Tangential Thinking about “Faith-Based Organizations”

A Response to Erica Bornstein on “Beyond ‘Faith-Based Organizations’: Religion and NGOs in Comparative Perspective”

By Chika Watanabe

The title of the interview intrigued me: beyond ‘faith-based organizations’. I have always considered Erica Bornstein to be one of the pioneers in the anthropology of faith-based organizations in the fields of development and humanitarianism. But this interview made me realize that her approach has been defined by the various dynamics circling around the category: namely, around ‘faith-based’, ‘organizations’, and ‘research’. It was never about faith-based organizations as such.  I find new appreciation for what I would call ‘tangential thinking’, loosely akin to Bill Maurer’s (2005) concept of ‘lateral reason’, in which thought unfolds through comparisons between disparate phenomena that run alongside each other, without being synthesized. It is in the comparisons and exploration of allied processes, not in the thing itself, that we can see the analytical usefulness of thinking about ‘faith-based organizations’.

In the interview, Bornstein discusses how she became interested in gift-giving practices when she was conducting her first research on World Vision in Zimbabwe (Bornstein 2005). She saw how gifting created conflicts in communities, entangled spirit and this-worldly realms, and carried many of the hopes for a better world among Christian aid workers. This research led her to investigate how gift-giving and humanitarian action intersect in non-Christian contexts, namely in New Delhi, India (Bornstein 2012). There, she examined the Hindu concept of dān (alms-giving) and other practices of charitable giving. Although she discusses the religious beliefs underpinning these different cases of gift-giving in the books, in the interview she speaks only of the practices of gifting in the context of social relations and kin obligations, NGOs, and volunteers, for example. She does not speak of ‘religion’ or ‘faith’ as such.

I find this especially interesting because the people I studied—aid workers in a Japanese NGO that derived from a Shinto-inspired new religious group—also sidestepped the category of ‘religion’ without rejecting it as such (Watanabe 2015). Describing it as a position of ‘nonreligion’, neither religious nor secular, I have explored the historical, political, and conceptual implications of not speaking about religion. In my ethnographic case, this led to a particularly influential group of Japanese aid workers espousing a discourse of ‘Shinto’ as ‘Japanese culture’, and specifically about supposedly long-standing cultural values of ‘living in harmony with nature’. The aid workers I studied, therefore, went off on a tangent from the question of religion and elaborated on ideas of ecocentrism, nationalist-culturalism, and a planetary oneness, mobilizing in the process certain historical (colonial) trajectories in Japan’s relationship to Asia.

In Bornstein’s case, talking about gift-giving rather than ‘religion’ as such takes us to the various moral commitments and political effects of humanitarian action, broadly conceived. Tracing gifts unearths questions about freedom, obligation, kinship, friendship, accountability, and bureaucracy, to name a few. She shows that what makes ‘faith-based’ action interesting are these dynamics set in motion through practices of gift-giving embedded in development and humanitarianism.

The second category that Erica explores at a tangent is the ‘organizational’ aspect of ‘faith-based organizations’. Her first project was clearly about organizations, looking at powerful NGOs. But her ethnography, The Spirit of Development, dissects the organizations to reveal the personal and complex relationships that constituted them. One character who left an impression on me was the Canadian child sponsor, Peter, who visited Zimbabwe to meet the eight-year-old child he sponsored. He had high expectations of the encounter but it turned out to be awkward and unlike what he had read in the project reports. Bornstein shows through descriptions of such delicate relationships and experiences that faith-based ‘organizations’ are shaped by these fraught ambiguities of ‘longing for connection amidst the reality of difference’ (Bornstein 2005: 77). Her second book, Disquieting Gifts, gets at organizations from an even more removed perspective, as she enters deeper into the lives and relationships of individual charitable donors in India and volunteers from other countries. She explains in the interview that she was struck by the differences between people in New Delhi and foreign volunteers regarding what it meant to donate time, energy, and money. It was through the comparison between these varied groups of people ‘doing good’ that she could explore the plurality of moral reasonings (Sykes 2009) impacting humanitarian action in New Delhi, from dān to kin-like obligations to bureaucratic forms of accountability. Her new project looking at the regulation of non-profits also traces the wide array of actors and relations shaping organizations (Bornstein and Sharma 2016).

The third and perhaps most eye-opening form of tangential thinking that I detected in the interview is how she came to the second research project through her teaching. She explains how interactions with the students at her university, who are passionate about volunteering and charitable engagement, made her think about their ‘liberal altruism’ and how it might differ or not from similar impulses and practices in India. She describes how her students also tended to accept academic works discussing liberal and Euro-American forms of humanitarianism, but once they came across examples of humanitarian action in other contexts, they were confused. What was it that confused them? What shaped their assumptions, and how did that compare with those of people in other countries such as India? These are pedagogical challenges but also research questions, and I find this dialogue that she maintains between teaching and research, students and her ethnographic interlocutors, instructive. If we (academics in universities) are honest, I imagine that many of us think of teaching as distracting us from research (at least I do in my least proud moments); in fact, it might be in students forcing us to go off on a tangent that we find new avenues of inquiry.

In many ways, treating a category as an empty one in an ethnographic sense—that is, not predefining it but exploring through fieldwork the multiple meanings and practices generated by the category in that particular context—is a classical ethnographic approach. In this sense, to understand ‘faith-based organizations’ ethnographically, we might have to treat it as an empty term. Bornstein’s interview gives us a glimpse into her way of thinking that was not immediately clear to me in reading her books and articles: that the usefulness of categories such as ‘faith-based organization’ lies in acting as a place-holder for exploring other tangential dynamics.


Bornstein, Erica. 2005. The Spirit of Development: Protestant NGOs, Morality, and Economics in Zimbabwe. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

——- 2012. Disquieting Gifts: Humanitarianism in New Delhi. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Bornstein, Erica, and Aradhana Sharma. 2016. The Righteous and the Rightful: The Technomoral Politics of NGOs, Social Movements, and the State in India. American Ethnologist 43(1): 76–90.

Maurer, Bill. 2005. Mutual Life, Limited: Islamic Banking, Alternative Currencies, Lateral Reason. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Sykes, Karen. 2009. Ethnographies of Moral Reasoning: Living Paradoxes of a Global Age. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Watanabe, Chika. 2015. The Politics of Nonreligious Aid: A Japanese Environmental Ethic in Myanmar. In Religion and the Politics of Development. Robin Bush, Michael Feener, and Philip Fountain, eds. Pp. 225–242. London: Palgrave MacMillan.

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