Consumer researchers have long explored spirituality in the marketplace. We have examined the ‘sacralization of the secular’ (Belk, Wallendorf, & Sherry, 1989, p. 9) and the re-enchantment of consumption as a realm of wonder (Firat & Venkatesh, 1995). We have researched ‘sacredness’ in money and markets (Belk & Wallendorf, 1990; Belk et al., 1989). Our studies of brand communities are also rife with references to spirituality, from Apple Newton and Weight Watchers groups to Macintosh cults and the Twilight saga (Belk & Tumbat, 2005; Moisio & Beruchashvili, 2009; Muniz & Schau, 2005; Schau, Muniz, & Arnould, 2009).
We have only just started exploring, however, the consumption of religion and spirituality (Higgins & Hamilton, 2014; Husemann & Eckhardt, 2018; Izberk-Bilgin, 2012; McAlexander, Dufault, Martin, & Schouten, 2014; Sandikci & Ger, 2010). The articles appearing in this special issue are part of a nascent programme of research that is important given the continued prominence of spirituality and religion in the lives of consumers. Over 80% of people in the world are religious. Christianity is the world’s largest global religion, accounting for 31% of the world’s population, followed by Islam at 24%, Hinduism at 15%, and those people religiously unaffiliated represent 16% of the world’s population (Pew Center, 2015).
As our field begins this programme of research, we need to consider if our theoretical and methodological tools are up to the task. What does it mean exactly to ‘consume’ spirituality and religion and do we need to adapt our methods and theories? Past expansions in the field of marketing to incorporate interpretive and critical methodologies have proved fruitful (Arnould & Thompson, 2005; Tadejewski, 2010). Similarly, we predict that research on the consumption of spirituality and religion could prove fertile for the spread of new theories and methods that generalise beyond religious contexts, such as the theory of consumer deceleration that is relevant for daily life beyond the original site of the religious pilgrimage (Husemann & Eckhardt, 2018).
In past research, the consumption of spirituality often refers to the individual pursuit of transcendence outside of religious institutions while the consumption of religion commonly refers to the collective pursuit of transcendence within religious institutions (Rinallo, Scott, & McClaren, 2013; McAlexander et al., 2014). In this commentary, we refer to the consumption of spirituality and religion interchangeably because we are reflecting on the shared challenges that researchers commonly face in both of these domains.
We explore two challenges. First, how do we deal with a taken-for-granted secularist worldview that often prevails in an academic context and how does it affect researchers’ ability to recognise and understand alternative metaphysical worldviews? Second, how can we make sense of spiritual entities – the various demons, gods, witches, angels, necromancers and others – that are part of the metaphysical world of the people we study?
In our own study of Ghanaian Pentecostal Christians, we encountered a metaphysical worldview that differed markedly from our own secularist view. We also faced ‘spirits’ in the marketplace with which we were forced to contend. Specifically, we encountered a religious life where many consumers believed that their sense of identity, the meaning of their lives and their very well-being depended on their relationships with occult forces inhabiting businesses, markets, and family and social life. For example, in our research, the Pentecostals widely consumed ‘blessed’ anointing (olive) oils purchased from church sites, but we needed to interpret this consumption within a larger metaphysical landscape. Teresa,1 a Ghanaian Pentecostal, explains her use of these oils: ‘You can smear it on your face when selling and if you have faith, your items would be patronised. You can also smear it on your child if he or she is not well, as well as inserting some into your nose when you are not well.’ Our religious participants consumed ‘blessed’ oils in a host of ways all focused on sealing themselves, their families, and their possessions against evil spirits while, at the same time, they tried to draw in good spirits. They drank the oil, applied it to aching arms and swollen legs, and rubbed it over their bodies and heads. They poured it into bath water, sprinkled it on money and gifts (both gifts given and received), and sprinkled it on their wares and places of business. They even rubbed it on their cars’ steering wheel to safeguard themselves from any evil spirits that might come along for a ride. How can researchers studying the consumption of spirituality and religion interpret these practices that differ from the researchers’ metaphysical assumptions and do not fit existing theorisations and framing of what constitutes the spiritual?
Our commentary seeks to encourage more academic dialogue and reflexivity on how to understand alternative worldviews and develop different approaches to studying these ‘spirits in the marketplace’. This commentary is based on our own 8-month ethnographic
research into Pentecostal spirituality in 2 churches in Ghana. Data collected included audio- recorded personal interviews, participant observation, and audio and video recordings of church proceedings, all with informant and church leadership consent. The research was cleared by a university ethics committee and all informants are presented in this commentary with pseudonyms to protect their identity. We draw upon insights from our ethnographic work on Pentecostal spirituality in Ghana and advance four propositions.
First, consistent with good ethnographic practice, we suggest that consumers’ alternative metaphysics should be treated with sensitivity to the socio-historical context and, thus, we highlight the deep roots of Ghanaian Pentecostal religion. Second, we suggest the need to suspend disbelief and take seriously the spirits that inhabit the worlds of our informants if we are to understand their consumption practices. Towards this end, researchers may need to adopt alternative methods that are more culturally sensitive; we explore the potential power of indigenous methods and argue that Pentecostal testimony is an indigenous method with promise. Third, we need to be sensitive to our informants’ metaphysical assumptions in theorising their spirituality and, as such, we theorise testimonies as affective performances. Finally, we suggest that it may be fruitful to move beyond our own reflexivity and our informants’ metaphysical worldviews to advocate for action. We bring forward both of our perspectives, in rapprochement, to show how we employed informants’ collective understanding of spirituality to enhance the church’s collective well-being.