CFP PROPOSED AAA 2016 Panel: “There’s an App for That”: The Anthropological Study of Religious and Religion-Themed Mobile Apps

PROPOSED AAA 2016 Panel: 
“There’s an App for That”: The Anthropological Study of Religious and Religion-Themed Mobile Apps

Abstracts Deadline: April 3rd, 2016
Send to Jacqueline Fewkes (

Conference: 115th American Anthropological Association Annual Meeting ‘Evidence, Accident, Discovery’ 16-20 Nov. 2016, Minneapolis, MN, USA

Organizer: Jacqueline H. Fewkes (Florida Atlantic University)

As smartphone use becomes increasingly widespread globally, the development of mobile apps has a potentially significant impact on contemporary religion.  Mobile apps can reach large audiences; one of the most popular religious apps available, the Biblical app “YouVersion”, has an estimated 200 million users worldwide.  From Roman Catholic confession apps to Jewish Kaddish assistance apps and Muslim halal food apps, religion-themed mobile apps may create complex sites for potential new forms of religious expression, worship, discussion, and practices.  The purpose of this panel is to explore from an anthropological perspective the impact of mobile apps that focus on religious practice, communities, and religious issues, and/or those that may be used for religious purposes whether or not they were originally developed for that purpose.

Anthropological studies of religious mobile apps may focus on a range of potential issues, such as ethnographic accounts of app use, or emic critiques of digital modes of religious authority.  The studies may emphasize the cultural significance of widespread use, or explore the ways in which a focus on the globalizing influences of mobile app technologies minimizes attention to the significance of local contexts of production, pre-existing knowledge networks, and non-digital relationships of power.  Such studies can be situated in a broad historical context, thus placing what may seem to be “revolutionary” technologies into cultural narratives that span centuries to include literacy, printing, and other long-established human innovations and technologies (Hofheinz 2011).  To focus on the digital and to reify it as some new form of culture, is, as Miriam Aouragh pointed out, often done so in ways to project Orientalist notions of modernity, civilization, and progress on the Other, ignoring human agency.  Thus our analysis must be critical and recognize the complex ways in which in-app and on-ground (as opposed to online or virtual) contexts interact (Aouragh 2012).  Whether this comes in the form of conceptualizing the in-app and on-ground as “collocations” or critical reconceptualizations of the human, methods and insights from the growing subfield of digital anthropology may be useful to apply to the study of religious mobile apps (Whitehead and Wesch 2012; Boellstorff and Nardi 2012; Boellstorff 2015).

Technology has been credited with almost super-powers in terms of its ability to effect change and shape human experiences, frequently without, as John Rahagi has pointed out, “a clear understanding of the context of what is actually transpiring” (Rahagi 2012:154).  Thus while the large numbers of religious app users such as those mentioned earlier may be impressive, there is also a need to examine in more detail how those numbers may shape religious participation along lines such as gender, class, and national origins.

A detailed anthropological understanding is therefore necessary to examine the actual impact of mobile apps on religion and religious beliefs, behaviors, and ideals, and the range of issues associated with this topic.

Potential panel papers may consider issues such as:
·      How do particular mobile apps create new ways for religious communities and believers to communicate, share information, solicit support, or disseminate viewpoints? 
·      What is the source of religious authority in a religious app, and how does this authority intersect with other forms of authority within the community of users?
·      How do the economics and technology of mobile apps shape religious ideas and practices through variables such as programming and corporate policies?
·      What are the best anthropological methods for studying digital technology such as mobile apps?  How might methodological perspectives from various sub-disciplines be applied to the study of this topic?
·      What on-ground practices, power relations, and other non-digital contexts shape the development of the digital world constructed through religion-themed mobile apps?
·      Do religious mobile apps create new networks of religious knowledge sharing or forms of community?
·      How do religious mobile apps contribute to globalization or localization processes?  How are they challenged by the same?
·      How do religious mobile apps interact with the physical bodies of religious believers; thus potentially contributing to digital anthropological discussions of the “virtual human” and/or “post-human”?
·      How does the use of religious apps transform users’ relationships with technology and their digital environment?
This is not a definitive list of possible directions, and all those with ethnographic evidence or anthropologically informed theoretical interests related to the broad topic of mobile apps and religion are encouraged to propose a paper.

If interested please send a 250 word abstract with a title and five keywords to Jacqueline Fewkes ( by April 3rd, 2016.  Presenters accepted for inclusion in the panel will be informed by April 6th, 2016 and will need to register for the AAA 2016 conference by April 15th.


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