Asian Migrants and Religious Experience

Journeys to Labor Mobility

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Bernardo Brown, Brenda S. A. Yeoh
New Mobilities in Asia
  • Amsterdam, The Netherlands: 
    Amsterdam University Press
    , June
     312 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The book Asian Migrants and Religious Experience: From Missionary Journeys to Labor Mobility starts with an intriguing premise: there is a fundamental obstacle to the combined study of religion and migration. This obstacle is the result of studies on religion and migration being approached from either a religious view or a mobilities’ perspective. In such studies, religion is often perceived as being static and historically enduring, while mobility is regarded as transient and dynamic. Because of this obstacle, migrants are seen as taking their static religious beliefs and practices with them to their host countries, and implementing them in the new context in an unchanged manner. In addition, such perspectives often do not regard religion to be the main reason for migration, instead focusing on economic or political reasons.

The aim of the edited volume is to show that migration and religion are both dynamic and transient, and both have an impact on the religious landscape of the host society. It does so by focusing on migrants and missionaries, and the manners in which they question, explore and renew their religious beliefs and practices. A main emphasis in the book is on case studies in which migration is the catalyst for religious change. This implies an emphasis on lived religion, and on its diverse and dynamic character. As the editors argue, religion is not necessarily a stable anchor that orients migrants in their new contexts and in transnational networks, but is a flexible and creative device from which they can actively create and derive meaning. As such, a focus on religion and migration brings to light religious crossovers, experimentation and innovation.

The book is a timely one, both in terms of empirical data (the amount of worldwide migration is still increasing) and in terms of theoretical underpinnings. In the main, the editors of the volume engage with three theoretical debates. The first regards the definition of lived religion in light of migration as proposed by Thomas Tweed and his theory of crossing and dwelling (Tweed, Crossing and Dwelling: A Theory of Religion, Harvard University Press, 2006) . The second debate centers on the idea of transnational networks, as presented by Thomas Csordas (Transnational Transcendence: Essays on Religion and Globalization, University of California Press, 2009). The migrants presented in the book are transnational agents who override ethnic, linguistic, and national boundaries through their innovative, lived religious practices and beliefs. Finally, it engages with Manuel Vasquez’ emphasis on networks (Studying Religion in Motion: A Networks Approach, Method and Theory in the Study of Religion, 2008) and materiality (More than Belief: A Materialist Theory of Religion, Oxford University Press, 2011).

The scholars contributing to the book are from different disciplinary fields. The editors themselves are leading scholars on anthropology and religion, and are well-known in the field of Asian Studies. Other authors have backgrounds in anthropology, sociology, religious studies, Asian Studies, and cultural studies. All in all, most chapters are written by scholars of the humanities.

The ten different chapters of the book are divided into three sections: mobile religious practices, transnational proselytizing, and refashioning religiosity in the diaspora. These three sections coincide with the three theoretical starting points mentioned above. The authors present several case studies, including case studies about North American yogi migrants, Chinese migrants in Southeast Asia, Indian and Filipino migrants in Rome, and displaced Karen villagers in Thai-Burmese borderlands. The chapters deal with a broad range of religions, from Hinduism and Buddhism to Christianity and Daoism. The only critique to the make-up of the book is the rather uneven emphasis on Christianity, primarily Catholicism (5 chapters).

The topics of the different chapters show the book’s vast diversity. The book deals with lay migrants who travel for religious reasons, and with clergy who have a more missionary-based incentive. It introduces migrants who travel between different Asian countries, and those who traverse the continental boundary. It shows migrants as moving from A to B, but also migrants who continuously travel back and forth. In some instances, migration happens in vacuums of uneven power relations, while in other cases migrants seem more free to go where they want and do what they want. The presentation of this diversity is both a strength and a weakness to the book. It shows that the field deserves and needs further exploration.

The afterword to the book is written by Janes Alison Hoskins, professor of anthropology and religion. In her chapter, she answers the question of what makes Asian migrants’ experiences Asian. She argues that the book overall has brought three innovative perspectives to light: the particularities of migration within Asia, the different notions and ideas of religion in Asian contexts, and a more positive agentive approach to the study of migration. Migrants are presented in the book not as victims of globalization or clinging to traditional values and religions, but as innovative, revitalizing agents. Religion in Asia is presented as more fluid and less exclusivist than in European or American contexts. While these insights are far from new, they are insightful in the context of the topic of the book, and important to emphasize in the overall study of migration and religion.

All in all, the book is one of the best ones in this field of study so far. The individual chapters give detailed and in-depth descriptions of migrant experiences and of dynamic lived religious practices and beliefs. In addition, the book engages with very timely theoretical debates. It is a valuable book for anyone interested in the study of the intersection between religion and migration, not only within Asian contexts but in all settings imaginable.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Mariske Westendorp is an Anthropologist and Religious Studies Scholar.


Date of Review: 
November 20, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Bernardo Brown is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the International Christian University in Tokyo.

Brenda S. A. Yeoh is Professor in the Department of Geography at the National University of Singapore.


Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.