Reinterpreting the Role of the Modern Anthropology Student

Photo of the author in the required John of God whites.

Photo of the author in the required John of God whites.

In my experience, the first lesson that you learn as an anthropology student is not how to conduct fieldwork or to write a compelling ethnography. Although both of those topics will undoubtedly be covered in your introductory level courses, the first lesson that you learn occurs the moment you first tell someone you are declaring a major in anthropology. Chances are, the budding anthropologist will discover that her choice of major is not met with resounding enthusiasm from the majority of the population. Parents will worry that you’ll graduate without a job. Forbes will direct you to their “Worst College Majors” list, in which anthropology claims the coveted top position. You’ll be ecstatic when you finally get to tell friends, who generally don’t even know enough about what anthropology is to object.  However, a few will reply, “Oh, so like Indiana Jones?” Well no, that’s actually Hollywood’s version of archaeology, one of the four subdisciplines, but certainly not anthropology in its entirety.

By the time I made it to the end of my junior year, I couldn’t help but question my choice. Sure, I always found it interesting and never lost my passion for analyzing other cultures, but from a utilitarian perspective, was there any point to getting an anthropology degree in the modern context? That’s when I decided I needed to actually engage in the crowning research methodology of anthropology, fieldwork. I enrolled in a USC Problems Without Passports course and traveled with seven other students to study the Spiritist healing cultures in Brazil for two and a half weeks. It may not have been fieldwork on Margaret Mead’s level, but hey, it was probably as close as I was going to get.

The Casa of John of God was certainly unlike anything I had ever encountered before. On the first day, I dressed in all white and prepared to go before the renowned medium, an elderly man who channeled spirits who are said to come back to the earthly plane to perform the charity of healing. Needless to say I was skeptical. We prayed, heard hours of testimonials in Portuguese, German and English, and waited. Finally, when I came before the Entity, he took my hand, prescribed sacred herbs, and told me to come back again after sitting “in current” to meditate.

Immediately after I left, I was offered the “sacred soup,” a requirement for all patients. You know what, I thought, fine. I’ll eat the sacred soup, but I’m not about to drink the Kool-Aid. That’s when I thought to myself, will I ever truly understand this? Is immersing oneself in a foreign culture enough to come to any meaningful conclusions if I don’t believe?

In the end, I learned that anthropology is in fact not about belief, but about suspending your own judgments to try and understand a different worldly perspective. I may never be able to understand completely, but I can still understand more fully. I may never believe in Spiritism, but I can still believe in the power of the frameworks that we as humans create, the “webs of significance” that color our world and contribute to the satisfaction we derive from life. So in that sense, my fieldwork in Brazil did give me a healing of sorts. It not only restored my faith in anthropology, but also gave me the kind of meaningful experience that contributes to true health and happiness across a lifetime. Whether that was the work of a spirit or not, I’m grateful to have had such an opportunity.

Preparing for Brazil!

June 1st we leave for Brasilia.  This will be the fifth group of students that I am bringing to Brazil for a field school in ethnographic methods and a medical anthropological view into Spiritist healing and cosmology.

Spiritualist Church





Spiritualist Church in Hollywood


We had our first foray into the field last Sunday at the Spiritualist Church.  This church meets in a small house in an urban neighborhood in Hollywood.  In this center several mediums channel spirits “from the other side” who give advice to family members, friends and others.  Students were given the opportunity to practice participant observation.  In the tiny living room they sat interspersed with the congregation to talk to visitors, to sing hymns accompanied by organ music, and to receive a community healing before the spirits addressed individual “yes” and “no” questions that were placed in a wicker basket before the mediums.  Participation brings up cognitive dissonance for those of different faiths.  Anthropology prides itself in understanding another culture from the inside out, but what if participation in another religion is offensive to the anthropologist?  Ethical dilemmas are common in the field when researchers are asked to temporarily suspend judgment in order to thoroughly understand the perspective of the “other” from their perspective.

Inside 2





Inside the church, folding chairs face the fireplace area of the living room where flowers and candles rest on the mantel to form an alter



As we move from Hollywood to the centers in Brazil where physical surgeries are performed by spirit doctors through mediums in trance without the aid of anesthesia or analgesics, we are sure to question our own understandings of reality.

All pictures by Erin Moore.