The Junior Scholar Prize Winner Shaylih Muehlmann interviews the 2012 Rappaport Prize Winner, Sarah R. Osterhoudt

By Shaylih Muehlmann, Junior Scholar Prize Winner, University of British Columbia

The 2012 winner of the Rappaport Student Paper Prize from the Anthropology and the Environment section is Sarah R. Osterhoudt who is a student in the combined doctoral program in Anthropology and Environmental Studies at Yale University.  Her winning paper is entitled  “Clear Souls | Clean Fields: Environmental Imaginations and Christian Conversions in Northeastern Madagascar.” In this lucidly written essay Osterhoudt analyzes the experiences of rural Malagasy farmers who are in the process of converting to Christian religions from prior systems of ancestor belief.  She argues, compellingly, that in this process, shifts in religious ideologies are profoundly connected to shifts in environmental imaginations and practice.  Drawing on long-term fieldwork in the village of Imorona in Northeastern Madagascar Osterhoudt argues that ideas of what it means to be a good farmer and what it means to be a good Christian have become intertwined in local experiences of religious conversion which reconfigure understandings of the role of central environmental elements such as stones, rice fields, and forests. By considering local experiences of religious conversions jointly with changing understanding of environmental meanings, the paper offers a unique perspective on the interconnections between environmental and religious ideologies.

Interview with Sarah Osterhoudt

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In your essay you mentioned that you first lived in Imorona, Madagascar as a Peace Corps volunteer from 2005-2007.  What inspired you to return to the village as a doctoral student in 2010?

When I was planning my doctoral research, I knew I wanted to return to Madagascar, but I wasn’t sure if I would go back to the same village where I lived as a volunteer. In some ways it was tempting to go somewhere where I could see things with a completely new perspective. But then I decided that the history I had with Imorona was a great foundation for my research. Plus I really liked the region, and was excited at the chance to go back.

In what ways was your experience being there as a graduate student different from your experiences as a Peace Corps volunteer?

I was a little worried about how it would be going from being a volunteer to being a student. But the role of student is respected in Imorona, as it is throughout Madagascar. So, once I explained to people I was back to do research, people overall accepted me in this new role. I also involved people in the community as research assistants, so I think that also helped people understand better what I was doing and to feel a part of my research.

You mention in your essay that when you first began your doctoral research you were not interested in the issue of religious conversion but soon realized that it was too important to ignore. Was it difficult for you to recalibrate your research focus to include such very different themes from those you set out to study?

In some ways it was difficult, but it other ways it was a pretty smooth transition. As I mention in the paper, people were often inviting me to church events, so having opportunities to conduct good ethnographic research on Christianity wasn’t difficult. It was harder to intellectually transition to this new subject, as I thought of myself primarily as doing environmental work. But I soon realized that the two areas actually had a lot of overlaps – once I saw this, I began to enjoy my research on religion.

I was interested in your description of what the shift from ancestor beliefs to Christian beliefs implied for the prospects of watching over ones fields in the afterlife.  You describe that people who had converted to Christianity believed that when they die their souls would leave the village and go to heaven where they could not keep watch over their fields. But Christian imaginaries often include the idea of “looking down from heaven” as well. Did you find that anyone had incorporated this Christian trope of looking from above to accommodate ancestor beliefs about watching over ones fields in the afterlife?

That’s a great question, and I did find people thinking of heaven and the afterlife this way. Many new converts to Christianity described the afterlife as a blend of ancestral and Christian ideas, where people could move back and forth between a Christian heaven and ancestral realms. I think one difference may be the degree to which they intervene with the living – as ancestors they are actively involved in on-going village life, but as Christians this usually isn’t as much the case.

Could you tell us more about how this essay fits into the your larger doctoral project?

My dissertation examines how agricultural landscapes are places where people cultivate both materials and meanings. I look at ways local agricultural environments help people approach different forms of cultural change – Christianity is one such change. I also look at the ideologies of conservation and development. I found that these viewpoints all present certain ideas and moralities, and farmers in the region select and combine certain parts of each framework as they re-imagine their place in the world.

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