Brian Goldstone (‘12-‘15)

Justice-in-Education Fellow at the Heyman Center for the Humanities Columbia University

Brian Goldstone is a social-cultural anthropologist of contemporary West Africa. He received his PhD in Cultural Anthropology from Duke University. His teaching and research interests include religion and secularism, medical anthropology , carcerality and confinement, human rights and humanitarianism, visual and media studies, ethnographic writing, and intellectual history. 

His first book, A Fire Upon the World: The Passions and Powers of Ghana’s Charismatic Movement (in progress), examines the incursion of Pentecostal-charismatic churches into northern Ghana, an impoverished, predominantly Muslim region whose population – an object of  dispossession and expropriation going back to the pre-colonial period – has recently become the target of an impassioned evangelistic campaign undertaken by Christians from the south. Arranged as a gathering of disparate scenes, an approach that makes use of a wide array of ethnographic, literary, philosophical, video/photographic, and historical materials, the book charts the intimate, intensive, often precarious worlds that  are materializing as Ghanaians, like so many across the continent today, labor to make the “miraculous life” their own – and also, against the backdrop of a concerted struggle to transfigure the social, material, and spiritual disposition of an entire region, the ways this  life, this  future, is made available to others. 

Brian is  currently at work on a second book project, Diagnosing the Devil: Psychospiritual Interventions in West Africa. Situated at the nexus of global mental health, humanitarianism and human rights, theologies of health and healing, and the ethics and  affects of  affliction, the  project offers a visual and ethnographic account of one controversial, increasingly pervasive phenomenon in particular: the Pentecostal “prayer camp,” whose resident prophets and healers believe that the various mental disorders they encounter are essentially spiritual maladies – demonic “spirits of madness” – that must be addressed through fundamentally spiritual means. According to a growing number of human rights reports, these methods include chaining patients to trees for weeks on end, depriving them of food and water, and confining them to rooms without light or ventilation. Based on fieldwork in Ghana alternating between the domain of transnational NGOs and humanitarian groups, on the one hand, and the rural prayer camps on the other, this project considers the styles of reasoning at stake in the latter’s brand of psychospiritual therapeutics, the realities – biosocial and experiential, historical and phenomenological – it insinuates, the moral and ontological certitudes it so dramatically seems to threaten, and, perhaps most significantly, what it means – for their families, their communities, and for the beleaguered men and women themselves – to live with and in the midst of the forces it confronts.

He is co-editor of the forthcoming volume, African Futures: Essays on Crisis, Emergence, and Possibility (University of Chicago Press). His articles have appeared in South Atlantic Quarterly, History of the Present, Theory & Event, Anthropological Quarterly, The Johannesburg Salon, Public Books, and the volume Secularism and Religion-Making (Oxford University Press). In May 2015, he organized “Image as Method: Ethnography, Photography, Film, Sensation, Perception,” a two-day symposium and photography/film exhibition. (See interview and review of the symposium here.)  His work has been supported by Wenner-Gren, Fulbright, and Mellon/ACLS fellowships.   

​Brian is currently teaching a course on “States of Confinement” as the inaugural Justice-in-Education Fellow at Columbia’s Heyman Center for the Humanities.