This special section grew, slowly, out of a somewhat spontaneous conversation we had about things we were “trying to make sense of” in our respective research sites—newly emerging yoga and wellness initiatives in Eastern Africa and a Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation in the United States. We both had recently embarked upon new ethnographic projects and, while talking, noted interesting similarities in our initial observations. We realized that both of these communities, while geographically and topically distinctive, fostered and celebrated a sense of unity, despite the fact that individual members had markedly different ideas about what exactly brought them together. Although members jointly participated in practices and rituals, their reasons for doing so varied significantly. Yet in their narratives about their respective communities, members often underlined a supposedly shared purpose across more evident differences. Based on these shared observations, we contemplated how this discursive co-construction and fostering of sharedness among people with apparently divergent beliefs, practices, and even purposes complicated established anthropological understandings of community. And we pondered whether our initial thoughts resonated with other anthropologists who shared our interests.
The result was a successful panel at the 2019 American Anthropological Association annual meeting, upon which this special section now builds. We bring together scholars who contemplate how ‘sharedness’ is differently imagined, negotiated, and discursively constructed among communities typified by seemingly diverging understandings of purpose, belief, and spiritual practice. In each article, the author engages with local discourses and practices that adherents perceive either as contributing to community building or as indicative of shared purpose across differences. The theoretical and ethnographic thread is therefore a reconsideration of the notion of sharedness often assumed to be at the core of (spiritual) community formation, including joint practice, purpose, and belief.
Rather than offering a reconsideration of believing and beliefs as such (Carlisle and Simon 2012), or questioning the concept of ‘belief’ itself (Day 2011; Lindquist and Coleman 2008), this introduction explores how solidarity and sharedness have often been assumed rather than investigated in anthropological considerations of (religious) communities. We propose that a focus on discourse and semiosis can provide insights into the innovative manner in which individuals negotiate, co-construct, and enact sharedness in ways that allow (spiritual) communities to flourish despite—or in many cases because of—a lack of consistent belief or purpose across community members. In doing so, we complicate linguistic anthropological literature on communities of practice (see, e.g., Davies 2005; Eckert 2000, 2006; Eckert and McConnell-Ginet 1992) and work on imagined communities from anthropology more generally (Anderson 1983) to better understand the role of (discourses about) sharedness in the everyday co-construction of spiritual communities.
Sharedness, Solidarity, and Spirituality in Belief and Practice
Durkheim's legacy is one that inevitably comes to mind when community and spirituality are considered in tandem with sharedness. For Durkheim and those following in his footsteps, ‘solidarity’ was described as built into the social relationships inherent in all types of community. Durkheim's ( 1984) consideration of ‘mechanical’ and ‘organic’ solidarity allowed social anthropology to analyze how communities hold together in new ways that had been previously unexamined. However, the social ties that constituted Durkheim's ‘solidarity’ were assumed and given status a priori, rather than co-constructed or negotiated. More attractive and more applicable to our current discussion is Durkheim's approach to religion and belief, which he perceived as emerging from practice through ritual. Durkheim argued that, rather than pre-existing, shared religious beliefs and notions of belonging to religious communities result from communal engagement in rituals.
In this special section, we revisit some of these anthropological questions on how (spiritual) communities hold together or why they come about in the first place. However, we eschew a presumption about a particular basis for membership, including not only Durkheimian solidarity but also an assumed shared belief or purpose. We thereby draw upon linguistic anthropological traditions that have argued for the emergent nature of identities, and for considerations of the role that everyday interactions play in the construction of communities (Bucholtz 1999; Dick 2013; Gershon 2014; Tedlock and Mannheim 1995; Woronov 2015). Rather than automatically or self-evidently building upon pre-existing social categories such as social class, scholars have argued for considering how communities emerge from shared practice and purpose (Davies 2005; Eckert 2000, 2006; Eckert and McConnell-Ginet 1992). Such a ‘community of practice’ approach provides insights into how different people come together around a joint endeavor and become recognizable to one another through shared vocabularies and practices. This attention to discursive, semiotic, and embodied practices as signs of belonging, however, has also revealed that individuals can strategically mobilize manners of speaking and acting (e.g., use particular vocabularies, discourses, or bodily practices) to perform or claim belonging (Bucholtz 1999; Day 2010, 2011; Prell 1989).
This attention to the emergent nature of communities and particularly the performative quality of belonging has been taken up by anthropologists of religion with respect to the connection between belief and belonging. Fortier (2000), for example, considers how Italian migrants’ participation in processions, weddings, or first communions at St Peter's Italian Church in London performatively created cultural identities and thus validated claims to belonging to the Catholic community. Day (2010, 2011) takes this one step further by focusing on ‘performative belief’, as an embodied performance of belief with the aim of belonging to a religious community. By focusing on how narratives can performatively create the semblance of sharedness, Day (2011: vi) argues that “many people ‘believe in belonging’” and construct membership across and through perceived difference.
It is this focus on the performative work of discourse that we bring to considerations of spiritual communities in a range of different ethnographic contexts. However, we complicate Day's approach by incorporating linguistic anthropological critiques of the assumed prediscursive sharedness that informs theories of performativity (Hall 1999). Linguistic anthropologists have challenged the seemingly unquestioned ideas of sharedness that inform performative belonging. Phrased differently, in order for discourses to be performative, they need to draw upon prediscursive notions of what sharedness looks like or of what kind of sharedness needs to be performed in order to successfully claim belonging. In other words, what needs to be shared in order to belong is taken as self-evident.
Instead, we investigate how speakers manipulate semiotic and discursive ideologies in the ongoing production of sharedness itself. Rather than focusing on performativity as drawing upon prediscursive norms and ideologies, we recognize parameters of sharedness (and unity) as emergent in and through discourse. That is to say, we ask how members discursively and semiotically imagine and co-construct sharedness in a way that gives credence to their respective communities and enables a diverse range of orientations to co-exist. In doing so, we move away from an assumption that shared practice or belief predetermines a community, highlighting instead the discursive and semiotic labor that goes into validating communities. We emphasize that it is precisely this discursive work that enables these communities to flourish, permitting diversity in unity.
Ethnographic evidence considered in this special section demonstrates that a shared belief or purpose is not necessarily what binds religious and/or spiritual communities. In fact, people's adherence to a community structured around belief can be motivated by a range of differing intentions, and participation in its practices is often informed by divergent convictions. Rural Sufi daaras in Senegal, for example, welcome people from different religious backgrounds—be it Muslim, Christian, or other—to live and work with them as part of work-focused religious communities. The reason behind the commitment to hard labor—work as prayer, discipline, social responsibility, national unity—differs for each participant. Unity and joint purpose, while central to the very foundation of the community, are continuously discursively constructed and imagined by both community leaders and members (Cochrane, this volume). In Kenya, new spiritual communities are flourishing with North American tourists and Swahili Muslims, for example, practicing yoga and meditation together. Whereas the former might be searching for mindfulness and self-fulfillment, the latter practice in the hopes of acquiring a new source of income. The purpose and beliefs of these participants differ starkly, yet the sense of community is tangible (Hillewaert, this volume). What exactly unites these different communities cannot be assumed or taken for granted, as a shared belief or purpose is not necessarily what brings them together in the first place. The ethnographic discussions in this section reveal, instead, how participants actively construct, enact, and achieve sharedness in a variety of ways.
Our notion of sharedness thus draws upon Durkheim, but departs from his assumption of membership through solidarity to foreground diversity and difference. A growing scholarly literature on sharedness across religious communities has demonstrated a rich variety of practices that facilitate the construction of sharedness among people of divergent beliefs and practices. One focus, for example, has been on the shared use of sacred sites. In Sing's (2019) edited volume, scholars examine how interfaith sharing of sites has a long historical precedent. Contemporary mediatized discourses, however, construct those interreligious relations as conflictual and sacred site-sharing as anathema to peaceful relations between religious groups.
In his introduction to Sharing the Sacra: The Politics and Pragmatics of Intercommunal Relations around Holy Places, Bowman (2012: 2) suggests moving beyond identity-based models for interfaith relations that “presume that difference necessitates conflict when parties with different identities are invested in the same ‘property.’” Rather than making a presumption of conflict, Bowman claims that the sharing of sacred sites might be achieved through a form of ‘choreography’ or rituals and practices that assure mutual access to sacred sites. In these contexts, sharedness is recognized as requiring work, as needing negotiation and effort by the different communities that want to jointly use a sacred space. Sharedness is achieved despite and through the articulation of difference, rather than organically emerging. Interestingly, however, the shared dedication to devotional practices that underlies the desire for access to these spaces does not result in emergent communities. The sacred space is shared while the communities remain separate. In other words, shared faith or belief is considered the main basis for community. One could argue, though, that the shared orientation toward a particular locale or the shared belief in its sacredness in and of itself could form the basis of a community, across apparent divergent beliefs and practices.
This recent scholarship shows remarkable advances in better describing and analyzing how sharedness might be jointly achieved across religious communities. Little research, however, has focused on how sharedness is imagined, perceived, and fostered by practitioners or believers within, rather than across, spiritual communities. This might be explained by the fact that sharedness itself is often considered a prerequisite for the emergence of communities, be they spiritual communities or otherwise. Whereas Anderson (1983) long suggested the significance of imagination in this perception of sharedness—one imagines others to engage in the same practice—little scholarly work has looked at precisely how community members actively work to construct and maintain sharedness in the face of evident difference.
A Brief Overview of the Articles
Laura Cochrane's article, “Labor and Religious Tolerance in Two Senegalese Daaras,” examines how religious communities in Senegal, particularly those organized within Sufi Muslim orders, have created prominent public voices, supported by Senegal's state protection for religious dialogue. The author focuses on how state-endorsed discourses on labor and religious tolerance are differently mobilized by religious leaders and members to inform and justify their belonging to the Sufi Baay Fall religious community. Specifically, the article focuses on residents of two daaras (rural religious communities) and their use of these discourses to describe the motivations behind their work in the daaras. Whereas most of the daaras’ residents are affiliated with the Baay Fall suborder of the Murid Sufi order, non-Baay Fall residents and visitors equally participate in this community because they are attracted to the daaras’ commitment to environmental and economic revitalization. The shaykh who organized these daaras invites all residents and visitors, no matter their religious affiliation, to understand their work through a spiritual lens of labor and religious tolerance. Because spiritually motivated work is a common topic of conversation, both with the shaykh and with each other, daara residents share common phrases and metaphors to describe their work.
In “Speaking in Celestial Signs: The Language of Western Astrology and the (Tenuous) Bonds of Occult Sociality,” Omri Elisha considers the role of language in uniting Western astrologers in North America and online, to demonstrate how eclecticism and epistemological individualism co-exist with efforts at community building and standardization. Specifically, Elisha argues that the “language of astrology,” including a discursive reference to horoscopic symbols, functions as a key conceptual metaphor that informs everyday speech acts among practicing astrologers. Elisha shows how this claim to a shared language reinforces moral commitments to the oracular authority of the horoscope in the absence of more evident obligations and structures of belonging. The systematicity of horoscopic symbols, combined with the signs’ relative flexibility and versatility, facilitates both notions of shared orientation and diverse and idiosyncratic adaptations. Although united by a language of astrology, this simultaneously leads to dynamics of discord and fragmentation that practitioners consider as characteristic of the “astrology community.” Elisha asserts that this constitutive tension complicates straightforward notions of community while challenging us to revise widespread assumptions about the individuating or atomizing effects of alternative spiritualities.
Sarah Hillewaert's article, “Discourses, Bodies, and Questions of Sharedness in Kenya's Wellness Communities,” is situated in eastern Africa, where a new tourism niche market focused on yoga, mindfulness, and alternative medicine is flourishing. More and more tourists travel to countries like Kenya to combine luxury safaris with practicing yoga on the savannah, for example. However, Western expats and European or North American tourists also promote these ‘alternative lifestyles’ among East Africa's local populations. Yoga-safaris frequently include the opportunity to volunteer in a Maasai village or teach a community yoga class to a local women's organization, for example. Hillewaert contemplates the construction of sharedness that underlies the success of these alternative lifestyle or spiritual communities in Kenya. Whereas discursively constructing shared purpose, in the face of seemingly evident differences, is central to Western expats’ validation and commercialization of these initiatives, the article proposes that local participants equally, although along different lines, construct sharedness to justify their yoga practice to themselves and their communities. Through a range of ethnographic vignettes about wellness communities in Kenya, Hillewaert explores how organizers and participants differently identify (or erase) practices, vocabularies, or embodied signs as indicative of a particular purpose that brings them together.
In her article, “Wrestling with Tradition: Reconstructing Jewish Community through Negotiating Shared Purpose,” Chantal Tetreault examines a Reconstructionist congregation in which the author is a (converted) member. Tetreault argues that, rather than belief or a shared ritual practice, congregants achieve a sense of sharedness and belonging through “‘wrestling with tradition’, that is, (re)creating, questioning, and negotiating traditions,” including prayer in the context of eclectic and countercultural Jewish community. ‘Wrestling with tradition’ does not entail shared beliefs or shared Halakhic rituals or even a shared spiritual practice. Instead, it is achieved through collaborative and often conflictual discursive engagement with Jewish tradition. It is in the discursive ‘wrestling’—for example, in debating Halakhah (Jewish jurisprudence) rather than necessarily following it—that a communal enactment of sharedness persists. Through discursive and semiotic practices that include public discussions and focus groups, which generate self-reflexive texts, surveys, and scriptural interpretations, congregants engage in a variety of ways of being Jewish. Through these public interactional negotiations of what a Jewish community can or should look like, congregants co-construct and (re)create spiritual community in the absence of a shared putative faith in God, as well as the absence of a shared practice of prayer. In this way, congregants in this Reconstructionist Jewish synagogue do not merely ‘wrestle with God’ as Jews, but more centrally ‘wrestle with tradition’ in making and remaking Jewish community over the years through active and public discursive negotiation of sharedness.
The final article in this special section, Emily Riley's “Sharedness as Belonging: Hospitality, Inclusion, and Equality among the Layene of Senegal,” is based upon in-depth ethnographic research with the Layene, a little-studied Sufi Muslim community based in Dakar, the present-day Senegalese capital. Riley undertakes an analysis of everyday and special occasion ritual performances as a way to understand what it means to be Layene. Central to her analysis are the displays of hospitality (teraanga), which, she argues, comprise the practical ethos of the Layene community. Considering the topic of religious practice and belief from the frame of sharedness through teraanga is a particularly intriguing way to think about Layene community. Riley interprets teraanga not only as a collection of shared beliefs or the representation of these shared beliefs by way of practice, but as the ultimate expression of Layene faith and identity. Teraanga for Layene adherents entails at once a dialectic between practice and repetitive discourse and the construction of shared beliefs and practices through material sharing itself. Thus, the Wolof concept of teraanga—the civic intentions of individuals expressed through the giving and receiving of hospitality, generosity, and mutual aid—is reimagined as the ethical and pious foundation of the Layene faith. Riley uses ethnographic research with Layene community members, discourse analysis of written and spoken Layene sermons and sikr (invocations of God), as well as online content from Layene community websites to explore how specific ritual performances bring about religious communion and social change.
Ayala Fader concludes this section with a programmatic look at ‘orthodoxy’ in order to engage the articles in terms of their overall contribution to rethinking and reformulating belief, belonging, and spiritual community in the face of ongoing attempts to construct sharedness across difference.
In all, the contributions to this special section attempt to forge a pathway to reconsider how sharedness is discursively constructed and negotiated within (spiritual) communities for which diverging ways of believing and practicing are the norm, rather than the exception. Although communities of practice research has charted a path for a move away from consensus as the basis of community (cf. Bucholtz 1999), more can be done to move the consideration of community beyond a priori assumptions of sharedness. Through discursive and semiotic negotiations of a shared purpose, communities with diverse membership illustrate the ways that spiritual community is not simply reliant upon assumed or rote sharedness. Rather, as we will show in the articles and commentary that follow, sharedness as it relates to (spiritual) community is a discursively negotiated process that must be examined and analyzed as such. This topic is extremely timely since religious and cultural conflicts seem to be at an all-time high, and immigration and social upheaval are increasing. Globalization and cultural change are also putting pressure on members of spiritual communities to find more nuanced and sophisticated ways of belonging. In this sense, the articles illuminate a path for anthropologists of religion to move in step with these dynamic times. We hope that this special section contributes to research on communities of practice as well as the anthropology of religion.
This special section and the theoretical insights it offers build on a productive panel at the American Anthropological Association's annual meeting held in 2019 in Vancouver. We are grateful to the panel participants and attendees for their comments and suggestions. We also thank the contributors to this special section for their feedback on earlier drafts of this introduction. We appreciate the patience and guidance of the Religion and Society editors as we worked toward realizing this special section.
Bowman, Glen, ed. 2012. Sharing the Sacra: The Politics and Pragmatics of Intercommunal Relations around Holy Places. New York: Berghahn Books.
Bucholtz, Mary. 1999. “‘Why Be Normal?’: Language and Identity Practices in a Community of Nerd Girls.” Language in Society 28 (2): 203–223.
Carlisle, Steven, and Gregory M. Simon. 2012. “Believing Selves: Negotiating Social and Psychological Experiences of Belief.” Ethos 40 (3): 221–236.
Dick, Hilary Parsons. 2013. “Diaspora and Discourse: The Contrapuntal Lives of Mexican Non-Migrants.” In A Companion to Diaspora and Transnationalism, ed. Ato Quaysonand Girish Daswani, 412–427. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.
Eckert, Penelope. 2000. Linguistic Variation as Social Practice: The Linguistic Construction of Identity in Belten High. Oxford: Blackwell.
Eckert, Penelope. 2006. “Communities of Practice.” In Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics, 2nd ed., ed. Keith Brown, 683–685. Amsterdam: Elsevier.
Eckert, Penelope, and Sally McConnell-Ginet. 1992. “Think Practically and Look Locally: Language and Gender as Community-Based Practice.” Annual Review of Anthropology 21: 461–490.
Lindquist, Galina, and Simon Coleman. 2008. “Introduction: Against Belief?” Social Analysis 52 (1): 1–18. Special issue titled “Against Belief?”
Sing, Manfred. 2019. “Introduction: (How) Do We Share the Sacred?” Entangled Religions 9: 3–33. Special issue titled “Landscapes of Cross-Faith Places and Practices.”