Currently between institutions
Areas of Interest/Research:
Anthropology of Religion/Religion and Politics
What is it about your field that you love researching?
I’ve always been attracted to learning about groups/individuals/ideas/practices that are deemed “marginal” or “fringe” because these terms are relational. What is fringe in one period/place is mainstream in another. The social positions of the center and the extreme edge are constantly shifting, and the fluidity of these boundaries tell us a lot about society on a wider level. Groups that reject social norms and try to establish a utopian alternative often have much to say about present social conditions. They display a will to live otherwise, and I find that fascinating. But I think in many ways, I’m like the academic equivalent of someone who trawls through garbage to find out what the detritus has to say.
Methodology is also a big draw for me. As an anthropologist, I employ participant observation, and I do a lot of interviews and in the current period spend a lot of time following various groups and individuals online. I study currents that are happening now, and I’m always looking at what the relevancy is between what I study and what’s going on around me in current events. Sometimes they conjoin in surprising ways, for example, my work on shamanism and new age spirituality and white supremacy recently all merged in the figure of Jake Angeli, the furry-hat and horns shirtless guy who stormed the Capitol in Washington DC.
What is one “big idea” in your scholarship?
That it’s all “fringe” until it isn’t! I have to give credit to Sam Kestenbaum (a journalist) for this sentiment as he tweeted it recently. But that’s really the big idea behind what I do. That studying the margins, the extremes, the fringe “weirdos”, has relevance to what is going on in religion, politics, and the public sphere more widely because that movement, the incursion of the extremes into normality, that’s really the shifting of social consensus. The shifting of what is acceptable and what is not, or what is thinkable and sayable, and what is not. Exploring the boundaries of social possibility is perhaps another way to sum up the big idea in my scholarship.
What is your current research about?
My current research is about climate change and religion. I’ve been looking at a range of actors involved in climate change discourse – scientists, activists, and deniers – and studying how religion, and particularly eschatology, appears in their framing of climate change as an existential problem. Climate change is one area where this idea that some things are socially sayable and some things are not is really important. Activists call it the ‘Overton Window’ – what you can get politicians to talk about, and what they won’t even consider as worthy of discussion – and how they need to shift it, because the solutions to climate change have been known for some time (end the fossil fuel economy) but have not been sayable publicly, politically, because the consequences were too extreme (mass joblessness, fewer resources for consumption, far-reaching shifts in the locus of political-economic power). My intervention is to analyze how climate change is framed eschatologically, as the end of the world, and the ways in which claims of religion emerge in this discourse.
Who is one of your academic heroes and why do you admire them?
There is no easy way to answer this question. So many of the canonical heroes in academia are so problematic for so many reasons. The elevation of academic superstars in general makes me uneasy. And I feel like all my personal heroes in academia are people who have helped me personally, so that just ends up being self-referential. Probably the people I admire the most are the ones who have hung on despite the vagaries and viciousness of the academic system and continue to produce great scholarship that makes a difference despite these conditions.
What books have been formative for you in your study? Why were they so important? How did they shape you?
Courtney Bender’s The New Metaphysicals was really important. It was probably the first time I read about metaphysical religion or new age spirituality, and it was written well. There is a lot of poor scholarship in my subfield, and The New Metaphysicals made me realize how it could be done, how it should be done. Another would be Resonance of Unseen Things by Susan Lepselter. I read it after I’d finished my thesis, and it was pivotal in transforming that project into a monograph. It’s about narratives of alien abduction in the US, and it’s a beautiful, lyrical book that takes abduction narratives seriously by contextualizing them in American culture and history.
Do you have any publications we can showcase?
Yes my book is out in May from the University of Chicago Press, it’s called Ripples of the Universe. I also recently wrote a piece for Religion Dispatches about Q Shaman and his blend of new age spirituality with Trumpism.
Where can we follow you online?
If we ran into you at a conference and you didn’t want to talk about your field what would you want to talk about?
K-pop/pop music in general. Immigration. The state of the world. Even though it’s my field I’ll always talk about aliens but to talk about QAnon you’ve got to catch me in the right mood.
What research/writing project are you working on right now that you’re excited about?
I’m about to write a piece on the anthropology of fascism which is only exciting because it gives me a forum to write about something I’ve been thinking for a while, about how everyday symbols accumulate to inoculate people against seeing that it is happening here. The topic itself is deeply troubling.
>> Thank you so much, Dr. Crockford, for taking the time to share a bit about yourself and your work.
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