Disobsessing Disobsession: Religion, Ritual, and the Social Sciences in Brazil

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Essay Excerpt

This article explores the relations between text and ritual, observing discourse and observed discourse, by articulating Geertz's position (1973:448) that culture and ritual can be interpreted as texts with Jonathan Culler's argumen that "critical disputes about a text [read 'ritual,' 'religious system'] can frequently be identified as a displaced reenactment of conflicts dramatized in the text [ritual,religious system]" (1982:215). The case study adopted for analysis here involves desobsessdo(disobsession), a type of exorcism ritual found among the Spiritists of Brazil, and the various mappings of the Brazilian religious system.

This article examines critical disputes among sociologists and anthropologists regarding the disobsession ritual and the position of Spiritism in the Brazilian religious system, and it traces these disputes back to conflicts dramatized both within the ritual and among the different actors in the religious system (see section 4). Within the ritual, Spiritist mediums receive errant spirits that represent non-Spiritist social categories and discourses; for example, Spiritists frequently "disobsess" spirits that represent the Catholic or Afro-Brazilian religions. Likewise, followers of Spiritism, Catholicism,or the Afro-Brazilian religions all have implicit maps of the Brazilian religious system, and these conflicting maps play themselves out in the conflicting interpretations of sociologists and anthropologists. (Hess, 182)

About the Author

David J. Hess is a professor in the Sociology Department at Vanderbilt University, Associate Director of the Vanderbilt Institute for Energy and Environment, Director of Environmental and Sustainability Studies, and Director of Undergraduate Studies for the Sociology Department.He is the recipient of the Robert K. Merton Prize, the Diana Forsythe Prize, the Star-Nelkin Prize (shared with coauthors), the William H. Wiley Distinguished Faculty Award, and the General Anthropology Division Prize for Exemplary Cross-Field Scholarship. He has has been a Fulbright scholar and the PI and Co-PI on grants from the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, and FIPSE.His research focuses on the social studies and policy studies of science, technology, health, and the environment, with an emphasis on the role of civil society, social movements, political sociology, and public engagement.

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