Get to Know Our Fellows: Four Questions with Dimitris Xygalatas

Xygalatas-What is your academic background and what is your current position in UCHI/at UConn/Your Home Institution?
I am an Assistant Professor at UConn’s Anthropology Department and an affiliate of the Cognitive Science Program. Those two areas also reflect my background and training, which is interdisciplinary. I have conducted a combined 4 years of ethnographic fieldwork, but I have also worked in various social scientific laboratories. This allowed me to develop a research methodology which combines field and lab approaches and affordances.
-What is the project you’re currently working on? 
My research examines the effects of ritual participation at the individual and social level. One area of particular interest for me has been the practice of extreme rituals. I have studied some of the most intense rituals around the world, ceremonies that involve walking on fire, piercing the skin, altered states of consciousness, and other intense experiences. To do this, I often brought technological innovations into my field research, things like biometrics, cameras, motion detectors, and more. Using these quantitative methods has often raised important issues and questions. For example, as anthropologists, what are we to make of some of the discrepancies between our measurements and people’s phenomenological accounts? Say, when our quantitative observations about participants’ emotional reactions do not agree with what those participants report feeling, how do we reconcile these accounts? These are some of the questions that I am currently concerned with.
-How did you arrive at this topic?

I find ritual to be one of the most fascinating aspects of human conduct. It is a truly universal behavior, but we don’t think about it too much – we just do it. As an ethnographer, whenever I ask people why they perform their rituals, they typically respond along these lines: “that’s just what we do”; “we’ve always done it this way”; “this is who we are”. So, there is a sense of salience and sacredness about these practices; people agree that rituals are important to them, but more often than not they have no justification for why they are important. I find this quite puzzling, especially in the context of painful or stressful rituals, so the kinds of questions I am asking are concerned with what these costly activities offer to those who engage in them.


-What impact might your work have on a larger public understanding of your topic?
Anthropology studies some of the most meaningful aspects of human existence: the things we see as sacred or taboo, the things that unite and divide us, those that we see as worth fighting or dying for, the things that make us human. And yet, ironically, anthropologists often have a hard time reaching out to a wider public, beyond the world of academic conference rooms and obscure technical journals. In my own work, I try to keep this in mind, and to explore new ways of communicating ideas and findings, including electronic and visual media. I believe that as academics, especially those of us funded by taxpayers’ money, we have an obligation to engage with the public and make our findings available to everyone. Specifically with regards to my topic, I would like to contribute towards a realization that some of the cultural practices we might consider obsolete, superfluous, or even primitive, often play a very important role in who we are are individuals and communities, and that age-old traditions have been able to survive for so long because they are an inextricable part of our nature.

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