible to take humour seriously in a manner that is superior to other approaches.”

Beyond pure anthropology

While Pedersen is mostly concerned with the ontological turn as an analytical tool, it has uses beyond pure anthropology. At the IT University, reader Brit Ross Winthereik is studying how technology can change the way people view the world. Although she holds a degree in anthropology, for the past 17 years she has been studying the connection between people, science and technology.

“For me, the ontological turn is about looking into what happens before a reality is created. There are a lot of practical things that need to be accomplished before something can become stable enough to be incorporated into your worldview,” Winthereik says.

Her most recent project involved renewable energy in countries around the Atlantic Ocean. As part of her work, she developedthat encourages people to think differently about renewable energy and the relationship between people, manufacturing and nature.

“My work,” she says, “is based on the assumption that even though the world is different depending on how you look at it, the thing that is considered to be true and important is constantly being negotiated and changed.”

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