The Principle of Symmetry from the Respondents' Perspective: Possessions, Apparitions and Mental Illnesses in Research Interviews with Clerics

Zdeněk Konopásek, Jan Paleček


In our current research project, we study how experiences such as hearing the voice of the Lord or having a vision of Virgin Mary are dealt with in psychiatry and Catholic pastoral practice. How is the status of these phenomena negotiated by the participants? Under what conditions do they become instances of legitimate religious experience or, alternatively, symptoms of mental illness? We approach the study of these issues "symmetrically"—we do not prefer a priori medical or spiritual explanations. Some time ago, we demonstrated and explained such an approach (which is common, e.g., in contemporary sociology of science), and its relevance for our research, in an analytic paper on the movie "The Exorcism of Emily Rose" (released in 2005). The paper discusses a highly ambiguous relationship, pictured in the film, between medical and spiritual interpretation of the story of a young girl who was considered possessed by demons and who died after unsuccessful exorcism (KONOPÁSEK & PALEČEK, 2006). The question that has inspired this paper is: can such a symmetrical approach be of any relevance also for people we are studying? In an attempt to get an answer, we have interviewed four Catholic priests on this particular issue. The priests had been asked to watch the movie on Emily Rose and read our paper on it in preparation for the interview. Based on the subsequent discussions (and also on some other empirical data of our current research), we wanted to shed some light on whether and in what ways our specific epistemic perspective coheres with the views and positions of our respondents. It turned out that this reflexive research experiment not only helped to clarify points of mis/understanding between us and our respondents, but also contributed to our own appreciation of the role of symmetry in our current research project as well as in the studied social practice.


symmetry principle; reflexivity; religion; psychiatry; apparition; possession; co-operative inquiry; STS

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