Tuesday, 11 February 2014

An Interview with Dr. Graham Harvey

This week here at Albion Calling I am fortunate to have with me Dr. Graham Harvey, Reader in Religious Studies at the Open University and current President of the British Association for the Study of Religion (BASR). As many of my readers will probably be aware, Dr. Harvey's research interests have covered a huge variety of different subjects over the years, from the semantic problems of ancient Judaism to contemporary Satanism in Britain, and from the Pagan revival to the world's indigenous religions. However, he is perhaps best known as a pioneering figure in the "new animism", exploring exciting new ways in which scholars can understand animist approaches to the world. We discuss his fascinating career, research, and thoughts about the future of religious studies. 

Dr. Harvey at the town shrine of
Osun in Osogbo, 
south-west Nigeria.
Image provided by Dr. Harvey
[Ethan]: Having attained a BA in Theology from the London Bible College in 1982, you obtained your PhD at the University of Newcastle on Tyne in 1991 for a thesis examining the rhetoric of group identity in ancient Jewish literature from the era of the Second Temple. Examining the semantic differentiation between terms like “Jews,” “Hebrews,” and “Israel” in this period, you were supervised by John F.A. Sawyer, and subsequently published your research as The True Israel: Uses of the Names Jew, Hebrew, and Israel in Ancient Jewish and Early Christian Literature (Brill, 1996). Where did this interest in ancient Judaism stem from, and is there any reason why you have moved away from it as an active research interest ? Is this due to the contentious and emotive issues surrounding ancient Jewish history, as have been exemplified for instance by the furor following Schlomo Sand's The Invention of the Jewish People (Verso, 2009) ?

[Graham]: I was going to say that my interest in ancient Judaism simply arose out of a dissatisfaction with something which one of my undergraduate degree lecturers had said. But nothing is ever simple. I can trace interests in ancient history to early childhood visits to Wiltshire’s ancestral places. And I was a kibbutz and archaeology volunteer in the other “holy land” (Israel/Palestine) for a year before I did my first degree. And since I’ve continued to be interested in the ways in which people chose to identify themselves – e.g. by names, by actions and by joining or leaving groups – its obvious that I have some deep obsession with issues of belonging and with the effects of language, of word choices, in our ability to communicate. Certainly, however, there is an element of serendipity in my taking that particular topic for PhD research. Indeed, I hadn’t really planned to do a PhD at all until Leslie Allen (then professor of Hebrew and Aramaic at LBC) recommended that I might talk with John Sawyer in Newcastle about such a thing. I’m grateful to both of them for their inspiring teaching and intellectual guidance. And the reason that I moved away from the kind of research involved in my doctoral thesis is that I am not a good linguist. Leslie Allen and John Sawyer are brilliant linguists. I am hardly competent to use a dictionary. I might also note that John told a fellow student that I could help her with her Hebrew – I suspect this was a plot to make me work harder in order to be able to help. But that fellow student is now my wife, Molly, and her Hebrew is still much better than mine even though I spent a year at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, putatively learning modern Hebrew… 

Copyright Brill
But lets move on. You ask why I moved on in research terms and offer me the chance to make grand claims about the contentious issue of Jewish peoplehood. In some respects my PhD was about a phase of group and identity formation, conflict and differentiation among Jews. I continue to be interested in such issues and in later and more recent episodes of evolving peoplehood, not only among Jews. The truth, however, is that I moved on because of another serendipitous opportunity. The Religious Studies department at Newcastle was developing a new course on “contemporary religions” and I offered a session on Pagans, Druids in particular, because I’d met some at Stonehenge during the annual Free Festival there (which I first encountered in the summer of 1976) and in the efforts to regain access after the appalling Mrs Thatcher had the festival banned in the mid-1980s. My not entirely serious offer of a session on Druidry was taken up and I had to actually go and find out what Paganism was about. So the shift in my research was never about problems with the invention of Jewish identities (except my linguistic problems) and far more about the reinvention of myself as a ethnographer rather than as an historian of religions.

[Ethan]: Having taught at the University of Newcastle on Tyne throughout your doctoral program, in 1996 you were employed as a Lecturer and later Reader in Religious Studies at King Alfred's College, Winchester, now the University of Winchester, where you remained until 2003. You then joined the Religious Studies Department at the Open University, first as a Lecturer and then as a Reader, before being appointed department head in 2013. What is it about the Open University and its unique teaching structure that you think makes it so important in the context of the British higher education system? In particular, what role do you see it as playing in British religious studies ?

[Graham]: The Open University is a remarkable and wonderful experiment in making higher education possible for people who might otherwise be excluded, without neglecting people who have the kind of qualifications deemed necessary elsewhere. That’s a large part of our “openness”. While some universities pride themselves on only taking students with “the best” high school grades, we are proud to make it possible for everyone to get good degrees, including at masters and doctoral levels. We are also “open” in the sense that we produce materials for distance learning and on-line learning (increasingly as part of “mixed methods” approaches). We provide students with all the materials, guidance and support that they need to work towards degrees that are at least as good as those offered anywhere else. Of course that means that students have to work hard – and many do this while working, including the hard work of bringing up families. Its wonderful to go to one of our graduation ceremonies (there are quite a few of these because the OU is the largest university in Britain, with over 240,000 students) and see such a wide range of people celebrating their impressive achievements. Many other universities now offer some kind of distance or on-line learning opportunities, but none do it with the dedication and effort that we do.

What role does it play in British religious studies? Well, in addition to the fact that we teach a significant proportion of all undergraduate students in religious studies in the UK (and many elsewhere too since we have a global reach), we also supervise wonderful PhD students who make excellent contributions to the discipline. We are strongly committed to maintaining and advancing the study of religion as a vibrant critical field. This is evidenced not only in our boundary-maintaining differentiation from theological departments elsewhere, but also, more positively, in the contributions my colleagues and I play in various subject associations that focus on the ethnology, sociology and history of religions as well as wider umbrella organisations such as the British Association for the Study of Religions. We are interested not only in a wide range of religious phenomena but also in an important spread of critical approaches or methodologies and in a significant diversity of critical issues (for example, debates about material, performative, gendered, activist and vernacular religioning). Our research leads both to publications that advance research and teaching elsewhere and to forms of dissemination and conversation with a far wider population.

[Ethan]: You are well known for your research into contemporary Paganism, culminating in the publication of your academic primer on the subject, Listening People, Speaking Earth: Contemporary Paganism (Hurst & Co., 1997; second ed. 2007), as well as the more popular-oriented What do Pagans Believe ? (Granta, 2007). You are also the co-editor of both The Paganism Reader (Routledge, 2004, with Chas S. Clifton) and Researching Paganisms (Altamira, 2004, with Jenny Blain and Doug Ezzy), as well as the popular-oriented Pagan Pathways: An Introduction to the Ancient Earth Traditions (Thorsons, 1996, with Charlotte Hardman). Accompanying this, you have published a variety of peer-reviewed journal papers and book chapters on the subject, and you sit on the editorial panel of The Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies. Switching focus from the texts of ancient Judaism to the lived experience of contemporary Paganism seems to be a big leap, so I'd be very interested in learning more about how this interest developed ? In your work you clearly take a very positive attitude towards the modern Pagan movement, and in your excellent chapter in Researching Paganisms you talk about your own emic perspectives on the subject, so I hoped that you could tell us a little bit more about that ?

Copyright Hurst & Co
[Graham]: As I mentioned before my research among Pagans began serendipitously because I half-jokingly offered a session about Druids to a course on “contemporary religions” that was being developed. I think its true to say that my interest in Paganism began then. While I’d been at Stonehenge Free Festival from 1976 onwards, and while I joined in many efforts (by many means) to regain open access to Stonehenge in the 1980s, I didn’t have much to do with its religious or ritual activities. Even my first close encounters with Druids took place in their efforts to help people (like myself) being threatened by police hostility rather than in actual celebrations of midsummer sunrise, for instance. However, like many people, when I did become involved with Pagans (initially purely for research purposes) I found that much of what was going on had parallels with my previous interests. Perhaps this is obvious from the fact that I’d been hanging out as a young hippy (albeit one who thought he was a Christian) at Stonehenge Festival.

To be clear, the festival was attractive as a place where all sorts of ideas and obsessions were shared, debated, experimented with. I found this to be part of what the first Pagans I spent significant time with were committed to. In addition to interests in more communal and anarchist ways of life than Thatcherism encouraged, I had also developed commitments to environmentalist and feminist perspectives and practices. So, again, finding that these themes played vital roles in the evolution of Paganism increased my interest both as a researcher and then as a newly self-identified Pagan.

It is true that I often present a positive view of Pagans and Paganism. But this is not an uncritical or romantic view. I’m not going to rehearse my criticisms of specific Pagans or Pagan groups here. The point of most of my publications and lectures has been to introduce something of the lived reality and imaginative yearnings of Paganism to colleagues, students, the media and others. Since I wrote my first publications about Pagans and Paganism a lot more has been researched and written by other academics (some of them my esteemed PhD students and colleagues). Many of them have tackled some more challenging issues. Nonetheless, I continue to think that Paganism is an interesting religion to study because it is braided into important issues of today. It is, in part, about experiments with ritual, ecology, social diversity and performance cultures. These experiments take place in the wider context of a late-modern, late-capitalist but still thoroughly consumerist anthropocene era. How could Paganism not be an arena of conflict and diversity, rife with imperfections? Perfection, anyway, is an unlikely achievement in any human context – unless we accept that “what is” is already perfect, even as it all evolves. OK, that’s enough of that sermon. I don’t really talk too much about my personal Pagan practice – at least partly because I’m not a leader but it is no secret that I participate more enthusiastically in more animistic events than in other forms of Paganism.

Over the past few years, academics have
begun to devote increasing effort to
studying modern religious Satanism,
often represented by the upturned pentagram.
[Ethan]: Another new religious movement that has attracted your attention is Satanism, which you have studied ever since the decline of the Satanic ritual abuse hysteria of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Given that Satanism studies are just beginning to emerge as an independent and legitimate field with two academic anthologies on the subject now published (in one of which you included a paper looking at British Satanism), I'd be interested to hear how you came to investigate this pioneering yet controversial area.

[Graham]: I researched among Satanists purely because Pagans kept defending themselves from accusations that they were Satanists. They had to do this because some kinds of Christian and some sensationalist journalists kept making the accusation. So I wanted to find out if there were any self-identified Satanists around and, if there were, what they did and thought. What did it mean to them to name themselves “Satanists”? So, again you can see that although I moved away from researching about ancient Jewish identity conflicts I have never lost an interest in names and boundary disputes. My one research project among Satanists (once I’d found a few) is all that I’ve done in that field. I have an impression that not much has changed but I’m happy that other researchers are involved now. The internet makes this easier now because self-identified Satanists chat in social media and have published material online.

Just to be clear, I have concluded that (a) there are distinct differences between Pagans and Satanists, (b) there aren’t many Satanists, (c) self-identified Satanists are usually much nicer people than they or the media would have us believe, (d) if any Satanists are involved in unpleasant activities this is not because there is an organised “Satanism” that encourages them, (e) most accusations about Satanism are usually rooted in the fantasies of those who make the accusations. But I also want to say that accusations of “witchery” (a term I use to distinguish such accusations of maleficence from the “witchcraft” of Wiccans and other Pagan Witches) are the cause of increasing violence in many parts of the world. Those who perpetrate such violence (whether it is against supposed witches or as a way of gaining power against witches) include well educated people and committed members of Christian Churches as well as other people. And, to be clear again, when I refer to people seeking to gain power against witches I am thinking, for example, of some appalling abuse of children with mental or physical illnesses. I have met some of these children whose lives are endangered or destroyed by people who think that parts of their bodies (and eventually their lives) can be cut off for use as “medicine” against witches. If there is an evil in the world, this is it.

[Ethan]: Another prominent research interest of yours is in indigenous religions, and in what you have described as "indigenous diasporas". You are the editor of Indigenous Religions: A Companion (Cassell, 2000) and Readings in Indigenous Religions (Cassell, 2002), as well as the co-editor of Indigenous Religious Musics (Aldershot, 2001, with Karen Ralls) and Indigenous Diasporas and Dislocations (Ashgate, 2005, with Charles Thompson). In this capacity you are also a member of both the Society for the Study of Native American Religious Traditions (SSNART) and the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association (NAISA). How did you first develop your interest in this field, and what is it that so fascinates you about the subject ? Do you see the academic interest in indigenous communities and their native belief systems as being connected to the ongoing struggle for indigenous rights, and how to you see the relationship between indigenous religions and contemporary Paganisms ?

[Graham]: I have been interested in indigenous peoples for most of my life, one way or another. However, as with Satanism, my specifically academic research interest in indigenous religions was initially inspired by a desire to test the claim some Pagans were making (and some continue to make) that Paganism (or Druidry, or Heathenry, or Wicca, or Shamanism) was or is the indigenous religion of Britain. Ronald Hutton makes the more straightforward claim that Wicca is the only religion England has given to the world. It is indigenous in that sense. Its not just that I wanted to know whether there are similarities between some kind of Paganism and contemporary indigenous religions. That doesn’t take a lot of research and its not all that interesting to me. Of more interest are the questions, “what are contemporary indigenous religions like?” or “what is it like to do indigenous religions in this late-modern, not-yet-postcolonial world?”. That kind of thing.

                   Harvey's Indigenous Religions and Readings
                    in Indigenous Religions
(Copyright Cassell)
In many respects this has involved me leaving Pagan Studies to other researchers and finding ways to engage with indigenous peoples and researchers. Happily for me, my interest coincided with a tremendous growth in interdisciplinary research, much of it by excellent indigenous scholars. So there were lots of colleagues to learn from – happily again they were and are generous people generally, so there are wonderful collaborations and conversations rather than conflicts and colonisations going on. Therefore, the short answer to your first question is that what interests me about the subject is efforts to understand how indigenous religions are lived today. I’m not interested in “pre-contact” religions or in “pure traditions” – these are inaccessible or fantasies anyway. Vibrant messy everyday contemporary life is the exciting thing.

To expand on that and to answer your second question about indigenous rights, I have been greatly privileged to be able to spend time with indigenous peoples in many places. Their hospitality and humour have been wonderful. A key fact about contemporary indigenous religions is that they are as much about living in the contemporary world as any other lived religion. That is, they are not fantasies of past times before Columbus or Cook or Cortes… Nor are they eulogies for a lost or dying world. They might be, in part, ways in which communities or cultures that have survived genocide now face the challenges of the contemporary world. They might, for instance, utilise ceremonial practices and apply ancestral knowledge to current issues like global climate change and pollution. They are also significant because they are part of dealing with disenfranchisement, dislocation and disease. Indigenous communities are impacted by consumerist modernity in specific ways that might not be unique to them but are certainly stark. A researcher who ignores the negative continuing legacy of colonial genocide is a fantasist.

Nonetheless, the reasons for respecting rights is not only negative. Interest in indigenous religious should not only be negative. Victimhood and survival and not the only or key things that deserve attention. People have rights over their knowledge and their lives. In various senses they own (and are owned by) what they have inherited from ancestors, adapt for current lives, and wish to hand on to others. Researchers who want to know something should approach people with the honest recognition of their own ignorance. People who turn up somewhere claiming to be experts are not going to be good learners. That’s all wrapped up in respecting rights.

A Kyzyl Shaman; indigenous religions
continue to flourish and evolve among
many of the world's indigenous
communities. (Pic: Wikimedia Commons)
For all these reasons and more, rights are important. It is never enough for a researcher to collect and organise facts. But anyway, to put a long argument into a few inadequate words, the real world (indeed, the real cosmos) is thoroughly participative and pervasively relational. It is not possible to be absolutely “objective” and we should reject the voyeuristic pose of our academic ancestors who expected us to worry about “going native”. I’ve argued this more fully – with considerable gratitude to various Maori hosts – in what I’ve written about “guesthood”. A researcher cannot be purely insider or outsider, emic or etic. For one thing, presence is a form of participation; for another, questioning creates both presence and distance. But we can hope to be guests. So, yes, research has to be connected with rights because researchers seek to understand and do something with indigenous intellectual and cultural property. If we do not honour indigenous rights we will misunderstand and misrepresent people.

As for the relationship between indigenous religions and Paganism, I see a wide range of relations. At the people level: there are Pagans and indigenous people who speak with each other, listen to each other, do ceremony together, march together against fracking and for justice. True, there are Pagans who disrespectfully appropriate from indigenous people and there are indigenous people who disrespectfully accuse innocent Pagans of appropriation. These are examples only. Even a respectful person can learn to be more respectful.

As to whether Paganism is an indigenous religion, I think that Paul C. Johnson says something wise about indigenous religions in identifying a tension between “globalising” (or “universalising”) and “indigenising” trajectories. A similar tension is observable in Paganism. There are Pagans who would do and say the same thing in any context or ecosystem or community. For example, some celebrate seasonal festivals at times that are appropriate in northwest Europe even when they live in places in the southern hemisphere that do not have the same seasons. But there are also “indigenising” Paganisms in which people are responsive to their locality, their participation in larger-than-human community in the here and now. Indigeneity isn’t about putting on feathers (though it might be expressed that way sometimes) but it is about experimenting with human living with other-than-human neighbours and fellow citizens.

[Ethan]: Closely connected to your interest in indigenous religion and contemporary Paganism has been your research into animism and shamanism, two elements that are often present in both of these groups. You are the author of Animism: Respecting the Living World (Hurst & Co., 2005), the editor of Shamanism: A Reader (Routledge, 2003), and –– with archaeologist Robert J. Wallis –– co-editor of the Historical Dictionary of Shamanism (Scarecrow, 2007).  You are seen as a key figure in the "new animism", an innovative approach to animist belief that attempts to get away from the old Victorian ideas of Edward Tylor; could you tell us a little about this "new animism" and what it means to you personally ? 

[Graham]: The “old animism” centred on the idea that some people (clearly not rational academics!) postulated the existence of spirits, souls or other “non-empirical realities” in order to explain odd things like dreaming of dead people. It continues to be expressed in dictionaries that define animism as the attribution of life to inanimate objects or human-likeness to non-human beings. The inherent contradiction in a definition that says “animists think inanimate objects are animate” ought to have given dictionary writers pause for thought, at the very least. The “new animism” begins elsewhere. It is about ways of living that treat the world as a community of persons, all of whom are related to others and all of whom deserve respect (even / especially from those who plan to eat them). The question for “old animism” was “how do we know if x is alive?”. The question in “new animism” is “how do we show respect?”. These aren’t old or new because one is ancient and the other has just started. They are old or new as theories or academic approaches – “old” beginning (sort of) with Tylor and “new”, well, gaining prominence in the 1990s in various anthropological debates many of which cited what Irving Hallowell learnt among the Ojibwa in central Canada earlier in the last century.

               Harvey's Animism: Respecting the Living World (copyright Hurst & Co).
               and Shamanism: A Reader (copyright Routledge).
What it means to me personally? Well, first its a great and expansive topic of discussion with a wide range of colleagues in many disciplines (from anthropology and botany through philosophy and psychology to zoology perhaps). It’s been a refreshing opening up of new (to me) conversations with many indigenous people, some Pagans, and many other people (e.g. those who name their cars or swear at their computers). It requires (I think that’s the right word) a boundary crossing effort to see the world differently. Or, more positively, it explains why natural and social sciences and humanities need to cross-fertilise. If Darwin was right (and he was) that we humans are related to all other living species and that we’re as much involved in ongoing processes of evolution, then we aren’t at the top of any hierarchy. We’re participants. We need to work harder to live as members of larger-than-human communities. To put this another way, but with provocative brevity (I hope), there is no “nature” only a complex society of multiple species. As ever, I’m keen to make words word harder and then seek to pay them extra (to quote Lewis Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty!).

So, things might change, as they obviously have before, but right now I’m happy to identify myself as an animist, as someone who tries to listen to what others (human or other-than-human) in the world are saying, and to place boundaries around my consumption so that others can live well too. I’m trying to find ways to say things about the world which have been written out of European languages for a long time but continue to be evident in many indigenous languages. I have to say “other-than-human persons” because we tend to hear “person” as a reference to humans. I have to insist that “other-than-human persons” is not a code for “spirits” because people find it hard to think that hedgehogs might have desires that we should honour. I play, then, with the now fairly well known phrase “turtles all the way down” (the turtles standing in for consciousness, and “all the way down” referring to all levels of matter) by adding “and hedgehogs all the way around”. You chose your own emblematic species for other-than-humans with whom you have interesting encounters, whose interests should interest you. It pleases me to mention hedgehogs because they are spiky flea ridden creatures who eat slugs. But I admit they are cute too.

In short, animism is a way to reposition ourselves in the world in which we really live: a world of myriad relations, some conflicting and some harmonious. (Some of those conflicts are the reason why animists sometimes need shamans as mediators with other-than-human persons or communities.) Animism is implicated in ways of pushing our efforts to live justly, wisely and compassionately. But it is also a topic for much more research – which is also a significant part of who I am / what I do.

[Ethan]: From 2003 to 2009 you served as Secretary of the British Association for the Study of Religions (BASR), and have since been appointed to the Presidency. What do you see as the importance of this organisation for propagating research in the field of religious studies ? 

[Graham]: BASR is at the centre of supporting and furthering the academic study of religions, not only in Britain. It brings together scholars interested in many religions and scholars who apply many different approaches and methods to research and teaching. BASR organises a major conference every year and it provides unrivalled opportunities for scholars to meet and debate all sorts of issues. We’re really glad to have a tradition of supporting postgraduate research students and including them in the centre of our conference programmes and discussions. There are associations devoted to the study of specific religions (Judaism, Buddhism, Paganism, etc) and associations devoted to studying whatever we might see as “that which is not religion”. We want to get scholars in all these networks to talk together to improve scholarship in every way. Recent developments include our support for the “Religious Studies Project” – an online forum, led by postgraduate and early career researchers, for discussion of cutting edge research and teaching in the discipline – and our social media presence. While some colleagues seem gloomy about the state and future of the discipline, I think we live in exciting times and have as good a future as any academic field at the moment.

[Ethan]: You've made use of the internet as a vehicle for propagating your academic research, both through your own websites (grahamharvey.org and animism.org.uk) and through an account on academically-oriented social media site academia.edu. That being the case, it would be interesting to hear your views on the value of the internet as a tool for scholarly outreach ? 

[Graham]: I’m enthusiastic about the interweb as a place for exchanging and debating ideas, for disseminating information and networking with other people. The Open University makes great use of online tools for teaching, learning and research. It also burdens some of us with a lot of online bureaucracy but that’s a familiar part of the struggle of modernity. There are things that are better done face-to-face. Communication is not all in the words and writing (on paper or on screen) does not convey the full range of expressions that we (communicative species) employ. In fact, I think that eating together is not only a vitally important part of being hospitable to others but can be integral to learning together. In short, the web has its uses and its limits. There are some wonderful exponents of online communication and others who are vomiting out dreadful and deadly nonsense. But the same people (good or bad) probably do the same onscreen as on paper or face-to-face if you let them.

[Ethan]: 2013 saw you publish two new books, both for Acumen; an edited volume titled the Handbook of Contemporary Animism, and another book titled Food, Sex and Strangers: Understanding Religion as Everyday Life, in which you explore how religion pervades all aspects of life and doesn't purely revolve around venerating deities. Could you tell us a little bit about these publications, and have you got any new projects on the horizon that we should be keeping our eyes out for ?  

Copyright Acumen
[Graham]: I’ve probably gone on for longer than I ought so these will be relatively brief answers. The Handbook is a collection of 40 chapters by international contributors from Anthropology, Botany, Ecology, Environmental and Sustainability Studies, Ethology, History, Performance Studies, Philosophy, Psychology, Sociology as well as Religious Studies. Most chapters were written especially for the book, a few are reprinted from other sources. It is an attempt to represent the current state of interesting debate about stuff that could be called “animism”. It’s not a book I could have written alone but one that requires many voices… and I’m truly honoured that people responded positively to my invitation to join in the project. We’re going to do more but I think that right now I want people to read this book and discuss whatever interests them. Then we can have conversations about how to develop conversations. These could be about all sorts of things since the book (like animism itself) touches on the nature of the world, the nature of humanity, the nature of personhood, the processes of communication (within and beyond a species), the acts of things, the possibility of spirits, and the hope of recovering a “gift economy” that crosses species boundaries… I hope that’s enough of a teaser to get people interested! 

Copyright Acumen
Food, Sex and Strangers is kind of a culmination of my research and obsessions to date. It argues that religion is not about “belief” or “believing”, is not focused on deities, and is not the opposite of the putatively secular public world. It identifies where such misconceptions come from. But most of it is about “going elsewhere” to see people living religion. It is about trying to understand what religion is once we reject the “belief in god” definition. “Elsewhere” involves seeing things differently among Jews, Pagans, Maori, Native Hawaiians, Yoruba, Christians, new atheists, Spaghetti Monster devotees and others. For example, I build on the wonderful and mind-bending statement of the late Te Pakaka Tawhai that “the purpose of religious activity … is doing violence with impunity”. I propose that religion is an everyday, vernacular, material activity in an evolving, multispecies world. It is one bit of our relating. But everything is relational so I offer some thoughts about which bit of relational life is the “religion” bit.

New projects? Well, several things have been fermenting for a while. One is a collaborative project attempting to see what various academic disciplines would be like if, instead of apologetically explaining animism, we began with the assumption that the world is an animate community (albeit one threatened by the normative systems of this anthropocene era). Meanwhile, I am honoured to be involved in a wonderful international project (generously funded by the Norwegian Research Council) called “Reassembling Democracy: Ritual as Cultural Resource”. A fine and diverse team of researchers are engaging with a range of ritual complexes in different cultural contexts to see what they contribute to enriching the performance of democracy. For more info, see this: http://www.tf.uio.no/english/research/projects/redo/ My bit of the project is about the Riddu Riddu festival organised by Sami people in arctic Norway. It’s a great festival in a beautiful location and involves a vital experiment in celebrating and increasing indigenous peoplehood and sovereignty.

[Ethan]: I always end my interviews here at Albion Calling by asking my interviewees where they see their subject and discipline heading in the coming decades, particularly in the context of mass budget cut-backs to the university sector. That being the case, I'd like to ask you what you see as the future for Pagan studies, and the study of indigenous religion, animism and shamanism ? Furthermore, where do you think that the wider discipline of religious studies is headed ? 

[Graham]: Ah, I thought you’d asked the big questions already and here are more! I think that each of these is a quite diverse field of study and that diversity is likely to increase. I’m hopeful that each will be recognised as making larger contributions to our knowledge and understanding. That is, I hope that they collapse whatever walls seem to exist around them so that, for example, studies of Paganism or animism can contribute to richer engagement with other ways of being human. But this is something I hope about all the sub-fields of academic study. E.g. I want scholars of Judaism to talk more with scholars of Shinto, and scholars of performance to talk more with scholars of materiality, and so on. The cutting edge of our disciplines and of our particular interests can get blunt when we don’t cross boundaries to listen and talk with colleagues who have been doing other things. That’s one of the great things in the Handbook of Contemporary Animism: it brings cognitive approaches close to ethnographic ones, and literary interests together with performative and activist ones. It crosses the globe for data that might challenge what others have taken for granted or haven’t quite grasped the significance of. In that, it’s a microcosm of what I think academia is at its best. Perhaps that’s rather over the top. All I really mean is that academia at its best is a wonderfully evolving conversation with many participants.

As you suggest, the context of budget cuts and under-funding of academia (especially in arts, humanities and social sciences) is a major threat to the whole project. Academia should not be the equivalent of training for employment in any narrow sense. It should be an enriching pursuit of the skills of researching and debating – finding things out and talking with others about them. We don’t need to suspect a secret conspiracy to see that governments are not always totally enthusiastic about people getting into the habit of asking question after question, not seeking the finality of “the answer” but wanting to keep on increasing the diversity of the world.  

Thank you, Dr. Harvey, for talking to Albion Calling today. It has been a pleasure, and I wish you all the best with your future research.


  1. Well done Ethan, a fantastic interview with Graham Harvey, who richly deserves the respect he has earned over the years.

    1. Thank you for your kind comment Aurora; it's always great to hear that people are appreciating this interview series!

  2. A really rich interview, thanks so much to both of you for doing it.

  3. Thank you for your comment, Yewtree!