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Getting Religion

The Interdisciplinary Research Group in USC Dornsife’s Center for Religion and Civic Culture makes the connections.

By Nick Street
May 31, 2011

From left to right: Chris Hammons, lecturer in anthropology; Lisa Bitel, professor of history and religion, and chair of the CRCC Interdisciplinary Research Group; Jane Iwamura, assistant professor of religion and American studies and ethnicity; and Brad Nabors, Ph.D. candidate in sociology. Photo by Ambrosia Viramontes-Brody.

From left to right: Chris Hammons, lecturer in anthropology; Lisa Bitel, professor of history and religion, and chair of the CRCC Interdisciplinary Research Group; Jane Iwamura, assistant professor of religion and American studies and ethnicity; and Brad Nabors, Ph.D. candidate in sociology. Photo by Ambrosia Viramontes-Brody.

Not long after Indonesia’s transition from dictatorship to democracy, Christian Hammons was sitting at a coffee shop in Bukittinggi, a city on Sumatra’s tourist circuit. Hammons, who was about to begin his doctoral work in anthropology at USC Dornsife, was understandably intrigued when a man approached him and asked, “Do you want to see some primitive people?”

The notion of “primitive people” in the Western imagination is a complex concept. What exactly did Hammons’ would-be tour-guide mean?

After an arduous journey from Sumatra to the interior of the remote island of Siberut, Hammons found himself in the middle of the jungle with no running water. The older men were wearing loincloths made out of tree bark and hunting monkeys with poison arrows.

But the real source of curiosity for the young anthropologist was the gaggle of tourists that had accompanied him on his odyssey.

“In the late ’90s, at the peak of the Indonesian tourist boom, sometimes a hundred Western tourists a week were making this trek,” said Hammons, who earned an M.A. in anthropology from New York University. The main draw for the mostly European crowds was the shaman that figured into the broader communal life of the indigenous culture.

“Getting there is difficult, and the week or 10 days there can be an ordeal,” Hammons said. “But the shamans are skilled in knowing how to reveal secrets.”

 


A group of men including a shaman walk through the jungle on the island of Siberut in Indonesia. Photo by Chris Hammons.

The secret that Hammons discovered as he began to weave the thread of his initial curiosity into a dissertation at USC Dornsife was that the shamans and the rest of the indigenous people on Siberut were constantly surprised by — but willing to indulge — the Westerners’ belief that they had something to reveal.

“My project became looking at the indigenous analysis of the tourists themselves,” Hammons said. “Many Western tourists are looking for spiritual fulfillment or authenticity, so the lure of the secret is hardly unique to Siberut. The figure of the shaman is often depicted as a charlatan, but he may still know something valuable that we don’t.”

In the latter respect, Professor of Anthropology Janet Hoskins, Hammons’ dissertation adviser and a senior fellow with the Interdisciplinary Research Group (IRG) at USC Dornsife’s Center for Religion and Civic Culture, played a similar role for Hammons. She pointed out that the diversity of topics that intersected with his core interest in the anthropology of spiritual tourism on Siberut — including the patterns of Indonesia’s political and economic development over the past decade and tensions between modernity and indigenous culture — made him an ideal candidate for an IRG research award. The information from Hoskins, and the funds that followed, provided Hammons with the resources he needed to finish his project.

“Chris Hammons is a good example of the range of topics students can explore when they study religion,” said Lisa Bitel, the IRG’s chair and professor of history and religion in USC Dornsife.

In providing financial support for faculty members as well as advanced doctoral students such as Hammons — and by sponsoring annual seminars, working groups and lectures — the IRG serves as an incubator for incisive, interdisciplinary research on religious movements.

 “There are two main things we’re trying to do,” Bitel said. “One is the academic purpose of facilitating research through collaboration. You could be out there in any discipline working on a topic that intersects with religion and not realize that you’re reinventing the wheel. Second, we’re trying to increase general literacy in religion — something that’s increasingly crucial in areas from economic development to global politics. It’s all about spreading knowledge.”

IRG faculty grants are currently funding research in the departments of history, sociology, American studies and ethnicity as well as the USC Rossier School of Education. Jane Iwamura, assistant professor of religion and American studies and ethnicity in USC Dornsife, was awarded funds to complete American Dreams, an examination of the work of four influential filmmakers of color that extends her recent work in American civil religion, popular culture and race.

“The project explores how the medium of film acts as a powerful communicator of civic and religious values and meaning,” Iwamura said. “More broadly, I’m interested in how popular culture — film, television, print media and digital forms — shapes our understanding of religion as well as ourselves.” 

Having earned his doctorate in 2010, Hammons is now a lecturer in the Department of Anthropology. Other doctoral students in fields ranging from art history and economics to political science and classics have been part of the IRG’s research-award cohorts since the program began in 2009–10.  In that brief time, the IRG has awarded nearly $70,000 in grant support.

Two of the most imaginative — and perhaps unconventional — recipients of IRG grants for the current academic year are Mohamed Saleh, an economist who is examining how industrial modernization altered the traditional religious divisions and stratifications of Cairo’s 19th-century urban landscape, and Bradly Nabors, who has a hunch that by studying the growing ranks of atheists he can help his fellow sociologists fine-tune the concept of religion.

“The way people practice atheism today looks a lot different than it did in the ’50s and ’60s,” Nabors said. “Then it was about fighting against religion in public schools. Now it’s about trying to disprove the existence of God.”

Nabors believes this shift in the practices of atheism is intimately related to changes in mainstream religious culture in the United States.

“Ways of being atheist are conditioned by ways of being religious,” he said. “In other words, the argumentative atheist is contextually created.”

Creating the opportunities that allow scholars to make that kind of connection between religious movements and other social practices and institutions is exactly what the IRG is geared to do.

“It’s a really useful interdisciplinary community within the university,” said Hammons.