Monday, September 21, 2015

Interview with Jennifer Snook (American Heathens), Part One

Sociologist Jennifer Snook's groundbreaking new book is American Heathens: The Politics of Identity in a Pagan Religious Movement. It is not only the first long-term ethnographic study of the subject in the field of sociology, but it's also the first peer-reviewed academic book on American Heathens written by an American Heathen.

American Heathens by Jennifer Snook

In the work, Snook uses the term Heathen as "inclusive of all varieties of Germanic paganism," including Ásatrú (Icelandic for "Æsir faith,” belief in the Old Norse gods) and Theodism (focused on Anglo-Saxon belief and social structure).

For anyone interested in the subject of modern Heathen belief and practice, the book is indispensable. As the first work of its kind, it will be the defining text in this field. Future scholars will have to address Snook's ideas as they formulate their own studies.

Born in Germany to an American father and a German mother, Snook grew up on U.S. Army bases in Germany where her father was an officer. While the family was stationed at Fort Gordon in Georgia, she received her BA from the University of Augusta.

She earned her PhD in sociology from the University of Colorado at Boulder with her dissertation On Being Heathen: Negotiating Identity in a New Religious Movement. She subsequently published “Reconsidering Heathenry: The Construction of an Ethnic Folkway as Religio-ethnic Identity” in Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions.

In 2005, she moved to Oxford, Mississippi to join the University of Mississippi's Department of Sociology and Anthropology as Instructional Assistant Professor of Sociology. She recently relocated to Iowa to join the sociology faculty at Grinnell College.

American Heathens is now available in multiple formats.

KS – A child of agnostic parents, you spent several years as a Wiccan before a “moment of epiphany” that led you to Heathenry. You write that, starting at age twelve, your interest in heavy metal, vampires, fantasy fiction, Dungeons & Dragons and the Society for Creative Anachronism led to an interest in the occult. This interest led to your practice of Wicca, which you describe as “a reconstructed Pagan mystery religion” informed by feminism and “concerns over religious ecology.” After you began self-identifying as Heathen, your practice was solitary; you did not meet another Heathen in person for five years, and your internet interaction with other Heathens was minimal. How did these formative years in your spiritual life inform your conception of religion as a category of experience?

JS – For many of the people that I hung out with, interviewed and observed over the years, there seems to be a common experience, that I discuss in my work, that involves some pretty sore feelings regarding Christianity – feelings of being made to feel wrong, shameful and alien.

I didn’t grow up in a family that went to church. My mom was openly cynical about mainstream faith. We heard a lot of stories on AFN – Armed Forces Network, our only American radio and TV station – about the famine that affected Ethiopia in 1983 to 1985, then the war in Bosnia in 1992 to 1995, and other atrocities. If they didn’t die, people would say that God saved them. Meanwhile, we saw images of starving and mangled children, and my mother just couldn’t accept that a God would allow that to happen. I heard this a lot growing up, so it taught me to think critically about what people use faith to accomplish, and what they use it to excuse.

My dad was silent about religion. I didn’t have a lot of contact with people who spoke openly about their faith until I was a teenager and was already self-identifying as Pagan. At the time, I had already spent some time feeling marginalized, like I didn’t quite fit in with the other kids my age. In high-school, the other “alternative” kids were busy smoking pot, drinking heavily and mooning elderly German women from our school bus.

As dependents of the Department of Defense, we were in Germany as a privilege, not a right. Kids who broke the law were often sent back to the states to boarding schools or to live with relatives. This was horrifying. I watched this happen to some kids I liked. My dad was an officer, and he spoke with me gently on a number of occasions, after a long day at work, about his soldiers with whom he had to “discuss” – probably firmly – their kid’s shenanigans. I got the message, loud and clear! I avoided the alternative kids for these reasons, and the muggles in student government just didn’t interest me.

My apologies to anyone who was in student government. I’m sure you were the awesome exception.

Adopting a Pagan identity for me, and for a lot of people, was just another way of expressing my alienation, and made more sense to me because it was world-accepting, made me feel connected to the natural world, and didn’t shame me for not having a penis.

Connecting to the meaningful: Jennifer "Skaði" Snook

So for me, religion was about connecting with something deeply meaningful, unknowable and natural. I understood, and still understand, why people have religion, or why they identify as spiritual. It serves an important function in many people’s lives. For me, I have always felt most connected to this sense of awe when I’m in the woods, at the beach, spinning, practicing traditional archery or otherwise experiencing the natural world.

My mother’s cynicism and critical questioning, however, was always at work and this is one of my many motivations for exploring why people do Heathenry.

KS – You write that “Most participants [in American Heathenry] experienced the same pattern of becoming Heathen: rejecting the mainstream, spiritual seeking and experimentation, dabbling in or associating with Neopaganism, and ultimately rejecting Neopaganism and settling into the Heathen identity.” This lines up with your own personal experience, as detailed in the early sections of the book. Do you consider yourself to be a typical (or prototypical) Heathen?

JS – Not really. There are a number of personal characteristics that put me on the fringe, even among Heathens.

I’m a sociologist by training. I recognize that people have intersectional categories of experience and that my life experiences – growing up overseas as a child of a German mother, developing relative privilege as my dad earned higher rank over the years, living on army bases, graduating at Heidelberg American High School – which no longer exists – then later going to college debt-free, going to graduate school in Boulder, Colorado – which was a total mind-blowing out-of-body experience for me after living on Army bases all my life—have influenced the way that I see the world.

Moreso, however, is that my sociological imagination is never at rest. A lot of the people that I hung out with over the years didn’t go to college, aren’t economically privileged, didn’t receive post-graduate training, and these things affect our perspectives a great deal. So it’s not that I am different than most Heathens, but I am different than a lot of people, which I think other army brats would understand.

I recognize that while we may have had similar experiences growing up in various subcultural milieus, that I have had other experiences that have shaped me as well, as have we all. I’m not sure I would say that there is such a thing as a prototypical Heathen. I would say that, on average, we have some things in common, and these things can be meaningful.

KS – You discuss the early development of American Heathenry as a reaction to Wicca that actually incorporated Wiccan elements, much as Icelandic Ásatrú incorporates elements of the Lutheran Church with which it has sometimes clashed. As a sociologist, how do you explain this phenomenon of a group mimicking aspects of the very Other that it defines itself against?

JS – I discuss in the book that this is a necessary element of subcultural belonging. All subcultures and social groups who share a collective identity do this – from ethnic groups to punks, goths, and fraternities. Everyone does it, because it’s an important social process.

Snook at the Drowning Pool in Thingvellir, Iceland

This study of boundaries, or “borders,” around identities has been at the core of many research agendas in a variety of academic disciplines. There is even a sub-group of inquiry in the American Sociological Association, called the “Symbolic Boundaries Network.” For a good overview, see Michele Lamont and Virag Molnar’s piece “The Study of Symbolic Boundaries in the Social Sciences" [Annual Review of Sociology, 2002. 28:167–95].

Early on in the study of religion, sociologist Emile Durkheim noted how people define boundaries around the “sacred” and “profane” as the most “elementary form of religious life” in his book The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. The idea is that all social groups have to define their norms and values, and agree upon them, before the group can function. I explain this in class with clips from The Little Mermaid, where Ariel is using a fork as a comb and a pipe to blow bubbles. Why not do these things?

A big part of reality construction is maintaining the boundaries around any community by consistently defining conflicting norms, values and identities as “other.” Kai Erikson wrote about this in his book called Wayward Puritans, when he investigates the social function of “deviance” as a label and category of behavior. He argued that defining a group as “deviant,” or “other,” brings people together by reminding them of their own boundaries of identity and behavior.

So the idea is nothing new. In my book, I just outlined how Heathens do it – first as a resistance to Christianity and then later as a resistance to Wicca, which is the ongoing discourse that we can’t seem to do without. Again, it’s important, and if it wasn’t Wicca, it’d be something else.

KS – You write that there is currently “a disproportionate number of ex-Wiccans within American Heathenry.” According to your work, some of the Heathens most determined to eradicate Wiccan elements from Heathenry are those who were Wiccans before they were Heathens. How much of today’s anti-Wiccan feeling in Heathenry comes from ex-Wiccans attacking their own former faith?

JS – There are two things going on here that I identify. First, you’re right. A lot of the disassociation is a product of escaping old identities to settle into the new. It’s a distancing from Wiccan terms, behaviors and trappings in order to be more authentically and fully Heathen. This is part of the process I just identified in the previous question.

But there’s also something else going on here, which I identify in my work, which is a caricature of Wicca and Neopaganisms as tree-hugging hippie liberal unshaven feminists with inauthentic made-up beliefs and practices that risk tainting Heathenry and robbing it of its manhood – read: authenticity – and deep, meaningful realness. It’s a play on personal politics, which isn’t unique to Heathenry.

There’s a larger societal conversation going on in the background, about femininity in contrast to intellectualism and any authenticity worth taking seriously, and masculinity as symbolizing rationality, strength, and authority. I teach this in my introductory sociology classes and take students to the “Unnecessarily gendered products” Pinterest pages, and to that Burger King commercial about the “Man Burger” which calls salad “chick food.” Not to mention the bazillion other commercials, ads, and other cultural examples of how things viewed as “feminine” are devalued and things are made “masculine” so that we take them seriously. “Bronuts” for example. Donuts for bros. Or a bar of soap with a tactical grip – seen in this Buzzfeed page about the fragility of masculinity – or Coke “One” marketed to men because they wouldn’t drink diet soda, because it’s for girls. I could go on.

So when we mock Wicca, sometimes it’s because we genuinely think that it can be silly, but these thoughts don’t come from nowhere. They’re situated in a broader cultural context outside of our own small communities, and our ideas, cute jokes, aversions and stereotypes are similarly culturally situated.

KS – There is a ritual element to your academic work. In 2003, you made an oath at a blót [Heathen ritual] that you “would honor the time that others had sacrificed to help me by publishing my work.” Throughout the book, you refer to “our faith,” “our strengths,” “our weaknesses,” and so on. How do you think this open identification as a believer in the minority faith tradition you write about will impact reaction from the wider academic community?

JS – There’s a conversation going on in Pagan Studies circles right now about how insider-scholars who write about their own groups are too apologetic and not critical enough of their own experiences and observations. And certainly this has been a problem with some insiders, or anthropologists “going native” in the field, losing their ability to be “objective” about their subject.

Snook before participating in sumbel (drinking ritual) in 2011

However, at the same time, social science has gone through somewhat of a shift where we now recognize that objectivity, in the old positivist use of the term, isn’t a concrete thing. We can’t really achieve 100% objectivity in this work, because we ourselves are products of our socialization into cultural and social “realities.”

But there’s also a push for more critical analysis of gender, race, privilege, and other aspects of society – studying “up” to the elite, rather than simply focusing on the disadvantaged. My training and the influences from which I draw inspiration are in this critical tradition.

I think that scholars who read my work will have the common language of this critical perspective and understand that my insider status gave me insights that outsiders may not have had, but that the work is ultimately a critical examination highlighting both the subjectivities of Heathens, but also the context in which they practice.

KS – You write that “the news is awash with reports of Pagans of all faith traditions losing their jobs… upon revealing their religious status.” How has being openly Heathen affected your own academic career?

JS – I don’t really discuss my religious status with my colleagues, unless we discuss my work or become friends. In my ten years at the University of Mississippi, my religious status was not something that I felt comfortable sharing openly with just anyone.

In the Deep South, people take their Christianity seriously, but sociologists tend, as a group, not to be religious. So I was less concerned with openly identifying myself as Heathen to my colleagues than I was at outing myself to administrators or students, and I only once had a feeling that one of my colleagues was working against me because she thought my work and religious identification were ridiculous. Over those years, I got used to confused expressions as I tried explaining my work to others, but this would probably happen most places. It should have been exciting to discuss, but it was actually pretty exhausting.

When I did tell my students, I did it in my Sociology of Religion class, after a half a semester of teaching and situated it within a week on New Religious Movements. I allow them to ask me questions after they read portions of my work. The last two semesters the questions I received spanned from “Do any or all Heathens worship Satan?” to “Do Heathens practice human sacrifice?” Or, they would praise me for how brave I was for “coming out” to them, as though my religious status was obviously something shameful.

But this was a product of my context. Now I’ve moved to a college town in Iowa, and in the first month here, people are asking me to join ministerial groups and to work with the chaplain, helping to mentor Pagan students. I’m in a different context now, and my colleagues are so far very supportive.

KS – Near the end of the book, you predict that your work “will provoke defensiveness from some Heathens,” and suggest some will argue that you “did not represent their particular niche of Heathenry.” You discuss the fact that you leave some groups to previous researchers (Heathens in prison) and some to future scholars (Heathens who practice “so-called alternative sexualities”). As a sociologist, to what extent can you extrapolate from your informant sample to the wider American Heathen community?

JS – In the book I present an overview of a relatively diverse community that shares many common threads.

When sociologists do ethnographic research, we observe and interview, and collect as much data as we can over years. We look for patterns of behavior, common elements of discourse, belief, norms and values, and we code our data. The chapters in my book are products of emergent themes, and the issues that I outline are patterns that I observed throughout the decade or so that I was paying close attention to what was going on.

Doing fieldwork: Snook in Alaska

Social media and the rise of blogging was a huge help, as well. I was able to observe the conversations and shared thoughts of people around the country. When I went to events, I met people from all over the place. When I observed the same argument, idea or behavior happening over and over, I was pretty sure that I had reached what we call “data saturation.”

Having said this, I recognize that no book is perfect and that there will always be people whose experiences aren’t necessarily reflected in my work, or who have perhaps somehow incubated a community that is different in many ways from the groups and people that I observed. I would have loved to have reflected the East and West coasts more thoroughly to include more diversity in thought and practice, but I’m a person with a job and a family, financial constraints, and a pressing need to get this work finished.

Yet, I’m confident that they have shared some of the experiences, conversations or concerns that my work outlines, or at the very least, they’re aware of them. I’ll leave further study to the scholars that are just coming up and finishing their PhDs.

KS – You define political as “referencing a system that moves beyond people’s individual preferences to ideas that tap into larger structures of power and inequality” and referring to “concepts that reflect differential opportunities that are part of a broader system of power and the perpetuation of inequalities.” You state that “people’s personal ideas often reflect wider systems of oppression and dominance.” How does this view of individual thought as a manifestation of larger societal systems relate to Heathen ideas of individuality?

JS – The Heathen idea of rugged individualism is very much in keeping with the American sense of each-man-is-an-island. This myth is part of the cultural landscape and something I work hard to desocialize my students from believing in the fifteen weeks I have the in my courses.

We are affected at every turn in our lives by the pushes and pulls of our social structural contexts. By our families and our homes, our towns and our states, our regional cultures, political cultures, religious milieus, educations, opportunities, etc. We certainly have the individual agency to make choices that affect our lives, but these choices are made in particular contexts in which we are either limited or freed by our social, economic and political access. Yet, we continue to believe that we are “free” to make any choice, at any time, in any place, and that not doing so is the reason for people’s individual failures.

C. Wright Mills – a badass biker sociologist who wrote back in the 1950s – argued in his work The Sociological Imagination, that perhaps the most helpful distinction with which the sociological imagination works is that between personal troubles and public issues.

The classic work by C. Wright Mills

For him troubles had to do with "an individual's character and with those limited areas of social life of which [people are] directly and personally aware."To describe those troubles and to resolve them, he argues, we have to pay attention to the individual's biography and the scope of their immediate milieux – what Mills describes as "the social setting that is directly open to his personal experience and to some extent his willful activity." A personal trouble is therefore a private matter: "values cherished by an individual are felt by him to be threatened."

In contrast, issues have to do with "matters that transcend these local environments of the individual and the limited range of his life." Mills says that these issues can’t be easily defined in terms of the everyday environments of ordinary people, and that they often involve a crisis in institutional arrangements. He uses the example of unemployment:
When, in a city of 100,000, only one man is unemployed, that is his personal trouble, and for its relief we properly look to the character of the man, his skills, and his immediate opportunities. But when in a nation of 50 million employees, 15 million men are unemployed, that is an issue, and we may not hope to find its solution within the range of opportunities open to any one individual.
So the Heathen and American focus on the individual often overlooks this broader context in which we live our lives, and by which our choices are constrained. It also leads to a context in which Heathens are increasingly hostile to one another and are creating much sharper and more vocal distinctions between their innangard [inner circle of a person's tribe, family or social group] and what is considered utgard [space or people outside a group's inner circle]. This is much of what I discuss in my book.

KS – On one hand, you state that “[i]t is unlikely that the average Heathen experiences Heathenry as a product of political dialogue or even as politically influenced. Many Heathens are disengaged from politics, experiencing their often conservative political beliefs about society and social life as common sense.” On the other hand, you state that “people’s lives are intimately affected by their social and economic position, which influences their political beliefs. In this regard, there is little within American Heathenry that is not politically informed and determined.” How do you balance the tension between an individual explaining her own worldview and a scholar telling her what non-conscious elements determine her worldview?

JS – Great question. Certainly this is a concern, and people generally don’t appreciate having their realities defined for them.

But again, we are each most often focused on daily concerns, families and our immediate needs. We don’t focus on the context and the structures that affect our behaviors, because in many ways there’s little we can do to affect them and we may each perceive them differently.

There’s little I can do, however, to affect people’s defensive repackaging of my words, if various theoretical interpretations in my book irk them. I sincerely don’t think that my situating people’s lives and behaviors in a broader context necessarily robs them of their agency or experience. It merely helps to contextualize it.

KS – You argue that “all identities are political and all politics matter,” and you state that your book “is informed by insights from feminist methods.” How did your own personal politics affect your analysis of Heathenry?

JS – “Feminist methods” is a methodology that acknowledges gender, privileges subjectivity, avoids exploitation and empowers people, particularly women. This methodology is a way in which sociologists and other social scientists conduct research. It’s not a fundamentally alien way of doing things – rather, it’s quite common in ethnographic work.

In my work, I aimed at maintaining open dialogue with respondents, listening to their thoughts and ideas. I took them seriously and asked frequently for feedback. During the course of my research, I sent many Heathens parts of the book to read and respond, and I shared the parts of the book that concerned people directly, to make sure that I wasn’t mischaracterizing people’s words. I had a number of people help with various elements of the book – the glossary, for example – and cross-checked a lot of what I said with Heathens on my Facebook page. So the “feminism” methodology involves compassion and dialogue, rather than a positivist or clinical analysis that takes away people’s abilities to speak for themselves. Then, I situated their experiences within a theoretical framework.

This book is a social scientific work based upon empirical evidence. It may not speak to every single experience of every single Heathen, but it captures the existing patterns of behavior of a large swath of American Heathenry. It’s not survey research, which captures a wide breadth of data, but only superficially – although I did gather this data as well. It’s primarily ethnographic, which means it captures the depth of experience for a particular sample of people over a long period of time.

Building on a solid foundation: Snook in Colorado

Of course, science is supposed to be apolitical, but we know it’s not. My personal politics, like those of most of my social scientist colleagues, are informed by the empirical world. Some readers no doubt read my book as the rantings of a crazy liberal. But to experience every time someone disagrees with your own anectodal experiences, or every time someone critiques your privileges or unempirical assumptions about the world as “liberal” would be a mistake and just seems intellectually lazy. I read social scientific work for a living, and I incorporate these things into how I envision the world and my place in it.

My underlying political values are simple. I believe that people generally deserve not to be messed with – by systems, structures, institutions or other individuals – in ways that are harmful or unfair. I believe that humans should experience equality of opportunity and condition, so that they may experience economic, social and political equality without infringing on the rights of others to do the same. So when I analyze things from a critical sociological perspective, these are the underlying goals and assumptions that I think most social scientists share. These things are fundamentally political.

KS – You offer American Heathenry “as a lens through which we can understand our embeddedness in social structure and dependence on political frameworks for meaning making.” If social structure and political frameworks determine the creation of religious meaning, what role is played by belief, spiritual experience and engagement with religious and scholarly texts?

JS – A lot! But, of course, these things also happen in a social structural context. So we can have beliefs and experiences, but we interpret these things according to the context in which we live. A Heathen of today has different beliefs and experiences than a Muslim from two hundred years ago in the Middle East.

It may sound obvious, but I think people often forget the importance of our cultural, economic, political and social context on every aspect of our selves. The way that people engage with religious and scholarly text is also influenced by these factors and the prevailing academic paradigms, which themselves exist within this same context. Our biographies intersect with history and cannot be separated from it.

I’ve heard Heathens complain on a number of occasions that Christians are taking the Bible out of its original context, ignoring the culture and the historical situation during which it was constructed. Yet, it’s important for us to acknowledge that we as Heathens do this as well, here and now. Pointing this out in no way takes away from people’s experiences. If anything, it informs these experiences by offering an analysis of the bigger picture within which they occur.

To be continued in Part Two.


Unknown said...

This is fascinating reading thus far. I'll be looking forward to part 2.

Nick "Hildiwulf" Ritter said...

I just started reading the interview, and I would like to propose a small correction:

"Theodism (focused on Anglo-Saxon belief and social structure)."

Theodism has had other-than-Anglo-Saxon foci for over 20 years now, and is best understood as a different approach to the practice of Heathenry, instead of merely being focused on the Heathenry of a different culture than the mostly-Norse-influenced Heathen mainstream. A Norse variety of Theodism would be entirely possible, for instance, and would still be Theodish.


Nick Ritter (Theodish since 1996)

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