January 23, 2007

Luhrmann takes turn in telling “What Matters to Me And Why”

When Tanya Luhrmann, Max Palevsky Professor in the Committee on Human Development, addressed the question “What matters to me and why” last Thursday in Rockefeller Chapel, she called the topic “ridiculously intimidating.”

Luhrmann said that after “fretting about what pearls of wisdom” to bestow on her listeners, she decided to discuss a question that has emerged in her work over the years: “Why or how the internal world comes to overpower the external world.”

She described how she has explored the question in works spanning her current study of psychotics in Chicago to her first fieldwork project as an anthropologist, in which she studied a segment of the English middle class that believes in and practices magic.

Luhrmann said nothing quite compares to an anthropologist’s first fieldwork project, and she described how she completely immersed herself in the study. As she integrated herself into her subjects’ lifestyle and performed the rites of witchcraft, she said at one point she even had a vision of druids.

“I’m neither frightened by [visionary experiences] nor do I think they give me ontological knowledge,” Luhrmann said. Instead, she said her work has led her to realize “how much people can build a world that’s so much more than the mundane.”

Discussing the trials of the anthropologist, such as the loneliness of fieldwork and importance of being honest with research subjects, Luhrmann conveyed a passion for her field. “There have been glorious moments,” she said. “When you feel excited about the possibilities of human existence.”