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Ritual States of Consciousness: A Way of Accounting for Anomalies in the Observation and Explanation of Spirit Possession

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Abstract

Confusion prevails in the anthropological literature concerning the nature of spirit possession belief and its effects. In large, this is due to the difficulty in differentiating between culture-specific categories of altered states of consciousness and reconciling these to analytical categories. Theories of spirit possession tend either toward description of the culture context without reference to outside theories, thus lacking comparability, or toward application of externally derived categories to the possession behavior, which often lack on-the-ground relevance. Since comparison is the aim of anthropology, we need categories which enable us to accomplish that and still reflect cultural belief. I propose focusing on "ritual states of consciousness" rather than just altered states, which may or may not be spirit possession according to different criteria. This will enable us to retain the culturally relevant categorization while achieving a useful comparability among cultures. I test this idea by analyzing the Spiritual Baptists of St. Vincent and other Caribbean religions.

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