My fieldwork in West Africa, especially Senegal and Mauritania, focuses primarily on Islam—and specifically Sufi (spiritualistic or mystical) Islam—and its place in contemporary society, politics, and culture. Conceptually, I am interested in how significant religious and social changes are made to seem natural through new performances of religiosity that reconfigure prevalent norms, mediating change with little open debate. Another theme in my research is how people accommodate mutually contradicting truths, demands, and points of view they face in life, especially through esoteric language and practice.
Since 2001, my field research has focused on global Sufi Islamic movement, the Fayḍa Tijāniyya. I have examined how discourses and practices of mystical knowledge and authority not only accommodate contradictions and paradox but productively highlight them. In looking at these questions, I draw especially on linguistic and semiotic theories of multiplicity, simultaneity, and hybridity, showing how ancient Sufi ideas are reimagined to provide answers in a globalizing and urbanizing world.
My Senegalese collaborators and I have interviewed leaders and lay disciples in dozens of sites in the movement’s cradle of Senegal and Mauritania, with secondary research in other parts of West Africa, New York City, and Cairo. In addition to over two years in numerous sites in Senegal, I have studied Arabic texts with Bedouin Sufi scholars in the Mauritanian Sahara.
I am actively conducting two larger research and writing projects within this research on the Fayḍa Tijāniyya Sufi movement:
One conceptual focus of research is the political, social, and religious implications of mystical discourses of simultaneous truths, which Sufi Islamic speech juxtaposes in terms of apparent (ẓāhir) and hidden (bāṭin) realities. Through discussing Sufis’ paradoxical approach to plural truths, I draw attention to larger issues of how people negotiate contrasting hegemonic regimes (secular states, global religious authority networks, transnational development institutions), coexistence with cultural others within a global community, and multiple claims of authority within the same religious community. I am particularly interested in how people’s social performances use discourses and practices in ways that assert hidden meanings that undermine their apparent meaning.
West Africa, Middle East and North Africa; global networks
For more on my research, go here.
Courses Taught at University of Alberta
Courses Taught Elsewhere
The anthropological study of language and communication. A brief survey of field and analytical methods and the theory of linguistic anthropology.