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Used and Abused: 

Religious Sites Around the World

By Gordon Klco


    This trip has taken me to places physically and mentally that I never thought I would go to.  At the beginning of the voyage I was presented with the task of conducting a multi-sited ethnography on a subject of my choice.  After traveling for awhile, I found that I was visiting religious sites in every country.  No matter where I was, I could find some sort of religious site.  I decided to conduct a study of the different ways religious space is used in the many sites that I visited during my trip around the world.  All religions use the space they set aside for worship differently.  It is interesting to compare and contrast the way in which they do this.

    George Marcus in "Ethnography in of the World System: the Emergence of a Multi-Sited Ethnography" talks about the emerging field of multi-sited ethnography and the way it benefits contemporary global anthropology.  The use of multiple sites is a lifesaver for me.  I did not have enough time in one place to write a full ethnography on one site, so the fact that I can use several different sites allows me to do my research.      

    This is my first attempt at any kind of ethnography so my field methods were scattered and based on serendipity for the most part.  The only country in which I knew I was going to a religious site before I arrived was Vietnam.  Most of my fieldwork was done through observation.  I was only in the countries for a few days and at the sites for only a few hours at the most.  This made it difficult for me to kindle relationships that would give me the chance for interviews or “insider information”.  The descriptions and feelings that I have written in each mini-ethnography are all things that I observed and felt at the sites.  Here are three small mini-ethnographies.

Field Work

This trip has taken me to many different places and states of mind.  Trying to do fieldwork in each country made me see things that I never would have looked for if I was just traveling.  It was interesting to look at how religious space is used because each religious site is so different. 

The religious site that I visited in Vietnam was almost strictly for the entertainment of tourists.  The people were “performing” a ceremony instead of actually worshiping.  The temple itself and the surrounding village was nicely set up for hundreds and hundreds of tourists to come through everyday.  There were nice restaurants within walking distance from the temple and the temple was set up so that people could stand above the “performers” so they could see.  This gave it a kind of “sporting event” feel.  This was a tourist destination.  It was hard for me to put aside my feelings of disgust and observe the service.  I was so caught up in the fact that “this is fake!” that I didn’t do my best fieldwork.  It was a learning experience.   

In Burma I found a “raw” religious space.  No one was romanticizing the people or the space.  The site was the Reclining Buddha in Yangon.  This site was very refreshing because it was free of the feel of a tourist attraction like the nearby Shwedagon Pagoda.  People here were very open and easy to talk to.  In Monique Skidmore’s article “Darker Than Midnight”, she talks about how fearful people in Burma were to talk about the government and social problems.  I did not have that problem at the Reclining Buddha.  People there were incredibly open with me and told me their opinion without me even asking.  People used this space as more of a community center rather than a religious site.  While some people were praying, others were spending time with their families or friends.  I think people congregated in such places because the Buddhist temples are the nicest buildings in the country.

After leaving the “developing world” the religious sites fit into the countries more.  The disparity between the people and the religion became less pronounced.  I was searching for one last site for my ethnography and I wanted it to be drastically different then my other two sites.  I found that site in “westernized” Spain.  I decided to do my field work at the cathedral in Seville.  I thought this beautiful cathedral would be the best place to finish my field work off.  When I walked into the building I was immediately taken aback.  Once again I was looking at a profit driven religious site.  The situation was much like that of the Cao Dai temple.  The authors of “Poetics of Resistance” talk about having to put aside the analytical processes in which they had been taught and just take the war stories for what they were.  For me I had to put aside my personal feelings on the exploitation of religion for profit and just observe the scene.  The cathedral had been transformed into a museum and the people there for worship were in a small corner away from everyone.  It appears to be hard to balance profit and religion.    


    Now that I’m at the end of this long journey I have begun to look back and reflect at what I have experienced.  After reflecting on my fieldwork for Anthropology:  Field Methods it has become clear that I am witness to a global pattern that I wasn’t looking for.  Globalization and capitalism has begun to affect everything, even religion.  Religion has become a tool for marketing and profit making.  Every religious site, even in Burma, had some sort of gift shop or knickknack sold close by.  This creates changes in how the religious spaces are being used.  In many temples, churches and mosques that I went into there were separate areas for worship and areas for the tourist that were always coming in and out.  The dual use of the space was amazing to see.  In countless places the people praying or worshiping had been pushed into small corners while the tourist had the majority of the space to walk through.  Religious spaces are no longer “sacred” they are becoming a multiuse sites that try to balance religion and commerce on a pedestal only big enough for one.  One has to fall off, which one will it be?     

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