Focus on Fieldwork: An RSP Remix
A RSP Remix Podcast (18 October 2021).
Presented by David McConeghy
Includes clips from the following previous episodes:
- Developing a Critical Study of Non-Religion with Christopher R. Cotter by Breann Fallon
- Race and the Aliites with Spencer Dew by David McConeghy
- Kitchens and Constructions of Religious Subjectivity in Black Atlantic Traditions with Elizabeth Pérez by Savannah Finver
- Masculinity and the Body Languages of Catholicism with Alyssa Maldonado-Estrada by David McConeghy
- Discussing Pious Fashion and Muslim Dress Beyond the Headscarf with Liz Bucar by Candace Mixon
- Global Flows, Local Contexts: Pentecostalism in Australia with Cristina Rocha by David McConeghy
Transcript edited by David McConeghy
Audio and transcript available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/focus-on-fieldwork-an-rsp-remix/
[ethnography, fieldwork, pedagogy research methods, qualitative methods]
David McConeghy (DM) 0:00
Welcome to the first RSP remix. With over 300 episodes in our archive, the Religious Studies Project is an amazing open-access resource. We wanted a way to focus attention on many of the repeated themes and the recurring questions that we see in our interviews. I’m Dave McConeghy and today we’re discussing the issue of fieldwork.
Over the last few seasons, we’ve been fortunate to speak with a number of scholars who were candid about the ways in which their research and the research questions they are pursuing have been shaped by the fieldwork. For scholars who enter into fieldwork using ethnographic or sociological methods, one of the challenges can be that we don’t really know what the project is going to be like when the rubber meets the road, when you’re actually in the trenches, or when you’re doing the work.
Today’s episode features a number of clips from past interviews speaking about the challenges of being in the field doing research and some of the impacts this has on the research questions we pursue. If you’re a teacher this is a great opportunity to start a discussion about the relationship between the questions that drive us as scholars and the realities of working in the field.
The first interview we’re going to be hearing from today is Breann Fallon’s interview in 2021 with Christopher Cotter, one of the founders of the RSP, about the way in which his data collection operated from his book, The Critical Study of Non-Religion.
Christopher Cotter (CC) 1:37
And then thirdly, I was working with Kim Knott. Kim Knott is perhaps best known for her book on this called The Location of Religion: A Spatial Analysis, although she’s done a lot of work in Hinduism and in security threats and other things. But she was quite rooted in an ethnographic approach, looking at specific localities. And at the time I was grappling around with–I want to look at discursive data. And I want to prioritize non-elite social actors. But how do I justify bounding the data? You need to have a sort of organizing frame for your research. You can’t just go in and say I’m going to speak to a bunch of people who will speak to me. You need to have some sort of way of containing the data, and “locality” emerged as a way to at least guarantee some sense of coherence to the body of discourse that I ended up studying.
So, I landed on Edinburgh South Side after thinking about various other diverse locations that I could maybe look at which might have lots of discourse on religion happening. But I’d lived in the South Side of Edinburgh for about 14 years by that point. It’s a small area in the City of Edinburgh in Scotland with about 20- to 25,000 inhabitants. On many scales, it would perhaps not be that diverse, but in terms of Scotland and Edinburgh in general, it is very diverse in terms of ethnicity and religion-related background and socioeconomic status and so on, but also the high concentration of individuals who were ticking the “none” box to the religion question on the 2011 census. So it seemed like a good fit to investigate religion-related discourse. And I’m wittering on, but I used the South Side as my means of soliciting interviews. So, I solicited people as South Siders first, rather than saying, “hey, I want to speak to you about religion.” Although I didn’t lie about that. It was on the poster and on all the things but, you know, the big thing was, “are you a South Sider? Then I want to speak to you.” And I did about 20-25 interviews for that project.
See more from that interview here: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/developing-a-critical-study-of-non-religion/
I love the way that Dr. Cotter speaks about bounding the data and the way in which location and locality framed his question that grouped his participants. It’s unlikely, Chris speculates, that inviting participation on the issue of religion would have resulted in any research subjects. This is a common refrain that we hear in the scholarship. We often cannot directly ask about the things that we’d like to know about. We need to establish rapport. We need to establish our credentials. We need to establish the way in which our questions fit into the world of the person to whom we’re asking those questions.
We often overlook when we’re talking about research how much trust and how much care needs to go into those kinds of relationships. I think another scholar that spoke to us about the same issue that’s worth listening to is Robin Veldman, who spoke to me in season 10 about the start of her research on evangelical opposition to climate action, which she calls climate skepticism.
Robin Veldman (RV) 5:40
I use this method of grounded theory where you’re kind of constantly building theory and then testing it against the data that you encounter in the field. So, I mean, that really is how my inquiry progressed. I would say, you know, that I was inspired by trying to understand the role of end time beliefs. But, like you mentioned, probably even the more common perception that people have is just that Christian anthropocentrism is a reason that evangelicals don’t care about the environment. But both of those narratives kind of work together, you know? If it’s not the Christian story of the origins, then it must be the Christian story of the apocalypse. One of those two must be driving apathy. And it’s interesting because that kind of directs your attention towards evangelical religiosity, some feature of their theology or religious practice that is key in undermining environmental concern, and away from, you know, other really powerful things that are happening, which is what I ended up making more sense of or finding to be more influential when I went into the field.
Your sense of end times apathy as the theological source for climate skepticism did not pan out. Is that right?
I mean, a lot of people have studied apocalypticism as it’s lived in everyday life. And they find that it’s difficult to sustain over time for long periods–like, intense apocalypticism, the kind where you’re selling your possessions, right, and not planning for the future. And so, I knew that there was the possibility, in a sense, that this apocalypticism was not as powerful as people thought it was. On the other hand, I was also reading stuff, anthropological and sociological literature about climate change attitudes, and understanding that these attitudes can be woven into people’s everyday lives rather than simply, I don’t know, they’re reading some IPCC assessment report or something like that.
So, I think both of those things were in the back of my mind, that I wanted to probe beyond the notion that evangelicals’ attitudes about the environment are just theologically driven. I wanted to see how it looked in practice. And that’s part of a trend within my subfield, the study of religion in ecology and nature, where people have said, “okay, we’ve looked at the theological resources within these traditions, and people have been arguing for decades about what they should teach their believers, essentially.” Scholars have been mining the world’s religions for their ecological insights. But what do they actually teach in practice? So, I was also part of this empirical turn, or that’s how I was trained within my subfield.
I began my inquiry, timidly and with great fear, calling up pastors and saying, “hey, I have this project. I’d love to talk to you.” And pretty early on, I realized I just shouldn’t mention the environment because it kind of predisposed the conversation to…it’s too tricky and controversial of an issue to bring up when you don’t even know somebody. So, I started saying, “okay, I would love to talk to you about your teachings and your social ethics.” And for those pastors that agreed, I went, and I met with them, and I interviewed them. And you know, I observed their layout. And they became the gatekeepers. And many of them agreed to help me set up focus groups where I would then spend time talking to people more in-depth, again, about views. More generally, we always started the conversation talking about Christian views on social issues, you know, kind of in a more neutral, as I understood it, direction.
I didn’t explicitly bring up end times till kind of later in the conversation. I sort of let it develop. But I did build in, in a very sort of simplistic way, into my study design this separation between premillennial Christians and amillennial Christians. And as an outsider to the evangelical community and somebody who did not have, you know, seminary training or advanced theological training at all, it took me a long time to understand these teachings and why they mattered. Because they matter in a social way. They kind of correspond to social divisions within evangelicalism, but they also, of course, matter for theological reasons. And for a long time, when I began my research, I thought of amillennialism as this neutral position. I thought of it as like, kind of a holder, a blank kind of non- millennialism, I guess I would say. At some point in my research, I realized that that was not really an adequate explanation. I had to make sense of the fact that, of course, my informants, the people that I spoke with, didn’t think about things in the same way that theologians do, or, you know, people who are trained in seminary. So, that was one division. But then, also, just the way that people would talk about end times beliefs and amillennialism was not as…I basically had to let go of the theological categories that I walked in with and realize that that’s just not how it works on the ground. And that’s, you know, as much as people who were trying to educate Christians would like it to be, for the purposes of understanding, particularly climate change, it wasn’t the relevant criteria.
See more from that interview here: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/understanding-evangelical-opposition-to-climate-action/
Dr. Veldman admits a direct approach didn’t allow her the access to the information her subjects had. She had to approach it from the side. For both Dr. Cotter and Dr. Veldman, relationships had to be established first before their interlocutors would feel comfortable enough to explore the research questions that were driving their scholarship. For Cotter’s non-religious subjects it was the pride and shared experiences of living in a particular place. For Veldman, it was the realization that scholarly framing of climate skepticism didn’t match her subjects’ experiences.
For many experienced scholars, these experiences are routine. They’d say, of course rapport is necessary. Of course our academic models at the outset will fail to be rigorous enough when they find the reality in the field. But access itself is often a methodological issue. When I spoke to Spencer Dew about his research project on the followers of Noble Drew Ali, the Aliites, he had this to say:
The Aliites placing citizenship as the as the center point of their understanding of what it means to be American, what it means to be Moorish, what it means to be—to understand the sovereignty of their own person and their configuration, I’m just continually amazed at the layers that that are there. When you first came to the project, did you expect that that’s something, you know, that seems as straightforward as “citizenship as salvation”? Did you expect all those layers to follow along behind it?
Spencer Dew (SD) 14:27
Oh, gee… No…? (laughs)
I mean, look, the story of how I first came to this project is that the week that I got my PhD, I started, what became six summers worth of adjunct teaching for one of the Chicago Police Department BA programs, right? So, working cops—and in like two cases, firefighters—working cops could, at the end of their shift, come to the police academy and do night classes to work for a BA, which at the time, I think was required for certain promotion within the department. And then there was a graduate MBA program, if you wanted to do something after being a cop, which was always foremost I think in the students minds. So long story short, I was introduced to the Moorish Science Temple of America community through my students that first summer teaching Chicago cops, and I was introduced to them very much in the model of “bad religion,” criminalized religion, right. These are problematic folk who make false claims about their rights, right? They speak legalese in order to accomplish certain selfish arguments, let’s say—that sounds a little bit cynical. I should also say police always encountered sort of… Police don’t spend a lot of time in countering religious communities that are invested in good citizenship, let’s say.
Right? So, they were constructing their narrative off of their own policing experiences, which are, you know, whatever they are. I think they also had some very specific biases. And I think, very importantly, I can give a shout out to another book I’ve been thinking about lately. Garrett Felber’s, Those Who Know Don’t Say, UNC press, which is—I don’t know when this will be aired—but UNC press just made it free online because Professor Felber was just fired from Ole Miss for his political commitments. Anyway, that book is a fantastic book. And one of the things that that book does best is it shows that the folks who are police and prison officials, as well as policymakers, are getting their ideas about religion and whether it’s good and bad from specific sources. One of the sources he focuses on is the Southern Poverty Law Center. That’s one of the sources I focus on in my book as well. And when I was teaching Chicago police, my students would often come up and give me dog eared copies of the Southern Poverty Law Center intelligence report, their glossy magazine, which laid out you know, these religious movements are bad, these religious movements are criminals. And that’s an important thing for us to wrestle with in religious studies. So that is a long-winded answer to your question. But yes, that’s how I was introduced to the movement. So no, I didn’t expect there to be any of this sort of depth. And I think I pursued it with a, yeah, with a profound naivete.
See more from this interview here: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/race-and-the-aliites/
I love Dr. Dew’s phrase “profound naivete.” It’s jarring in its honesty, but it speaks to me about the ways in which scholars are constantly flirting with the depths of our own ignorance. It’s our curiosity encourages us to ask “why is a thing this way” or “how should we understand this action?” Dew’s forged connections with police officers as students in his own classes led him to intimately understand their frequent use of “good” and “bad” religion. This in turn led him to understand the ways the Aliites were consciously and openly subverting the systemized racism of the police and the law.
Long ago in graduate school I was told, as I’m sure many of our listeners may have been, too, was that one of my jobs as a scholar was to know what I didn’t know. The skill of scholarship is in part about recognizing the limits of our knowledge and experience. The problem of access is a recurring theme. Here’s Elizabeth Pérez speaking with Savannah Finver last November about the “closed” religious elements of Lucumi:
Savannah Finver (SF)
So I was wondering, this seemed to be, you know, central part of the the theme of your book. And I was wondering if you could tell us more about the distinction that you draw, specifically between micropractices and macropractices? And why is this distinction, do you think, like, important for understanding Lucumí as it’s practiced in the community that you observed?
Elizabeth Pérez (EP)19:30
So one thing that I would want to start out by saying is that I pick up the term ‘micropractices’ from Michel Foucault. And, and for me to just, you know, disavow coinage, because that that is a term that is associated with the book, but I don’t want to seem to be taking credit where it’s not due. But for me, the distinction had to do with, in a way, reflecting back on the classic work that I had read on ritual, as a graduate student, and here I have to place myself at the University of Chicago, and the History of Religions program. And thinking about classic works on rites of passage, ritual, for example, as drama, and thinking about the stage of ritual, the adoption of roles that religious actors take on and so forth.
I discuss in the book, there’s an anecdote, where I described sitting in the kitchen, really waiting for rituals to begin, because I thought I was here in the kitchen, doing nothing, quote, unquote, when I’d be peeling potatoes, or when I’d be frying plantings at the stove. Because my idea of what fieldwork would be as a graduate student, was that I would ask about what rituals had gone on that I could not see. This is a closed religion. This is a religion in which many of the most sacred rituals are not observable by people who are not initiated. And so my only access to them I thought would be well through interview.
And so here I was doing, doing work that I didn’t think of as being significant ritually. And it was only over time, when I noticed the training that went into cooking and the mentorship that took place in the kitchen, where I thought to myself, you know, this is sort of analogous to a behind the scenes of a play. And everyone thinks that you know, what happens, the transformative action that takes place on the stage is the most significant interaction that is taking place. But I could see from my vantage point, that this is where people were being trained to carry on the tradition. Because I mean, and it is possible that it is different in other traditions, although the more I read, the more I realize that micropractices and other religious traditions are also much more consequential than they’ve been given credit for.
So I did start to see this distinction between the macropractices that were either more public, for example, drum rituals that, you know, do tend to have a lot of people with different levels of seniority attend, even people who are not affiliated with this, those communities that put on the drum rituals, for the orishas. Other macropractices, you might think of our rites of passage, rites of consecration, and these were the ones about about which books had been written. So opening up so many of these books that had been published, let’s say in the 1990s, or the early 2000, with century and the title, they they revolved around these macropractices, and I didn’t find in them the micropractices that I was engaged in.
And so I felt that gave a skewed idea of what these religions really offered in terms not only of the, the field of religious studies, but to the ordinary practitioner, because there’s, there’s no way that one is going to be welcomed into certain macropractice rituals without the proper initiatory seal of approval, let’s say, the proper ascension to seniority, and so people are going to walk into that house of worship and they’re going to be peeling potatoes and they’re going to be frying plantains. And I felt like it was, it was important for me to make that distinction analytically. To try to explain the normative conditions, you know, under which micropractices have endured, and also to try to make the statement that it’s important for scholars to look at the little things that are happening, the idle chit chat that’s taking place, the small gestures that people make, whether they’re walking or standing, that you know, generally just get consigned to kind of—not even the footnotes, maybe they, they remain in the field notes, because they are not what people are encouraged to analyze in the main text.
More from that interview here: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/kitchens-and-constructions-of-religious-subjectivity-in-black-atlantic-traditions/
The importance of idle chit chat was also something I heard when I spoke to Alyssa Maldonado-Estrada about her fieldwork with Catholics in Brooklyn:
Alyssa Maldonado-Estrada (AME)
So, I think my book does a new thing in approaching the devotional lives of Catholic men and trying to see what masculinity has to do with that and how certain devotional practices are masculinized. And then I think the other thing I’m doing is… I don’t know, doing the not-so-serious study of devotion. And trying to see how certain practices come to matter to Catholics and how certain practices come to be charged as devotional or to be charged with certain meaning. So, this meant for me, I had to get rid of a lot of assumptions about what religious practice looks like in order to dwell with men in their spaces, and not only listen to what they were saying, but to see what they were doing with their hands, and to see the kind of skills they felt like they could offer to the saints, the skills they could offer to their church. And try to understand how that was devotion, too, even if it doesn’t look like seriousness and tenderness all the time.
I think this is a great opportunity to talk about how you found all of these things out. Can you talk a little bit about what it was like to be an ethnographer in these spaces?
Yeah, so, I love this question. I love talking about ethnographic methods. So, I mean, one of the main things that’s going on here is that I’m a woman. I’m not Italian-American; I’m Puerto Rican. And I wrote a book about Italian-American masculinity. So, obviously, to do this work, I was crossing lots of gender and ethnic boundaries. Luckily, this is a community that has been studied by other scholars, largely by Italian American men. So, there have been dissertations, there have been articles, there have been book chapters. They know what it means to be the object of the scholarly gaze, which I think made my presence in the beginning understandable and palatable. But one of the things that is so important in this community is labor and effort. Every person has to show that they are putting in the work to make the feast happen. So, if I was going to be an ethnographer, and I wanted to kind of like, sit there and be quiet, take notes, you know, have a pencil and paper, that wasn’t going to work.
In my first year of fieldwork, this was kind of scene-setting, trust-building. So much about ethnography is creating deep relationships and friendships and bonds of trust. And so, in that first year, I went to all the meetings, I worked in the parish feast shrine, I walked on all of the processions. I got to see some of the inside things about the homosocial spaces and what men are really doing behind the scenes, but I didn’t get to see it all. So, it was that second year that I got interested in how men construct the giglio. Men started telling me lots of stories about their time, you know, working nights and weekends in the basement. Lots of men have giglio tattoos. And so, you know, they wouldn’t tell me about their belief in the saints or anything like that. They would tell me, “I got this tattoo to commemorate my first time working in the basement building the giglio.” So, I was like, “Okay, I have to see this space.” So, I asked around. I was like, “Hey, can I see what you guys do down here in the basement?” And they were open to it.
So, I get to the basement, and the basement is full of refuse. Like, all the nativity scene statues are down there, kind of old and broken statues, statues in all kind of states of disrepair and nudity. And then it’s also kind of like a workshop. So, power tools, paint cans. It’s just like messy subterranean space. And one thing I think is really cool about this space is that we see devotional objects under construction, and we see men and masculinity under construction. So, I think as men are down in the basement fabricating the giglio, they’re also building and enacting a certain sort of masculinity that’s about craft and creativity; that’s about physical, manual labor practices; and that’s about dedication to the parish and tradition above all. So, when I got to the basement, that year for some reason there had been an absence of volunteers. There were some, you know, arguments going on, and there were just not enough young men to paint the giglio. So, one of the guys asked me, he was like, “Do you know how to paint? Do you know how to mix colors?” And I told him, I was like, “Yeah, you know, I’ve taken art classes. I know my way around a palette; I know how to make some colors.” And that was kind of the beginning of me working in the basement painting the saints on the giglio for years.
It was only through my own labor, through matching the devotional labor of the men, through having certain artistic skills, through learning how to demonstrate my own dedication and my own work, that I was able to get access to this behind-the-scenes space. This also opened up other behind-the-scenes spaces. So, one of the main ones I talked about in the book is the money room. What happens during the feast is like, yes, they walk on procession, they lift the giglio, but one of the main goals is to raise money for this parish. This parish is in a super gentrified, the trendiest neighborhood in Brooklyn. Lots of Catholic parishes have closed. They’ve been, you know, deconsecrated and sold as condos. And this church, OLMC (Our Lady Mount Carmel), is kind of the holdout. They are still there. And they are vibrant and surviving. And so, money really matters in this community. So, one of the things that feast is very important for is raising money. All of that money needs to be accounted for. And this happens in a kind of backstage room called the “money room.” So, my work in the basement painting saints, making certain iconographic choices, making sure things on the giglio were legible as St. Rita or the Sacred Heart of Jesus, that opened up, I don’t know, my trust? Like, it opened up other people trusting me enough to also let me count tens of thousands of dollars with them. Many of these were largely all-male spaces. But I was able to access them in ways that were surprising to me, like, that there was flexibility in that. I think I was able to enact certain masculine skills and know-how that they were looking for. And in seeing what spaces were open to me, and in seeing what spaces and practices weren’t, I was able to discern the workings and constructions of masculinity in its more flexible registers and in its more rigid forms.
More from that interview here: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/masculinity-and-the-body-languages-of-catholicism/
The issue of settling into a research space, becoming part of a research space, or how scholars adapt themselves and their research to becoming part of the community they’re investigating is a central issue for any student who would like to conduct ethnographic research. For many graduate students, and perhaps this dates me somewhat, the introductions is Karen McCarthy Brown’s Mama Lola. But I think such experiences are widespread — research changes us and changes the questions we think are important. One of my favorite interviews begins with this topic. It’s Candace Mixon’s interview with Liz Bucar, author of Pious Fashion. Here’s what Dr. Bucar said of how she came to study how Muslim women dress:
Candace Mixon (CM)33:25
To start, can you tell us what “pious fashion” is? What brought you to that topic?
Liz Bucar (LB) 33:34
Yes. The case studies came out of my own sort-of experience in these locations. But there’s also a conceptual, theoretical reason for it. So, in terms of my personal experience, like you, my initial research in grad school was based in Tehran or in Iran. So my experience. . . . . My research wasn’t about clothing or material culture in that way. At that time it was part of my experience, if not my research. And I had this moment where I moved directly from Tehran to Istanbul in 2004. And having spent the summer covered, to suddenly uncover on the streets of Istanbul . . . . For me, that was the first time I actually cared about clothing, or understood clothing, or was interested in clothing in terms of what it did to someone’s character and culture. Because I felt really uncomfortable uncovered. I’m not Muslim, but still, by doing that practice every day I felt . . . and I wasn’t covered with the intention of becoming more modest or becoming more Muslim. But still, by doing that every day in Iran, I had shifted what I thought was appropriate behaviour for myself with men I didn’t’ know, behaviour in public, how I should dress. And so that was an interesting moment for me.
But I wasn’t really interested in the question of fashion until I did other research in Indonesia. And I got there and I was like, “Oh my God! It looks so different here!” And I was like, “Duh!” But when I’m surprised by things I have a moment where I lean in a little bit. So, of course it looks different there. And it didn’t read to me as, like, modest in the way that it would in those other locations – particularly in Tehran and Istanbul – because of the local style culture, the local politics, the local history of garb and women’s clothing and women’s dress. And so those three case studies kind-of come out of my own trajectory, moving through these different spaces, doing other research. But then when I sat down to write the book, I was like, “Oh no, no, I’m going to stick with case studies.” Because we spend so much time, particularly in the US, thinking about the Gulf as the origin of all things Islamic, much less clothing, right? And I just wanted to de-centre that.
Of course you’re going to include Indonesia. That’s the most populous nation in the world and it was a great way to have three case studies. They’re all Muslim majority – the cities. That was sort-of one baseline for me. And they were all not part of the Gulf, right? So that’s how those case studies emerged. And then also showing the enormous diversity through those cases. And I mean, I’m really a comparativist. So the only thing that really cuts through all my work, that is similar, is that I like to have many things on the table at once and find connections and differences. So I felt much more comfortable and could find more things . . . could understand things more in depth when I have more case studies. So I understood more what was going on in Tehran when I started thinking about what was happening in Yogya or what was happening in Istanbul
It’s interesting, I think we’ve had similar trajectory. I haven’t been to Indonesia but I’ve certainly spent a lot of time in Turkey and Iran doing my research. And even just going back and forth from those two countries, packing is a nightmare, trying to get all the right clothing that makes sense for travelling in very different places. And I’m sure you’ve had this experience too, where your students will often come to it with monolithic . . . and so I think something like this really helps them break apart those different cases in how different the fashion and style is in those countries.
Yes. I mean, I think in some ways. . . . Am I a little bit annoyed that we are still spending so much time in the conversation about women and Islam talking about clothing? Yes! I am also really annoyed about that. This is the second book I’ve written on this topic and this is not where my research started, right? But it’s partly in response to the fact that people still don’t understand it. And non-Muslims fetishize it, and over-politicise it, or under-politicise it: they think it means more than it does, or it means less than it does. They just don’t understand the context of what is happening. It’s either a sign of women’s oppression wholesale – they don’t understand the choice involved – or it’s a sign of a worrisome creep of Islam – “It’s coming! And “Oh look! The Hijabis are coming!” So it’s partly that we keep talking about it because there’s still so much misunderstanding. The other thing, that you just sort-of raised, is – particularly for my students and for a non-Muslim audience, which I’m really interested in, I’m writing primarily for them – it’s a good way in to thinking about different Muslim communities and Islam that doesn’t sort-of start with texts, or political debates. I mean, I get into politics, it comes up. But I also get to start with like religious practice. These women. . . . there’s not talk about the Qur’an in this book. That was actually really hard for me.
I’ve written another book and it has that chapter on the sacred texts, right? And I was like “I know that stuff and I have to put that in there.” But I don’t put that in there because the women I’m talking to don’t start with quoting to me the Qur’an. They jump right in with, like, “OK – this is what it looks like here.” And “Here are the debates that we’re having”. And, “This is the problem” or, “This is the pressure we’re feeling”; or “Here’s how I style my headscarf.” They start right in with the decisions they’re making every day. And you realise that’s where the negotiation of what accounts to being a good Muslim woman is happening. It’s not happening over fights in the text. The women I was talking to, they all agreed that – these women who are covered – they think that it is their religious duty, it is a religious duty to cover. That’s a given. So then the question is, what does that mean? And that’s not a textual debate, really. It’s an everyday practice debate. So it’s a way into the religion that actually, once you move through, “It doesn’t mean that; it doesn’t mean that. Ok – it’s diverse!” You can then open it up and have a fuller conversation. Either in this book having a conversation, or with my students, or in the public scholarship I’m trying to do, I’m about combatting Islamophobia and Anti Muslim racism in ways that are trying to meet my audience at a place that they can enter the conversation with me, I guess.
More from this interview at https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/discussing-pious-fashion-and-muslim-dress-beyond-the-headscarf/
Our final excerpt today comes from my interview with Dr. Cristina Rocha, who spoke directly about her experiences in the field studying the connections between Brazilian and Australian Christians:
As we come to the end of our time today, I want to end on kind of a methodological note. I’ve noted a couple of times when you’ve said that your information comes from interviewing or from direct fieldwork at these sites. Can you speak a little bit as an anthropologist about why ethnography and fieldwork is the right way, for you, to figure out what’s going on in these communities and to explain what kinds of things are valuable to them? Why is that the method that seems most appropriate here?
Cristina Rocha 41:09
I think it’s the way of hearing their voices. And, you know, humans are very logical. They can be very emotional and all this, but they are very logical as well. So, if you dismiss any religious group, or any group, and say “oh, you know, they’re lunatics, they’re mad, and why would they do that?” you’re not paying attention. So, the ways in which you can be with them, and listen to them, but also have the experience in your body.
So, it’s not only–ethnography is not about interviewing people. You interview people. And mostly, as in any conversation, you meet somebody new. This person comes from the university. You don’t have a university degree, or you are at a university, but you feel like you want to please this person, to impress this person, right? So, interviewing is very much about what, you know, how people react to you as a social persona, you know, like, being a university professor and all this. Now, when you are with people in on a more daily basis, people start relaxing and being themselves. And you start, you know, there are chats and silences and things people say when they are relaxed that you don’t get in interviews. But you also, as an ethnographer, you live the things that people are living in your own body.
So, you spend, you know, an hour and a half in the service, in the dark, with the lights going and music going, and you understand what kinds of aural experiences, physical, visual experiences you have. So, you learn with your body. And I think that’s very important so that these two things–finding out the logic of this commitment to these churches or these spiritual movements, but also learning in your own body what people feel. So, it’s not only that you learn rationally, but you learn with the body. And I think, you know, this is very important and gives me an edge on how to report, and being very respectful of these people and how you report their logic.
To see the rest of this interview please visit https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/global-flows-local-contexts-pentecostalism-in-australia/
Today’s dip into the archives revealed how frequently the topic of fieldwork and its impact on our research questions appears in RSP interviews. For every scholar that wants to conduct ethnographic or embedded research, these are important tips and lessons here from experienced scholars. Research changes you. Being in the field sharpens and shapes your research questions. And it’s important to have a conversation about the way in which that will impact your research and how it has impacted the work of scholars you’re reading. If you’d like more episodes on RSP Remix where we dive into the archives, please reach out on our social media. Until next time. Thanks for listening.
McConeghy, David. 2021. “Focus on Fieldwork: A RSP Remix”, Featuring Christopher R. Cotter, Spencer Dew, Elizabeth Pérez, Alyssa Maldonado-Estrada, Liz Bucar, and Cristina Rocha. The Religious Studies Project. Podcast Transcript. 18 October 2021. Transcribed edited by David McConeghy. Version 1.1, 18 October 2021. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/focus-on-fieldwork-an-rsp-remix/
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