Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Methodological belief (Tina Beattie, Matthew Engelke)

I have just read Tina Beattie's chapter "Religious identity and the ethics of representation: The study of religion and gender in the secular academy". I remember hearing Beattie speak on this subject a few years ago at SOAS in London, and I remember finding her very inspiring.

This particular area of her work speaks to the long-standing discussion around the religious or non-religious position of the researcher who studies religion (an excellent intro to this debate is Russell McCutcheon's compilation The Insider/Outsider Problem in the Study of Religion). Beattie questions the need, which is often felt by researchers, to cast the study of religion within a post-Enlightenment rational framework. "Rationality" here is understood as that which keeps the researcher "objective" or "detached" from the "object" of study, observing and describing it as neutrally as possible. Beattie is interested in how the methodology might potentially change when researchers explicitly acknowledge their own (ir)religious position as a factor in the research process.

In particular, she is interested in two strands of thought related to this question: (1) the religious faith of the researchers who carry out research on gendered aspects of religion and religious communities, and (2) the religious faith of the women and men whom they study. Both of these strands, Beattie suggests, carry the potential for a deeper critique of the "rational" study of religion and a deeper understanding of the roles that faith plays in people's lives and stories. She argues that the language of faith, including concepts such as prayer and transcendence, may promise an alternative epistemological locus for researchers who wish to take tenets of feminist research seriously (such as questioning the image of an omniscient researcher).

So far so good. But how is this done in practice? Beattie's chapter lays out the theory, but it is difficult to find good examples of research where this has actually been attempted - where researchers have parted ways with "methodological agnosticism" (or "methodological atheism") and have instead incorporated a thoughtful approach to "methodological belief" into their work. The closest I have come so far is not an actual example, but more of a review essay: Matthew Engelke's short article "The problem of belief: Evans-Pritchard and Victor Turner on 'the inner life'":
"Evans-Pritchard and Turner worked against what [Katherine] Ewing calls the 'reductive atheism' (1994:572) that often characterizes the main currents in the anthropology of religion influenced by Durkheim. Each had strong religious convictions themselves (both were converts to Catholicism), and each tried to fold their 'inner lives' into the work of their anthropology." (p 4)  
"when we read their work we should also take note of the moments when they slipped out of a clearly 'professional' frame and treated such considerations as a mixture of personal and intellectual challenges - when belief, in other words, became method. This may not have resolved all of their anthropological concerns, but then again perhaps that was not the point. Perhaps the point was to suggest that the study of religion, even in the tradition of scholarship indebted to Durkheim, often retains something ineffable." (p 8)
- Beattie, Tina. 2005. Religious identity and the ethics of representation: The study of religion and gender in the secular academy. In Gender, religion and diversity: Cross-cultural perspectives (eds) Ursula King and Tina Beattie, 65-78. London and New York: Continuum.

- Engelke, Matthew. 2002. The problem of belief: Evans-Pritchard and Victor Turner on "the inner life". Anthropology Today 18(6), 3-8.

- Ewing, Katherine. 1994. Dreams from a saint: Anthropological atheism and the temptation to believe. American Anthropologist 96(3), 571-83.

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