by Paulo da Conceição*

Translated and reviewed by Matheus Lucas Hebling

In these more than twenty years as a researcher of Brazilian mediumistic religions, especially Kardecist spiritism, and Umbanda, without a doubt, the greatest difficulties I encountered did not appear during the research itself and its requirements, but in how not only to present the data and facts that it raised but especially how to translate them against the background of the prevailing ethnological culture. Talking with spirits and entities, observing mediums and believers in the subtlety of their behavior, establishing new methodologies, and improvising on research techniques in the heat of uncatalogued rituals… all this contact with these realities and experience ends up teaching us. The ghost of culture shock always exists, but the ethnographic experience ends up imposing itself, and this imposition is all the measure that is needed: it is up to the ethnographer to recognize, contain and locate the moment of interpretation, submitting cabinet wishes the need to let the world around you speak.

There are twenty years of comings and goings to Spiritist centers and terreiros, and there are also twenty years of witnessing the monitoring of changes and permanences within the academy, and around it, in the way these themes are dealt with by the scientific culture established within the social sciences: the barriers are the same, the difficulties – and even the stigmas – are still the same. Without undermining the importance, and understanding that these surveys also have their difficulties, it is impossible not to notice the disparities in the treatment that themes related to “Church Religions” receive. Is this because these religions have been inserted for longer and with more cultural legitimacy in the great Western historical narratives? The question already has its answer, however, this type of argument carries the trap of throwing to the general what should be resolved in the specific: blaming culture for a certain praxis often serves the interests of conservative and reactionary postures which the questioning and eventual change would directly affect. In this way, we cannot lose focus or abandon the neighborhood of the difficulty that the academy itself has created for all research that moves away from the dated paradigms of doing science that serves a core – or as the fashion concept says, a North – also dated. So, following the proverb, keep an eye on the fish and the other one on the cat.

Seeking the most common definition possible about what ethnology would be, we find in the old friend of (graduate) students, Wikipedia, the following concept: “Compared to ethnography, the study of single groups through direct contact with the culture, ethnology takes the research that ethnographers have compiled and then compares and contrasts different cultures”. Studying cultures has always been and still is a study of comparison, and bearing in mind the warnings left by Focault, this comparison will always be an unequal political exercise, where a center (North?) will always impose itself as the comparative reference. Consequently, comparing is no longer an effort to present differences and alternative knowledge to the world and becomes the confirmation of this center, for which all the remaining world and its values ​​are seen as satellite occurrences, classified as exotic in their nature for extrapolating culturally and politically pre-established reading keys: Orientalism is not dead, long live Orientalism.

Syncretism as a concept is born under the “bad sign” of miscegenation and everything that stained the little blood from the north that inhabited the bodies of people from the south. (I think here and refer – in the Brazilian case – to the “School of Black Religions”, led by Roger Bastide, Arthur Ramos, among others, for whom syncretism was something bad, for diluting and defiling supposed purities and excellences of traditions, which would suffer with the mixtures). Today, the concept has surpassed that past to become a hallmark of tolerance, configuring itself as an ideal – cultural, social, political – to be pursued. However, if for the general culture syncretism, despite certain controversies, has an inclusive or at least expository meaning of the meeting of realities, in academia, syncretism becomes a symbol of translation and approximation with the center of reference. From a very early stage in the career, and supposedly due to a certain pragmatism tacitly accepted in the teaching of social sciences, what is demanded and presented to us in the readings of subjects focused on the comparative study of cultures usually consists of introductions, conclusions and perhaps the first chapter of the studied works. From an early age, we are trained to ignore the substance and what makes each of these researches what they are, leaving only the part where the translation and adaptation of the topic are usually done to be consumed quickly and without much criticism. Only much later, if our interests guide us to this end, we can get in touch with the core of the book, which in itself is a whole world we did not know, however, unfortunately, and the experience of this discovery ends up submitting to the demands of the constructions of false bridges, where the concept arrives before reality: we adapt this knowledge to the trained knowledge, believing that we are agents of the encounter of (syncretic) knowledge, when in fact we only navigate a one-way street.

The demands of the academic environment are real and important and should not be ignored, now not everything that is scientific needs to hide behind a complexity manufactured by epistemological laziness, which in turn is the condemnation of a conservatism that is more than cultural, it is human: the unknown is the reminder of my cognitive limits. Ethnographic research for centuries has helped societies question the universality of their values. Just remember one of the reports contained in the core of The Argonauts of the Pacific, where Malinowski introduces us to the cultural understanding of the Tobrianese about the movement of leaves from the tops of trees during the night. This occurrence, considered simple in the western booklet, had its meaning for the natives of these archipelagos in Oceania. It was seen as a sign of ill omen because they understood that this would be when the witches were released, and the movement in the branches of the trees betrayed their presence as the place where they had just landed. It is unquestionable that the author, a scientist educated at the center, carried with him another possible explanation. However, if the author understands as the wind what the natives understand as witches, the ethnographer writes that they are witches. By presenting these realities respecting the rationality and reading of the local world, ethnography had with it and has with us, the ability to return to the reader and the reader the protagonism of the “middle terms”, of building their bridges of intelligibility, promoting his encounter with the world of the ethnographic tale: perhaps witches ride on the wind, or does the wind carry witches to the tops of the trees?

However, despite the contributions of these figures who have become references in our science, certain ideologies and old academic vices have hindered the advance of the ethnology of an understanding more in line with the world, and the meeting of this world with the traditions that inhabit. This gesture by Malinowski and this choice by him and by the entire school that formed around him laid the foundations for some revolutions still in progress, of learning for science as a whole to use syncretism, not as a must-be, an ornament on a PowerPoint slide, but as a tool, as a research method and technique. The advance towards starting reading through the middle of the book and overcoming the current teaching techniques in the social sciences depend on this syncretism being less a figure of rhetoric and being more present as a lever to create displacements in the current axis and its interpretive paradigms. Not only an epistemological but a cultural and political refusal of translations, of introductions and conclusions that are a violation of what makes the kernel the kernel. A refusal that is more of an invitation to the post-paper world to search google for more than confirmations of concepts and syntheses, and to seek to know the denial, the antithesis, and even the absurd, because usually, it is in this discomfort that the movement.

Epistemological syncretism is the only way out of the current impasse that social sciences live in the constant clashes between a world that got tired of being consumed as a product and that he also decided to write the introduction and conclusion, and another that until then comfortably dealt with everything and all as objects. The path towards this is not only methodological but also anthropophagic, of overcoming laziness, of embracing the complex without giving up anything while distrusting everything. However, and regardless of which side we are on (North, South), the sociological profession par excellence is the promotion of the encounter of knowledge and not the production of concepts. We are entitled to our beliefs, and we may not believe in witches, yet open-door sociology, like the popular adage, invites us to respect: pero que las hay, las hay.

*Paulo da Conceição is a doctoral student in Sociology at the University of Brasilia and a research fellow at the Center for Studies in the History of Religion at the Portuguese Catholic University.

Paulo da Conceição (2021) "Syncretism as an Episteme". Brazilian Research and Studies Blog. ISSN 2701-4924. Vol. 2 Num. 2. available at:, accessed on: December 1, 2022.