Some Theoretical Reflections on the Study of Religion from Karen McCarthy Brown’s Mama Lola

mama-lola-coverWhile enjoying my morning coffee, I sat back and read through some of Karen McCarthy Brown’s now classic Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn (updated edition; University of California Press, 2001 [2011]; originally published 1991). Professor McCarthy Brown unfortunately passed away in 2015. I remember as an undergraduate student hearing McCarthy Brown give a special talk at a conference in the early 1990s, when her book was still taking the academy by surprise as one of the most insightful and provocative studies to have appeared in anthropology of religion at the time. I loved that talk and I regret never having the pleasure of speaking with her.

Although there is much to say about Mama Lola, especially as this book is both ethnographic and biographic, there were two things from the 2001 preface that struck me from a theory of religion perspective. For those scholars familiar with McCarthy Brown’s work, what I have to say will not be overly profound, but I share it here for a broader audience.

In discussing the interpretative side of such an ethnographic work, she says,

“Each of us moves through the world making meaning, individually and collectively, as we can and/or need to. This is not to say that we make meaning out of nothing. We tend to gather up experiences—what we have done, seen, heard, read, felt, learned, intuited, hoped for, reasoned, and believed—and we try to discern patterns there, patterns that are partly discovered and partly created by our particular perspectives

“Anthropology, the academic discipline by which I steer much of meaning making, deals with double and triple complexities. Most anthropologists understand different cultures (a problematic term for which there is no good substitute) to be, at minimum, different ways of making meaning in the world. So, an ethnography is written by making meaning out of others’ processes of meaning making.” (Mama Lola, x-xi; emphasis mine)

Regardless of whether Mama Lola is best classified as a postmodern ethnography, or a postcolonial ethnography, or whatever other label may resonate for its readership, the above quotes nicely engage a few theoretical problems in the study of religion that I continually wrestle with in my own research and teaching. As a social constructionist (if I must be labeled), I keep bumping into the problem of skepticism where people seem to see the constructed nature of the world as a claim that there is no world, that everything is the product of perception, power relations, and discursive blindness. I like what McCarthy Brown says above. Yes, the world—and culture, religion, values, beliefs, commonsense normativity, etc.—is a product of meaning-making by social actors (often through processes of socialization, of course). But as McCarthy Brown points out, that meaning making is the arrangement and valuation given to what is “out there” (however accessed, denied, verified, etc.; and here Bertrand Russell’s insights from over a century ago come readily to mind, such as his Problems of Philosophy and Our Knowledge of the External World).

Recognizing the social construction of the world around us is not a denial of the presence of experiences, beliefs, practices, physical objects, institutions, rules of social interaction, etc. They all are there, are they are “real” for those social actors creating such alignments, structures, etc. What a social constructionist approach allows us to appreciate is that social actors selectively ascribe or attribute (see Ann Taves’s work on religious experience) meaning to those raw materials, aligning “stuff” into patterns where “stuff” exists and exists, for those social actors, as reality. Thus, data, theory, and “external worlds” can—and I think should—be studied in relation to each other, rather than separating data (“area studies”) off from theoretical work (be that analytical applied or reflective of the scholars engaged in the study) any more than theory should discount data (lest theory simply becomes navel gazing or even an obstruction to studying human cultures). This is an old debate, of course, but I think McCarthy Brown nicely counters much of the misconception of social constructionism.

Furthermore, in the second quote above, McCarthy Brown highlights the role of the scholar as subject. We also create “meaning” when we study the world around us, when we re-describe “reality” (and thus create a new “reality” that overlaps with, but is not identical to the old) or when we offer explanation (“theorize”) that “reality” (either the new or the old, or the new assuming it is the old as if re-description were the same as description). For McCarthy Brown, such an insight brought her to have “shared ownership” with her informant Alourdes (Mama Lola) of the story being created through ethnographic research and writing. There are multiple voices, perspectives in the story being woven, along with conflating, layer, or even colliding meaning making processes at work between the researcher and the researched.

In a sense, an ethnography is never closed. The story continues, the revisions, meaning making, and intertextual aligning all ongoing with each new reading, each new assessment. Reading is both a connective and disruptive process. By reading we are drawn into a new world, a new narrative (be that of the author or of the text), but through reading we also shatter those narratives. We add our “meaning making” to that which we encounter, thereby transforming while being transformed. Such a dynamic is not unique to anthropology, let alone anthropology of religion. Even for the scholar—including the theorist!—the “reading” is never closed, never final, never above contestation. Often scholars present their ideas in monologic terms, without realizing that all communication (and thus all “meaning making”) is an ongoing dialogic process.

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