Contemplative Ethnography

celtic procession 

Mindful Explorations into Materiality and New Animism[1]

By Francesca Ciancimino Howell



Francesca Howell headshotWestern science continues to demonstrate to twenty-first century researchers and academics of all fields what our human ancestors of millenia past knew: that Nature is alive, is intelligent and that nothing is static or dead. The study of materiality is emerging in new publications across disciplines, and opening minds in and outside of academia. Animism, an area of study given a derogatory title in the colonial eras, now in a post-colonial period is among those areas being re-framed and re-claimed — some call it “New Animism”, to differentiate from Sir Edward Tylor’s Victorian era writings or others of that genre (Tylor 1970 [1881]).

Due to my doctoral and postdoctoral work in the north of Italy, I have been engaged with the subtleties and sensitivities involved in interviewing people on their relationship with place, Nature (which I choose to capitalize), home and the “other-than-human”[2]. Therefore I created what I began to see as an ethos and practice of contemplative, mindful ethnography, which gently and respectfully explores topics that people may not usually talk about openly. In my spiritual practice over many decades of ritual, ceremony, trancework, as well as my environmental campaigning, years of experience and teaching led me to explore the subtle realms of communicating with animals and Nature. Work by Thomas Berry, Professors Brian Swimme and Mary Evelyn Tucker[3] has proposed a “New Cosmology” within the previously entirely anthropocentric fields of science, elaborating on a new ecocentric vision in physics, astronomy, biology and other scientific fields[4]. Mystics and Eastern philosophers of centuries past are now validated — and for some, exonerated — for their views of all as illusory. Indeed late postmodern Western science now demonstrates that nothing is static, the most minute components of life are dancing, and that which we call “things” have innate power.

My work is proposing a theory which postulates that Nature, land, places are agents, and have the power to act — that they are not objects to be acted upon, or as Berry wrote, exploited. Rather Nature, land, the Earth are agents who can act and influence with their own unique forms of power — subtle energies as well as forceful and overt. As academics must, I use a prism that begins broadly and then step by step narrows its critical focus down to a fine point. I hope these points may be useful to students, as they look at their own processes in finding and developing research or thesis projects.

In my doctoral and post-doctoral work in Italy, I moved from Deep Ecology, environmental philosophy and humanities, archeology and anthropology, to hone in ultimately on unusual festivals and community rituals in the little-studied areas of Italy’s north. I chose events and gatherings which manifested certain key points. To begin with, I selected those with notably deep bonds with home, place and community. That community may be human, but it also may be the “other-than-human” of ancestors, of Spirits of Place — in the classical term, the genius loci — and of course, of the many forms of life with whom we humans share our beautiful planet. Other key points included a “time outside of time” feeling, ambiance and space — such as those found in calendrical or place-based rituals.

One theory and theorist whose ideas enhanced my choices was twentieth century French philosopher Michel Foucault, and his ideas of the “heterotopia”, an “other time” (1998, 2000). My work and thought explored that as both an “other time”, that is outside of everyday, normal world time, but also an “Other” time, where the Other — whether a marginalized, silenced or exploited human community, or the Other of Nature, also ignored, exploited and marginalized — could be heard, felt, acknowledged or even honored. In the heterotopia, that which is frequently overlooked or unheard, such as energies, ideas, communication, relationality (another key theme for my studies) may emerge and have impact.

Let us go back and unpack some fundamentals before moving ahead.

Materiality, things, and power

Holy Mountain ImageMateriality is a new and yet old interdisciplinary area of growth in the Academy which expanded greatly in recent decades, percolating and interweaving with disciplines such as religious studies, anthropology, archeology, aesthetics, economics. My view of place and land as agents draws from a likewise diverse cross-section of academic fields, but in a nutshell offers the view that the intrinsic, historically overlooked power of Nature, in natural environments as well as built environments, is tangible, palpable and has impact. Pertinent to this discussion is the etymological lens showing where our words materiality and matter draw their roots from: at the heart of both terms is the word for mother, in Latin, “mater” (Webster's 1953). Appropriately, awareness of materiality of place and of food can return us to our earliest bonds and relationships with Nature, with Mother Earth.

As well as being a scholar of religious studies and environmental studies, I am a longtime environmental campaigner and activist. Consequently, I feel and see the intersection of these philosophies and perspectives, and was fascinated while living in Italy to find evidence of these ideas and this ethos in certain Italian ritualized events such as festivals and communal feasting. In Western society the binaries of Nature/culture, inanimate/animate, dead/living, and so forth can seem to be indelibly ingrained in humanity. However, set as they may seem, these binaries and divisions can actually be more illusory than we believe… a Western legacy of post-Enlightenment thinking. One of my goals was to unpack how ritualized community or family time, such as that of a festival, can offer humanity a medium, a bridge, to help our consciousness and awareness expand, to span the seeming gulf between such binaries of Nature and humanity. In festival communities can be united once more, both the human and other-than-human. Some of my ethnography participants spoke of the time at the table together in community, Italy’s traditional values of commensality, as sacred. Some, like the Druids of Northern Italy, truly did ritualize their preparation of meals — for communal dinners as well as ritual foods.

Italy’s enduring Catholicism, less affected by the Reformation than northern European countries, helped Italians throughout the country to maintain a kind of “Pagan” or perhaps classically-based reverence for Nature and relationality, continuing ancient bonds with land, home, lived religious practice and traditional foodways. It maintained enduring traditions of festival and ludic community time, which were not merely lost by time and transience but actively stamped out in Protestant countries. These festivities were also suppressed across the border in France in Napoleonic reforms. Some of these lived religious traditions give evidence of what Dr. Amy Whitehead writes of as “fetishism” — belief structures that attribute the power to act to material objects such as statues (2013). Her work studies the materiality and lived religious practices in the shrine of the Virgin of Alcalá in southern Spain. Materiality and animic lived religious traditions show how things act and can have impact — whether a fertility ritual inside the Catholic Alcalá church, where practitioners interact physically with the Madonna statue, (such as Whitehead recounts); or “folk medicine” rituals for removing the Evil Eye that my research encountered in Southern Italy. These beliefs add to my ethnographic and critical research discussing how Nature acts — particularly tangible in a seismically-active country made up of seventy-five percent mountains, such as Italy is.

These areas of study can be an enjoyable, or even reassuring, path to rediscovery of the sense that humans are not alone in the world; they may help to re-orient us to being “ineluctably place-bound” (Casey 1996:19) beings who are sensate creatures. We share our Planet (like Nature also in upper case in my work) with a host of living beings and persons — some in human form, some in other form. Depending on the place and culture, people may discuss persons in lightning and thunder form, or in rock and mountain form. Conceptions of persons in statue or other religious form help us to understand why certain lived religious traditions honor and engage, sometimes in intimate relationality, with material things such as rosary beads, large and small statues, altar pieces, ritual tools or instruments and so forth.

I feel privileged to have participated in myriad conversations and interviews with people on these sensitive and often emotionally or spiritually-significant topics in my over a decade of study on these areas, in Italy as well as in America and elsewhere. Following is a brief discussion of how my ethos of mindful, contemplative ethnography evolved, drawing from feminist, qualitative methodologies as well as from my personal spiritual practice.

Contemplative Ethnography — Mindfulness in Courtesy and Communication

When I first arrived back in Italy, after years away, I was “fresh off the boat” from Colorado and Naropa, so to speak. While pursuing my doctoral studies, I was also invited to give talks and workshops on spiritual practice when a book I had written previously was translated and published in Italian. It soon became clear that there was no word in Italian that quite captured mindfulness. In retrospect, later on, my awareness of the traumas visited upon Europe and the UK in two World Wars, made me believe that there might be a connection to the brusque, often jarring behaviors and manners of communication that I was witnessing. I am a New Yorker by birth, and quite experienced in the frantic nature and pace of life in the Northeastern US. However, there was a quality to the cruelty and mindlessness within communities and relationships I observed that fueled my ultimately formulating a theory.

pumpkin festival imageOne theorist whose work influenced my research methodology in Milan and surrounding rural areas was Margaret Rodman: “Our goal should be to transform ethnography into a praxis capable of making the Other present” (Rodman 2003:212). I also see a paraphrasing as important: transforming ethnography into a praxis of being present to the Other. Or simply the other. Varied paths of Paganism such as Wicca and Druidry, as well as Native American Indian/First Nations, all teach that we must show respect to Nature, to the Gods/Divinities, Elemental spirits and to our sister and brother species who share the Planet with humans. My Franciscan Catholic upbringing agreed, and this thinking also tied in with my decades-old environmental activist ethos. Consequently, as I went about developing ethnographic research whose participants ranged across the social spectrum, from rural people to subsistence farmers and herders, all the way to weighty political figures, I began to see a link between courtesy and compassion, viewing them as foundational aspects in both mindfulness and ethnography.

My dissertation and postdoctoral methodology, techniques and philosophies have been drawn from feminist and other heuristic methods, where an awareness of power differentials and socio-economic status is of the utmost importance. (We might also say “privilege” awareness today.) Such awareness and sensitivity is not only appropriate behaviour and courtesy, but also is helpful for entering into the mindset of one's participants, with a potentially nebulous and subtle concept like sense of place, materiality and the “Other-than-human”. The earlier section discussed Foucault’s influence on my work in terms of theories of temporality. In addition, Foucault’s writings on power structures are significant in my thinking. Norman Denzin created a theory of methodology that he entitles “Interpretive interactionist” (Denzin 2009). This theory strives to maintain a high level of sensitivity to power differentials and nuances. He has integrated Foucault into his theories, blending the heuristic and the hermeneutic, demonstrating how the researcher must be alert to power and history continually in one’s work.

As Denzin points out, from the moment the researcher begins a study or enters the field situation, “systems of meaning” begin to permeate the work, as do systems of power and what he terms “emotionality”. “Systems of meaning are always embedded in systems of domination and power” (2009:405). In Italy with its delicate nuances of socio-economics, politics, gender relations and positivism versus late postmodern constructionism, these considerations were significant for my fieldwork and research. Whether studying the Apache as in Basso's work (1996), the Ojibwa or the Inuit for Ingold (2000), or any other studies where subtle or delicate communications enter in, one must maintain heuristic reflexivity and awareness coupled with hermeneutic understanding of history and context.

As I developed my ethnographic techniques, methodologies and philosophies, I integrated this ethos of courtesy, etiquette and mindfulness. Here “right relationship” arises, as in a Buddhist philosophical system — this time in regards to “right methodology”. In Italy in order to conduct a study of this sort, it is not enough merely to speak of ethical treatment of participants, but one must go the extra mile, so to speak, and develop rules not only of ethics, but of culturally-sensitive proper relationship. This does not mean becoming intimate friends with people — it means being considerate. Speaking of “talking with the land” or discussing relationships with trees, springs, mountains, may make some people uncomfortable — expecting derision, or worse. Sharing such delicate feelings and internalized, subtle explorations may not come easily to many, and they may not want to have them published![5] All of these considerations and ethical mores entered into my personal construction of a “contemplative ethnography”, with mindfulness at its base. This theory, as well as others I have developed in my work and writing, have universal application.


From experiences and associations in my many years of living in the UK (before and after my different periods of time in Italy), I can vouch for the fact that there is a movement trying to develop mindfulness and forms of contemplative practice in schools, universities and even — strange as it may sound — into the British Parliament. It is rewarding and spiritually enhancing to bring such techniques and values into aspects of our lives beyond Naropa, Colorado or the US. My theories of using a mindful, contemplative ethnographic methodology, especially regarding subtle and sensitive topics, the delicate voices and active energies of Nature, offer one example. I hope these experiences offer inspiring and perhaps useful ideas.




Abram, D. (1996) The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-than-Human world, NY and Toronto, Vintage Books.

Casey, E. S. (1996) ‘How to Get from Space to Place in a Fairly Short Stretch of Time’, in Feld, S. and Basso, K. (eds) Senses of Place, Santa Fe, New Mexico, USA, School of American Research, pp. 13-52.

Denzin, N. K. (2009) “Interpretive Interactionism: A Postmodern Approach to Everyday Life”, in Jacobsen, M. H. (ed.) Encountering the Everyday: An Introduction to the Sociologies of the Unnoticed, New York, NY and Chicago, Ill, Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 397-421.

Foucault, M. (1998, 2000) ‘Different Spaces’, in Faubion, J. and Rabinow, P. (eds) Aesthetics, method and epistemology,Volume two, Essential works of Foucault, 1954-1984, US and UK, Penguin Books, pp. 175-185.

⎯⎯⎯⎯⎯ (2008) ‘Of Other Spaces’ (1967), in Dehaene, M. and De Cauter, L. (eds) (2008) Heterotopia and the City: Public Space in a Postcivil Society, Abingdon, Oxon, UK and NY, NY, USA, Routledge, pp. 13-29.

LaMothe, K. L. (2015) Why We Dance: A Philosophy of Bodily Becoming, New York, NY, Chichester, UK, Columbia University Press.

Hallowell, I. (1992) The Ojibwa of Berens River, Manitoba: Ethnography into History, New York, NY, Austin, Texas, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich College Publishers.

Harvey, G. (2006) Animism: Respecting the Living World, New York, NY, Columbia Univ. Press.

——— (ed.) (2013)The Handbook of Contemporary Animism, Durham UK and Bristol, CT, Acumen Publishing Ltd, pp. 213-225.

Ingold (2000) The perception of the environment — essays in livelihood, dwelling and skill, Abingdon, Oxon and NY, NY, Routledge.

Swimme, B. and Berry, T. (1992) The Universe Story: From the Primordial Flaring Forth to the Ecozoic Era— a Celebration of the Unfolding of the Cosmos, New York, USA, HarperCollins.

Tylor, E. B. (1970 [1881]) Anthropology Ann Arbor, MI, University of Michigan.    

Webster, N. (1953 [1828]) Webster’s New International Dictionary of the English Language, Second Edition unabridged, Springfield, MA, G. & C. Merriam Company, Publishers.

Whitehead, A. (2013) Religious Statues and Personhood: Testing the Role of Materiality, New York, USA and London, UK, Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.



Francesca Howell’s PhD is in Religious Studies; at Naropa, Francesca has been adjunct faculty in the Environmental Studies Dept. since 2002, as well as having also been NU staff, an adjunct in the College and MA advisor in the past. She is also an ordained interfaith minister, having received honorary ordination from Sacred Well Congregation, in recognition of her spiritual work and Earth activism over decades. She is the author of Making Magic with Gaia: Practices to Heal Ourselves and Our Planet (Red Wheel/Weiser 2002), in addition to her academic writings.



[1] This article must make grateful acknowledgement of the gracious permission given by my publisher, Bloomsbury Academic, to use some of the work to be published by them in my forthcoming book: Food, Festival and Religion: Materiality and Place in Italy.

[2] The term “other-than-human”, which some scholars, such as LaMothe (2015) and Abram (1996) write as “more-than-human”, refers to all those beings other than Homo sapiens with whom we humans share our Planet — whether Nature in a general sense, or other mammals, reptiles and so forth. Sometimes rocks, mountains, and other natural forms or occurrences on Earth are referred to as “other-than-human persons”. The term can also refer to the dimensions beyond our usual waking awareness and recognition, such as the spirit world, or the world of the ancestors. I am influenced by the work of Hallowell, who is often associated with the first adoption of the term in the late modern academy, in his studies of the Ojibwa; and I also quote from Harvey and Ingold who have adopted the term too, particularly in their work with other Native and First Nations communities (Hallowell 1992; Harvey 2006, 2013; Ingold 2000).

[3] At Naropa, the Environmental Studies program and MA in Environmental Leadership has included these thinkers in their coursework, as well as other philosophers in the related area known as Deep Ecology.

[4] The term ecocentric is juxtaposed with the worldview seen only from a human perspective, or with humanity at its center — as the term indicates: “anthropocentric”. One could also use “biocentric”. However, ecocentric emerged in the 1960s and 70s when the philosophical area of Deep Ecology and the psychological field of ecopsychology came forth, at the same time that the environmental movement was growing.

[5] I was required to create releases for those participants whose words and names were to be used in the dissertation. Today I am likewise gathering permissions for the forthcoming Bloomsbury book on similar themes and topics. Many students are no doubt are familiar with this process and ethic at Naropa,