Gender-as-Lived: Considerations in Ethnographic Methodology


Virgin Mary

In the Religious Studies Project’s recent interview with Dr. Anna Fedele, Dr. Fedele and her interviewer discuss several aspects of interest related to the intersections of gender, religions, and power dynamics. Fedele’s book, Gender and Power in Contemporary Spirituality: Ethnographic Approaches (Routledge, 2013), is a collection of essays exploring the interaction of gender, gender norms, expressions of power, and those movements broadly identified as ‘spiritual’ or ‘spirituality’ (If you haven’t had a chance to read it yet, it is an excellent set of essays and well worth the read). Fedele’s current research involves Catholic women in Portugal and the idea of ‘spiritual motherhood.’ ‘Spiritual motherhood,’ in this context, means women who have chosen to be stay-at-home-mothers, breastfeed longer than the average, give birth at home, and/or practice attachment parenting. Fedele looks at not only the experiences of the women as mothers, but their experiences as daughters and granddaughters. Fedele observes that it is very important to understand a woman’s history to know how she conceptualizes gender and motherhood.

Early in the interview Fedele offers an answer to the not-so-simple question of ‘what is gender?’ Her answer is based in both her study of classical theories of gender as well as her extensive experience as an ethnographer: ‘gender’ is what the research participants believe it to be, rather than what the researcher believes it to be. Fedele states that in her research, she tries to understand what ‘gender’ means for the people she studies, especially what gendered images they have received from their mothers and grandmothers. This relates to religion as well, because the women receive a whole set of values from their mothers, and the Catholicism in which they grew up (and still live) tells them that the mother is the center of the family, the mother must always be there for the child, as well as other notions that may not reflect the lives of the women Fedele studies.

Fedele’s approach of being guided by the women she studies resonates strongly with my perspective on studying ‘religion(s).’ The identities claimed by the individual(s) or community being researched must be acknowledged and respected by the researcher, and communicated to the audience (reader, students in a seminar, etc.) along with the researcher’s perspective and conclusions. Fedele further emphasizes this point when she observes that an academic researcher must acknowledge the power issues present in a researcher-interviewee relationship: the academic doesn’t know everything, nor is the participant ignorant. Fedele provides an example from her recent research on women, motherhood, and gendered roles conveyed via religion. The women she interviews are highly educated, intelligent, and have read extensively on pregnancy and motherhood. They are then struggling to reconcile the message of the Catholic Church (that a pregnant woman is in a state of grace, and the ideals of motherhood exemplified by the Virgin Mary) with their lived reality of physical pain and illness, sexuality, and spurts of emotions such as anger or impatience.

Sandro Botticelli - 'The Virgin and the Child' (Madonna of the Book)

Sandro Botticelli – ‘The Virgin and the Child’ (Madonna of the Book)

Fedele also cautions that scholars have an awareness of their own assumptions about the research topic. Some of Fedele’s colleagues had made a couple of highly inaccurate assumptions regarding the Portuguese women in Fedele’s study (for instance, the idea that because the women identify as religious they therefore follow all of the dictates of the Catholic Church, especially regarding abortion); the women must be anti-abortion because they value motherhood so highly, or so the assumption went. But Fedele’s research shows a much more nuanced, complicated picture: the women are not uniformly anti-abortion, owing to a distinct contrast between their Catholic upbringing, which taught that abortion is wrong, and what the women feel in their bodies and the agency they claim.

Later in the interview, Fedele emphasizes that it is crucial for scholars to have an awareness of how the religion is lived, in reality, by the people being studied. She further states that religion only exists in the lives of people and that while religion in texts can be studied, it is not alive. For example, in practice this means that she looks at living women and their stories, and shares her writing with them. She keeps an open mind regarding what they tell her and is careful to use non-judgmental language. Fedele notes that the women aren’t always interested in Fedele’s conclusions – some just read sections about themselves for accuracy or to make sure they aren’t identifiable – but some engage with the research as a whole.

These are valuable lessons for scholars of not only religion and gender, but are more broadly applicable to all scholars of religion. Whether a scholar is studying a living community, as Fedele does, or researching a text, we must be aware of the assumptions we carry with us as scholars. A person living a religion may appear different than a text would lead the researcher to believe and living communities of the same religion will differ based on location. (A point also noted by Jeff Wilson in his 2012 book, Dixie Dharma.) Fedele also leaves the listener contemplating a thorny problem related to the study of religion-as-lived (her preferred phrasing instead of ‘lived religion’): Fedele’s in-depth, ethnographic research is at odds with the pressure within departments for faculty to expediently finish research so that it can be published quickly. This hurried model of research and publication – and the constraints on conducting ethnographic research while teaching – is ultimately detrimental to the field. The trust between scholar and participant cannot be rushed or forced because the scholar is on a deadline. What valuable insights is the field missing by making it difficult for scholars to perform extensive studies on living communities?


Fedele, Anna and Kim E. Knibbe, eds. Gender and Power in Contemporary Spirituality: Ethnographic Approaches. Routledge Studies in Religion Series. New York & London: Routledge, 2013.

Fedele, Anna. Looking for Mary Magdalene: Alternative Pilgrimage and Ritual Creativity at Catholic Shrines in France. New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Wilson, Jeff. Dixie Dharma: Inside a Buddhist Temple in the American South. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2012. (Paperback released in 2014)

Learning to Unlearn “Religion”: Jason Ānanda Josephson on the Invention of Religion in Japan

One of the first Religious Studies courses in which I enrolled was titled “Japanese Religion.” There were several themes running through the course, but the one that stuck with me as the most important was something the professor asked during the first meeting of the class:

The course is called “Japanese Religion”; over the semester, think about that phrase – would it be better to say “Japanese Religions”? How about “religions of Japan”? Or, is “religion” the best word to use to describe the Japanese traditions we’re studying?1

The implications of the latter question are considered by Jason Ānanda Josephson, scholar of East Asian religions and religious studies theory, in this informative interview with the Religious Studies Project. Josephson and interviewer Brad Stoddard explore how the concept of “religion” was translated, discussed, and applied in 19th Century Japan.

Josephson’s book, The Invention of Religion in Japan (University of Chicago Press, 2012), forms the backbone of the conversation. Josephson explains that he has always had an interest in East Asian religion, as well as the theory of religion and religious studies, and in his doctoral research he put those pieces together. The result is a book that critiques the category of religion using the Japanese situation as a case study. Josephson relates how, in post-1853 Japan, there was a significant discussion taking place among the Japanese elite about what the European idea of “religion” meant, how it fit (or didn’t) with existing traditions in Japan, and also, how the concept of the “secular” applied to Japanese society at the time. Josephson’s primary case study involves Shinto, rather than Buddhism, although Josephson hopes to explore Buddhist traditions in Japan in a future work.

Josephson’s critique of the category “religion” as it relates to Japan is part of an on-going discussion among scholars as to the accuracy, relevance, and necessity of that concept. (Scholars such as Timothy Fitzgerald, Russell T. McCutcheon, Talal Asad, and Tomoku Masuzawa are mentioned in the interview as key figures participating in this critique.) While I would not describe myself as a theorist primarily, or consider my main interest to be theories of religion, I have come to realize that questions about the nature of “religion,” what scholars mean when they write about “religion,” and the categorization of “religious” traditions cannot be overlooked and must be grappled with prior to studying a “religious” tradition.

When I was a student in the Japanese Religion course, I had not yet been introduced in a meaningful way to the critiques of the concept of “religion.” What seemed problematic to my novice eyes was the disjunction between the different implications of the phrases “religion in Japan,” “Japanese religion,” and/or “Japanese religions.” By the end of the course, I decided that the least problematic way to think about the topic was as “religions in Japan.” This didn’t tackle the truly important piece – namely, the category of “religion” – but it did seem to be more neutral and inclusive than any of the other phrases. In my graduate work, these questions of naming and labeling recurred – my interests centered around one of the Buddhisms in Japan, not the monolithic idea of “Japanese Buddhism.” The latter implies that there is one Buddhism that can be described as Japanese. I can think of (at least) two traditions of Buddhism that flourished and took on a “Japanese” approach over time, as well as several of the New/Emergent Religious Movements which originated in Japan and claim a Buddhist lineage. Ultimately, the use of terms like “Buddhism” and “religion” in the singular seem to be neither specific nor descriptive enough to capture the richness and diversity of the actual world. Josephson’s perspective adds that necessary final dimension to anyone studying “religion” in Japan: since it is both an imported and manufactured category, can it be used reliably by scholars to discuss Japanese traditions?

In the interview, Josephson mentions in passing that the title of his work (The Invention of Religion in Japan) could have just as easily been either The Invention of Superstition in Japan or The Invention of Secularism in Japan. I find this a particularly fascinating comment, as those three words – religion, superstition, secularism – each have a distinct implication. However, as Josephson demonstrates throughout the interview, Japanese society had to come to terms with those three ideas as a package. Was Shinto a religion or superstition? What about Buddhism? Is Japan a secular nation? Is Japan a modern nation? Since one could not be both “modern” and “superstitious,” that meant that Shinto could not be a superstition if Japan wished to take its “place” among the nations of the modern world. However, Josephson also points out that while colonialism often imposed categories upon a colonized people, that was not entirely the case in Japan. Japanese scholars involved in the (literal and cultural) translation of the concepts of religion, superstition, and secularism investigated what these terms meant to Europeans and then negotiated the idea within Japanese society, demonstrating a degree of agency not often seen during interactions between Western and Asian societies in the 19th century.

Not only am I eager to read The Invention of Religion in Japan, but I am also looking forward to Josephson’s next project, discussed at the end of the interview. The project is currently titled “Myth of Disenchantment: Magic, Modernity, and the Birth of the Human Sciences”; Josephson describes this as a project to analyze European society, specifically those parts of Europe that did not match up to the claims of modernity made by European scholars. Josephson’s novel approach analyzes these claims of modernity – and the disjunction between scholarly claims and reality – through the lens of postcolonial theory, using the world outside of Europe to analyze Europe.


1 Or at least, that’s my recollection of the instructor’s remarks! I am paraphrasing, not quoting directly.



Asad, Talal. Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009.

Ellwood, Robert S. Introducing Japanese Religion. New York: Routledge, 2008.

Fitzgerald, Timothy. The Ideology of Religious Studies. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Josephson, Jason Ānanda. The Invention of Religion in Japan. Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 2012.

Masuzawa, Tomoku. The Invention of World Religions: or, How European Universalism was

Preserved in the Language of Pluralism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.

McCutcheon, Russell T. [See Dr. McCutcheon’s website for a list of his work]

Tanabe, George J. (ed). Religions Of Japan in Practice. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999.

Where are you going…and Are you a Pilgrim?

How do you choose a vacation destination? Is it a specific location with personal meaning, or is the potential for exploration more alluring than anything else? If you visit the same location over and over again, is that a pilgrimage? These are just a few questions that came to mind after listening to the recent Religious Studies Project interview with Prof. Ian Reader of Lancaster University. Reader has spent much of his academic career investigating the idea of pilgrimage and challenges the listener to think through the difference between a ‘pilgrim’ and a ‘tourist’ in the contemporary world.

Prior to listening to Reader’s remarks, my understanding of a pilgrimage was the following: an arduous trip undergone by an adherent of a religious tradition, to a site with meaning or importance in that tradition, with the expectation of gaining spiritual fulfillment or insight during – or as a result of – the journey. I realize now that my understanding of pilgrimage is idealistic, a touch naïve, and largely shaped by my previous studies of medieval Christianity. Reader suggests that scholarly understanding of pilgrimage is much like mine, and often abstracted from reality, simplistic, and too limited. In his most recent publication, Pilgrimage in the Marketplace (Routledge, 2014), Reader examines in detail the complexities of pilgrimage sites, considering how pilgrimages are developed, constructed, and marketed. He further highlights that the success of a pilgrimage site is based on the number of visitors; if no one visits, it is likely to decline. The popularity of Lourdes, for instance, is not simply that it is a place that was visited by Mary. The Church supported Bernadette because she fit the image of a pious young Catholic woman. The location of Lourdes in relation to transportation (roads, train line, etc.) made it viable as a destination for Catholic pilgrims. In other words, Lourdes was not only a place where Mary appeared – there are many of those all over the world – but it had other, necessary qualities to make it a pilgrimage destination. Reader also discusses what motivates people to go on a pilgrimage. In his research in Japan, he found that very few people go on a pilgrimage to achieve enlightenment. More commonly it is an escape from everyday life, or provides the person with a sense of being in a location where something important could happen. Along the same lines, Reader explains that places such as Lourdes, Santiago de Compostela, and Shikoku are places where ordinary individuals can go to have a private, unmediated encounter with the world of the sacred/spiritual/divine.

Of all the examples that were mentioned in the interview, the one that stayed with me is of Chichibu, a Japanese shrine to Kannon that was in a state of severe decline until it played a role in a popular anime series.

Chichibu Shrine

chichibu_shrine_anime_ema_4738 Chichibu Shrine

After that, the shrine experienced a resurgence of interest as a destination – not by those visiting out of devotion to Kannon, but out of curiosity to see the place that factored in a beloved show. As scholars of religion, how do we represent that renewed interest? Reader strongly critiques the idea that the rise in popularity of some pilgrimage sites indicates a renewed religious fervor; Reader maintains that such an understanding does not investigate the nuances of why a site has become popular or how that has occurred. Perhaps one shrine is more accessible, or is located in a region with other, non-religious attractions such as hiking spots, or simply sells better souvenirs.

Because of my ongoing academic interest in religions in Japan, I hope someday to visit in order to experience the people, places, and culture. I would make a point of visiting as many Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines as possible, as well as other sites of cultural and historical interest. Since I am neither Buddhist nor Shinto, I would not consider this to be a pilgrimage. It would be an educational trip that I would also enjoy, and from which I would derive intellectual satisfaction. In my mind, I would be a tourist. According to Reader, the temples and shrines have adapted to be appealing to travelers like me, rather than those on a spiritual journey. It is tourists, rather than the religiously inclined, who determine what temples and shrines remain economically afloat.

As a related thought, I also wonder if academics are a contemporary type of pilgrim. We are seeking knowledge, our research trips are filled with purpose, and we may visit a certain place multiple times in pursuit of a goal. Moreover, if the academic is also a practitioner of the religious tradition, do those research trips take on an additional, personal meaning? Have we considered the impact that our travels (and subsequent writing) may have on the success or failure of a destination? Extrapolating from Reader’s remarks, one distinction might be the lack of economic gain for a tour agency that would set apart research-oriented travel from pilgrimage.

This highlights the one aspect of the topic that Reader does not directly address in the interview: what is a pilgrim? Who is a pilgrim? Simply visiting a shrine, cathedral, temple, or other ‘sacred’ site cannot be the defining characteristic. Based on the examples from Reader’s study of Japanese pilgrims and pilgrimage locations, it seems that there is a dictionary definition for a pilgrim, such as “a person who journeys to a sacred place for religious reasons,” and the more complicated pilgrim of the modern world who may or may not declare themselves to be a pilgrim, but makes a specific journey to a place that holds special meaning, whether that’s Lourdes, Chichibu, Santiago de Compostela, Graceland, or Nelson Mandela’s prison cell on Robben Island.


Reader, Ian. Pilgrimage in the Marketplace. Routledge Studies in Religion, Travel, and Tourism. New York: Routledge, 2014.

Pilgrimage Sites and Further Information

Chichibu, Japan –

Chichibu Shrine

Chichibu Kannon Pilgrimage

Guadalupe, Mexico –

Basilica de Santa Maria de Guadalupe

Lourdes, France –

Sanctuary of Our-Lady of Lourdes

Saigoku Kannon Pilgrimage, Japan –

Saigoku Kannon Pilgrimage (Wikipedia)

Sacred Japan (website of a Shingon priest & tour guide)

Santiago de Compostela, Spain

Camino de Santiago (The pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela in pictures)

Santiago Cathedral

Shikoku, Japan –

Shikoku Shrine Pilgrimage

Pilgrimage to the 88 Sacred Places of Shikoku (tourism website)