Anthropologists in the Field: Cases in Participant Observation

By Lynne Hume; Jane Mulcock | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 13
Performing and Constructing Research as
Guesthood in the Study of Religions

Graham Harvey

Serendipity, relationships, and intrigue are significant but underrated inspirations and foundations in research and the discourses that arise from research. Equally, anxieties, misunderstanding, partiality, and advocacy are among the obstacles met by researchers either "in the field" or when attempting to communicate the results and significance of research to colleagues, peers, students, and the wider community. Sometimes, too, such experiences turn out not to be purely private and individual, but to resonate with wider trends and currents. This chapter reflects on challenges encountered in the process of research in religious studies, a subject whose developing understandings of and approaches to fieldwork have often emerged in dialogues with other ethnological disciplines.

Without rehearsing the whole history of the study of religions as a discipline, it is useful to note some matters that provide a backdrop and foundation to the discipline's interest in field research. The common origins myth of the subject suggests that it arose in opposition to theology as a way of studying religions that is only partly located in academia. Theology is the attempt by expert insiders to a religion, usually Christianity, to improve the understanding and practice of their religion. In contrast, religious studies scholars attempt to research and discuss the phenomena of religions as they are presented by religious texts, people, places, and occasions. Scholars of religions are not the only academics who study religious phenomena, but they tend to see their discipline as uniquely placed to engage with all rather than only some of the phenomena that might be considered "religious." Religious studies inherits much from philologists and other scholars of literature as well as benefiting greatly from the work of ethnographers on social movements and cultural complexes. Religious studies scholars are also interested in philosophies and theologies arising among and having a bearing upon activities of importance to religious

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