Conversion as transformative experience: a sociological study of identity formation and transformation processes

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Twomey, Daniel P.
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University College Cork
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This thesis contributes to the understanding of the processes involved in the formation and transformation of identities. It achieves this goal by establishing the critical importance of ‘background’ and ‘liminality’ in the shaping of identity. Drawing mainly from the work of cultural anthropology and philosophical hermeneutics a theoretical framework is constructed from which transformative experiences can be analysed. The particular experience at the heart of this study is the phenomenon of conversion and the dynamics involved in the construction of that process. Establishing the axial age as the horizon from which the process of conversion emerged will be the main theme of the first part of the study. Identifying the ‘birth’ of conversion allows a deeper understanding of the historical dynamics that make up the process. From these fundamental dynamics a theoretical framework is constructed in order to analyse the conversion process. Applying this theoretical framework to a number of case-studies will be the central focus of this study. The transformative experiences of Saint Augustine, the fourteenth century nun Margaret Ebner, the communist revolutionary Karl Marx and the literary figure of Arthur Koestler will provide the material onto which the theoretical framework can be applied. A synthesis of the Judaic religious and the Greek philosophical traditions will be the main findings for the shaping of Augustine’s conversion experience. The dissolution of political order coupled with the institutionalisation of the conversion process will illuminate the mystical experiences of Margaret Ebner at a time when empathetic conversion reached its fullest expression. The final case-studies examine two modern ‘conversions’ that seem to have an ideological rather than a religious basis to them. On closer examination it will be found that the German tradition of Biblical Criticism played a most influential role in the ‘conversion’ of Marx and mythology the best medium to understand the experiences of Koestler. The main ideas emerging from this study highlight the fluidity of identity and the important role of ‘background’ in its transformation. The theoretical framework, as constructed for this study, is found to be a useful methodological tool that can offer insights into experiences, such as conversion, that otherwise would remain hidden from our enquiries.
Identity formation , Identity transformation , Transformative experience , Conversion , Case studies , Saint Augustine , Margaret Ebner , Karl Marx , Arthur Koestler
Twomey, D. P. 2006. Conversion as transformative experience: a sociological study of identity formation and transformation processes. PhD Thesis, University College Cork.
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