Home >> Meet Our Faculty >> Faculty Profiles >> Joseph Hellweg

Joseph Hellweg

Associate Professor of Religion
Courtesy Associate Professor of Anthropology

 

Departmental Area: History and Ethnography of Religions
Research Areas : African Religions, Islam, Ethics, Health, and Performance in West Africa

Address: Department of Religion
P. O. Box 3061520
The Florida State University
Tallahassee, FL 32306-1520
Office: M04A Dodd Hall
Email: jhellweg@fsu.edu
Office Hours: Thursdays, 11:00 - 1:00, or by appointment

Curriculum Vitae


Background

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.


Current Research

Book Manuscript

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.

Articles

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.


Select Publications

Web Feature

2012. Côte d’Ivoire Is Cooling Down? Reflections a Year after the Battle for Abidjan.
I compiled, 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.

Books

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).

Articles

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.


Current Courses

Fall 2016


REL3370        Religion in Africa  
This course examines the variety and complexity of religious practices and beliefs on the African continent, and in particular how African discourses of religion challenge our most fundamental understandings of the term religion.  Meets Liberal Studies: Cultural Practice (LS-CUL) and Diversity: Cross Cultural Studies (DIV-XCC).

REL4044        What is Religion? 
What is “religion”? How and why do we study “religion”? Is “religion” a manifestation of some sacred, sui generis reality that human beings can only dimly apprehend? Or is “religion” a rickety ideological superstructure built on the foundation of colonial, economic, and gendered oppression? Perhaps it's a psychological projection, a delusion from which humanity must free itself. Or maybe “religion” is simply the creation of the scholar who studies it. This course provides a survey of classical and contemporary theories and methods that have tried to answer these questions along with many others. Through close readings of a sampling of theoretical and critical works, this course will provide students with a basic introduction to the various disciplinary frameworks that underlie the academic study of religion. We will cover a wide array of approaches for studying “religion” ranging from anthropology to psychology, from feminist theory to cognitive science. Along the way we will ask, “what is ‘religion’?” and “and how should it be studied?” We will end the course with two recent books that build on the various methods covered in the first ten weeks of the course. These works--on Scientology, a new religious movement, and popular spirituality in contemporary American culture--offer challenging reassessments of the scholarly and popular category of “religion.”  Students should expect a reading-, writing-, and speaking-intensive course that surveys a complex and evolving field of study. Students will be asked to read carefully, offer written reflections on the material covered in class, and present material to their peers. Finally, students will write a final reflective paper assessing the status of “religious studies” in the university.  Meets Upper-Division Scholarship in Practice (UD-SIP) and Oral Communication Competency (OCC).

RLG5937-4    Special Topics: Religions in Africa 

Recent Courses

Spring 2016


REL4044        What is Religion? What is Religious Studies?
Prerequisite: Successful completion of at least twelve hours of coursework in the department of Religion.  Meets the Oral Competency Requirement and the Scholarship-in-Practice requirement.

REL4190-02   SEM: Religion and Culture:

REL4905        Dir Indiv Study: Public Health

RLG5195-02  SEM: Religion and Culture:  

Fall 2015


REL3370                 Religion in Africa 
Understanding contemporary Africa means understanding African religions. Religion is a preoccupation across the continent—economically, politically, and socially. Through divination, spirit possession, sacrifice, and other practices, Africans engage what we call “religion” in ways that challenge our understanding of the term. We have no choice, then, but to recognize the sophistication and complexity of African religions. They encompass and determine aspects of childbirth, gender, healing, sexuality, personhood, and death; their impact is far-reaching. Yet, writers like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens have portrayed religions as the root of all ignorance. On the contrary, religions organize vast arrays of practical knowledge and work in Africa. The study of African religions therefore offers a unique way of understanding how religion sustains the worlds we inhabit—that is, how we might best define “religion” as a working knowledge of the cosmos we inhabit. African religions do not find the measure of their truth in some distanced “natural” world but in the social dynamics and conflicts that give rise to them.   Meets the Liberal Studies- Cultural Practice and Cross-cultural (x) requirements.

REL4044                 What is Religion? 
More than ever, Religious Studies has important contributions to make to public life. Whereas many Americans—and people in similar democracies—think of religion as distinct from everyday life, scholars have unveiled its political ends, documenting how social order and religion are often one and the same. Alternatively, scholars have conceived of religion as a projection of social or psychological conflicts into the realm of ideology or as an invention resulting from the comparison of Christianity with the worldviews that Western colonizers encountered around the globe. If scholars are right, and there is more—or less—to religion than meets the eye, then the foreign policies, trade decisions, and social hierarchies we derive more often than not from religious stereotypes are in urgent need of critique. We therefore read classic theories of religion by philosophers, psychologists, and sociologists while exploring more contemporary concerns focusing on race, gender, and sexuality. Our aim is to understand how definitions of religion, and the methods and theories for studying it, determine one another, making every scholar’s—and politician’s—definition of religion anything but neutral. This is a required course for all Religion majors. It also meets the Upper Division Scholarship-in-Practice and Oral Communication Competency Requirements.

RLG 5937                  Religion in Africa
Understanding contemporary Africa means understanding African religions. Religion is a preoccupation across the continent—economically, politically, and socially. Through divination, spirit possession, sacrifice, and other practices, Africans engage what we call “religion” in ways that challenge our understanding of the term. We have no choice, then, but to recognize the sophistication and complexity of African religions. They encompass and determine aspects of childbirth, gender, healing, sexuality, personhood, and death; their impact is far-reaching. Yet, writers like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens have portrayed religions as the root of all ignorance. On the contrary, religions organize vast arrays of practical knowledge and work in Africa. The study of African religions therefore offers a unique way of understanding how religion sustains the worlds we inhabit—that is, how we might best define “religion” as a working knowledge of the cosmos we inhabit. African religions do not find the measure of their truth in some distanced “natural” world but in the social dynamics and conflicts that give rise to them.

Spring 2014


REL3936-01/RLG5937         Ecstatic Religion
A range of mystical practices around the world takes people out of themselves by making possible fundamental transformations of the human person, from mortals to spirits, from contemporaries to ancestors, from the powerless to the powerful, from one gender to another. Such ecstatic practices offer powerful, embodied idioms for accomplishing political transformations, social and psychological healing, renewed identity, and cures for physical ailments. This course examines case studies of spirit possession and shamanism from Africa, Central America, Indonesia, and Siberia. We will also compare humanistic, medical, and psychiatric approaches to these phenomena, opting for the ethnographic and historical approaches definitive of religious studies.

REL4190-01/RLG5195         UG Religion & Culture Sem: Religion in Africa
This course will introduce you to divination, ritual, shamanism, sorcery, spirit possession, Christianity, and Islam as practiced in sub-Saharan Africa. African religious practices challenge our most fundamental assumptions about the nature of gender, personhood, politics, society, and the meaning of life. Yet, no matter how different African cosmologies may seem, they have the feel of the familiar when examined in their own contexts and in the light of ethnographic and historical approaches. Drawing on case studies from across the continent, from both urban and rural areas, this course will examine African religious practices as thoroughly modern, contemporary, and sophisticated approaches to the daily question of how best to live in a changing world. 

RLG5195        Religion & Culture Sem: Religion in Africa 
This course will introduce you to divination, ritual, shamanism, sorcery, spirit possession, Christianity, and Islam as practiced in sub-Saharan Africa. African religious practices challenge our most fundamental assumptions about the nature of gender, personhood, politics, society, and the meaning of life. Yet, no matter how different African cosmologies may seem, they have the feel of the familiar when examined in their own contexts and in the light of ethnographic and historical approaches. Drawing on case studies from across the continent, from both urban and rural areas, this course will examine African religious practices as thoroughly modern, contemporary, and sophisticated approaches to the daily question of how best to live in a changing world. 

Fall 2013


REL3936              Shamanism
Beyond and sometimes even within the confines of mainstream religion, a range of more emotional, more physical, more mystical practices proliferates for which scholars have developed the term, “shamanism.” Today the meaning of the term has broadened to include both its previous meaning—a spirit journey to an unseen realm—as well as spirit possession, trance, forms of prophecy, and ritual healing and which may include the use of psychotropic drugs. While public opinion and the media may portray some forms of shamanism as demonic, exotic, irrational, or superstitious, they incarnate the deepest longings for and grandest visions of health, divinity, and power. This course explores various forms of shamanism around the world—in Africa, Europe, Latin and North America, and Asia, and in the contexts of global cultural diasporas and immigration. Our goal will be to understand the logics behind these practices that make them sources of power and meaning for those who employ them. Because religious minorities, the poor, women, marginal men, and transgendered persons often become shamans, issues of politics, economics, gender, and sexuality will take center stage. And because there are various ways to explain shamanic experiences, the course will compare neurological, psychological, psychiatric, sociological, theological, and anthropological approaches to them.

RLG5035            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.

Fall 2012

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.

Spring 2012

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.