On Attentive Listening: with Tanya Luhrmann

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Dr Naomi Richman in conversation with Professor Tanya Luhrmann – on psychology, anthropology and listening.


In September 2020, Dr Naomi Richman, Postdoctoral Researcher for the Hidden Persuaders project, engaged in an extended discussion with Professor Tanya Luhrmann, the Watkins University Professor in the Stanford Anthropology Department. Luhrmann’s work sits at the intersection between psychology and anthropology, and over the course of her career she has written extensively on psychiatry and madness, witchcraft and magic, evangelical Christianity and more. Luhrmann is widely considered one of the founders of the ‘anthropology of mind’; her research seamlessly combines ethnographic methods with psychological ones, and her discoveries have implications on the kinds of questions that occupy phenomenologists, theologians and cognitive scientists. The conversation touched on the methodological and ethical commitments that underlie Luhrmann’s research, the rise in conspiracy theories and online virtual realities, the differences between schizophrenia and hearing spiritual voices, and more.


Naomi Richman (NR): Welcome, Tanya, and thanks for joining me for this conversation. Let’s jump right in and start with the foundations: methodology. Your work has drawn extensively both on anthropology and psychology, and you are often described as a psychological anthropologist. Do you identify with this designation and what do you think your engagement with each of these disciplines brings to your work?


Tanya Luhrmann (TL): It’s a great question. I’m primarily an anthropologist. I identify as somebody who does participant-observation, or fieldwork. This happens when I’m sitting with somebody and trying to get to know them, trying to understand the ways in which they draw meaning from the world, and the ways in which they come to understand and interpret the world around them. But because I’m interested in these very intimate dimensions of human experience, like how people experience God, how they hear voices, how they feel, the quality of their inner experiences, I find it also really helpful to read psychology and to use the psychological method of experiment and survey. Psychology has the advantage, as a discipline, in that it operates by trying to get the interpreter out of the framework of knowledge. That kind of method can make you more confident in what you think you are hearing from someone.


You can learn things from attentive listening that you can’t learn any other way.


As an anthropologist, I’m trying to understand the phenomenon by sitting with somebody and listening to what they say. You can learn things from attentive listening that you can’t learn any other way. When I use a more structured psychological method, I’m kind of stepping back from the scene to ask a question in a very different way, to see whether what I learn from attentive listening can be supported with other methods. This becomes relevant when talking about individual differences in our capacities to have certain experiences. It’s pretty obvious to me, as an anthropologist, that some people have vivid experiences of the supernatural, and others don’t. But to make that particular claim in a way that is persuasive, I need to look at individual differences more systematically, in a way that compares one person to another. To do that systematic work, I, as the interviewer, need to be out of the scene.

One of my most formative scholarly experiences was getting up in front of a group of medical scientists and psychologists and explaining that, on the basis of my ethnographic observations, practice changes experience. Well, that’s really a claim about individual differences. It says that if you’ve got a community and some of them spend an hour a day praying and some of them don’t, you’d expect those people to spend time praying to be different. So it’s the anthropology that helps me to say, ‘I observe that people who are ardent prayers are the ones reporting these cool experiences’. And then if I want to say, ‘well I think that has something to do with training’, I can feel more confident about my argument, if I have done an experiment. If say, I randomly assign some of them to training and others not to training, then I see that whether there’s a difference of not. The survey does not trump the ethnographic observations. But they can work together.

One of the things I want to say as an anthropologist is this: people have observed that there are people who do not have schizophrenia who hear voices. And so, the question is, what are these people like? Are they really people who would have developed schizophrenia, but they were just different in some way? Did they have different social experiences? There are a group of psychologists who have become very excited about the effect of social experience on psychosis. And often the tools that they’re using, which are these surveys, make the claim that there are few important differences between the kinds of experiences that mediums report and the kinds of experiences that people have schizophrenia report. But I do a lot of interviewing, and I think that there are differences — different kinds of voice-hearing that might all respond to social practice. My interviewing gives me access to different kinds of evidence. I try to use that ethnographic evidence to speak to those debates, and to make them clear.


NR: That makes a lot of sense to me. We can see clearly the way that, especially in the last 30 years or so, psychology has moved direction and is more open to differentiating between hearing voices in a pathological sense, but also accepting that people might hear voices without being psychotic, as part of a relationship with a God or spiritual being, for example. All this suggests to me that you think that in anthropology, the positionality of the interviewer, and the researcher plays a much bigger role in shaping the data that is ultimately obtained. Of course, with surveys you may be able remove the researcher to some degree, but ultimately, as you say, it’s impossible to remove the researcher from the framework of enquiry, entirely. One could therefore argue that there is an openness about the researcher’s voice that you find acknowledged in ethnography but less so in some types of psychology, which is in some ways a drawback to the discipline…


TL: All research involves the presence of the researcher, but anthropologists are much more actively their own instruments in anthropology. And that has some great advantages. It means you can really ask people questions, because they are more likely to know you and to trust you. And they will then say more to you than they might to somebody that they’ve not met, or would write down on a survey. That’s really our strength. When we come to a setting, to some extent we go native in that setting. And then we learn more deeply what that setting is like and how it might change people.


NR: That brings me to my next question: Some of the ethnographic contexts that you have worked in must have been challenging – not just intellectually, but physically as well as emotionally. I am particularly thinking, for instance, of the work you have done in homeless shelters in Chicago. Recently, some anthropologists have been speaking more openly and plainly about the emotional challenges of fieldwork, and the trauma that anthropologists can undergo in the field, that are all too often erased away from ethnographic accounts by the time they are published. I myself experienced several personally challenging situations during fieldwork, and had to cut one trip short for safety reasons. This really brought home to me the ways that identity can affect the research experience. It brings to light certain vulnerabilities we face based on the kinds of bodies we have, as well as, more generally, a consciousness around projecting a kind of ‘professionalised’ and invulnerable self. You have discussed some of the challenges of fieldwork in your own writing. Is this shift towards increased openness about these uncomfortable aspects of fieldwork therefore something you welcome, and where do you see this developing and taking the field in future?


There’s always been this mystique and myth about the dangers of fieldwork, from the beginning, but it is also true that fieldwork can be dangerous. Now that people are doing more urban fieldwork, there’s a different kind of danger.


TL: That’s a really good question… I have different thoughts on this. I think that it’s very important to be attentive and clear about what you’re experiencing and why, and whether it is safe. I think anthropology is a more risky endeavour than many, many academic endeavours. There’s that haunting book, ‘Footsteps on Malakula’, about a young anthropologist who died of blackwater fever. There’s always been this mystique and myth about the dangers of fieldwork, from the beginning, but it is also true that fieldwork can be dangerous. Now that people are doing more urban fieldwork, there’s a different kind of danger. People are not so much worried about dysentery as about gunshots. Sometimes people kind of valorise the danger, as if they should get more credit for doing dangerous or difficult fieldwork. I have mixed feelings about that because on the one hand, it’s really hard to do such work! On the other hand, it should be the work that’s being privileged. It’s also quite difficult to pass disciplinary rules about what to speak about and not. Experiences are so different and people have such different understandings. Some people go to a church service as anthropologists, and think it’s wrong to eat the host because they don’t believe in the god. Other anthropologists think that it would be rude not to participate. I work with my own sort of code of morals, which is that you shouldn’t lie. I myself participate in rituals, because partly that’s what you’re there to do. I also pray for other people, but I wouldn’t ask other people to pray for me because I think it’s an imposition because I am there to observe.


Yet as an anthropologist, I think that people operate by hidden identities and unconscious signals all the time.


In my own department, some students have felt that men and women should be able to do fieldwork exactly the same way, everywhere. If women want to do a kind of fieldwork that is dangerous for them, they feel, their department should just pay for more protection. I guess I have more conflicted feelings about that. I admire the younger generation, who are very clear that all of us should be able to do whatever we want, and that our choices and chosen identity should lead the world that we create. Yet as an anthropologist, I think that people operate by hidden identities and unconscious signals all the time.

And it would be foolish not to take that into account. I think that if you are the kind of person whose gender or self-presentation is likely to invite violence in a particular setting, I think it’s foolish to disattend to that. It’s part of the package of being human. It doesn’t mean that the violence is good or you’re agreeing with the violence or anything, but we must acknowledge that it’s complicated.


NR: It’s interesting because part of your job as an anthropologist is to recognise the differences between your own cultural beliefs and those of the people you are studying. You may feel that you should be treated equally to everybody else, or not be treated differently based on your ‘given’ identity, but that may not be accepted by the people you are studying. Understanding (although not necessarily accepting) those differences is the ultimate goal of your whole enterprise, after all. There’s also a very fine line between talking honestly and openly about your fieldwork experiences, especially when they have been challenging ones and coming across as though you are sensationalising them, even if that’s not what you’re trying to do.


TL: It’s a really interesting and complicated choice. And I think that it is often a kind of a tussle between generations. I remember being in a committee meeting with a young woman who wanted to work in Sri Lanka during the time of civil war. She was really interested in the effects of the war on those who lived through it, which was an excellent question. Many of the committee members at the time were a generation older than I was. At the time, I was an assistant professor, and I thought, well, if she wants to work there, she should be careful, but she can do it. My more senior peers were more reluctant, because they thought it was not safe. We did have an undergraduate who once submitted a proposal to do ethnographic fieldwork with Somali pirates whom she thought were not well understood. And we couldn’t do that. But other calls are more complicated. There are definitely students I know who have done projects that I would not do. And looking back, I don’t think I would have done all the things that I have done.


NR: It also raises the question, ‘what drives you to choosing those topics?’ And ‘why are you interested in certain kinds of groups or ideas, in the first place?’ I suppose it’s important to be as open with yourself as possible in that journey. It reminds me of that cliched phrase, ‘me-search’ – cliched, of course, because it’s quite true. But one could also respond by questioning whether that kind of hidden desire for self-discovery is a good reason to do that kind of research, in the first place. Even if we don’t think our research has anything to do with ourselves, on some level there’s a kernel of a question undergirding the project that is drawing us to it, something we are wrestling with inside for answers. Maybe it’s something that we only realise with hindsight.

Let’s move in a slightly different direction now – I can’t not ask you about the world over the last few months. Covid-19 has put into sharp focus the fact that we seem to be going through a period where conspiracy theories are becoming more widespread, and also more mainstream. In fact, the Hidden Persuaders project has tracked closely the role of conspiracy theory, fears of brainwashing, of being ‘fooled’ or ‘tricked’ – whether that’s by the media, by politicians, by experts … Why do you think this might be and where do you think solutions can be found?


There’s a kind of a fantasy quality to conspiracy theory that can become more real the more you work on it, the more you have people who commit to it, the more stories there are about it.


TL: I think there are more conspiracy theories because there’s an internet. Because it’s possible to meet like-minded people who support your more unusual ideas. There’s a kind of a fantasy quality to conspiracy theory that can become more real the more you work on it, the more you have people who commit to it, the more stories there are about it. QAnon seems to be one of those examples – it demands that people interpret the text and come to know the meaning of the text. So followers become very proud of their ability to draw those inferences. Then it becomes very exciting for them and they become committed to it at that point, and it becomes more like a map of the world, that can help to explain the world. And then it becomes part of your identity. People treat identity claims differently than they do ordinary claims. Those identity claims are like religious claims. Someone usually doesn’t ditch Christianity just because that person prayed and the prayer didn’t seem to work, (unless there’s a bunch of other stuff going on). I also think that the internet is a huge, huge shift for human society that we haven’t figured out. And it’s really about no more than 20 years old. It’s kind of remarkable.


NR: Certainly, and even in that short 20 year period, where it has become a part of our daily lives, it’s not the case that the internet has stayed even remotely static in that time. Measuring it steadily is not really possible. It’s changing so quickly, and there are so many different forms of social media emerging that can amplify certain cultural moods. Each of these forms is constantly evolving. By the time we get a grasp on what might be happening, especially in some of those darker and more elusive corners of the internet, the object we are studying may have already receded, and there might be something new on the scene. My view is that it’s essentially becoming completely necessary for anthropologists to take very seriously the internet. I think it’s very difficult to conduct a research project today without looking at how the people one works with use the internet and social media. The rather classical notion of going off to some remote and isolated part of the world to do fieldwork is rarely a reality these days. The questions really become about how and why certain local discourses become globalised, and then picked up again and reinterpreted at the local level. But that means expanding our definition of research, and of fieldwork, and beginning to use a rather capacious definition of what anthropology is. It perhaps seems a little odd to think of fieldwork as something that could be conducted online, remotely, or even with anonymous and seemingly invisible informants…


TL: I think there’s a big scope for the anthropology of the internet. We’ve had some work come out on this, and there will be more. The work on Second Life is a good example, and work on gaming by Jeff Snodgrass, for example. It’s clear that people spend hours engaging in these worlds that some of us tend not to take that seriously. We’ve been getting to know one internet community called Tulpamancers. This is sort of a secular version of a practice that I noticed in evangelical Christianity, where people are seeking to experience intense relationships with invisible beings. Tulpamancers create invisible beings to interact with — but they do not think of those beings as gods. They train themselves to have a sense that somebody else is present, and then they and their being will interact, online and offline. People can spend 10 hours a day, 12 hours a day doing this. Gaming can be very much the same. I don’t really have a sense of how you live that kind of world, but clearly, many, many people do. I would expect that some of QAnon’s followers are falling down different rabbit holes… And that’s just a texture of a world that I don’t think we understand so much.


NR: Yes, I think we’ve barely scratched the surface so far, and there’s obviously so much going on, so much work to be done. Last question: What are you currently working on?


TL: I’m writing a book with Joel Robbins on anthropology of mind, which is very cool. I’m also in the process of publishing a paper that will show the use of both qualitative fieldwork and more structured interventions to make a claim that there are two factors across these different sites that can facilitate the emergence of vivid spiritual experience. One of them is a factor about the way that you think about your mind, and the other is ‘absorption’, when you can get caught up in mental events.

I’m also writing a book about voices, about the range of these kind of psychiatric and religious experiences and how they’re different from each other. One of the questions here is, when do you trust the voice? What’s the difference between madness and not madness? And when might you see yourself as the vehicle of something beyond yourself? So the lower level of question is, when somebody has lost somebody dear to them and they hear their voice, is it ever real? That’s a question people want to ask. I don’t have a good answer for it, but it’s clear that I need to pursue the question in the book.


NR: I’m already looking forward to it! Thank you for joining us Tanya.



Selected Bibliography of Prof Luhrmann’s works:


1989: Persuasions of the Witch’s Craft: Ritual Magic in Modern Culture. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

1996: The Good Parsi: The Postcolonial Anxieties of an Indian Colonial Elite. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

2000: Of Two Minds: The Growing Disorder in American Psychiatry. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

2012: When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.


2005: An Anthropological View of Psychiatry. In Benjamin Saddock, Virginia Saddock and Pedro Ruiz (eds.). Kaplan and Sadock’s Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry Vol II. VIII edition, : 3958–3968.

2006: Subjectivity. Anthropological Theory 6 (3): 345– 361. https://doi.org/10.1177/1463499606066892.

2008: ‘The Street Will Drive You Crazy’: Why Homeless Psychotic Women in the Institutional Circuit in the United States Often Say No to Offers of Help. American Journal of Psychiatry 165 (1): 15–20. https://doi.org/10.1176/appi.ajp.2007.07071166.

2010: The Absorption Hypothesis: Hearing God in Evangelical Christianity. With Howard Nusbaum and Ronald Thisted. American Anthropologist 112 (1): 6–78. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1548-1433.2009.01197.x

2012: Julia Cassaniti and T.M. Luhrmann. Encountering the Supernatural: A Phenomenological Account of Mind. Religion and Society 2: 37–53. https://doi.org/10.3167/arrs.2011.020103

2012: A Hyper-Real God and Modern Belief: Towards an Anthropological Theory of Mind. Current Anthropology 53 (4): 371–395. https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/666529

2016: Diversity Within the Psychotic Continuum. Schizophrenia Bulletin 43 (1): 27–31. https://doi.org/10.1093/schbul/sbw137

2017: Knowing God. Cambridge Journal of Anthropology 35 (2): 125–142.  https://doi.org/10.3167/cja.2017.350210

2018: Is There a Place for Faith in Anthropology? Religion, Reason, and the Ethnographer’s Divine Revelation. Hau: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 8 (1).