literature · synopses
James V. Spickard / J. Shawn Landres / Meredith B. McGuire (eds.):
Personal Knowledge and Beyond. Reshaping the Ethnography of Religion.
New York – London:
New York University Press,
New York University Press:
Website This volume brings together very personal and autobiographical essays of researchers who discuss their experience of fieldwork and their method of writing. However, it lacks the courage to formulate some general and critical methodological points that can bring the discussion beyond personal knowledge.
In this book, 18 authors reflect on some very fundamental theoretical and methodological issues in the field of the ethnography of religion. Their aim is to locate the ethnography of religion within the larger field of social sciences, taking account of its recent changes and debates in order to adopt a critical approach to ethnographic practice. In their introduction the editors highlight four key issues. The first is the problem of subjectivity which authors create when they unthinkingly mix their own thoughts and concerns with those of the people they study. Secondly, there is the insider/outsider problem and the question which relationship with the people under study is the most appropriate. The third is the question of the researcher's identity: his/her gender, age, ethnicity, sexual orientation and his/her own religious identity. How do these elements shape what the researcher learns and what happens to the ethnographer's identity in the research process? The final issue touches on the question of power and the problem of elitism: members of the elite write about commoners, or ›non-elites‹ for elite readers. These four issues have been amply discussed in anthropological literature, but are relatively new to the field of the study of religion.
The contributions of Wilcox, about the study of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Christians, and of Coleman, on the charismatic group of the ›World of Life‹ members, deal with the fluid borders between the researcher's identity and the identity of the people under study. It would be interesting to relate this issue to the problem of representation and power relations, which are discussed in Peña's essay about the way she studied women on the US-Mexican border, but the different contributions remain fragmented and lack integration. Landres, for example, shows that the problem of identity is not easy to solve and that informants usually adapt their story to the researcher's identity and his or her presupposed wishes and judgements. This argument clearly shows that Peña's proposal »to let these people speak for themselves« offers no guarantee for an unbiased perspective.
Also in relation to other topics the different contributions in this volume are often inconsistent and even contradictory. While Goldman seriously questions, delimits and analyzes the fictional aspects in her work, Gilkes simply proposes the analysis of a work of fiction as a source for social science.
The essays by Jacobs and Brown carefully try to disentangle the personal, subjective aspects in their fieldwork and in their writing. They try to find the balance between telling truth and doing justice, while paying close attention to the changes their presence imposes on the field. Their approach contrasts quite strikingly with Tweed's analysis of Cuban devotion symbols, which does not theorize nor even clarify the distinction between the interpretation of his informants and his own interpretations.
On the issue of methodology the different contributors take conflicting positions. Authors such as Tweed, Ingersoll and Geertz point out that meaning is constructed, interactional and multivocal, while others, like Peña, claim to find a universal meaning of feminism in the discourse of her informants. What is missing, in this respect, are some reflections on the difference between research based on long-term fieldwork in small communities, such as the studies of Brickhead and Brown, and others, which are based on interviews and surveys. In the introduction, the editors announce the discussion of the differences between the particularizers on the one hand and the generalizers on the other, but in the rest of the book very little attention is paid to the implications entailed by the choice between different research methods.
In the final essay Spickard reflects on the notion of personal knowledge and rightfully points to its two constituents: identity and time. The notion of identity is amply questioned in this volume, but the dimension of time, which allows us to recognize that ethnographic encounters are bound in time and that social patterns change, remains vague and marginal in most of the contributions. Spickard also reminds us that there are two fundamental, regulative ideals in social science, namely truth and its ideal of accurately understanding and portraying the people under investigation, and the ideal of equality, which demands a modest position of the researcher, who should not pretend to know more than the natives, but who knows differently. This point brings us to the question of different kinds of knowledge such as emotion (Davidman) and intuition (McGuire) and to the fundamental question, which remains unanswered throughout this volume: how to go beyond personal knowledge? This volume brings together very personal and autobiographical essays of researchers who discuss their experience of fieldwork and their method of writing. However, it lacks the courage to formulate some general and critical methodological points that can bring the discussion beyond personal knowledge.