David J. Hess

Early Work:
Science and Medicine in Religious Movements

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My earliest work is thematically consistent with the rest of my projects, but it is methodologically and topically distinct. I was concerned with public understandings of science and knowledge, and I also was studying a religious reform movement (Spiritism); however, my method and voice were much more that of a cultural anthropologist than they were in my later work. To that point I focused especially on the cultural interpretation of texts, a strategy that was justified because Spiritist intellectuals and mediums were avid writers and readers who lived by books if not by the book. I was influenced by the methods of cultural analysis taught by my mentors Boon, DaMatta, and Holmberg, as well as the comparativist and structuralist literature on Brazil that my committee member Tom Holloway led me through. A common ground was the use of comparative analyis, to which I continue to return.

Th central finding was that a very heterodox research field in North America and Europe--parapsychology and its earlier version, psychical research--served to legitimate positions in the religious-psychotherapeutic field among Catholic intellectuals, the medical community, and Spiritists in Brazil. Furthermore, I found that Jesuit critics of Spiritism drew on parapsychology, whereas Spiritists tended to turn to the older field of psychical research. This was one of the first, full ethnographic monographs in the anthropology of science and especially on the intersections of science, medicine, and public understandings. Although I did not explicitly use the term "field," I used the simliar concept of an "arena" and was influenced by Bourdieu, whom I read first in Portuguese in Brazil, and by Brazliian scholars influenced by him, such as Carlos Rodrigues Branda-o. In effect I was studying the role of science in negotiating field position at the intersections of the religious and medical fields. Many Spiritist intellectuals were also medical professionals, and many of the country's first psychiatric hospitals were founded by Spiritists. I experienced some fascinating events, such as psychotherapy provided by Spiritists through spirit mediums in centers located near a psychiatric hospital, for which the mentally ill were believed to be afflicted by Earth-bound spirits. I also witnessed surgical operations by Edson Queiroz by one of the lineage of his spirit mediums. I learned that the spirit of Victor Hugo was alive and well in Brazil and the author of many books, and at the urging of a colleague in French studies I submitted a paper to a journal on Victor Hugo, but perhaps sensing the risk of an apocryphal canon, the editors rejected it. [For non-specialist readers, I adopt the neutral device of analyzing beliefs in spirits as social facts that have social effects regardless of what one thinks about them from a natural scientific perspective.]

On returning to the U.S., I had a new perspective on similar science-religion relations in the New Age movement, and I wrote Science in the New Age, which analyzed the New Age movemnt and gender politics, American cultural repertoires such as the frontier, and relations with skeptics. DaMatta and I also also developed book in the comparativist tradition of Brazilian studies, The Brazilian Puzzle. After that, I decided that issues of science and religion were very marginal in the Science and Technology Studies field that I was joining, and as a result I turned to topical problems that were more mainstream. However, the use of comparative and cultural methods (the latter in the sense of understanding problems first from the perspective of publics and informants) and the thematic concerns with knowledge, technologies, publics, and movements is continuous with many of my subsequent projects.

Selected Publications

2000 "Medical Integration and Questions of Universalism." [Portuguese] In Laura Graziela Gomes, ed. Twentieth Anniversary Commemoration of Carnavais, Malandros, e Heróis. Rio de Janeiro: Editora da Fundação Getúlio Vargas. This paper connects my work on Spiritism and religious therapies with the second project on complementary and alternative medicine. Paper available here.

1995 The Brazilian Puzzle: Culture on the Borderlands of the Western World. Coedited with Roberto DaMatta. Columbia University Press. Introduction, Conclusions, and "Hierarchy, Hegemony, and the Construction of Brazilian Religious Therapies" by Hess. Theoretically, an attempt to bridge hierarchy and hegemony (culturalist and social structural approaches) in the study of the religious system in Brazil. Paper available here.

1995 "Preface." Magico-Religious Healers of Brazil, by Nagato Azuma and Patric Giesler. Tokyo: Arechi-Syuppansha Inc.

1994 Samba in the Night: Spiritism in Brazil. Fieldwork account. Columbia University Press.

1993 Science in the New Age: The Paranormal, Its Defenders and Debunkers, and American Culture. University of Wisconsin Press. Chinese translation: Jiangxi Education Press, 1998. Chapter 7 (Theoretical Conclusions) here. Google Scholar Preview here.

1992 "New Sciences, New Gods: Spiritism and Questions of Religious Pluralism in Latin America." Occasional Papers of the Thomas J. Watson Institute for International Studies, "Conference on Competing Gods: Religious Pluralism in Latin America." Brown University. A paper that questioned the current view of some scholars that Latin American was becoming Protestant by discussing the continued vitality of spirit mediumship religions. Paper available here.

1992 Knowledge and Society Volume 9: The Anthropology of Science and Technology. Coedited with Linda Layne; series editor Arie Rip. JAI Press. Article by Hess:"Disciplining Heterodoxy, Circumventing Discipline: Parapsychology, Anthropologically." Link to PDF file here. Link to Elsevier press here.

1992 "Umbanda and Quimbanda Magic in Brazil: Rethinking Aspects of Bastide's Work." Archives des Sciences Sociales des Religions. 79: 139-53. A structuralist analysis of Umbanda and Quimbanda rituals with the theoretical argument that Bastide over-estimated “religious degredation” of African religion in his studies of Umbanda. Paper available here.

1991 Spirits and Scientists: Ideology, Spiritism, and Brazilian Culture. Pennsylvania State University Press. Introduction available here. Google Scholar Preview here.

1991 "On Earth as It Is in Heaven: Reading Spiritist Otherworldly Ethnographies." In Roberto Reis (ed.), Toward Socio-Criticism: Selected Proceedings of the Conference "Luso-Brazilian Literatures, A Socio-Critical Approach." Arizona State University at Tempe, Center for Latin American Studies. This paper showed how Spiritist and American descriptions of the spirit world showed important cultural differences related to this-worldly Brazil and the U.S. Paper available here.

1990 "Ghosts and Domestic Politics in Brazil: Some Parallels between Spirit Infestation and Spirit Possession." Ethos: Journal of the Society for Psychological Anthropology 18(4): 407-38. This was the first paper to link "poltergeists" and spirit "attacks" to domestic violence. Paper available here.

1989 "Disobsessing Disobsession: Religion, Ritual, and Social Science in Brazil." Cultural Anthropology 4(2): 182-193. Early version of chapter in Spirits and Scientists. This paper argued that positions among social scientists Spiritism among social scientists in Brazil had homologies with positions in the religious field. Paper available here.

1987 "O Espiritismo e as Ciências [Spiritism and the Sciences]." Religião e Sociedade 14(3): 40-54. Early version of chapter in Spirits and Scientists.

1987 "The Many Rooms of Brazilian Spiritism." Luso-Brazilian Review 24.2: 15-34.

1987 "Religion, Heterodox Science, and Brazilian Culture." Social Studies of Science 17: 465-477. Portions appeared in Spirits and Scientists. Paper available here.