University of Oslo, Department of Culture Studies and Oriental Languages One postdoc and three fully funded PhD positions in Asian studies (religion/anthropology/environment)

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A Post-Doctoral Research Fellowship (SKO 1352) or position as Researcher (SKO 1109), and three Doctoral Research Fellowships (SKO 1017), are available at the Department of Culture Studies and Oriental Languages, University of Oslo.

The researchers will take part in the ERC-funded project Whales of Power: Aquatic Mammals, Devotional Practices, and Environmental Change in Maritime East Asia, led by Aike P. Rots. Whales of Power is concerned with the comparative study of human-cetacean relations in maritime East Asia, as expressed in popular worship practices and beliefs. We will examine several of these traditions in different parts of the region, through a combination of historical and ethnographic research. Marine mammals and associated worship practices will serve as a prism, through which we approach human responses to socio-economic and environmental change in Asian coastal communities. The project has three important theoretical objectives: 1) apply recent theoretical developments associated with “environmental humanities” to the comparative study of popular religion; 2) reconsider the role of local worship traditions in the Asian Secular Age, examining the new meanings attributed to ritual practices; and 3) contribute to a new comparative paradigm in Asian studies.

The postdoctoral research fellow will be responsible for the work package The Death of a Goddess: Sacred Dolphins and Nature Conservation in the Yangtze and Mekong Rivers. S/he will compare two cases of Asian river dolphins, both of which are, or have been, perceived as sacred creatures, and both of which are critically endangered (or even extinct) as a result of human activities (pollution, habitat loss, and dam construction). These two species are the baiji or Yangtze River dolphin (Lipotes vexillifer) – which, as the name suggests, lives/d in the Yangtze River in China – and the Irrawaddy dolphin (Orcaella brevirostris), which lives in different parts of Southeast Asia, including the Mekong River. This work package has a historical and an ethnographic component. The postdoc will collect historical sources on the baiji and Irrawaddy dolphin to see how they have been perceived and worshipped in China and Southeast Asia (Cambodia, possibly Vietnam), and how the meanings attributed to them have changed over time. In addition, s/he will travel to these areas to interview conservationists, local residents, and environmental activists (including Buddhist monks), who are involved with protecting the animals and/or venerate them as sacred creatures. The research should result in a monograph and one (or more) journal article(s). In addition, the research fellow will co-edit a special issue of an international peer-reviewed journal, together with the project leader. The position is available for a period of 3 years.

Each of the three PhD candidates will be connected to one work package, supervised by the project leader. They will contribute to the main project through their respective case studies. The contents of these work packages are as follows. Prospective candidates should indicate clearly for which of the three positions they are applying. The projects are as follows:

1. Divine Dugong? Sacralisation and Environmental Activism in Okinawa. The first PhD candidate will focus on one species of marine mammal, the dugong, in Okinawa. S/he will examine claims that the dugong has traditionally been seen as a sacred animal, associated with creation myths and the Ryukyu royal institution. S/he will then analyse the current significance of the dugong as a critically endangered species, which has come to symbolise the preservation of Henoko Bay, an area with high biodiversity, where a large new military base is currently under construction. Through interviews and participant observation within activist communities in Okinawa, the PhD candidate will explore the different meanings attributed to the dugong today, and explore internal debates about the significance of Okinawan “heritage” and of “sacred” animals and places in contemporary struggles for environmental protection and self-determination.

2. Whale God on the Move: Forced Displacement and Diasporic Devotion. The second PhD candidate will focus on the Whale God (Cá Ông) tradition in Vietnam. In particular, s/he will examine what happens when a ritual tradition that is closely connected to a particular locale – the place where the whale deity is enshrined, on the coast, in the vicinity of a fishing village – is detached from that particular locale, and the deity and its worshippers are forced to move elsewhere. In addition, s/he will explore the transnational aspects of this tradition; i.e. the consequences of the ritual (and financial) involvement of overseas Vietnamese with local worship practices. The research consists of two parts: ethnographic field research in central Vietnam among displaced fishing communities, and interviews with overseas Vietnamese.

3. “In Harmony with Nature”: Whaling, Eco-Spirituality, and the Politics of Indigeneity. The third PhD candidate will study the significance of whales and whaling in international relations, national identity politics, and environmental activism. In particular, s/he will explore the ambivalent position of “indigenous peoples” and “indigenous knowledge” when it comes to whaling and whale worship, by analysing representations of whaling, whale worship, and nature spirituality among indigenous peoples in popular media texts, spiritual books and magazines, environmentalist discourse, and international diplomacy. The project consists mainly of an analysis of popular-scientific and religious discourse, complemented with semi-structured interviews, if possible among indigenous whaling communities, for instance in Indonesia or the Philippines.

Applicants should frame their project proposals within the overall framework of the Whales of Power project, and be familiar with the overall project’s contents and objectives. For more information about Whales of Power, and the different work packages, see the project website. If you have any questions, please contact the project leader, Aike Rots.

The successful candidates are expected to join the existing research milieu or network and contribute to its development. In addition to their respective work packages, they will take part in group activities such as the weekly “WhoP Lab” seminars, workshops, and excursions. The appointments will start on 1 September 2019, or as soon as possible thereafter, and are for a duration of 3 years.

The application deadline is 15 February 2019.

For more information on qualification requirements, salary and benefits, and how to apply, please see the respective job advertisements (postdoc position here; PhD positions here).

Project leader, Aike P. Rots:

HR officer, Steffen Remvik: