|Associate Professor of Religion
Courtesy Associate Professor of Anthropology
Departmental Area: History and Ethnography of Religions
Address: Department of Religion
Joseph Hellweg (Ph.D., 2001, University of Virginia, Anthropology). I am a cultural anthropologist with interests in religion, Islam, politics, performance, and health in West Africa, where I have done over five years of fieldwork—in Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea, and Mali. I speak French and Manding fluently and have acquired basic reading and writing competence in the N’ko alphabet for writing Manding.
My research has focused on social movements organized around or in tandem with religious practices and ideologies. I have written extensively on Benkadi, the dozo hunters’ security movement of Côte d’Ivoire. More recently, I have begun to explore a literacy and healing movement in Guinea and Mali centered on the use of an alphabet called “N’ko,” invented in West Africa in 1949.
In my teaching, I attempt to bring to awareness the implicit cultural categories that organize daily life, especially in Africa and the United States. I also train students in the theoretical and methodological approaches necessary for an empirical understanding of and engagement with these categories in their academic and everyday lives.
Beyond the university, I have served as an expert witness in numerous asylum cases for political refugees from Côte d’Ivoire. I am an active member of the African Studies Association, the American Academy of Religion, the American Anthropological Association, and the Mande Studies Association.
I am currently preparing a book manuscript titled, “Practical Religion: Hunting, Islam, and the Poetics of Action in the Songs of Dramane Coulibaly.” The project examines the praise-songs and heroic epics that dozo hunters sing in Côte d’Ivoire. These songs witness to a flexible religious ideology that stands astride Islam, local hunting rites, and contemporary national politics in ways that offer an alternative to the divisive ethnic politics that have divided Côte d’Ivoire during nearly a decade of conflict from 2002 to the present. The songs of my dozo host, Dramane Coulibaly, will form the core of the book.
I am now completing an article in French titled, “This Is Not a Militia: Dozos, Violence, and the State In Côte d’Ivoire.” It will offer a critical analysis of claims (and their potential consequences) that dozo hunters constituted a militia in western Côte d’Ivoire during recent electoral violence in 2011. The article is based on a paper that I presented in French at the Institut d’études politiques (Sciences-Po) in Paris in June 2011.
I am writing another article updating dozos’ recent involvement in conflicts in Côte d’Ivoire for a special issue on youth, war, and militias for the Italian journal, La ricerca folklorica.
2012. Côte d’Ivoire Is Cooling Down? Reflections a Year after the Battle for Abidjan.
I complied, edited, and contributed two pieces to this collection of seventeen brief essays on current, recent, and historical conditions in Côte d’Ivoire. The essays pay particular attention to the post-electoral violence of 2010-2011. The collection appears as one of the “Hot Spot” features on the website of the journal, Cultural Anthropology.
2011. Hunting the Ethical State: The Benkadi Movement of Côte d’Ivoire (University of Chicago Press).
2011. Anthropologie, les premiers pas: Introduction à la modélisation et aux méthodes de la recherche qualitative en sciences sociales (L’Harmattan, Paris).
Guest Edited Journal
2004. Guest Editor, Special Issue: “Mande Hunters, Civil Society and the State,” Africa Today 50 (4).
Forthcoming. “Reading Urbanity: Trans-Urban Assemblages in the N’ko Literacy and Healing Movement of West Africa,” in Living the City (edited collection on urbanization in Africa), to be published by Lit Verlag, Berlin.
2009. “Hunters, Ritual, and Freedom: Dozo Sacrifice as a Technology of the Self in the Benkadi Movement of Côte d’Ivoire,” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (N.S.) 15: 36-56.
2006. “Manimory and the Aesthetics of Mimesis: Forest, Islam, and State in Ivoirian dozoya,” Africa 76 (4): 461-484.
2004. “Encompassing the State: Sacrifice and Security in the Hunters’ Movement of Côte d’Ivoire,” Africa Today 50 (4): 3-28.
Media Coverage of My Work on Dozo Hunters
2011. “Comment on Ivory Coast, Disarmament, and the Dozos,” Council on Foreign Relations, My Posting on the Blog of Amb. John Campbell.
2011. “Dozos – ‘Savvy Political Actors’,” IRIN News Service (of the United Nations), Interview by Nancy Palus.
2011. “Dozo as Protector, Dozo as Assailant,” IRIN News Service, My Book Cited and Quoted by Nancy Palus.
REL 5035-01 Introduction to the Study of Religion
This seminar will review the theoretical and methodological foundations of the academic study of religion. It will focus on authors viewed as the founders and subsequent exponents and critics of the discipline. We will interrogate the arguments and evidence on which they ground the operating assumption that religion exists as an object of study and that, as a result, religious studies exists as an academic discipline. Our approach will be a critical one. We will examine religion as a heuristic category and religious studies as a form of interdisciplinary research in which authors have made arguments as relevant to ritual and symbolic concerns as to those one could also label economic, political, or sociological. We will read and discuss germinal writings by Feuerbach, Marx, Durkheim, Freud, James, and Weber as well as works by their successors, such as Eliade and his students, major anthropologists of the British and French schools, as well as Bourdieu, Foucault, Asad, McCutcheon, Mahmood, Evans, and Vásquez. The course aims to provide students a context in which to hone their own formative questions about and develop their own theories of religion and religious studies.
REL 4190-01/6596-01 The Ethnography of Ritual, Culture, and Performance
This seminar will introduce graduate and advanced undergraduate students to ethnographies written by scholars of religion, cultural anthropologists, and scholars of performance. “Ethnography” means “writing about people.” It is the literary genre that describes people’s lived social lives. Some of the best ethnographies have focused on questions of ritual practice, cultural identity, and aesthetic performance, themes as central to the “ethnographic turn” in religious studies as they are to concerns in the allied disciplines of anthropology, ethnomusicology, history, or international affairs. We will focus throughout the course on the methodological and theoretical approaches that ethnographers adopt in their work. Readings will outline ethnographic arguments and the vocabularies of kinship, ritual analysis, and performance that frame them. The course is ideal for students planning to do ethnographic research in preparing their doctoral, master’s, or honors in the major theses. The course will also prepare students to take the Religion Department’s “Ethnographic Field Methods” course, scheduled for spring 2013, which will involve doing fieldwork in Tallahassee.
REL3936 Ecstatic Religion
Beyond and sometimes within the confines of mainstream religion, a range of more emotional, more physical, more mystical practices proliferates—from spirit possession, trance, prophecy, and shamanism to asceticism, ritual healing, and speaking in tongues. While public opinion and popular media may portray these practices as demonic, exotic, irrational, or superstitious, they incarnate the deepest longings for and grandest visions of the divine. This course explores various forms of embodied mysticism around the world—in Africa, Latin and North America, and Asia. Our goal will be to understand the logics behind these practices that make them sources of power and meaning for their practitioners. Because religious minorities as well as women, marginal men, sexual minorities, and transgendered persons often play key roles in these practices, issues of politics, economics, gender, and sexuality take center stage. And because there are various ways to explain mystical experiences, the course will compare competing neurological, psychological, psychiatric, sociological, and theological explanations for them. Ultimately, the course will argue for an anthropological approach, one that sees the transcendent experience of the holy as immanent within the cultural context of daily life.
REL3936 Religion in Africa
This course explores religious practices across the African continent as pragmatic strategies for daily life, political struggle, and social action. From birth to death and beyond, African rituals shape persons in relation to their world. Sorcery, divination, initiation rites, spirit possession, funeral celebrations, and sacrifices for communing with the dead have practical consequences that are as real, reliable, and useful to their practitioners as the cars that we drive. In Africa, ritual is a technology, a form of expertise that gives one access to the unseen double of the world in which real power is achieved and manipulated. This is as true for Christians and Muslims in Africa as it is for those who practice autochthonous rites. Religion is a confrontation with reality, not a flight from it. African ritual life is deeply embedded in the dynamics of gender, sexuality, nation building, globalization, and public health. The history and ethnography of religion in Africa is therefore an ideal lens through which to view the dynamics of colonialism and nationalism that have shaped today’s nation-states and the challenges they face, such as ethnically charged tensions that emerge over funeral arrangements and controversies stemming from female genital cutting. Africans are using such ritual contexts to forge new identities in innovative ways.
REL 4190-01/5195-02 Words and Power in African Religions
This seminar for graduate and advanced undergraduate students examines words and verbal art as sources of power in African cosmologies. It challenges taken-for-granted distinctions between the oral and the written by studying a range of verbal creativity, including sorcery, Qur’anic recitation, epic poetry, praise-singing, divination, and francophone schooling in contemporary African nation states. Such practices expand the study of religion beyond the purview of ritual to include insights into current social and political realities in African live. Scholars such as Finnegan, Griaule, Hale, Hoffman, Hunwick, Launay, Oyler, and Stoller will focus the course primarily on the Mande world of West Africa.
ANT 2410-01 Introduction to Cultural Anthropology
The course introduces students to key ideas, terms, and arguments in cultural anthropology, such as culture, ethnography, fieldwork, kinship, gender, gift and commodity exchange, and cultural relativism, etc. The history of the field is viewed through the work of scholars such as Boas, DuBois, Geertz, Lock, Robbins, Turner, van Gennep, and Wagner. Readings focus on Papua New Guinea, a region that has stimulated anthropological thinking for over a century and that has been a source of recent theoretical innovations in the discipline, particularly in terms of economic anthropology and the anthropology of gender and religion. The course aims to integrate a holistic, critical understanding of culture into students’ daily lives.
REL 6596-02/4190-03 Ethnographic Field Methods
This graduate seminar focuses on several key ethnographic methods developed by anthropologists for doing social science research including participant observation, informal and semi-structured interviews, focus groups, free listing, pile sorting, triad testing, and network analysis. An overview of culture theory will frame the course to explain anthropology’s unique approach to fieldwork. Joseph Maxell’s approach to research design will guide the discussion of proposal writing, for which the National Science Foundation Dissertation Fellowship will serve as a model. Authors such as Agar, Bernard, Jackson, Riesman, Schensul, and Weller will be discussed and critiqued, and students will undertake local research of their own to practice the methods they study.
REL 3936 Ecstatic Religion
REL 3936 Religion in Africa
ANT 5426-01/ANT 4422-01 Kinship and Social Organization
This overview of the theory and ethnography of kinship introduces students to a topic for which cultural anthropology remains the discipline of reference. The course situates kinship studies historically, covering various efforts to explain the dynamics of social organization, from early attempts by Morgan and Engels, to the structural-functionalism of Radcliffe-Brown, the structuralism of Lévi-Strauss, and the practice theory of more recent decades. Readings by McKinnon, Sahlins, Dawkins, and Wilson bring these concerns up to date though debates on the importance of genetics—or lack thereof—in explaining relatedness as we grapple with the growing ethical challenges of new reproductive technologies.