ZiF Workshop

Charismatic Authority: Exploring Religion and Embodied Social Interaction in Cognitive and Cultural Studies

Date: 31 July - 4 August
Convenors: Adrian Hermann (Bonn, GER), Cordula Vesper (Aarhus, DEN)

Contemporary Europe experiences the proliferation of numerous popular movements led by charismatic figures in whom people place their trust. This interdisciplinary workshop aims at discussing and better understanding the efficacy of cultural and cognitive patterns in the establishment and reproduction of charismatic authority with a focus on religious history and the contemporary religious field. By bringing together the methodological approaches of cognitive science and cultural history, as well as religion studies, psychology, and sociology, we will address the (re)production of charismatic authority from a cognitive embodied social interaction perspective that positions charismatic effects within a framework of interactional closeness and distance.

Contemporary Europe experiences the spreading of numerous popular movements in religion and politics, often led by charismatic figures in whom people place their trust. How is charismatic authority established and reproduced and what are the cultural and cognitive patterns involved in this process? In a 5-day conference & workshop, a group of about 20 interdisciplinary scholars explored these questions with a focus on religious history and the contemporary religious field. Our approach was to bring together both experts on charisma and scholars from other fields to engage in an open-ended discussion. In particular, we combined approaches from cognitive science and cultural history, as well as religion studies, psychology, and sociology to investigate the (re)production of charismatic authority from a cognitive embodied social interaction perspective.

A first session on the conceptualization of charismatic authority in social interaction introduced current perspectives on charisma in sociology, the cognitive study of religion, and neuroscience. Paul Joosse's sociological presentation gave an overview of research on charisma in the humanities, from Max Weber to current models, and stressed the contribution of people outside the charismatic bond to the charismatic performance. Uffe Schjoedt focused on a new model of religious experience, advocating a predictive coding framework for the study of charismatic authority. Ivana Konvalinka introduced newer research into movement interaction from a social cognition perspective, presenting experimental studies on leader-follower dynamics. Closing the session was a presentation by Cordula Vesper, Adrian Hermann, Dirk Johannsen, and Sebastian Schüler, who proposed a framework for the study of charisma which posits that charismatic authority is established and maintained along a continuum of closeness and distance within social interactions.

The second session presented three case studies in religious charismatic authority with a focus on narrativity, bodily experience, and non-fictional media. Dirk Johannsen spoke about religious authority in Nordic folklore, presenting the case of the preacher-prophet, healer, and clairvoyant Knut Rasmussen (aka 'Vis-Knut'). Sebastian Schu?ler drew on his ethnographic study of contemporary European charismatic Christians to argue for the central importance of embodied synchronization and collective effervescence in religious rituals, using the example of a Pentecostal healing service. Adrian Hermann made use of newer literature on independent network Christianity to show how contemporary Christian documentary films in the United States construct church pastors and independent leaders as charismatic authority figures.

In the third and fourth sessions a number of scholars presented different disciplinary perspectives on charismatic authority from cognitive and cultural studies and the results of their own experimental studies. Felix Goetz described a recent experimental study on obedience to authority figures in the wake of the Milgram experiment, in which participants were asked by an authoritative experimenter to kill bugs. Christa Finkenwirth presented studies on psychological dispositions towards prosociality as a universal characteristic, asking the question of whether human prosociality is unique among primates. Sarah Jessen's talk explored the question of trust building from a neuroscientific perspective by highlighting the role of facial expressions in interactions between adults and infants. Cordula Vesper argued for the value of exploring charisma in the context of a joint action perspective, drawing on experimental studies of how partners in an interaction can predict the other's actions and adjust their own behavior accordingly. Oliver Niebuhr showed why speech melody is so important for our recognition of a person as charismatic, making use of an experimental study in which 'charisma profiles' developed from public speeches of Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs were compared.

The final session served to summarize and reflect on the results of the conference and was kicked off by a commentary from Julia Stenzel who reflected on the different presentations from a performance studies perspective. Asking us to consider what it means to perform charisma, she proposed theatricality as a historically specific model for understanding the development of charismatic authority in situations of interaction.

On the last two days of the event, a smaller group of eight scholars took advantage of the beautiful surroundings at the ZiF to continue the discussion on charisma, attempting to systematize the results of the conference, and discussing the theoretical value of our proposed interactive proximity model. In the months after the conference, the convenors together with a core group of the participants have established a series of video conference meetings, where we discuss articles and new projects as well as a possible sequel to this ZiF conference & workshop.


Inge Fiedler (Leipzig, GER), Christa Finkenwirth (Zürich, SUI), Felix Götz (Würzburg, GER), Sarah Jessen (Lübeck, GER), Dirk Johannsen (Oslo, NOR), Paul Joosse (Hong Kong, CHN), Ivana Konvalinka (Lyngby, DEN), Philipp Kuster (Bonn, GER), Yulia Lokshina (Bonn, GER), Oliver Niebuhr (Sø;nderborg, DEN), Uffe Schjødt (Aarhus, DEN), Peter-Maximilian Schmidt (Zürich, SUI), Laura Schmitz (München, GER), Sebastian Schüler (Leipzig, GER), Mareike Smolka (Maastricht, NED), Julia Stenzel (Mainz, GER), Basil Wahn (Vancouver, CAN)

Please direct questions concerning the organisation of the workshop to Marina Hoffmann at the Conference Office. Questions regarding scientific content and contributions should be directed to the organizers.

Tel: +49 521 106-2768
Fax: +49 521 106-152768
E-Mail: marina.hoffmann@uni-bielefeld.de