A Field Guide to Modern Pagans In Hamilton, Ontario
This is a really cool book. It’s an in-depth study of the pagan community in Hamilton, Ontario by a member of said community. Neil Jamieson-Williams is an academic as well, holding degrees in both anthropology and sociology, and he approaches this work with that as well as his personal background in a healthy balance. His experience as an academic lends itself to a professional treatment of the topic at hand, but his experience within the community he studies tempers it without showing too much bias.
The author starts with a basic overview of modern paganism, and then proceeds into some good advice on how to observe pagans (for we are wily critters!) He’s quite open about the fact that academics may do some pretty covert observations of people who don’t realize they’re being observed, including online in forums and elsewhere. And he stresses the importance of being open with the people you’re observing (no doubt to help would-be observers to avoid “Luhrmann syndrome”*) However, he’s also honest about the methods by which academics may “ethically” obtain material, some of which may raise the hackles of more private pagans. It’s a refreshing sort of honesty.
The rest of the book is dedicated to profiles of different covens and other groups in the Hamilton area at the time of the book’s publication. Jamieson-Williams is quite open about the fact that pagan groups are often short-lived, especially those he terms “Eclectic”, and that his book may be dated in a short time. However, this does not detract from the systematic explanation of the different groups and lineages represented in his chosen demographic, nor the frank appraisal of their varying levels of participation in the community at large (and how that may affect the budding ethnographer’s attempts to study them).
My quibbles are minor. There are a few typos scattered throughout the book, even taking into account my American eyes and the author’s Canadian English. Additionally, there are a few points I would question, such as his assertion on p. 14 that “the vast majority of Modern Pagans absolutely despise the term Neopagan”. I’d say that some do, but not the vast majority. Even if this were a regional difference, it goes against his later cautioning against generalizing based on too small a selection of study participants.
But these are small things, and should not deter even the casual reader. Overall, I applaud the existence of this book. It’s valuable to pagans because it shows us a potential way of communicating about ourselves in a way that nonpagans may be more amenable to than, say, a practical book on spells. It also points the way towards a more advanced way of exploring the community; we do have our academics in the community, though even nonacademics may use this as inspiration for their own explorations and ways of communicating about paganism to others. For academics, pagan or otherwise, it’s an example of a sensitive, yet effective, study of a particular group of pagans that allows the freedom to explore and learn, but also shows areas where we may feel particularly vulnerable and may ask for more respect. And for members of the mainstream community who are not pagan or academic, it’s an accessible guide that shows pagans in a realistic, relatively neutral light. The writing style, while fitting academic standards, is still understandable to the layperson rather than couching itself in too much complexity and jargon. In all, it’s a very balanced book.
Personally, I would like to see more books like this, studies of specific demographics. Granted, not every community has its very own long-term resident pagan-academic. And I don’t think every book should be a carbon copy of this one. However, just as some people study specific tribes, or even specific indigenous communities, so may there be value in looking at individual pagan communities in detail. This has tended to be more slanted towards specific traditions spread across wide geographic locations. But in-depth studies of specific locales and their corresponding communities may help give some insight on unique concepts, such as where pagans are more populous and/or active, and what factors may contribute to that. I also encourage people to take the same well-balanced approach that Jamieson-Williams has in this book, offering a little of something for everyone.
Five pawprints out of five.
* This refers to Tanya Luhrmann, an academic who studied pagans in the ’80’s, who took advantage of the trust of pagans who treated her less like an academic and more like their own after a time. They gave her oathbound material that she then released into a more public domain. (In Wallis 2004 as referenced by Ellwood 2008, p. 62)
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