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Academic Cultural Appropriation of Neopaganism and Occultism

Author's Note: This is a reprint of an article I originally published in the Anthology: Talking About the Elephant in 2008. Because the theme of the month is on cultural appropriation I thought I'd dig it out and reprint it here. I've added a commentary on the end to show where my thoughts on this topic are now (5 years after the original article was published).

While some of the articles of this anthology [Author's note: I'm referring to Talking About the Elephant] deal with cultural appropriation issues that Neopagans and Occultists may perpetuate, the goal of my article is to provide a look at a different form of cultural appropriation currently gaining popularity in both the academic and Neopagan/Occult cultures. This cultural appropriation comes in the form of academic articles and books focused on Neopaganism and the Occult. On the surface, it would seem that scholarship on these subjects is a good thing, certain to buoy the public relationship image that both Neopaganism and Occultism have with mainstream culture. However, as I will argue, there is a different, more subtle agenda occurring in these academic works, and in a manner that can be considered cultural appropriation. Unfortunately, there is a tendency to revere academic works without coming to them with an open, but critical, awareness of how those works really represent their beliefs. Nor is the question raised by Neopagans or Occultists, if the benefits of said academic works are really good for the community, or are only good for the academic who happens to be doing the research.

 

Cultural appropriation, for the context of this article, can be defined as, “the taking – from a culture that is not one’s own – of intellectual property, cultural expressions or artifacts, history and ways of knowledge” (Ziff & Rao 1997, p. 1). For the purpose of this article, this definition is used to highlight particular practices within academia, which are often ignored because the context in which they occur, i.e. scholarship, provides a magical glamour that most non-academic readers will not see through, in large part because mainstream culture fosters a misplaced reverence for the value of academic scholarship.

It should be noted that both academia and Neopaganism are subcultures of mainstream culture. Both of these subcultures have a particular discourse, standards of behavior, rites of passage, and other cultural artifacts. Academic subculture has expectations of publishing, teaching, and doing research, as well as representing the university at conferences. Neopagan subculture is focused more on spirituality, rituals, and community.

Academic Cultural Appropriation for Personal Gain

 The first practice that needs to be addressed is the fact that in most cases (except for when the academic already has tenure), when an academic researcher chooses a particular subject, s/he does so because s/he sees research opportunities which will help him/her advance his/her career and attain tenure. This may seem like an obvious point to readers, but it is important to make because it necessarily impacts the objectivity that a researcher purports to have while doing scholarship on a particular subject. A graduate student or a non-tenured professor who wants tenure will choose a subject to research that provides the researcher a way to make a name and claim tenure. While the research is likely to be a genuine interest to the academic, it is taken on because it can help the academic reach particular professional goals.

While attaining professional goals isn't a problem in and of itself, what is often ignored by academics is the impact that their research has on the community or subculture they choose to research. The academic can’t help but contaminate a community s/he studies, because s/he necessarily isn't part of that community and is in fact studying it in order to have something meaningful to write about. An excellent example is Tanya Luhrmann. Luhrmann’s ethnography of Neopagans is an observation of a community, but it is also an observation of an academic attempting to avoid going native, while also impacting that community in a manner that ultimately was negative. Her argument for her actions was that if she went native (which to her meant taking the beliefs of magic seriously and allowing that it could in fact have a valid effect on her life), it would impact the validity of her research, and more importantly could cause her to lose her career (Luhrmann 1989). Unfortunately, however, this approach to her research had a negative impact on the community she observed, and this is where as an academic she culturally appropriated the resources of that community for her own gain, with little concern as to how that might affect the community.

Certainly it is clear that Luhrmann participated in the community she was observing. She went to rituals, participated in classes, and was part of discussion groups, but even though she participated she never engaged in the community she was temporarily a part of. Salomenson clearly defines the differences between engagement and observation:

"Engagement is more than participation, and something other than pretending. To allow oneself to become engaged is to take the intent of ritual seriously. It is to be willing to let the trance induction take you into trance, to be willing to be emotionally moved, as is intended by certain ritual elements, and to go with what then happens. Distance, on the other hand, means observation, remembering the lyrics and symbols used in trance induction, remembering the ritual proceedings step by step, seeing what happens to other participants and noticing the social interaction, the symbolism, the artifacts and the movements" (2004, p. 51).

In reading Luhrmann’s work, it’s clear that she was able to observe what happened with other people, as well as record rituals, symbols, etc., but what is also clear is that she never engaged the material, never really allowed herself to be moved by the experiences that she was supposedly having while observing the people around her. What her ethnography really indicates is that she never took what she was observing seriously, beyond the fact that it was a research and career opportunity for her. Consequently it was easy for her to culturally appropriate from the community she was observing, making the rituals they performed, as well as the documents and other materials they used, into cultural objects that could be poked and prodded by other researchers.

Luhrmann notes at one point that the people she was observing had forgotten that she was researching them, and she felt no compunction to remind them of her work (Luhrmann 1989). Instead of reminding those people of her goals for attending their meetings, she ended up using that forgetfulness in a way that ended up being harmful to the people she studied: “Indeed, by not being upfront about her academic agenda with her subjects, Luhrmann’s research had a serious negative impact on some of them, who claimed their traditions had been damaged by her release of initiate-only knowledge in published form” (Wallis 2004, p. 205). If it’s true that she has released such material without permission, then she has exploited and violated the beliefs and values of the people involved, all for her career.

Luhrmann’s work was done during the 1980’s and as such would fit into the 1980’s model of anthropology. Ronald Hutton summarizes her attitude and that of the 1980’s anthropological movement as follows:

"One was that it [he’s referring to 1980’s anthropology] retained the assumption that the beliefs and attitudes of the people studied were valueless in themselves, and that the anthropologist would accordingly suffer no loss in shaking them off at the end of the project. The second was that it turned the researcher into a form of impostor, an undercover agent for a different culture who acted out membership of a group before leaving it and throwing off the disguise" (2004, p. 178).

This particular attitude, however, isn't contained within just the 1980’s or even within anthropology. It is still present within academia to one degree or another, and it is informed by a need to find some kind of research subject that will stand out enough so that the researcher can get ahead in his/her career. While academics may not mean to be exploitative they are also rarely upfront about the personal benefits that are gained by doing the research they do. One such rare statement is the following, “I knew that I needed a new research project and publications if I were to ever get a tenure-track position…I needed a research project, and I was a little curious about how Witchcraft could be considered a religion [italics are hers]” (Griffin 2004, p. 60). Griffin’s curiosity, and more importantly her need to get a research project and publications to get ahead in her career, is what motivated her to study a community of witches. Even with such a rare statement, what is never asked by the academic is what price the community pays when they are observed by the academic. The academic gets ahead, appropriates from the community, but we must ask what benefit the community gets. Do we really get a better public relations image because we have academics writing about us? Or are our beliefs marginalized and culturally appropriated, for what ultimately amounts to personal gain?

Even in cases where academics are actually part of the community they research, these are questions which still must be asked, and yet are rarely asked by either the academic or the people being observed by the academic. These questions are difficult, but they allow us to weigh the impact that academic research can have on the community.

Academic Cultural Appropriation as Consumption

A second practice of academic cultural appropriation is that of the consumption and objectification of cultural artifacts in order to re-present them within an academic framework. This consumption takes on several forms. One form is the accuracy or inaccuracy of the researcher’s perception of the culture s/he is observing. The accuracy of the researcher’s perception informs whether or not the research is respectful of the cultural materials s/he draws on in his or her work. For example, when a researcher attempts to determine whether or not a culture has really been marginalized, this raises questions about why the researcher would make such a claim. For instance, Joshua Gunn makes the following claim, “In modern occult discourse, however, there is no longer a fear of institutional or state-sponsored persecution” (Gunn 2005, p. 153). In an overt sense, Gunn is correct, but one has to wonder if he followed the news about the widow of a soldier who wanted to get a pentacle on his grave marker and had to go to court in order to get the U.S. to legitimately consider the pentacle as a religious symbol. For that matter, in another case, an Indiana state judge instructed two parents that they could not share their beliefs about Wicca with their son. Eventually the ruling was overturned by another judge, higher up in the state court system, but this is still a case where some form of marginalization occurred, simply because of the beliefs that people held.  Several other examples of discrimination can be found in Patrick McCollum’s statement to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, wherein he provides examples where Wiccans have been discriminated against in prison. Even if the state doesn't sponsor an overt from of discrimination, this doesn't mean that discrimination does not occur.

When an academic attempts to marginalize the actual discrimination that a particular subculture or minority can experience, what really happens is that the subculture becomes something which is consumable and discardable. In effect the researcher marginalizes the subculture by discounting the marginalization that has already occurred. Gunn argues,

"The use of occultism as a marker of difference may be a reinscription of the hegemony of racism insofar as it saps the political force of marginality from those who have been marginalized. In other words, popular uses of the occult as a marker of difference seek to claim a social and legal suspect status (the legal term for protected groups), drawing attention away from those who endure more violent and oppressive forms of discrimination" (Gunn 2005, p. 226).

Gunn essentially marginalizes the marginalization that can occur to people in the Neopagan and Occult subcultures. It is true that people who deal with racism encounter violent crimes, moreso than people who choose to be Occultists. Yet Gunn ignores cases where such violence can occur. I use myself as a personal example. Not only did I have my books burned by a parent who threatened to kick me out for having my beliefs, but I would later receive death threat phone calls from a fundamentalist Christian. While such tales of discrimination are few and far between in the Occult and Neopagan communities, they do occur. They aren't as violent as instances of racism, but the potential is there. 

While I don’t believe it is Gunn’s goal to marginalize the Neopagan/Occult community, it’s nonetheless interesting to note his rather casual approach to material he gets from what is considered to be part of the occult subculture: “The tape was labeled ‘Introduction to the Ishayas’ Ascension.’ I never listened to the tape, convinced I knew what I would hear” (Gunn 2005, p. 34). Why this one comment is so interesting is that Gunn’s treatment of the tape is that of an artifact that can be consumed. The tape holds no mysteries to him, because he’s already certain of the answers. Whether or not he is right about that claim doesn't even enter his mind. He already has the culture figured out and now he can write his own secrets about that culture, while appropriating its resources so that he can re-present it to the academic culture he is part of. Indeed, he ends up doing just that, when he spends the rest of the book defining the Occult and examining the Occult textual artifacts from his own perspective. Certainly the scholarship he offers has something valuable to say about Occultism, but it is defined by his perspective of how Occultism works and as such is to a degree appropriated by his training in academia and the biases he brings with him from that training.

Jenny Blain, Douglas Ezzy, and Graham Harvey note that, “Paganisms within Western society are still seen as marginal, and those who research them may feel pressure to ‘objectify’ communities and practices researched and distance themselves from their experiences” (2004, p. 2). That pressure from academia, while it may preserve a face of academic objectivity, is still double-edged. The very price of objectifying a culture is the potential accusation of cultural appropriation, and while academics would like to hold themselves above the idea of cultural appropriation, they are nonetheless very capable of it, as any history of anthropology will show.

 What Can We Do to Counter Academic Cultural Appropriation?

While I have painted a somewhat grim picture of academia and practices that can involve cultural appropriation, I also think it’s important that we look at what we as a community can do to counter academic cultural appropriation of our subculture and its practices. One way of doing this is to actually write articles that are suitable for academic journals. Fortunately, both The Pomegranate and The Journal for the Academic Study of Magic are willing to accept articles by independent scholars. Anyone who does write for these articles should do their best to familiarize themselves with the expected writing style and citation guidelines, but it does provide us a forum to speak.

Another venue is the anthologies like this one, which grapple with these issues from a Neopagan/Occult perspective. By providing a forum where we can write articles, such as this one, we can explore concepts such as cultural appropriation from our own hermeneutic lens, while also being able to critically examine the academic work which is currently being done on our community, beliefs, and practices.

Finally, in communities where academics are doing research we can ask questions, like the ones I've asked above. By being able to confront the academic and ask questions, such as what is your agenda in doing this research, and how will it benefit you, and can we see your written work about us, before you publish it, we can show the academic that we do value our beliefs and practices and we want an accurate representation, as opposed to one filtered through his/her biases and the academic training s/he has. In other words, we can hold the academic accountable for the research s/he is doing.

Conclusion

Ronald Grimes makes an excellent point about academic research: “Scholarly research is a form of hunting, predatory, even parasitic, upon whatever it studies. Things studied are soon deadened, rendered corpselike. Scholarship necessarily, not accidentally consumes what it studies” (2006, p. 99). The study of Occultism, from an academic perspective, has become increasingly popular. There are now several academic journals specifically devoted to this study, and also a number of books available with scholarly research done on the subject. As this trend continues to occur, we as Magicians and Neopagans must be wary of how academia attempts to define what we do when we practice magic or do a ritual. Scholarship on our beliefs seeks to consume a phenomenon that can’t easily be defined or explained away. The wariness we must cultivate is for those scholars who already think they have the answer and try to culturally appropriate what we believe so that they can re-present it in their own language, for their own gain.

I do not believe that all academic research on Neopaganism or Occultism is necessarily wrong to do or only in the interests of the researcher. But I think that the Neopagan community owes it to itself to take the scales off the eyes and critically examine the academic work being done about us. Just because we are written about does not mean we are appreciated or valued or that our culture is respected (See Multi-Media Magic chapters 3 and 4 for a critical look at how academia has attempted to define magic.). Before we can assume it is respected, we need to take a much closer look at the current work being done by academics and make sure we make ourselves heard, if necessary.

Commentary 

I wrote this article in 2008. I had several academics who were involved in Pagan Studies contact me. They did not like the essay because they felt it would make their work more complicated if people read it and started asking the questions that I asked in this article. This pleased me because I think such questions should be asked. They also felt that I didn't focus on the examples of good scholarship, and they were correct: I didn't because in this article I was trying to show the potential for academic cultural appropriation. There are many academic scholars in Pagan Studies who do good work. Ronald Hutton, Amy Hale, and Sabina Magliocco are just a few who come to mind. However, what's most notable about them is how much they contribute to the Pagan community, which I see as really giving back to a community that they are choosing to study (as well as be a part of). They are also transparent in their interactions with the Pagan community, which is beneficial because then they are asking permission and making clear what they want to do with the material and observations they've gained as a result of studying the community.

Nonetheless the questions I've raised in this article should be asked. They should be asked, not so that the academic's work is made harder to accomplish, but rather so that the academic can be held accountable to the community s/he would study. This is not unreasonable, and if anything calls upon the academic to fully recognize that s/he isn't just beholden to the academic community and culture, but also to the community and culture that s/he would study. Even if s/he doesn't identify with that community, there is still some accountability involved because the community has allowed that person in and given them access to some things they might otherwise not discover. Thus the academic should respect the sanctity of the community s/he is observing as well as that of academia. That may cause him/her to have to do some extra work, but it will also gain the trust of the people s/he is observing, and ensure that cultural appropriation isn't occurring.

 

Works Cited

 

Blain, Jenny, Ezzy, Douglas, & Harvey, Graham. (2004). Introduction. In Jenny Blain, Douglas Ezzy, and Harvey Graham (eds.). Researching paganisms. (Pp. 1-12). New York: Altamira Press.

Griffin, Wendy. (2004). The deosil dance. In Jenny Blain, Douglas Ezzy, and Harvey Graham (eds.). Researching paganisms. (pp. 59-67). New York: Altamira Press.

Grimes, Ronald L. (2006). Rite out of place: Ritual, media, and the arts. New York: Oxford University Press.

Gunn, Joshua. (2005). Modern occult rhetoric: Mass media and the drama of secrecy in the twentieth century. Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press.

Hutton, Ronald. (2004). Living with the witchcraft. In Jenny Blain, Douglas Ezzy, and Harvey Graham (eds.). Researching paganisms. (pp. 171-188). New York: Altamira Press.

Luhrmann, T. M. (1989). Persuasions of the witch’s craft: Ritual magic in contemporary England. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Salomonsen, Jone. (2004). Methods of compassion or pretension? The challenges of conducting fieldwork in modern magical communities. In Jenny Blain, Douglas Ezzy, and Graham Harvey (eds.). Researching paganisms. (Pp. 43-58). New York: Altamira Press.

Wallis, Robert J. (2004). Between the worlds: Autoarchaeology and neo-shamans. In Jenny Blain, Douglas Ezzy, and Harvey Graham (eds.). Researching paganisms. (Pp. 191-216). New York: Altamira Press.

 

Ziff, Bruce, & Pratima V. Rao. (1997). Introduction to cultural appropriation: A framework for analysis. In Bruce Ziff and Pratima V. Rao (eds). Borrowed power: Essays on cultural appropriation. Pp. 1-29. 

 
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Taylor Ellwood is the author of Pop Culture Magick, Space/Time Magic, Magical Identity and a number of other occult books. He posts about his latest projects at Magical Experiments. He is also the managing non-fiction editor of Immanion Press. Taylor lives in Portland, Oregon with his wife and two kids, as well as 7 cats.

Comments

  • Amarfa
    Amarfa Saturday, 06 July 2013

    I attempted an academic study of Paganism from a classical music perspective. Or the study of music through a Pagan perspective. It is not easy to explain. And I could not seem to find the right words for what I wanted to say. I remember a professor speaking to me about how my religion was a fringe religion, and that it interested him to know what was 'good music.'

    When you speak of 'Engagement,' you don't speak of 'Participant Observation.' I was asked to do Participant Observation as a part of my studies, since my advisor was an anthropologist. Participant Observation is not designed to be engagement, nor should the researcher be expected to believe all of the same things that the studied population believes. The researcher should be expected to respect the beliefs and practices of the group, but cannot be expected to engage; that's not their purpose. Participate, yes. Engage-that is a person's choice and It seems as though the article here is written in a way that can be taken as that a researcher should believe the same beliefs of the culture they are researching.

    I'm also interested in your thoughts on was about how Luhrman didn't remind the group that she was participating for research purposes.
    Well, that's the whole goal of Participant research; you learn about the community and what it means to be a part of that community by going through their process of enculturation such that, by the end of the slated period of research, you are effectively a member of the group. For the researcher to remind her population that she was there as a researcher would undermine the goal of the research - learning what it means to be part of this culture.

    Now, I know that academics is dog-eat-dog, but there are some of us out here who do have values.
    Did I ever mention how hard it is to study Paganism from within, and describe it to some one on the outside? Very.

  • Taylor Ellwood
    Taylor Ellwood Sunday, 07 July 2013

    Hello Candi,

    Thanks for responding to my article. I've bolded your comments so that I can respond to them.

    I attempted an academic study of Paganism from a classical music perspective. Or the study of music through a Pagan perspective. It is not easy to explain. And I could not seem to find the right words for what I wanted to say. I remember a professor speaking to me about how my religion was a fringe religion, and that it interested him to know what was 'good music.'

    My own experience in academia was similar (yes I used to be in academia). I found it hard to find the right academic wording that would sufficiently protect my article and claims, while also making my point. I think that is one of the challenges of academia, and one I'm glad not to be as involved in, anymore.

    When you speak of 'Engagement,' you don't speak of 'Participant Observation.' I was asked to do Participant Observation as a part of my studies, since my advisor was an anthropologist. Participant Observation is not designed to be engagement, nor should the researcher be expected to believe all of the same things that the studied population believes. The researcher should be expected to respect the beliefs and practices of the group, but cannot be expected to engage; that's not their purpose. Participate, yes. Engage-that is a person's choice and It seems as though the article here is written in a way that can be taken as that a researcher should believe the same beliefs of the culture they are researching.

    Participant Observation would be the Anthropology of the 80's that Ronald Hutton mentions in the quote I drew from. You are quite right that participant observation is not about engagement, however I agree with Jane Salomonsen that engagement isn't necessarily about believing, but rather being open to believing, open to having the experience, and fully let yourself experience it instead of just observe it. One of the criticisms of participant observation is that the anthropologist only seems to become part of the community, but doesn't fully engage, and thus fully understand the practices.

    I'm also interested in your thoughts on was about how Luhrman didn't remind the group that she was participating for research purposes.
    Well, that's the whole goal of Participant research; you learn about the community and what it means to be a part of that community by going through their process of enculturation such that, by the end of the slated period of research, you are effectively a member of the group. For the researcher to remind her population that she was there as a researcher would undermine the goal of the research - learning what it means to be part of this culture.


    You can't go through a process of enculturation if you aren't willing to fully engage in what you are doing (and she admitted she wasn't). The other problem though is that she did get access to confidential material which she shared with people that weren't part of the community, without permission from that community. The sources I've referred to in my article cover the issue of Luhrmann's work in much more depth. I do find it inherently deceitful for the researcher not to remind the community, precisely because they may provide that person access to things they wouldn't otherwise do because they know s/he is a researcher. It creates an additional challenge for the academic, because s/he must be accountable to the community about how s/he will use the material and observations, but I think that transparency would make the work more legitimate.

    Now, I know that academics is dog-eat-dog, but there are some of us out here who do have values.
    Did I ever mention how hard it is to study Paganism from within, and describe it to some one on the outside? Very.


    I know how hard it is. It was something I looked into doing back in my academic days. Thanks again for your comment.

  • Amarfa
    Amarfa Saturday, 06 July 2013

    *I apologize for poor grammar and sentence structure in the last paragraph, I hit submit before I was actually done.*

  • Amarfa
    Amarfa Monday, 08 July 2013

    I have a question on this subject: Has a researcher ever encountered a Pagan population they wanted to study that has said "No" to the study, that you know of?

  • Taylor Ellwood
    Taylor Ellwood Tuesday, 09 July 2013

    Not that I know of, per se, but by the same extension has the researcher fully briefed them on what they would be doing and/or shared what they put together with the population they studied? I think that permission is important, but even better is informed permission with informed check ins about what will be shared and how it will be shared.

  • Amarfa
    Amarfa Tuesday, 09 July 2013

    I tried that myself, and I got burned badly. I can't use my research at all. I wasn't allowed to record, barely able to take notes, and even anthropological ethics couldn't help me; the laws of the place I was studying in specifically state that all parties have to be in agreement to be recorded. One party decided that they did not want to be in the study, therefore, an incredible, unique opportunity for both myself and the group was put down. I actually asked each time I encountered something that I thought would be good for my research, if it could be directly quoted, what parts of each activity could be studied, and this person controlled me with it. I was aboveboard and honest, just how you describe, and each time, I was not allowed to take consistent data. Each 'event' that I 'participant-observed' was taken a completely different way. I had to do whatever this one person said or else I couldn't do my research. What little information I was able to study, still could not be put together into a meaningful whole. I am still depressed by it. It was the one opportunity I'd ever had, to be an honor student, and it could be based on something that was Pagan, something very central to who I am.
    The knife cuts both ways.

  • Taylor Ellwood
    Taylor Ellwood Wednesday, 10 July 2013

    The knife does cut both ways and I'm sorry you had that experience, but imagine if you'd gone in, recorded everything and published it without being aboveboard. Imagine the trust that would've been broken. It's tough and there are downsides going either direction.

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