Lifelong Religion as Habitus

Religious Practice among Displaced Karelian Orthodox Women in Finland

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Helena Kupari
Numen Book Series, Volume 153
  • Leiden, Netherlands: 
    , August
     210 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In Lifelong Religion as Habitus: Religious Practice among Displaced Karelian Orthodox Women in Finland, Helena Kupari posits the following question: “What is the everyday lived religion of displaced Karelian Orthodox women like?” (154). Kupari then attempts to provide an answer by engaging with interview material collected from twenty-four elderly Karelian women who live in Finland, and analyzing it through the theoretical approach to practice set forth by Pierre Bourdieu. Kupari supplements Bourdieu’s approach with those of—among others—Saba Mahmood, Talal Asad, and Catherine Bell. 

This analysis leads to Kupari suggesting that elderly Karelian Orthodox women, displaced from their native land in the aftermath of the World War II, possessed and recognized a habitual and continuous religiosity instilled in them during childhood, while simultaneously undergoing and acknowledging changes in their religious practices and thoughts about religion. Consistency and change, as well as habitual and cognizant actions, were integral to their Orthodox Christian religiosity. These women knew how to perform the sign of the cross before a meal, to glance at an icon before leaving their home, and to say a prayer before going to bed—and these activities felt right to them. However, over time they also learned to suspend and over play their habitual actions within the environment where Lutherans claimed religious dominance, family members demanded their womanly engagement, care, and sacrifice, and people began to make frequent claims that religion should not be passed down from generation to generation through practice, but, instead, individually and consciously chosen, or not adopted at all. The women’s “dynamics of religious activity” arose from within and, therefore, could not be understood without acknowledging “the context of complex social changes” (29). Yet, that these women had to adjust their religiosity did not signify constraint, or at least not exclusively. In making choices to celebrate a Christian holy day by attending a Lutheran parish instead of an Orthodox church to please their husbands and family members, in deciding not to introduce their Orthodox practices to their grandchildren to maintain peaceful relationships with them, and in determining to discuss Orthodoxy by comparing it to Lutheranism and secularism to validate it for themselves and to others, they utilized cultural tools available to them and drew on various capacities for action. Their agency was “created contextually: the formation of the habitus both subject[ed these women] to particular power relations and imbue[d them] with agentic capacities” (115). In short, within what may be social constraint, these women were not without an ability to act and found value in their actions—as protective mothers, vibrant centers of their families, and effective conduits of God’s will.

The scholarship Kupari engages is properly represented and clearly explained, and the argument that materializes is convincing and sophisticated. However, this reader found the theoretical work often overshadowed—at times running ahead of, and at times being disconnected from—the interview material.Ultimately, Lifelong Religion as Habitus presents a sharper picture of “the everyday lived religion of displaced Karelian Orthodox women” in some chapters, yet not in others. This is to be expected from a work that seeks to attend to practice, but methodologically only examines the discourse about practice. This does not suggest that there is nothing to be gleaned from this approach, or that Kupari does not do a careful job of interpreting her interview material in supporting her argument. However, it makes it possible to question the validity of some of her assertions. For example, Kupari states that the women she interviewed commonly stressed the tolerance their Lutheran husbands showed towards their Orthodox practices. She claims that “nevertheless, my overall impression was that some of the women actually censored their accounts when it came to familial discord,” and then proceeds to interpret this perceived censorship as “yet another expression of the women’s loyalty towards their adult families. It showed them acting as protectors of the family, including the family image, even in the interview situations” (103). To substantiate this “impression,” one would need to see how the women interacted with their spouses in their daily life, something Kupari did not do.

This critique should not be taken as simple dissatisfaction of an ethnographer wishing for more participant observation. If Kupari could observe and describe how these women interacted with other Karelian Orthodox women, she would have provided the reader with rich material demonstrating how, for example, Orthodoxy is constructed as a “better” religion than Lutheranism through discursive practices, while also emphasizing the social nature of these constructions. Without this, the reader is left with the false impression that, in response to their religious minority position, individual women produced and normalized this juxtaposition alone. For this reason, Kupari’s decision to insert herself into her work is commendable. Describing how her conversations played out in real time, attending to her interviewees’ words and emotions, as well as to her own thoughts and feelings—such as her negative reaction to these Karelian women’s “thinking that they are better than ‘us Ostrobothnians’” (44)—was an excellent way to evidence that the propositions about the cultural, ethnic, and religious differences are not only cognitive constructions, but also habituated affects: one’s normalized way of feeling about a posited difference, she demonstrates, was challenged and disrupted when it came in contact with that of individuals socialized in different fields. Vivid ethnographic snapshots such as these made Kupari’s theoretical claims most convincing. 

There is much to commend in this book. There is little sociological, anthropological, and historical work on Orthodox Christian communities, and even less specializing on Orthodox women. This book will help to fill in this lacuna. Though this reviewer was left wishing that each chapter contained as much of the primary material as did chapter 7 (which describes in detail women’s practices of praying to God), she lauds the overall convincing way in which this work presents Karelian Orthodox women as religious actors: simultaneously enabled and constrained by the habits they consciously and unconsciously cultivated over a lifetime. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Elena V. Kravchenko is Lecturer in Religious Studies at Washington University in St. Louis.

Date of Review: 
February 25, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Helena Kupari, Ph. D. (2015), University of Helsinki, is postdoctoral researcher at that university. She has previously published articles on the topic of the book, for example in the journal Religion and the anthology Finnish Women Making Religion.


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