Feminism, Ethnography and Religious Studies: Problems of Method

I write about feminism as a non-believer; yet, I am able to see its usefulness to the greater improvement of the Western world. Without feminism, the conversation about women would be greatly reduced, especially in the male-dominated social sciences. Within anthropology, feminism allowed for and encouraged a new way of looking at peoples, which vastly improved the overall quality of ethnography.

Ethnography, or the writing about a specific culture or sub-culture, is a central component to the field of anthropology. It collects the data about a culture and organizes it into a concise form. Initially, the founders of the school based their writings on reports brought home by missionaries and other travelers. My cultural anthropology professor called them — with a degree of scorn — “armchair anthropologists,” because they were not actually entering the field and making observations about people. Instead, they simply gathered data that may or may not have been objectively reliable into authoritative editions used to help justify the West’s dominance upon the rest of the world.

As fieldwork was integrated into the ethnographic process, anthropologists were expected to do their own research. Fieldwork relies upon observation and informants, both having major design flaws. Observation is limited to the anthropologist’s abilities and what he or she is permitted to see by the society. Informants provide a double problem. On one hand, they may or may not impart information with any reliable accuracy; on the other hand, the information they do divulge is, more often than not, skewed through translation. Despite these problems, the ethnographer maintains an authoritative stance about the complete culture, even when the report about the culture is incomplete.

Margery Wolf admonishes this behavior, claiming that the job of ethnographers is “not simply to pass on the disorderly complexity of culture, but also to try to hypothesize about apparent consistencies, to lay out our best guesses, without hiding the contradictions and the instability" (355). The feminist movement within anthropology, she further suggests, initiated new methodology for writing ethnography by encouraging researchers to decentralize and defamiliarize themselves from their subject matter. This entails recognizing that one’s personal self is not the same self that interprets culture in order to write the ethnography.

When writing about myth or religion, especially outside one’s own spectrum, it is essential to recognize to what end that spectrum influences the interpretation. Wolf encourages a small degree of personal reflection in the writing to allow the opportunity to address those influences before the ethnography becomes a power play rather than a report about a culture. It is not enough to simply repackage existing biases in a more politically correction fashion. All this does is enhance the power elements of the relationship between the researcher and the researched, especially with regards to women. To truly defamiliarize oneself means to make these biases manifest in some fashion throughout the work, rather than presenting oneself as an authority on a skewed perspective.

This ultimately means that pure objectivity within anthropologist, and indeed for all socio-cultural research, is impossible. The timbre of the research changes with this awareness. The feminist movement brought this methodology to awareness, with the hope that the researcher can strive to deliver a clearer understanding of the culture being studied, and hopefully avoiding the mistakes of the past.

Works cited

  • Wolf, Margery. "Writing Ethnography." The Insider/Outsider Problem in the Study of Religion: A Reader. Ed. Russell McCutcheon. London & New York: Cassell, 1999. 354-361. Print.
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