First: What a Christian ethnographic standpoint is, and is not
These are the points that crystallized for me on the idea of a Christian ethnographic standpoint:
- Embodied, flexible: An anthropologist’s (or anybody’s) Christian faith/ identity/ commitment is not static. It does not retain the same shape across all situations and relationships. Or, as Howell puts it, a Christian ethnographic standpoint is not “inherently dogmatic … narrowly circumscribed,” but rather “embodied, flexible and contingent,” and part of a wider historical, social, institutional and bodily context (p. 373, 380).
- Halfie: I think on the whole (perhaps even in all cases?), the anthropologist’s Christian standpoint is not exactly the “same” as that of her Christian informants. This is of course most obvious when the anthropologist studies Christians in a different cultural context. But even when the anthropologist studies a Christian community that is closer to “home,” she might feel comfortable worshipping with the community, for example, but still sense that the researcher role – the process of asking questions and thinking about things in relation to other theoretical frameworks – nevertheless marks her as a “halfie” ethnographer: “the ethnographer standing in two places, both as ‘self’ and ‘other’ at the same time” (Howell p. 376, referencing Lila Abu-Lughod’s “Writing against culture”).
- Christian and … : Christians usually “background” their own Christianity from time to time in order to “forefront” something else – such as tact, or interest in
their conversation partner, or professional guidelines. Howell (p. 379) includes a great quote from James Clifford’s Person and Myth (p. 6): “one can, in fact, be a
Christian and be something else.”
So here is my take on the pros and cons of claiming a Christian ethnographic standpoint when studying other Christians, partly drawing on Howell’s article, and partly responding to it:
Pro: Some prior knowledge
The first advantage that most people might think of is that the Christian ethnographer already “knows” about Christianity. And I agree that in many cases it may save some time if the ethnographer already knows, for example, that "Come to me all who are weary" is one of the popular Jesus sayings, or that Protestants disagree on child baptism, or that the Holy Spirit is often depicted as a dove. But this advantage may also lead to a disadvantage:
Con: Easier to jump to conclusions
If the ethnographer has not consciously reflected on her faith in relation to her informants, she may easily jump to conclusions – for example (and probably the most widely debated now) “Surely it is important to them to ascribe to a set of Christian beliefs (like me)!” or “Surely they believe in the incarnation, all Christians (like me) do that!” or even (and perhaps I am parting ways with Howell on this point) “Surely their Christianity is a commitment” – when perhaps they might not think of it that way, or they may use the same term but understand it differently, or they may share a common understanding but still draw quite different conclusions from this. Noticing this will again lead to an advantage:
Pro: Awareness of Christian specificity
… as a result of the Christian ethnographer noticing and being surprised/confused by the differences between herself and these other people who are supposed to share the “same” religion.
Pro: Productive tensions and questions
So – I think the most decisive factor affecting whether an anthropologist’s Christian identity is regarded as problematic or not, within secular academia, is whether or not this identity is consciously reflected on in relation to the research process. (Self-reflection can mean many things – here I simply mean the ethnographer’s capacity to think of herself as a walking case study, to study herself and be curious about her own religious thoughts and practices, as compared to those she is studying.) Anthropologists who make conscious use of their faith (or non-faith), who “fold” their inner life into the research process (as Matthew Engelke put it in “The problem of belief,” p. 4), will come up against productive tensions with the worlds of those they are studying, which will generate interesting questions. Howell gives a good example of how this happened for one of his evangelical students doing brief research in an Amish community.
Pro: Awareness of positionality
If the ethnographer is able to think of her own religious/non-religious views as a standpoint, rather than as self-evident, the result may be a heightened awareness of the situatedness of ideas, as well as the importance of positionality in the production of ethnography, as Howell advocates.
Pro: Gaining trust more quickly
In terms of fieldwork logistics, a Christian ethnographer may sometimes (not always) find it easier to gain access to Christian communities and, once there, to gain people’s trust more quickly. Informants may feel less defensive and be less concerned to conceal “bad” aspects of their Christian lives and community if they see the ethnographer as “one of us.” On the other hand, this may also lead to a greater sense of betrayal once people realize that the ethnographic text will say something other than what they had imagined.
Pro (or con?): Less witnessing
A Christian anthropologist will probably not have to come up with tactful ways to respond to people who wish to convert her during fieldwork (or at least, not as often). On the other hand, this also means that she may miss out on the non-Christian anthropologist’s potential experience of being witnessed to, which may be an ethnographically useful process – that is, if the anthropologist can allow the import to sink in and work with the resulting interpersonal/inner tension, rather than push it away. (And sometimes ethnographers convert while on fieldwork, which requires some more reflection again. Howell mentions the example of sociologist Bennetta Jules-Rosette who converted to Apostolic Christianity during her research, and who wrote about how this resulted in “multiple forms of awareness” in "The conversion experience", p. 135.)
Con (or pro?): More personally destabilizing
At the same time, it may be more personally destabilizing to study someone who holds a religious commitment that is ostensibly the same, but not quite, as your own. This raises questions that are of personal importance and that perhaps strike at the heart of one’s own judgment of reality and the divine, one’s view of the world and of morality, or of oneself. In this regard “the anthropologist also conducts an experiment with him- or herself” (Suzette Heald, Ariane Deluz and Pierre-Yves Jacopin, p. 12). And as disorienting and distressing as this may be during fieldwork, it can also (in due course) contribute to deeper ethnographic insight.
Con: Possible temptation to be an apologist, to avoid one’s own anxiety
I think the single biggest worry that other academics may have when they hear of a Christian anthropologist studying other Christians is the suspicion that the anthropologist will try to “defend” the Christian faith of the informants (perhaps as a roundabout way of “defending” her own faith), instead of trying to describe the informants’ Christianity honestly, think about it critically, and understand/present it in relation to theoretical frameworks that other anthropologists can recognize. In other words, other academics might worry that the ethnographer (secretly) wishes to be an apologist rather than an anthropologist. If the ethnographer, especially post-fieldwork, continues to feel anxious about turning a critical spotlight on certain aspects of her own religion, or is not able to acknowledge this anxiety, then apologetics is a trap
to watch out for.
Fortunately, if the ethnographer manages to achieve a workable sense of ease about these issues then it should be fairly easy to put others’ worry at ease too, since the proof is in the pudding: if she can just speak/write thoughtfully about the Christianity of her informants in relation to anthropological questions, then others will relax. Sometimes, other academics’ worry may also need to be addressed head-on through a discussion about standpoint epistemology (e.g. Sandra Harding), as Howell suggests, or about the insider/outsider question in the study of religion (e.g. Russell McCutcheon).
And finally a question mark: Pro? Retaining the integrity of the subject
Howell indicates in his article that one of the advantages a Christian ethnographer holds when studying other Christians is being in a position “to retain the integrity of the subject”:
“the payoff comes in an enlarged ability to interpret the practice and development of Christian communities in their own terms, outside the colonizing and neoliberal categories of western enlightenment. Anthropologists who personally inhabit the religious worlds they study can engage in the kind of split-level analysis necessary to retain the integrity of the subject without abandoning the possibility of understanding." (p. 381)
light” (p. 10). Browsing Joseph Webster’s book The Anthropology of Protestantism I noticed that he too apologizes in his acknowledgments, saying: “I am aware that there will be some in Gamrie, who, having shared their lives with me, will receive this book and not like what they read. I have tried hard to give a sympathetic account but am anxious some will deem I have failed” (p. xvi). [Update: Just to clarify, I mention Webster because he too identifies as Christian in his book.]
These acknowledgment quotes point to a problem of integrity that is undoubtedly magnified when researching conservative Christian communities who want to witness, and who later realize that the resulting text about them does not witness in the way they had hoped. But I think it is also part of a broader issue, namely that an anthropological text tries to say something about "informants’" lives by tacking between their own (emic) frameworks and concepts and others' (etic) frameworks and concepts that they would not usually use. So when Howell suggests that an anthropological text about Christians may have greater integrity if written by a Christian ethnographer, I tend to think that this must be from the ethnographer’s point of view, and not from the subjects’ point of view.
In my opinion, therefore, the Christian anthropologist's analysis and text will not necessarily retain any greater integrity of the subject than a non-Christian anthropologist's. But this leads on to bigger questions about how to write about Christians and Christianity in an anthropological text. More on that in another post.