The Social Scientific Study of Exorcism in Christianity

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Giuseppe Giordan, Adam Possamai
  • New York, NY: 
    , June
     371 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The academic study of exorcism is weak and limited in terms of theory. The scholarship is partitioned into area studies with the best research of the past several decades conducted in south Asia, east Asia, and Europe, while Americanist exorcism scholarship is scarce. Giuseppe Giordan and Adam Possamai’s latest volume The Social Scientific Study of Exorcism in Christianity is then a welcomed scholarly intervention, with multiple chapters examining regional contexts in the Americas (like Canada, Brazil, and Argentina). I hope that others will bring this volume into conversation with similar explorations of Mexico and the United States—namely, Elaine K. Miller’s Mexican Folk Narrative from the Los Angeles Area (University of Texas Press, 1973) and William F. Hanks’ “Exorcism and the Description of Participant Roles,” in Michael Silverstein and Greg Urban (eds.), Natural Histories of Discourse (University of Chicago Press, 2010).

The first standout contribution belongs to Veronica Gimenez Beliveau (chapter 5), an ethnographic case study that situates exorcism practice within the vernacular religious context of spiritual warfare (i.e., cursed objects, generational demons, haunted places, and more). Gimenez Beliveau includes a table that is the chapter highlight and a tool for any future study of exorcist activity (89). The table presents “evil” as part of a network consisting of “nodal actors” and “key events” (87), whereby “evil actions” simultaneously refer to (a) the supernatural beings that tempt, oppress, and possess (non-)Christians, (b) the occultism that may sinisterly reside in common, innocent-looking household objects, and (c) those beings of flesh that, intentionally or not, do the Devil’s bidding (81–82). As Gimenez Beliveau notes, within the last few decades, this evangelical framework has infiltrated the spiritual vernacular of popular Catholicism: “The association between territorial and generational demons first appeared in the neo-Pentecostal domain, cuts across other Evangelical and Baptist denominations and became established later in parts of Charismatic Catholicism” (85). The table also reveals how proximity to sacrality functions as a chief exorcising power, how the priest-exorcist utilizes powerful church tradition as both a weapon in ritual combat and as means of discernment (89).

Although Joseph Laycock’s contribution (chapter 2) deserves recognition for its theoretical foundation, the second standout belongs to Antonela Capelle-Pogacean (chapter 11), an analysis of a botched exorcism from 2005 and the media sensationalism it sparked. She examines the mediatization of an Orthodox exorcism performed in a remote Romanian monastery, wherein a 23-year-old possessed nun was chained to a wooden cross for three days by her hegumen, resulting in her death from dehydration. This local religious event was dramatized, analyzed, and criticized at both the international stage and through multiple media genres—for example, “sensational media, TV talk shows, orthodox blogging, narrative nonfiction, theatre performance, and a prize winning movie at Cannes” (191). Capelle-Pogacean approaches this Romanian scandal as a site of mobilization for various cultural forces and political agendas. Some media consumers welcomed the return of a powerful religious institution, especially after the fall of Romania’s communist regime; others saw the fiasco as detrimental to Romania’s modern global image, compromising their efforts to join the European Union. Others still were enthralled by media drama; the judicial ramifications of the scandal, mixed with powerful instances of visual doxa (i.e., images of monks, nuns, exorcism, and crucifixion). Capelle-Pogacean submits that “the various ways of engaging . . . this imaginary can hardly be described using the dichotomic language [of] official religion and popular religion . . . or as a struggle between possessionists and anti-possessionists” (211). Instead, she presents this case study using Michel de Cearteau’s “language of social anxiety” (191), similar to most scholars’ interpretation of the cultural frenzy that followed The Exorcist.

To their credit, the editors present this volume as a unified defense against the marginalization of exorcism research within the academy. Exorcism, they argue, should no longer be viewed as an “atavistic ritual in conflict with science and modernity” (1), nor should scholars contribute to its exotification. Giordan’s own contribution (chapter 6) illustrates this best, through its examination of a spiritual/medical “protocol” used by an exemplary Italian exorcist to discern a “true” case of demonic possession. Unfortunately, the shortcomings of this volume stem mostly from this overzealous approach to the material. The editors (and certain contributors) overstate the prevalence and ubiquity of the selected phenomena. “Social scientists today need to understand such rituals, especially rituals of deliverance, as moving from the shadows into the social alleys,” the editors write. While still not “highly visible,” “there is a need to acknowledge the reality of these phenomena, and not regard them as rare and isolated cases” (13). This statement is made with Giordan fully aware that 95 percent of the consultation cases involving his Italian exorcist informant never even resulted in any ritual performance (101).

At a large scale, exorcism is difficult to document. With few exceptions, data reports of modern exorcism history and the statistical extent of its contemporary practice simply don’t exist. Though recent cases remain popular, it is still misguided to assume that this phenomenon is prevalent just because we study it. And yet, in the absence of a clear, demographic portrait, the scholars in this volume truly optimize the academic work to be done in the study of exorcism worldwide. As a tertium quid argument (that is, a presentation of proxy data), this volume presents an analysis of specific known variables in order to speak with confidence about that which is unknown—approximating the global extent of exorcism practice today through an analysis of related survey data, ethnographic fieldwork, and popular discourse analysis. This volume succeeds as both a well-researched contribution to the study of modernity and one of the best analytic studies of exorcism more generally.

About the Reviewer(s): 

William Chavez is a doctoral candidate in religious studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Date of Review: 
September 1, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Giuseppe Giordan is  Professor of Sociology of Religion at the University of Padova (Italy). He is author, co-author, editor and co-editor of twenty  books and journal special issues in the sociology of religion. He is Co-Editor of the Annual Review of the Sociology of Religion (Brill), and elected member of the  International Society for the Sociology of Religion. He is Director of the International joint PhD programme in Human rights, society and multi-level governance based at the University of Padova. He served as General Secretary of the International Society for the Sociology of Religion from 2009 to 2013.

Adam Possamai is Professor in Sociology at Western Sydney University (WSU). He is the past President of the International Sociological Association’s Committee 22 on the Sociology of Religion and is the Deputy Dean of the School of Social Sciences. His latest books are The Sociology of Exorcism in Late Modernity (with Giuseppe Giordan, Palgrave McMillan, 2018), The I-zation of Society, Religion, and Neoliberal Post-Secularism (Palgrave McMillan, 2018), Religions, Nations and Transnationalism in Multiple Modernities (edited with Patrick Michel and Bryan Turner, Palgrave McMillan, 2017), and the novel L’histoire extraordinaire de Baudelaire (Rivière Blanche, 2017).    


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