© Els van Houtert, 2018

But how does one study the (spiritual) experiences of people other than oneself?

Presentation by Els van Houtert

For the Camino Rojo, spiritual experience is valued over the language and ideas through which experiences can be narrated or explained; it is only via experience that one can get in contact with the Great Spirit and with who they truly are. Ritual practices are seen as the provokers of experiences of connectedness, because at ritual practices, people can learn both from Camino Rojo leaders and important entities–i.e., “the guardians of our essence”–how to establish and recognize this direct connection. However, the eventual goal of followers of the Camino is not (only) to experience connectedness during rituals: it is to take what was learned and experienced at ceremonies, back to their daily lives. This includes learning about one’s personal spiritual path and learning how to be tuned in.

How should a researcher utilize herself when doing ethnographic research about (spiritual) experiences? For a long time, the anthropologist was supposed to be “neutral” and “objective” in doing ethnographic research. Nowadays, this positivist attitude towards anthropological research turns out to be obsolete: research is never completely neutral, for a researcher always brings her own personality, cultural background and interests to the project.

In my aim to look at how (spi)ritual experiences are lived and understood among Camino Rojo practitioners and how those experiences are attempted for and play a role in everyday life, I was particularly inspired by anthropological school that focus on the phenomenology of religious experience, and by the school of existential anthropology. Phenomenologists desire to approach the experiential dimension of religion from an “epistemologically humble” position by focusing on how things are experienced as real. In doing so, they try to withhold from judgement – based on their own cultural background – as to the nature or reality of an object, and from theoretical analysis of cultures (whether structuralist, psychological, or functionalist) and the idea that academia is superior to any other worldview. They aim to pay attention to the way in which the reality (of an object) is experienced in an embodied way.  

Existential anthropologists believe that a researcher who aims to understand the particular life of particular individuals in relation to their social context, should accept and take into account the continuous shifts (antitheses) – between consciousness and unconsciousness, certainty and uncertainty, belonging and otherness – people go through in their lifeworld. Existential anthropologists focus on the dynamic relation between what people experience through the course of everyday living and how they understand or reflect upon these experiences and this living. Because “life-as-lived is always in excess of life-as-imagined”.

Els van Houtert is a current student at the Art&Science department at the Universität für Angewandte Kunst in Vienna. She has completed a bachelor in Cultural Anthropology (VU Amsterdam) and a master in Religious Studies (Rijksuniversiteit Groningen). As an anthropologist of religion, she specialised in phenomenology of religious experience, material religion, and religion in everyday life-as-lived, and wrote an ethnographic monograph about her fieldwork with the Camino Rojo, a spiritual movement/community in Uruguay.

In the context of exploring questions related to the future of work and what ‘a good life’ could mean through our 'Artscience practises’ seminar this year. What could be an ecological way of working together, also with fish, glaciers, objects, models, or stories? How are we shaping cross-species solidarities and how are they forming us? Through lectures, workshops and excursions we want to investigate different types of relationships between entities and and experiment with assembling strategies through the winter and summer semesters.


But how does one study the (spiritual) experiences of people other than oneself?
October 28, 2019, 15:00h
Salzgries 14, 2nd Floor, 1010 Vienna – Art & Science Studios