43. Simon Coleman, “Do You Believe in Pilgrimage?: Communitas, Contestation and Beyond”

by breavman99

do you believe in pilgrimage

“Do You Believe in Pilgrimage?: Communitas, Contestation, and Beyond,” by Simon Coleman–another in the bunch Matthew Anderson sent my way–presents an intellectual rapprochement between two texts on pilgrimage that are typically considered to be completely at odds with each other: Image and Pilgrimage in Christian Culture, a 1978 study by Victor and Edith Turner; and Contesting the Sacred: The Anthropology of Christian Pilgrimage, a 1991 anthology of essays edited by John Eade and Michael Sallnow. I’ve read neither of these works–I’m waiting by the mailbox for them to arrive–and that’s unfortunate, because they are clearly the most important works on pilgrimage, given the way that every scholar seems to refer back to them, and because when I finally do get a chance to dig into them, I’m going to be influenced by Coleman’s powerful argument.

Coleman begins with the Turners, particularly their notion of communitas as a theoretical construct which “described the individual pilgrim’s temporary transition away from mundane structures and social interdependence into a looser commonality of feeling with fellow visitors” (355). That idea, he writes, “clearly drew on metaphors of liminality within rites of passage,” which it also was “the result of voluntary rather than societally enforced removal from the everyday world” (355-56). There have been many critiques of the Turners (356-57), but the most powerful has been the challenge Eade and Sallnow made “to the anti-structure hypothesis” of the Turners, and the “new, general approach to the anthropological study of (Christian) pilgrimage” articulated by Eade and Sallnow. The critique Eade and Sallnow made of the notion of communitas was powerful: communitas “failed to take account of the mundane conflicts inherent in pilgrimage” (357). Eade and Sallnow saw communitas “as just one idealizing discourse about pilgrimage rather than an empirical description of it” (357). Pilgrimage, in their conception, is “a capacious arena capable of accommodating many competing religious and secular discourses” (357). In addition, it’s important to examine “historically and culturally specific instances” of pilgrimage rather than trying to understand it “as a universal or homogenous phenomenon” (357). “The Turnerian image of pilgrimage appears to have been shattered” by the anthology Eade and Sallnow edited, Coleman writes, but he continues, “in this article I want to suggest that we run the risk of devaluing the work of both the Turners and Eade and Sallnow in viewing our theoretical options in this way”–that is, as a contrast between communitas and “contestation” (357).

Coleman’s paper has three goals. First, he intends “to assess briefly why there has been a recent efflorescence of anthropological studies of pilgrimage” (357). Second, he wants “to demonstrate that the arguments of Image and Pilgrimage and of Contesting the Sacred are in certain respects not all that far apart”–indeed, he hopes “to show that they reveal some striking theoretical similarities, once a nuanced view of their respective approaches is taken” (357-58). Finally, he seeks “to consider some of the future directions for an anthropology of pilgrimage” (358).

So, why has there been an increase in studies of pilgrimage? One reason is that both pilgrimage and tourism “have become metaphors for a world on the move” (358). Coleman notes that James Clifford, to take one example, argues that “the notion of pilgrimage is of particular use as a comparative term in contemporary ethnographic writing since (despite its sacred associations) it includes a broad range of western and non-western experience and is less class- and gender-based than ‘travel'” (358). Clifford’s use of “pilgrimage,” Coleman continues, “relates to a broader project of exploring how practices of displacement are not incidental to, but actually constitutive of, cultural meanings in a world that is constantly ‘en route,’ made up not of autonomous socio-cultural wholes but complex, interactive conjunctures” (358).

Next, Coleman thinks through the nuances of the communitas and “contestation” paradigms. He notes that the examples Eade and Sallnow present suggest that “the degree of overt conflict at any given site may vary” (359). “Just as the Turnerian argument about communitas was rejected by scholars who went looking for it and could not find it in a way that they found ethnographically convincing,” he writes, “so the contestation paradigm could potentially be challenged by a simplistic reading that looks for it at a given site and instead finds a predominance of apparent harmony” (359). “In my view,” he states, “it is far more useful to regard contestation as an umbrella-term for multiple if shared orientations, and then to start refining its meaning” (359). For example, the various Jerusalems “criss-crossed by Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Protestant evangelical Christians” suggests sometimes contention for “ideological hegemony,” but also sometimes it suggests an agreement to “simply look (and walk) past each other in embodied confirmation of discrepant imaginaries which have been pre-formed at home” (359). Sometimes, he continues, “individuals or groups take account of but do not necessarily specifically interact with each other” (359). “It becomes possible,” then, “to see how the juxtaposition of varied interpretations and practices need not be regarded as, by definition, reflecting overt struggles for hegemony in restricted cultural and geographical space” (359). Chapters in Eade and Sallnow “emphasize conflict and discrepancy at the shrine-level,” Coleman notes, “but retain the right to depict coherent, shared structures of meaning within specific communities of interpretation” (360). At the same time, their book also suggests “the possibility of a kind of communitas within contestation, or more accurately the existence of (relative) fixities of meaning that correlate with socially discrete units” (360).

“Just as contestation is more complex than it might at first appear,” Coleman continues, “so the apparent whole deconstruction of universalist narratives”–a reference to the Turners–“deserves to be examined more closely” (360). “[D]espite their deconstructive tendencies,” Coleman writes, “Eade and Sallnow do depict pilgrimage shrines as having a kind of ‘essential’ character and function: precisely that of containing and objectifying multiple discourses. Perhaps other institutions do this as well, but we are given to assume that major shrines must do so” (360). Eade and Sallnow’s work needs to be read carefully, Coleman argues, “rather than plundered by those looking for an off-the-shelf, easy-to-use theoretical tool with which to ‘analyse’ pilgrimage” (361). But the same is true of the Turners’ work; it is “more complex, and in my view richer, than it is sometimes given credit for,” Coleman contends (361). Communitas, for example, is “a multi-faceted paradigm, with the ideal and spontaneous manifestation of ‘existential’ communitas usually going way to ‘normative,’ systematized forms at particular shrines” (361). Communitas is also easily compromised by social structure, “with its associated divisions and pragmatic accommodations” (361).

In fact, Coleman suggests, there are important similarities between the Turners and Eade and Sallnow: “The idea of a shrine accommodating a multiplicity of discourses is not so far from the Turnerian notion that dominant symbols contain within them a fan of meanings” (361). In addition, both are aware of “the possibilities of dynamic tension between official and lay or popular views” (361). Both use similar dominant theoretical metaphors as well (361). “[W]e do the authors and ourselves a disservice if we see their work as one-dimensional and entirely mutually antagonistic,” Coleman claims. “Neither communitas nor contestation should themselves be fetishized in order to produce neatly symmetrical anthropological theory, made up of views that appear to constitute a simply binary opposition” (361).

“So does pilgrimage remain a useful analytical concept?” Coleman asks. He notes that there has been a lot of ethnographical work done on a variety of different pilgrimages, and that there are many different definitions of the the term “pilgrimage” that have been generated as a result. However, Coleman continues,

It seems to me that it is important that people continue to try to define what they mean by ‘pilgrimage,’ but I am not convinced that the content of any single definition matters very much. I mean here that we should always be made aware of what a given author thinks he or she is talking about , but should not assume that over time we shall collectively achieve an ever more precise and universally applicable set of criteria with which finally to pin down ‘the’ activity of pilgrimage. (362)

The idea of pilgrimage has changed over time, for example, “as systems of transport, articulations of spirituality, secular ideologies, forms of syncretism and so on are transformed” (362). Scholars should be aware that they “are always performing a definitional balancing act, that we are suggesting comparisons that can never be seen as all-encompassing or as emerging ‘naturally’ from the data” (363). In addition, Coleman writes, it’s important

that we do not fall into the trap of confining our work to a pilgrimage ghetto, a theoretical cul-de-sac where it is assumed that the only relevant points of debate relate to other studies that purport to focus on pilgrimage. . . . Sacred travel frequently overlaps with tourism, trade, migration, expressions of nationalism, creations of diasporas, imagining communities . . . this list could go on, too. The point is that we must not adopt the rather western habit of treating the category of religion, and everything associated with it, as ideally an autonomous, isolated realm of human activity, and therefore as an autonomous, isolated realm of anthropological theorizing. (363)

One topic he omits from this list is art. Can pilgrimage overlap with forms of art or performance? Possibly. Why not?

“Why should we assume that pilgrimage must be ‘about’ any one thing, whether it be heightened conflict or the heightened absence of it?” Coleman asks.

The logic of my argument leads me to conclude that the most valuable work in this area is that which looks outward, making points about human behaviour through using ‘pilgrimage’ as a case-study rather than focussing on the institution itself as a firmly bounded category of action. (363)

He cites examples of work on pilgrimage that can stimulate our intellectual imaginations, and concludes,

Pilgrimage as a religious activity still provides meaningful places for people to visit, while as (fuzzy) object of academic discourse it continues to offer significant room for anthropological theorizing. In delimiting an area of research for ourselves, we should not allow such ethnographically rich spaces to become prisons of limited comparison. Belief in the worth of studying pilgrimage can become self-defeating if it turns into dogmatic assertions of what sacred travel must, or must not, contain. (364)

Three things come out of this article for me. The first is that I’m not likely to discover a generally approved definition of pilgrimage against which I can measure my walking practice. The second is that if I’m going to understand the history of scholarship on pilgrimage, I’m going to have to read the Turners’ book and Eade and Sallnow’s anthology. Finally, I’m going to have to read more about non-sacred or secular pilgrimages. Luckily, there’s an article on that topic sitting on my desk! But my crash course in the anthropology of pilgrimage will have to conclude soon, because it’s almost time to start writing my paper for the Sacred Journeys conference in Ireland.

Works Cited

Coleman, Simon. “Do You Believe in Pilgrimage?: Communitas, Contestation and Beyond.” Anthropological Theory, vol. 2, no. 3, 2002, pp. 355-68. DOI: 10.1177/1463499602003805.