Vanessa Munari was a student in the department of sociology at Università degli Studi di Padova, Italy when she began her research on the double invisibilization and religious pluralism in the north east of Italy.
At the time of this research, Munari wrote:
Italy is a country where the word “religion” is not commonly used in the plural; the most recent empirical surveys seem to confirm the singularity of religion in Italy. Yet while Catholicism maintains a strong hold over the Italian population and culture, the monopoly of the Christian faith no longer exists.
We are currently witnessing the passage from “the religion of the Italians” to “the Italy of religions.” This multi-religious reality does not compare with the US situation in scale, but it is still very new for this “Catholic country,” and very significant. An important research project led by a Catholic sociologist, Massimo Introvigne, noted 632 communities of faith in the country.
In this context, interfaith dialogue could become a strategic factor for civil coexistence. Religion, often manipulated for political purposes, is becoming much more central and relevant than some decades ago, even in the secularized Europe. In this context the dialogue among the communities of faith becomes a strategic key to strengthening values of common respect, friendship, and cooperation within the civil society.
Munari’s research project focused on religious pluralism in the north east of Italy. Her work, connected with a wider national research program, tried to explore and better understand the changing shape of Italian religious demography. Changes in the religious landscape were due in larger part to immigration over the last 30 years. The aims of this research were 1) documenting the grade of visibilization of this new plurality and 2) studying the religious communities themselves and their encounter with civic institutions and society.
The aim of the research was not only to highlight the real state of the changing religious landscape, but also to explore the role of the Catholic Church in covering that reality, and the consequences this invisibilization has on the real development of religious freedom, where the consequences regard also the civic and personal life of the new Italians. Although many scholars have analyzed the wealth of the Catholic church, little literature exists about religious pluralism in the Italian landscape. The purpose of this work was to share a certain view, exchange “ways of seeing,” and provide some images and examples to prompt reflection on religious change in Italy.
Despite these rapid and ongoing changes, Italian people and various governing coalitions have not yet reached a self-comprehension as a pluralistic society, condemning new religions in a state of so-called “double invisibilization” (Diez De Velasco, 2010).
Diez De Velsco used the word “invisibilization” for the Spanish landscape, but it could also be effectively applied to the Italian context.) To accomplish the aim of the research, we first need to neutralize the first type of invisibilization that we might call national-catholic, which can be described as antipluralistic; it tends to deny religious diversity and restricts the non-Catholic to the private (almost intimate) sphere. On the contrary, the first stage of “visibilization” would imply the dismantling of the binomial in which religious diversity equals foreignness, and Catholic equals “italianità.” The second type of invisibilization is similar, to a certain extent, to the former in its consequences; we can define it as non-religious, post-religious, or even antireligious. It is based on the imaginary construct of a modern secular society in which religion is reduced to the private and excluded from civic and political life.
Munari’s research was concentrated on three faith communities in the north east of Italy:
The first one was the Sikh community. Sikhism is currently the world’s fifth-largest religion, and while most Sikhs still reside in South Asia, the Sikh population in Italy has grown considerably in recent years, reaching more than 70,000 (about 0.12 % of the total Italian population). After the United Kingdom, Italy has the second largest Sikh population in Europe. There are about 22 gurdwaras across the country—the oldest one in Reggio Emilia, in central Italy, where many members of the community are engaged in agriculture. In province of Vicenza alone there are 3000 Sikhs. Italy’s largest Gurdwara is located in the northeastern city of Castel Gomberto, in Vicenza province.
The second one was the Buddhist community in Verona, where there is the only Theravada Buddhist centre in Veneto. Theravada Buddhism was founded in India, and is relatively conservative. For many centuries it has been the predominant religion of Sri Lanka and most of continental Southeast Asia.
The third community was the Orthodox Christian community; in Italy it has more than one million believers, coming from Eastern European countries: Romania, Russia, Ukraine, but also Greece, Bulgaria, and Serbia. Actually, the Orthodox believers have become the second largest Christian community in Italy, reaching the numbers of Muslim community.
Munari’s research was oriented to a micro, qualitative, but also comparative, analysis on phenomenon. A visual approach can be efficient to dig into religious dynamics. Her research was based on the use of all methods of visual sociology: visual study, photo-elicitation, analysis of family photo albums, and native photo making.
A simple quantitative approach to this fluid reality is not sufficient. Speaking of Muslims without knowing how they live their religious experience, what they believe, and what practices follow, means being caught in the stereotypes of their public image, as constructed primarily by the media. We can say the same for the presence of other religious communities, for example Sikhs, Orthodox Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, African Pentecostals and so on. Similarly talking about religion, without taking into account the religious experience of second generations, offers only a partial vision of religious dynamics.
It is for these reasons that I have chosen to elect visual sociology as my primary research method. Actually the main channel through which people interact with their social environment is visual, and the contact between photography and other visual imaging and sociological knowledge can be complex but very productive.
Photographic fieldwork allows us to record the cultural flows in their visual manifestation. Techniques such as photo-elicitation and photo native image making, for example, are based on the polysemic nature of visual data, so their interpretation and their production will reflect the “ways of seeing” of the subjects of research. Visual interpretation can clarify an individual point of view and open up the possibility of better understanding one’s subjective worldview (Weltanschauung). It means, also, to increase its power, in a process of self-definition and creation of identity.
Working on visualization means analyzing the visual data that overwhelm us, in order to deconstruct the different layers of meaning, identify the context of production, and ideologies conveyed. In other words, the process is from deconstruction to reconstruction.
Production (as in the case of the family album), exchange (as in the case of images sent via cell phones or internet), and all the practices of everyday life associated with visual communication can be analyzed as interpretations of and assertions about reality. It is in this context, I think, that we are continually opening up new scenarios that affect social relations and the construction of meaning and identity.
 href=”http://pluralism.org/affiliates/munari/#n1″>1. Paolo Naso, “Religious pluralism in Italy between past, present and future.”↩︎