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


  • Zdeněk Konopásek Center for Theoretical Study, Praha
  • Jan Paleček Center for Theoretical Study, Praha



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


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. URN:


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Author Biographies

Zdeněk Konopásek, Center for Theoretical Study, Praha

Zdeněk KONOPÁSEK, PhD, is sociologist at the Center for Theoretical Study, the Institute for Advanced Studies. Also, he is associate professor of sociology at the Faculty of Social Studies, Masaryk University in Brno. The most important among his research areas are science and technology studies (STS), especially the complicated relationship between science and politics in socio-technical controversies, and qualitative research methods/CAQDAS. He edited Our Lives as Database: Doing a Sociology of Ourselves—Czech Social Transitions in Autobiographical Research Dialogues (Charles University Press 2000). In 1994-2009, he was the editor-in-chief of Biograf, a Czech and Slovak peer-reviewed journal for social qualitative research.

Jan Paleček, Center for Theoretical Study, Praha

Jan PALEČEK is junior researcher at the Center for Theoretical Study in Prague. He has worked with mentally ill persons in institutions of sheltered housing and was involved in various initiatives aiming at mental health reforms. Psychiatry and the construction of mental illness in various care arrangements became his research topic in the field of sociology. He studied at the Faculty of Social Sciences, Charles University in Prague (MA in sociology). Currently he explores the process of deinstitutionalization in the Czech Republic, working on his PhD thesis in sociology at the Masaryk University in Brno.


How to Cite

Konopásek, Z., & Paleček, J. (2010). The Principle of Symmetry from the Respondents’ Perspective: Possessions, Apparitions and Mental Illnesses in Research Interviews with Clerics. Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 12(1).