Interpreting the agency of possessed women in a postcolonial comparative study: Toward a concept of instrumental agency

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Patricia C. Miller


Women possessed, Feminist, Spirit possession, Agency, Postcolonial, Instrumental agency

Subject Categories

Religion | Women's Studies


This dissertation is a historian of religion's approach to the repeated appearance of possessed women across time and cultures, informed by post-colonial and feminist perspectives on the study of the religious other. Beginning with a critique of the major comparative studies of possession written by Oesterreich, Bourguignon and Lewis, I argue against their interpretive frameworks on the basis that they each employ a reductive model of religious subjectivity which undergirds their analysis and perpetuates biased representations of possessed women. Specifically, I examine how agency is constructed by these authors and argue that, given the post-colonial and feminist criticisms of the inherent biases of thought/action or belief/power dichotomies as argued by Talal Asad and Catherine Bell, it is an opportune time to revisit the problem of interpreting the agency of possessed women.

I propose a concept for interpreting the agency of possessed women, "instrumental agency." The concept shifts the discussion of agency away from a model of subjects (agents) toward the analysis of practices which constitute a receptive subject who is far from passive, but instead functions as the instrumental agency through which ancestors, deities or spirits remind communities of their historical obligations, and do work in the world toward the production of a moral order. "Knowledge" of the possessing ancestors, deities or spirits is an epistemological impossibility, but the concept allows a discursive space for the theological terms by which a people identifies possession phenomena. Rather than imposing modern, psychological interpretations which elide or erase indigenous explanations, the concept of instrumental agency indicates that the woman's subjectivity is instrumental for forces external to human consciousness.

The chapters of the dissertatian are organized around the themes of Work, War and Play(s), examining possession phenomena in Malaysia, Zimbabwe, and in the theaters of Greek antiquity and Yiddish theater in the twentieth century. These case studies exemplify the relationship of women's religious lives to systems of power and highlight the specific agency of possessed women.


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