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Beyond words. A denotative analysis of participant-produced photos of meaningful objects in the context of a study on lived religion in Latin America.

This paper is for the topic: Religion, materiality, and embodiment; Including artifacts, home shrines, dress, comportment, the body, technologies of the self, and more.

           Material objects play an essential role in human lives and social interactions. The rich body of literature on Material Culture attests to this. Through practice and cultural transmission, humans attribute meanings to objects (Mauss, 2016; Miller, 1998). Such meanings are conditioned by the cultural contexts in which human-objects relations are inscribed (Baudrillard, 1996 [1968]; Bourdieu 1984 [1979]; Douglas and Isherwood, 1979); but may also emerge from singularized interactions between individuals and particular objects (Belk, 1988; Kopytoff, 1988). Socially and individually constructed meanings are thus deeply intertwined in objects (Richins, 1994). Latour (1993) conceives of these relations as assemblages, in which objects, just like humans, exert agency. Building on this idea and rejecting the theoretical divide between humans and objects, proponents of the ontological turn in anthropology argue that things should be understood as concepts. This means that no preconceived meanings should be attributed to objects when studying cultural practices, but also that material properties of objects in themselves can illuminate the concepts they represent (Holbraad and Pedersen, 2017).

            In the religious realm, objects have been operating as vehicles for the divine. For too long, the idea of religion as ‘beyond’ this world, either because viewed as ‘transcendental’ or ‘interiorized,’ informed the study of religion. This perspective is changing. There is a growing scholarship that emphasizes religious materiality, embodiment, and locations (Ammerman & Williams, 2012; Bender, et al., 2013; McGuire, 2008; Meyer & Houtman, 2012; Anonymized, et al., 2017; Williams, 2015). In particular, studies on Latin American religiosity have been increasingly attentive to material aspects of religion such as the use of images, objects, places, media, and bodies. The consensus today is that objects embody the materiality of religiosity and, as such, represent an important aspect of lived religion worth studying (Ameigeiras, 2008; De la Torre, et al., 2014; Anonymized, 2019; Pérez, 2019; Salas & De la Torre, 2020; Scheper Hughes & Schmidt, 2017; Suárez, 2016).

            Meanings of objects in studies are usually captured in elicitation meetings or participant observations. Our goal in this article is to explore objects as sources of data per se, beyond the meanings that their users attach to them when practicing religion. Can objects alone tell us anything about Latin Americans’ religiosity that is not captured through words? To answer this question, we analyzed a database of 660 photos of objects that had special meaning to Latin Americans of different religious affiliations. The first step of our approach consisted in sorting this voluminous database using a denotative analysis of the images ‘beyond words’. We then explored what these participant-produced photos could tell us about respondents’ lived religion

We found that sensuously seizing the data provided an efficient way to process such a large amount of information and communicate between us, researchers, while giving us a more concrete and culturally embedded sense of the topic. It also allowed us to propose a categorization that was more closely representative of the database than if we had used a predetermined classifying grid. This, in turn, led us to identify key differences and similarities in the types of objects valued by participants based on their religious affiliation and socioeconomic status, which we would not have otherwise detected.

From a more substantive perspective, we found that, although religious affiliation was an important determinant of the kinds of objects respondents were attached to, many cases crossed the boundaries of what might be traditionally expected for a Catholic or a Protestant to value as a religious object. In particular, we were struck by the large proportion of ordinary, everyday objects that were brought by believers of all affiliations. Overall, the range of objects surveyed here seems to indicate that there is nothing that cannot be considered ‘important’ or ‘meaningful’ by individuals. In fine, what sets each of these objects apart is the sacralization process behind them (Belk et al., 1989; Martin, 2009), a process in which the agency of the subjects is greatly relevant, as indicated by the observed heterogeneity of the sample and the prominence of non-obviously religious objects. Further research may explore this process of sacralization in depth

Our denotative analysis mostly helped us identify additional research paths and puzzles, which, in turn, require returning to the verbal data that accompany the photos to be elucidated. This approach thus ultimately proves to be useful and relevant as a step within a more comprehensive mixed-method research design. The connotative meanings and the use of the objects, their religious function, their sacralization story, only emerge in the elicitation meeting, and VRM indisputably relies on words to clarify the meaning of images. (Rose, 2014)

            The method proposed here is just one among many possible ways of approaching a visual corpus. We explored a more sensuous approach to VRM, yet it was still limited to sight, as we did not have direct access to the objects. We can assume that texture and odors can contribute to a better analysis of a database of religious objects. Further exploration of other methodologies (e.g. exploring the potential benefit of visual recognition technology), working from different constrains (conforming multi-cultural or multi-disciplinary points of view), and revisiting the coding methodology could also clear the path for a more exhaustive use of images.


Abstract for Online Program Book (maximum 150 words)

Can visual data provide insights that words do not reveal? Meanings of objects in visual studies are usually captured through elicitation meetings. In this article, we propose to explore them from a purely visual standpoint and assess the methodological and substantive benefits of such denotative approach. We used a database of 660 photographs produced by 228 participants in three Latin American cities. Following a “lived religion” approach, respondents were asked to present an object that was ‘meaningful’ for them. Analyzing these pictures beyond words, proved useful to operationalize a large corpus of visual data, facilitate the transmission of the results and build a representative classification of the types of objects most commonly brought by participants. We conclude that a denotative analysis of participant-produced visuals ‘beyond words’ represents an untapped opportunity to challenge existing representations and elicit new research directions, which, in turn, require returning to verbal data to be elucidated.