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How do citationary practices in anthropology define our Others?

3 October, 2007

I just read Fenella Cannell’s “The Christianity of Anthropology” (2005, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 11[2]:335-356). It was the 2004 Malinowski Lecture at the London School of Economics and Political Science and in it, Cannell uses examples from the beliefs of practitioners of what are usually considered marginal Christianities — mostly Latter-Day Saints (a.k.a. Mormons) but also Catholics in the Philippines — to argue for anthropology’s own unacknowledged Christian lineage and biases. She uses Mormonism’s unusual theology of the body, for example, to reveal the implicit assumption within anthropological theory that Christianity is a religion of asceticism: of denial of the body and of kinship. Cannell argues that these assumptions — and indeed the intellectual genealogy that anthropology-related social sciences share with Christianity more generally — have shaped anthropological theories about the gift, kinship, and religious modernities. She suggests that anthropologists have generally been reluctant to grant the status of “real” Christianity to sects like the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, as well as to Christianities in far-away places (where “deviations” from the orthodox norm are often explained as syncretism with local religious beliefs in a way that implicitly denies them authenticity as “really Christian”), in part because of their own prejudices which locate Christian groups in terms of their distance from orthodoxy.

It is a provocative argument and a persuasive one. Her explication of Mormon cosmology, too, is generally sound as she links esoteric scripture (particularly the Pearl of Great Price) with beliefs, mundane practices, and the imaginations of every day Mormons (for example, as her informants speculated about sex and chocolate in the afterlife).

But Cannell’s way of writing — and, to be more specific, her way of citing — started me thinking about the anthropology of scriptural religions. In her thoughtful explanations of Mormon beliefs about heaven and bodies, she rarely cites Mormon scripture, either narrowly or broadly defined, even when she paraphrases it. She sometimes mentions a general source — the Book of Mormon, or the statement by a General Authority — without providing a specific citation, and other times makes broader statements along the lines of “Church authorities explain this by suggesting that…” (p.345) or “the Mormon Church does not make a radical distinction between matter and spirit” (p.344), but without pointing to any published reference.

Perhaps this gave me pause because I myself was raised Mormon and so many of her descriptions of our peculiar beliefs about spirit and body made me think of specific scriptures that many Mormons know and can cite from memory in support of such belief. (For example, Doctrine and Covenants 88:15-16: “And the spirit and the body are the soul of man. And the resurrection from the dead is the redemption of the soul.”) So why, I wondered, didn’t she cite them?

At other times, she occasionally made a claim about Mormon theology that I thought dubious, and I wondered what her source was, but it wasn’t there, so I couldn’t know whether she was citing something from scripture, or something that people told her they believed, or something in-between.

Now, it is not at all unusual in anthropology to make sweeping statements about our primary subject matter without providing citations to written, primary sources, even when they exist. Our authority as anthropologists seems to not only permit this, but sometimes to even demand it. We anthropologists (and our fieldnotes) become the primary sources, the authorities for defining cultural and religious beliefs and practices.

It is also in keeping with some academic citationary traditions, where primary sources are sometimes relegated to a separate bibliographical category (as when bibliographies contain a separate section for magazine and newspaper articles, for archival sources, a list of interviews with public figures and key informants, etc.), if they are even listed in the bibliography at all. Indeed, in some sciences, this is encoded in the rules of scholarly writing. For example, many medical journals do not permit certain categories of sources to be included in the references of journal articles. Obstetrics & Gynecology, the journal of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, specifies in their author guidelines that

References cited should be published in peer-review publications that are generally accessible. Unpublished data, personal communications, statistical programs, papers presented at meetings and symposia, abstracts, letters, and manuscripts “submitted for publication” cannot be listed in the references.

(What is anthropology, of course, if not “personal communications”? Ah, but one could say the same about obstetrics and gynecology! Not to mention all kinds of other non-oral human interactions — between doctors and patients and between anthropologists and informants — which are often described but rarely cited.) Obstetrics and Gynecology does not just distinguish between the oral and the written; it makes critical distinctions between kinds of written texts, too. Some count as references to be placed at the ends of scholarly publications, and others do not.

This puts us on notice that such citationary practices are about setting disciplinary boundaries. Including a text in a list of references in an academic paper (and this is much more true in medicine than in anthropology) sacralizes it, elevates it to the status as academic interlocutor, rather than object of analysis, or some other sort of marginalia. Is this why Cannell includes so few references to published Latter-Day Saint sources, I wondered?

This made me wonder about citationary practices in the anthropology of another scriptural religion: science. Do anthropologists (and sociologists, etc.) of science cite the writings of the scientists that they study in the same way that they cite other anthropologists of science? Or does taking some group as your subject of study automatically turn it into something to be described but not referenced?

So I pulled a few books off of my shelves to see. The first I pulled down was an old favorite: Sharon Traweek’s Beamtimes and Lifetimes, her ethnography of particle physicists in the U.S. and Japan. Traweek doesn’t even have a bibliography. All of her citations are provided in footnotes, and here you can find everything from Ruth Benedict’s ethnography to the newsletter of the Stanford Linear Accelerator. Implicitly they are all on level ground.

Next I pulled down Donna Haraway: Simians, Cyborgs, and Women. Here too all sources seem to be on symbolically level ground. No Ruth Benedict, but we’ve got Margaret Mead, Bruno Latour, and Aristotle, in the same list that includes the writings of a military man who uses the body’s immune system as metaphor for his model of special strike force soldiers (Timmerman 1987) and plenty of biologists publishing in places like Science and the Journal of Immunology. Then I grabbed Paul Rabinow’s Making PCR: A Story of Biotechnology. I found a rather short bibliography with citations from P-NAS and Nature along with Weber (but no Foucault!!).

At that point I looked at the little stack of books on my desk — Emily Martin, Bruno Latour, Andrew Pickering, Margaret Lock, Joseph Dumit — and got a little bit bored with the exercise and reshelved them.

So this little handful of sources (ok, just 2) cites scientists as well as describes, analyzes, and critique them. Obviously it’s not an exhaustive survey of the citationary practices in the anthropology of science vs. the anthropology of religion, but it raises some interesting questions. Is there a difference between the way we reference religion and the way we reference science? By making science our subject of study, do we really turn it into just another subject, or does it retain a privileged status as part-self (fellow scholar), not quite Other, that we don’t always extend to other anthropological subjects?

But then I was talking this over with my colleague Chris Houston who made me think that my schema was a little too simplistic. Chris reminded me that one reason we might see few citations of religious texts in the contemporary anthropology of Islamic societies is not necessarily because of implicit hierarchies of textual sources but instead in response to Edward Said’s critique of the orientalist tradition of focusing on text and orthodoxy rather than people’s religious practices. And it is perhaps this that explains Cannell’s reluctance to provide scriptural sources for the statements of religious belief coming from her informants.

But in the case of Cannell’s Mormon informants, it should not be neglected that, even when the informants are doing their own interpreting, they are still working from (religious) texts. And without knowing those texts, you are missing a certain level of knowledge about how your informants make mental maps of their own religion. It can also lead to error. There are a couple of mistakes in the text that clearly come from Cannell’s lack of familiarity with Mormon scripture. For example, she repeatedly misspells exaltation. She says that Mormons aspire to “exultation in the Celestial Kingdom” (p.336) and to becoming “exulted beings in the Celestial Kingdom” (p.353). Only someone who was unfamiliar with Mormon religious texts would make the mistake of thinking that the highest level of the Celestial Kingdom — Mormon ‘heaven’ — involves “exultation.” But the mistake is made three times so it is unlikely to be a typo.

And that also points to practices of peer review that were intriguingly, embarrassingly, raised in the so-called “Sokal affair” (in which physicist Alan Sokal managed to get published a spoof paper purporting to do an interpretive “hermeneutics of quantum physics”) . As in the peer-review process that led to the publication of Sokal’s spoof in Social Text (where evidently it was not reviewed by anybody who understood much of quantum physics), clearly no Mormon (or ‘expert’ in Mormonism) read the final version of this paper before publication to vet the claims about Mormon theology. They would have caught such a simple mistake (and a couple of other more complicated ones).

Any thoughts out there on citationary practices in the anthropology of religion, anthropology of science, or anthropology of other text-based social phenomena?

L.L. Wynn

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Ali Adolf Wu permalink
    3 October, 2007 2:51 pm

    Though I don’t agree with the substantive analogy between science and religion, I do agree that anthropologists tend not to take the “doctrines” of either seriously. But while good anthropologists of science are often trained in science, anthropologists of religion, even good ones, have an even greater problem with dealing with scriptures seriously. Good point!

  2. John Edvalson permalink
    9 December, 2007 5:29 am

    While I have not read Cannell’s book yet, I did read one of her artciles and noticed the same thing. As a mormon anthropologist who still “holds to the rod” I am interested in the interpretations of non-mormon scholars of the religion. While Cannell doesn’t really include scriptural text (and I agree she should becasue it is a significant part of Mormonism) I am relived that her approach does not seek to vilify or criticize but rather to allow for broader categories of Christianity. I agree that Anthropology has a complicated relationship with Christianity and this book (although i haven’t yet read it) provides a venue to open up the dialogue a bit.

  3. Amy permalink
    6 January, 2008 1:00 pm

    Thank you for your thoughtful post. I found it while trying to find more information on Cannell’s work on Mormonism. Citationary practices are fascinating in all anthropological fields and they seemed to have to come to the fore in more text/document-based fields precisely because, as you say, the distance between anthropologist and informant ‘authority’ is less (and in some cases totally absent). I wonder, though, if citationary practices perhaps take on a more powerful and varied significance in relation to Mormonism? Is the respective importance of kinship, which citations are one expression of, shared between anthropology and Mormonism?

    One more specfic question–more a curiosity. WHat other ‘complicated’ mistakes with regard to Mornomism did you find in Cannell’s work? And do you know of any other interesting anthropological work on Mormonism?

    Thanks in advance.

  4. 18 January, 2008 10:31 am

    Hi Amy,

    Sorry, I’m just seeing this comment, more than a week after you left it. It’s been a while since I read the Cannell piece, so it’s not as fresh in my mind as when I wrote that blog posting, but here are a few other mistakes: she defines the concept of “eternal increase” (p.336) as “to conceive, birth, and raise children forever,” and glosses it as “having babies deep into eternity” (p.338). It’s a much more esoteric concept than that, and I’ve never heard any Mormon doctrine that suggests that we would be physically giving birth to children once we’re resurrected. (I’d rather go to the Terrestrial Kingdom than have to imagine giving birth into eternity.) It’s interesting, though, that her informants gloss this concept with such physical terms as “conceive” and “birth.”

    Another example is when she uses “souls” to talk about what should properly be called premortal “spirits.” Mormon doctrine distinguishes between the two: the soul is the composite of both spirit and body, eternally joined by resurrection.

    Then on p.345 she says that “converts have inherited their ‘teachability’ — and their right to exercise priesthood power — from their parents.” That’s not really right, either, to my mind. When a convert talks about being “born of goodly parents” or coming from a line of virtuous people, this is a way of expressing honor and respect for ancestors and demonstrating their worth even if they are not church members. It’s key to know that Mormons think of any good person as a potential Mormon, even posthumously; that’s why they do baptisms for the dead. But the concept of genetic inheritance is much more complicated in Mormonism (there’s a certain blessing that you get once in your life, called the Patriarchal Blessing, in which you get spiritually adopted into a tribe of Israel, and it’s not unknown for siblings to find that they are from different tribes, which clearly shows that the kind of descent line being identified is not simply a genetic one) and Mormons believe fervently in an individual’s own potential to be completely different from — in the direction of being either good or bad — her or his forebears. I have never heard of church authorities saying that certain special individuals were “foreordained” to be the parents of converts. That’s not to say that they haven’t said it — perhaps they have! — but only to not that I’m bothered that there’s no citation to back it up.

    She also says that “some Church leaders see in individual revelation a potential conflict with the standardization of doctrine for which they aim.” What Church leaders think that? The concept of personal revelation is clearly structured so as to not conflict with church hierarchy. You can only have a personal revelation for yourself or someone you have responsibility for: a parent for his or her children, a bishop for his congregation, or the prophet for the entire church. But one person can’t have personal revelation for someone else, and you can’t have a personal revelation that contradicts church doctrine. This radically narrows the scope of what you can have personal revelation about. You can pray to get an answer to the question of “Should I go to Princeton or Berkeley for my PhD?” or “Should my family really move to Australia to take this new job?” but personal revelation can’t challenge any church doctrine in any way. (Fundamentally misunderstanding this is to my mind the most serious flaw in Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven, btw)

    These are all very minor points and I don’t think they detract from the overall fine work Cannell has done to elucidate Mormon doctrine. I agree with John Edvalson that overall her approach is thoughtful and generous. It’s just that if a Mormon or expert on Mormon theology had been asked to review her article before it was published, many of these would have been corrected or clarified. Certainly “exultation” would have been spelled correctly. But it is not the practice of anthropologists to have their informants vet their publications, and this is the result.

    I know I’m the pot calling the kettle black: no doubt there are also minor mistakes in my own ethnography of Egypt and I confess that I didn’t ask all (or even most of) my informants to check what I wrote before I published it.

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