Professor Listing

Joseph_Mauritania

Joseph Hill, PhD

Associate Professor

Arts

Anthropology

About Me

  • Ph.D. (Anthropology), Yale University (2007)
  • B.A. (Honors Humanities and Anthropology), Brigham Young University (1999)

My fieldwork in West Africa, especially Senegal and Mauritania, focuses primarily on Islam—and specifically Sufi (spiritualistic or mystical) Islam—and its place in contemporary society, politics, and culture. Conceptually, I am interested in how significant religious and social changes are made to seem natural through new performances of religiosity that reconfigure prevalent norms, bringing about change with little open debate. Another theme in my research is how people accommodate mutually contradicting truths, demands, and points of view they face in life, especially through esoteric language and practice.


Research

Since 2001, my field research has focused on global Sufi Islamic movement, the Fayḍa Tijāniyya. I have examined how discourses and practices of mystical knowledge and authority not only accommodate contradictions and paradox but productively highlight them. In looking at these questions, I draw especially on linguistic and semiotic theories of multiplicity, simultaneity, and hybridity, showing how ancient Sufi ideas are reimagined to provide answers in a globalizing and urbanizing world.

My Senegalese student collaborators and I have interviewed leaders and lay disciples in dozens of sites in the movement’s cradle of Senegal and Mauritania, with secondary research in other parts of West Africa, New York City, and Cairo. In addition to over two years in numerous sites in Senegal, I have studied Arabic texts with Bedouin Sufi scholars in the Mauritanian Sahara.

I am actively conducting two larger research and writing projects within this research on the Fayḍa Tijāniyya Sufi movement:

  • Gender and Islamic authority: I am researching the little-known phenomenon of women Islamic leaders in Senegal who exercise forms of Islamic authority typically reserved for men. Some women act as spiritual guides for men and women, some teach the Qurᶜān, and others perform Sufi chant in large meetings. These women draw on apparently contradictory strategies, both undermining and taking advantage of prevalent gender distinctions. For example, they define themselves as honorary “men” but also locate religious authority in conventionally feminine qualities such as motherhood, cooking, submission, and wifely devotion. I am interested in how these women work within and between multiple established idioms to expand the possibilities available to them. One book on women leaders, Wrapping Authority: Women Sufi Leaders in an Islamic Movement in Senegal, is currently being reviewed for publication, and I am completing another, Women Who Are Men: The Emergence of Women’s Leadership in a Sufi Movement in Senegal.
  • Religious performance (vocal, musical, and social) and change: Since 2014, I have researched hip hop artists, Sufi chanters, and others who use singing, chanting, and other kinds of performance as forms of Sufi religious practice and communication. I am interested in how these performers mediate social change and how they manage—or in some cases fail—to establish themselves as legitimate religious performers despite potential controversies surrounding the religious acceptability of their performances.

One conceptual focus of research is the political, social, and religious implications of mystical discourses of simultaneous truths, which Sufi Islamic speech juxtaposes in terms of apparent (ẓāhir) and hidden (bāṭin) realities. Through discussing Sufis’ paradoxical approach to plural truths, I draw attention to larger issues of how people negotiate contrasting hegemonic regimes (secular states, global religious authority networks, transnational development institutions), coexistence with cultural others within a global community, and multiple claims of authority within the same religious community. I am particularly interested in how people’s social performances use discourses and practices in ways that assert hidden meanings that undermine their apparent meaning.

Geographic interests

West Africa, Middle East and North Africa; global networks

Thematic interests

  • Gender
  • Performance and social change
  • Politics of Language and Semiotics
  • Knowledge traditions and authority
  • Transnationalism, Globalization, and Cosmopolitanism
For more on my research, go here.

Teaching

Courses Taught at University of Alberta

  • Islam, Gender, and Performance (Anthr 487/587) [Poster]
  • Religion in the Middle East (Anthr 286) [Poster]
  • Anthropology of Gender (Anthr 310)
  • Introduction to Social and Cultural Anthropology (Anthr 207)
  • Introduction to Linguistic Anthropology (Anthr 208)
  • Anthropology of Sub-Saharan Africa (Anth 286)
  • Islam, Gender, and Authority (Anthr 487/587)
  • Religion, Politics, and Secularism (Anthr 487/587)
  • Islam, Performance, and New Media (Anthr 487/587)

Courses Taught Elsewhere

  • Language in Culture
  • Language, Meaning, and Politics
  • Contemporary Anthropological Theory
  • Ethnographic Fieldwork Methods
  • The Social Construction of Difference: Race, Class, and Ethnicity
  • Religion, Ideology, and Society
  • Peoples and Cultures of Africa
  • Islam, Politics, and Society in a Global Era
  • Introduction to Cultural Anthropology
  • Arab Society
  • Anthropology of Food
  • Sovereignty and the Postcolonial State in Africa
  • Religion and Power in Africa