Joseph Hellweg

Associate Professor of Religion
Dr. Joseph Hellweg

Contact Information

Department
History and Ethnography of Religions
Office Location
Office: M04A Dodd Hall
Resume / CV

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.


REcent Courses

Spring 2017
REL3936 Special Topics: Ecstatic Religion

Beyond mainstream ritual practices, a range of emotional, embodied, mystical activities proliferates—from spirit possession, trance, and shamanism to ecstatic healing and prophecy. While public opinion and popular media may deride these practices, they incarnate the deepest longings for and grandest visions of the divine and often anchor the same theologies that condemn them. This course explores such forms of mysticism around the world—in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Our aim is to understand the logics behind these practices that make them sources of power for practitioners. Because women, the poor, marginal men, sexual minorities, and transgendered persons often play key roles in such movements, issues of politics, economics, gender, and sexuality take center stage. Due to the many ways of explaining mystical experiences, we will compare neurological, psychological, psychiatric, sociological, and theological approaches. The course will take an ethnographic approach, one that sees transcendent experience as immanent in cultural practice. 

REL4044: What is Religion?

What is “religion”? How and why do we study “religion”? Is “religion” a manifestation of some sacred, sui generisreality 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).

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