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Turning the Categories Inside-Out: Complex Identifications and Multiple Interactions in

Religious Ethnography
Author(s): Gladys Ganiel and Claire Mitchell
Source: Sociology of Religion, Vol. 67, No. 1 (Spring, 2006), pp. 3-21
Published by: Oxford University Press
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Sociology of Religion 2006,
67:1 3-21
Turning the Categories Inside-Out: Complex
Identifications and Multiple Interactions in
Religious Ethnography
Gladys Ganiel*
University College Dublin
Claire Mitchell
Queen's University Belfast
This paper challenges the fixed boundaries that ethnographers have often constructed between
religious insiders and outsiders . Drawing on Neitz's observations, it argues that the main task of reflex-
ive fieldwork is locating the self in relation to ambiguous and shifting boundaries. We offer a compar-
ative analysis of the experiences of two differently socially located researchers to illustrate how reli-
gious identity emerges as a continuum, on which one's place is negotiated with one's research partici-
pants. We also examine the importance of intersecting multiple identities. Finally, the paper questions
whether social identity categories are the primary way that we relate with our respondents. It explores
the spiritual and emotional dimensions of research relationships and argues that these may transform,
reinforce and generally interact with social identities. Comparing our experiences, we outline the con-
sequences of these reflections for data gathering and analysis
For a long time, sociologists have treated insider/outsider status in the field
as rather fixed (Malinowski 1922, Simmel 1950, Merton 1972). Whilst some
emphasized the benefits of being an insider to the group one studies, others
stressed that outsiders are better able to focus on the 'pursuit of truth to transcend
other loyalties' (Merton 1972:44). The overriding concern was the 'objectivity'
of the researcher. In these accounts, the insider/outsider binary was taken as self-
evident. Similarly, Chicago School sociologists aimed to produce 'objective'
accounts of the groups they studied. Whilst promoting a deeper engagement with
their research participants, and whilst they were reflexive about their identities,
*Direct correspondence to: Dr. Claire Mitchell, School of Sociology, Social Policy and
Social Work. Queen's University, Belfast, BT4 INN, Northern Ireland, U.K. E-mail:
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their accounts showed continuing delineation of class and race boundaries
between researcher and participants. For example Anderson (1961) was thought
to better understand hobos as he had himself experienced life on the road; whilst
Landesco's background in a rough immigrant neighborhood in Chicago was por-
trayed as an 'insider' advantage (Haller's introduction, in Landesco 1968:xv). On
the other hand, Whyte (1943:331) raises outsider issues when he talks about his
'two worlds' of the slum and middle class academia.
In this tradition, what Durkheim (1937) called 'pre-notions'--our pre-exist-
ing ideas and biases-are treated with suspicion. Negative qualities are attributed
to researcher subjectivity. For example, Duneier in Sidewalk (1999), a white male
academic studying poor African-American men and women, cautions us that our
own cultural expectations and experiences may blind us to the circumstances of
others. Of course, as Birckhead (1997) argues, we must take account of how our
own cultural expectations influence the research process. But the notion that we
can rise above our own location within the research is problematic.
Recently, with the reflexive turn in the social sciences, it is no longer
assumed that researchers can remain objective. Most contemporary ethnogra-
phers draw attention to the ways the researchers themselves affect the production
of information (Coffey 1999, Denzin and Lincoln 1998a, 1998b, 1998c, Clifford
and Marcus 1986; James, Hockey and Dawson 1997, Foddy 1993, Silverman
1993, Edwards 1993). This has included an important debate about how the
researcher's status as an insider or an outsider affects data gathering and analysis.
This body of work goes much further in conceptualising the subjective construc-
tion of meaning between researchers and participants, the impact of multiple
identities, identity as ambiguous, the problematic nature of 'bias,' and data as
socially constructed rather than something to be 'extracted' from participants.
However, there remains an implicit assumption that one simply is an insider or
an outsider in certain contexts, and the premise of the terms themselves is rarely
questioned (e.g. Waterhouse 2002, Stringer 2002, Poloma 2003).
It would be extremely naive to ignore insider/outsider dynamics of research
relationships. However, neither is it sufficient to treat bias, social identities and
insider/outsider status as self-evident or 'ingrained' (Duneier 1999:354). In con-
trast, we argue that categories of insider and outsider are socially constructed and
are therefore constantly in flux. Of course some identities may be more socially
fixed than others, underpinned by pre-existing inequalities in power,
rituals or language barriers. However, all identities are ambiguous and permeable,
and some are much more permeable than others. We are not arguing that insid-
er and outsider are meaningless terms. We do not wish to dispel all social bound-
aries into a haze of post-modem
relativism. But it is pertinent to question
and how pre-existing, imagined boundaries might be subjective, ambiguous
transformable. This leads us to ask for what groups, and in what contexts, partic-
ular identifications and interactions will be important. It is a call for more reflec-
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tion on identity permeability, rather than limiting reflection to the
impact of
assumed insider or outsider status.
There is a growing recognition that ethnographers of religion have been slow
to recognize the subtleties of the insider/outsider debate (Spickard, Landres and
McGuire 2002, Arweck and Stringer 2002, Nason-Clark and Neitz 2001, Nason-
Clark 2001). Spickard and Landres (2002) go so far as to say that
'only a
rethinking of established practices can rescue the ethnographic study of religion
from its current epistemological and political naivete' (14). A good part of this
rethinking is emerging from feminist scholars, whose reflections on 'writing from
their location' (to use Wittner's terminology) have begun to extend the debate.
We draw here on recent fieldwork accounts by Poloma (2003), Wilcox (2002)
and Neitz (2002) to characterize the discussion.
Poloma (2003), an insider to the Pentecostal/Charismatic movement she
studies, describes herself as 'dancing between involvement and detachment'
(254). She says she is 'constantly switching modes from researcher to pilgrim and
back to researcher again' (6). Although she tells of how she received spiritual
renewal through the Toronto Blessing (and passed it onto others) during the
research process she has 'tried to 'bracket' (as best one can) [her] personal faith
experiences' (18) (see also Pearson 2002:106, for 'bracketing' strategies)
Two important issues in religious ethnography are raised by Poloma's work.
First is the extent to which being an insider-and experiencing the Spirit-may
allow her to speak authoritatively for others who experience the Spirit. At first
glance this may seem to give Poloma privileged understanding of religious expe-
rience. Stringer (2002), for example, argues that religious insiders are specially
equipped to 'really' understand religious groups and experiences. On the other
hand, Birckhead (1997), who observes but never experiences charismatic mani-
festations in his study of Appalachian snakehandlers, makes a convincing case
that the ethnographer need not share the experiences of the group in order to
present a valid account, or even to be accepted as one of them (48-49). Poloma
herself does not claim that her insider status gives her privileged access to respon-
dents' mental worlds. Second, however, she is concerned about how her status as
an insider affects her analysis. Drawing on Ann Taves (1999), she says she adopts
a 'mediating' position between social science and religious experience, which
regards experience as 'natural' or 'true' in that those experiences have social con-
sequences (19). Whilst some non-religious sociologists such as Bruce (1986)
adopt a similar position, Poloma remains aware that her insider status may com-
pel her to make certain types of analyses with regard to spiritual experiences. In
sum, Poloma treats religious insider identity as relatively given, and goes on to
question the impact of this on her data analysis.
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Rather than focusing on her religious identity, Wilcox (2002) offers an analy-
sis of multiple identities in religious ethnography. A lesbian and a non-Christian,
Wilcox describes herself as a 'partial insider' in her study of lesbian, gay, bisexual
and transgender (LGBT) Christians. It was managing this 'partial insider' identi-
ty that prompted her to use the metaphor 'dancing on the fence' to characterize
her research. As such, she highlights issues that are not prominent in Poloma's
work. She discusses gender, race, class, and sexual identities, finally concluding
that her academic identity was foremost during her research. When she does
reflect on her religious identity, she surmises that being an outsider led her to ask
more probing questions than would have been asked by an insider.
This leads Wilcox to a very different conclusion than Poloma about how reli-
gious identities impact understanding and analysis. Rather than 'bracketing' her
religious identity or 'mediating' between social science and religious experience,
she argues that 'the many permutations of partial insider, complete insider, and
complete outsider identities among researchers offer us a number of vantage
points on the same phenomenon, and only by relying on these in combination
do we have any hope of understanding it accurately' (51). As such, she argues
that it is only through hearing multiple voices that understanding is achieved
(see also Bartunek and Loius 1996). However, Wilcox does assume that different
dimensions of insidemess and outsiderness can be defined and analysed.
Neitz (2002) chooses the less precarious metaphor 'walking between the
worlds' to characterize her research on Wicca. Like Wilcox, she emphasizes mul-
tiple identities, which she conceives of as 'complex and shifting [...] available to
be mobilized in entering into a situation and constructing and co-constructing
the meanings that unfold there' (35). But she offers more substantive reflection
than Poloma or Wilcox on the complex process whereby religious identities are
constructed. For Poloma and Wilcox, it is relatively clear just who the religious
insiders and outsiders are, even if they admit that the boundaries between them
are sometimes blurry. Neitz says that this was also the case in her research on
Catholic charismatics. However, when she began to study witches, the bound-
aries seemed more permeable and ambiguous:
A woman I interviewed a number of years ago told me that if you are a woman and you
are aware, you are a witch. As I listened to her, I tried out her definition: Am I a woman?
Am I aware? Am I a witch? (35)
Neitz's reflections seem close to the position that is taken by Collins (2002),
who argues for a 'dynamic multiplex self which is dialogic, negotiated in and
through social action' (91). Collins ultimately concludes that since we are all
simultaneously insiders and outsiders,
the dichotomy disappears.
But following
Collins this far in reflections on religious identities would ignore an insight
is obvious when Neitz contrasts her work on Catholic charismatics and witches.
It is that not all religious identities are the same-some religious identities have
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less permeable boundaries than others, so the researcher must be reflexive about
this. Similarly, Birckhead's (1999) reflections on perceived differences in reli-
gious identities acknowledge that the boundary between stigmatized religious
groups (like snakehandlers) seems much more fixed than other religious bound-
aries. However, his work focuses on how that seemingly fixed boundary is much
more permeable than it originally appears. As such, the task for the reflexive
ethnographer is neither 'bracketing' their religious identity nor seeking multiple
vantage points from different researchers; rather, it is locating the self 'in relation
to these shifting boundaries' (Neitz 2002:43).
In sum, Poloma's account makes the boundaries between scholar and pilgrim,
insider and outsider, seem rather fixed. For her, insiderness is something that
must be bracketed. Wilcox and Neitz's calls for us to consider multiple identities
move us beyond scholar-pilgrim dichotomies. However, insider-outsider identi-
ties seem to matter more for Wilcox than for Neitz. Wilcox argues that multiple
vantage points from insiders and outsiders are necessary for understanding, while
Neitz emphasizes the blurriness, shiftiness, and ambiguity of religious identities
themselves. Offering a comparative analysis of the two authors' research experi-
ences, this paper follows Neitz in problematizing the religious insider/outsider
dichotomy: the religious identities of researchers and participants are better con-
ceptualized as points on a continuum (on which they move or are moved by oth-
ers throughout the research process). Following Wilcox, we maintain that reli-
gious identities must also be set in the context of multiple identities. However
multiple identities also represent continuums rather than fixed positions. Finally,
we argue that questioning social categorizations and pushing at the boundaries of
emotional and spiritual interactions in the field offer illuminating perspectives
that are obscured by the traditional insider-outsider debate.
We explored these issues in our research in Northern Ireland, where ques-
tions of identity ring particularly loudly. People in Northern Ireland constantly
engage in a process of 'telling'-trying to work out what side one is on based on
a variety of verbal and non-verbal clues (Burton 1978), and we expected this
dynamic to influence our fieldwork experiences. Religious identity is often
assumed to be one of main the causes of conflict in Northern Ireland (Hickey
1984, Bruce 1986). It is deeply interwoven with political identity, and is there-
fore a sensitive issue (Mitchell 2005). The perception of the Rev. Ian Paisley
(founder of the evangelical Free Presbyterian Church and the Democratic
Unionist Party) as a troublemaker who encourages paramilitaries means that
evangelicals are often blamed for a disproportionate share of the conflict (e.g.
Akenson 1992, Leichty and Clegg 2001, Bruce 2001). They are keenly aware of
their negative public perception, and are wary of those who come to study them
(see Bruce 1986, Cooke 1996, Ronson 2002). It is in this context that we antic-
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ipated insider/outsider status would be a factor in our ethnographies of the evan-
gelical subculture in Northern Ireland.
We conducted separate studies of Northern Irish evangelicalism at around
the same time (2001,2004).1 I (Gladys) am an evangelical and was open about
my faith with participants. I (Claire) consider myself to be religiously agnostic,
and presented myself as such. However, I was raised as an evangelical and left the
group when I was 17. This may have meant that I was perceived as less hostile
than a total outsider. But because of my self-presentation, it is likely that I was
also perceived as a 'backslider' and thus not quite an insider. We felt that our dif-
fering religious identities presented us with the opportunity to offer a unique
comparative perspective on the insider/outsider debate. But as we shall show,
even in this context where one of us was 'saved' and the other was not, we found
that this distinction was not straightforward.
Respondents also related to our multiple identities; namely our gender, age,
class/level of education, communal and national identities. We are both females
under the age of 30. 1 (Claire) am a native of Northern Ireland, whose roots are
in the Protestant community; I (Gladys) am American. This meant that at a
communal level, I (Claire) was often viewed as an insider, whilst I (Gladys) was
viewed as an outsider. At the time of research, we were both affiliated with
University College Dublin,
I (Claire) as a post-doctoral researcher and I (Gladys)
as a doctoral candidate. These identities impacted on the process at different
points in time; and there were a number of commonalities and divergences in our
fieldwork experiences related to these identities. These aspects are explored in
detail below.
As indicated, we expected that our differing religious identities would influ-
ence the research. Our hunch was that the 'salvation' boundary between insider
and outsider would be clear-cut. Our initial conversations and the first draft of
this article struggled with the insider and outsider binaries, trying in the first
instance to find differences between our experiences. In fact, we were surprised
by the commonalities, and questioned if insider/outsider status really made much
difference to the research. However, rather than simply conclude that religious
identity doesn't matter, we began to question the assumptions of the insider/out-
sider binary itself.2 Upon further reflection, the conceptualisation of insider ver-
sus outsider reflected neither of our experiences in the field. Rather, our experi-
ences were similar to those of Neitz, who felt a great deal of ambiguity about her
religious identity.
1See appendix for details of the studies.
2We are grateful to our anonymous reviewers for encouraging us to think more deeply
about this issue.
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For example, for me (Gladys) the salvation boundary only seemed to matter
for a few of the conservative participants. There is a great deal of diversity of the-
ological belief and religious practice within Northern Ireland and international
evangelicalism, encompassing a spectrum of conservative to liberal positions
(Noll 2001, Jordan 2001, Brewer and Higgins 1998). At times conservative evan-
gelicals express doubt that their liberal counterparts are 'really' saved. I was some-
times subject to an informal doctrinal test to confirm my salvation and my theo-
logical position. One conservative interviewee asked a number of questions about
my beliefs and my denomination in the USA, and only then seemed satisfied that
I was saved. My denomination-the Orthodox Presbyterian Church-seemed
acceptable because it had broken away from the more liberal mainline
Presbyterian Church USA in 1936. He was also pleased that my congregation in
Maine used the Reformed Trinity Hymnal; and he said that because I was saved,
I would be better able to understand his answers to my questions. I became con-
fident that I was regarded as an insider when, on several occasions, conservative
evangelicals offered to help me find a husband (see also Zuckerman 1999 on how
match-making can be used to bring researchers inside). It is generally taboo for
evangelicals to marry outside of evangelicalism. Claire did not receive such offers.
However, beyond a minority of conservative evangelicals, my salvation sta-
tus did not seem problematic to the participants. Rather, it was more problemat-
ic for me. I presented myself as born again to all of my interviewees, but I often
felt as if I was committing sins of omission. For instance, when talking with con-
servative evangelicals, I was careful not to say anything that would indicate that
I disagreed with some of their positions. This may have led them to believe that
I shared more of their beliefs than I actually did. I felt guilty about the possibili-
ty that I might be misleading participants. Consequently, I tried to engage in
behaviours that would set me apart from conservative evangelicals. In my
research amongst Free Presbyterians, I did not observe conventional dress codes
for women, such as wearing a dress and a hat to church services. On one occa-
sion I received communion while wearing trousers. That said, none of the Free
Presbyterians commented on my attire, or challenged me when I received com-
munion-rather, they were warm and welcoming. However, at various stages of
the research I was cautious about going 'too far' in locating myself on the liberal
end of the evangelical spectrum. Early in my research I was asked to write a short
article for a magazine published by a liberal evangelical organisation. Upon
reflection and discussion with others who had researched religion in Northern
Ireland, I declined to write the article on the grounds that publicly identifying
with the group in this way might compromise my reputation amongst conserva-
tive evangelicals. As my research progressed and 'transgressions' such as taking
communion in trousers did not have any maligning consequences, I felt more
relaxed about my own religious identity. This was linked to a growing realization
that the insider/outsider boundary was not as important as I had expected it
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would be. So a year and a half later when a post-evangelical group asked me to
conduct a user workshop for them, I did not hesitate in accepting the invitation.
The insider/outsider binary proved inadequate also in capturing my (Claire)
experiences. A religious backslider and self-perceived outsider, I came to view my
religious identity as a continuum rather than a given position. For instance, there
were occasions when I clearly felt as if I was perceived as a religious outsider. This
was reflected in attempts to 'save' me. A minority of evangelicals tried to steer
conversations in the direction of my lack of salvation. I was told on one occasion
that if I left the room without making a commitment to Christ I would go to hell.
Other interviewees, whilst not stating the point so baldly, enquired about my sal-
vation and I received a number of invitations to 'tent missions' (where the aim is
to gain religious conversions). In contrast, Gladys was never proselytized in this
My outsider status was also constructed through verbal cues given by some
interviewees when I asked whether they had experienced a religious turning
point in their lives. Many focused on supernatural experiences. However these
stories were sometimes accompanied by an assumption that I would not under-
stand what the interviewee was talking about, or that I would think that the
interviewee was mentally unbalanced. One respondent described hearing the
voice of God and prefaced this by saying 'you'll probably think I'm crazy, but...',
another described temptation by the Devil and said that although I would not
understand, it was very real to him. It is possible that this may have impacted on
the data I collected, as interviewees may have revealed less spiritual depth than
they would with a researcher they felt understood their terms of reference. In
contrast, Gladys's participants did not preface stories about their supernatural
religious experiences
in this manner.
My fieldwork also was limited because I sometimes felt uncomfortable par-
ticipating in evangelical events. Sensitive to the prosleytism described above, I
declined most invitations to meetings and, as a result, gathered different ethno-
graphic data than Gladys who attended many events. Similarly, Peshkin
(1984:256-259) describes his growing annoyance as he was repeatedly told that
his failure to convert placed him in eternal jeopardy and wonders if this was con-
ducive to collecting data or writing it up. However, Peshkin lived in an evangel-
ical Protestant community for two years where his behaviour was constantly
under scrutiny and adapted as to not offend his participants. This approach
place huge pressures on the individual, and indeed Peshkin describes himself
becoming increasingly paranoid and upset. Because of my strategy of limited con-
tact, annoyance and upset could be avoided and prosleytism
could be viewed as
a fair exchange for participants' time. But this had a clear impact on the breadth
of data collected and cut off the possibility of conducting
a rich ethnographic
study such as Peshkin's.
However, there were many instances when I experienced significant
monalities with my interviewees. Some liberal evangelicals expressed the opin-
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ion that they thought I was close to their interpretation of being saved. A hand-
ful of conservative interviewees told me that I was going through a phase of back-
sliding in my youth and would return to faith. Another conservative evangelical
expressed the Calvinist opinion that since I was once saved, I would always be
saved and both of us would go to heaven. In this sense it is difficult to describe
my position as a total religious outsider. It might be that I was perceived as some-
one on a less advanced stage of the same religious continuum.
Expression of doubts and insecurities was a recurring theme in interviews.
Liberal evangelicals were more likely to express confusion and struggle as part of
their current religious identity than were conservative evangelicals. But nearly all
interviewees talked about difficulties or doubts as part of their religious journey.
A significant number of interviewees' life histories included many moments
when they described themselves as backslidden. In this context, the descriptor of
outsider began to make less sense of my position in the research. Whilst I may
have initially been perceived as a backslider by a variety of participants, I felt that
the boundaries between the researcher and the researched, particularly liberal
evangelicals, were increasingly broken down as the process developed. In fact, I
became involved with some of the social justice and reconciliation projects run
by evangelicals-an ethical arena where correct theology was less important than
practical action. Therefore what initially appeared to be a situation of
insider/outsider difference often evolved gradually into relationships where the
lines were, as Neitz argues, permeable and ambiguous.
Our fieldwork experiences challenge the insider/outsider dichotomy.
Although we have highlighted some of the differences in our experiences, nei-
ther of us was a complete religious insider or outsider. Through research rela-
tionships, religious identity increasingly emerged as a continuum along which
insider/outsider labels could not capture the complexity of understanding and
Our religious identities were not necessarily the most important of our iden-
tities at every stage of the process. This is not a new or surprising finding, as is
evidenced by Wilcox (2002), Neitz (2002) and Song and Parker (1995). Other
identities may also be conceived of as continuums, along which the researcher
and the participants negotiate. Even seemingly fixed identity categories such as
ethno-national identity contain various internal meanings that can be revealed,
suppressed and co-constructed through research relationships. Some, such as gen-
der in our case, may be more fixed than others in certain contexts. Comparing
our identity packages and experiences presented us with a unique opportunity to
analyze the impact of multiple identities on the research. Our expectations were
not always met, and we were sometimes surprised about the ways in which our
identities seemed to matter for different participants.
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We expected that our gender would impact on the fieldwork process. A sig-
nificant body of scholarship (Reinharz 1992, Knott 1995) has highlighted the
ways in which women are perceived in the field, from not being taken seriously
by male participants, to being objects of romantic overtures (Horowitz 1986). In
the case of conservative subcultures like evangelicalism-where women's place is
assumed to be in the home-female researchers may run the risk of subverting
gender norms and not being taken seriously. The latter dynamic may be magni-
fied if the women are young. Considering that most of our interviews were with
men between the ages of 30 and 50, we expected that this might be the case. In
the local Northern Irish parlance, we could be considered merely 'wee girls' (and
indeed we were occasionally referred to as such).
We both believe that our identities as females was sometimes an advantage
when relating to the men, precisely because they may have perceived little threat
from us-we were not seen as contemporaries or authorities (see also Lofland
1971). This may have contributed to an atmosphere of openness in the inter-
views. Although it is impossible to substantiate, neither of us felt that men with-
held information from us because of our gender. It is of course possible that some
male participants were reluctant to express certain views on the role of women,
although this issue was never raised.
However, our identities as females appeared to matter more in less formal
fieldwork settings. As an evangelical, I (Gladys) felt more comfortable than
Claire in attending religious services and events. However, when I did not con-
form to the behaviours expected of evangelical women I felt uncomfortable, and
I wondered if it impacted how the participants felt about me. For instance, I
attended several conferences celebrating the centenary of the conservative, all-
male organisation, the Independent Orange Order. I was nearly always the only
female in attendance that was not charged with serving the men refreshments
during the breaks. This made me feel as if I should be helping the women. Or, I
sometimes broke the dress codes for Free Presbyterian women. It is possible that
this behaviour caused some conservative evangelicals to doubt my status as an
insider, although I did not receive any verbal cues that this was the case.
Gender also mattered in gaining access to participants. Although more
women than men participate in evangelical churches, it was extremely difficult
to find females to interview. In my (Gladys) case, this was partly due to an over-
representation of males in the leadership positions of the evangelical organisa-
tions that I studied, and partly due to reluctance on the part of some of my male
gatekeepers to direct me to female participants. I (Claire) did not use pastors as
recruiters-, but found a similar reluctance amongst women to talk to me. Even
though I often made initial contact and had long conversations with the female
of the house, as soon as the tape-recorder
was produced, most women scuttled
away, usually returning briefly to serve tea and biscuits. The difficulty in locating
female participants did not seem to be related to our identities as females,
rather to general attitudes about women within evangelicalism. They were seen
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as having less to say than the men. Therefore, whilst we perceived little difficul-
ty in interacting with the men on account of our gender, it is certain that our
respondents held views about women that may well have impacted on our data
in ways that we might not realise. Similarly Duneier (1999:353) has highlighted
his 'uncertainty about what I do not see, and what I do not know I have missed'.
Moreover, shared gender did not necessarily create empathy with the women we
did interview. As Valli (1986) found, because of her own feminism she became
frustrated with the women's coalescence in their own subordination. We are
aware that these feelings may impact our interpretation of the data.
It has often been noted that the educational status and/or institutional affil-
iation of researchers may also play into power relationships between researchers
and participants (Geertz 2002, Spickard and Landres 2002). It is generally
assumed that the researcher, with her institutional backing, holds the balance of
power in an interview situation. This can make it difficult to gain trust as Wilcox
(2002) found in her research on LGBT Christians. Very few of our interviewees
focused on the academic aspect of our identities or expressed uneasiness that
would indicate they thought of us as powerful. Many of our interviewees had
third level educations (54 of 85) and were relatively wealthy. If anything, they
may have felt more powerful than us (as indicated by the 'wee girls' comments).
We expected to encounter more difficulties with our institutional affiliation
to University College Dublin in the Republic of Ireland. Stereotypically,
Northern Irish evangelicals are suspicious of anything coming from the Republic.
But we both encountered more curiosity than hostility. Some participants asked
us what it was like living in Dublin; others expressed the opinion that the
Republic was becoming more secular and thus was becoming a more promising
'mission field' for Protestant evangelicals. If anything, our affiliation with a uni-
versity in Dublin stimulated rather than inhibited conversation.
We found that our national or communal3 credentials were what participants
asked about most frequently. In my (Gladys) case, my national identity became
an issue as soon as I opened my mouth, because I speak with a North American
accent. Many of my interviewees thought that I was Canadian, which I attribute
to several factors. It is possible that I have a slight Canadian accent. Or, given
that Northern Irish Protestants emigrated to Canada in proportionally larger
numbers than the USA, they may have assumed that I was returning to Northern
Ireland to study my ancestors. Northern Irish Protestants have sometimes
assumed Irish-Americans are Catholic supporters of the IRA and in this sense, I
felt it was a good thing to be perceived as Canadian. Once my national identity
was established, participants often drew parallels between events in Northern
Ireland and the USA. Many spoke fondly of America's Puritan forefathers, and
3We use the term communal to describe a sense of belonging to a group that, for
Northern Irish Protestants, is constituted by overlapping national, ethnic and religious iden-
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U.S. presidents of Ulster-Scots descent. I felt that these comments were an effort
on the part of the participants to find commonalities and to confirm their
In addition, I found that having a national identity as an outsider eased the
research process because participants assumed I had little knowledge of the local
situation and were keen to make themselves clear. They sometimes prefaced
comments with qualifications such as 'Northern Ireland is a difficult place for
someone from the outside to understand,'
or 'someone who didn't grow up here
might think this sounds crazy.' Many insisted that Northern Irish Protestants had
been misrepresented in America-largely through the 'propaganda' of Sinn
Fein-and they were keen to set the record straight, as they saw it. They seemed
grateful for the chance to explain themselves to the outside world; some asked me
to go home and tell other Americans that Northern Irish Protestants were not
'all crazy.'
For me (Claire), being perceived as a communal Protestant was a very sig-
nificant identity. It seemed to reduce suspicion of my intentions, especially in the
uncertain political climate at the time of the fieldwork. As one interviewee
remarked, 'they haven't got rid of Sam and they haven't got rid of Claire out of
the country [...] Their idea was exterminate us and get us to go [... . You're not
Irish. We're British and that's it.' Like religious identity continuums, communal
identity was not a straightforward binary. In this instance I wanted to distance
myself from the ethnocentrism of this participant, and expressed my own politi-
cal views-that I supported the peace process and did not agree with Protestant
hegemony in Northern Ireland. This may well have weakened my communal cre-
dentials and I received a long lecture about my erroneous views. However,
fact that I was born on the 'right side' may have mediated this and the intervie-
wee continued to express controversial political views.
As Wilcox and Neitz emphasize, different identities matter at different stages
of the research process as they are mutually constructed with our research partic-
ipants. At times, our other identities were more pronounced than our religious
identities in forging commonalities, highlighting differences and generally nego-
tiating our relationships with interviewees. In this sense, we both experienced
the multiple dimensions of insider/outsider status. But going further than Wilcox,
these other identities were also blurry and shifting-and insider/outsider status
was rarely straightforward.
It was difficult to predict which of our identities were important for partici-
pants; nor can we say with any certainty how and when issues of identity may
arise. All we were able to do was to note participants' verbal and non-verbal reac-
tions in our field notes and in our interview transcripts, a process that cannot
pick up on all the subtleties of identity and research relationships. It is also high-
ly possible that some of our identities were not commented on by
but that they did nonetheless have a significant impact on our interactions (see
Duneier 1999 for an account of an accidentally recorded conversation between
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participants that indicated they did not trust him, despite the rapport he
he had built up). This requires researchers to reflect
the research
process on the identities that are important, and how they matter-both to the
researchers and the participants. It requires an 'active voice sociology' (Douglas
1982) in order to tease out how and when participants make identity decisions in
the field.
Thus far we have explored religious identity as a continuum and have recog-
nised the importance of multiple identities. However, each of these discussions
still assumes that categories of social identity are what matters. This section rais-
es a number of questions about the spiritual and emotional interactions that may
also have been relevant in the research process.
We have discussed above Poloma's treatment of spirituality as consequential-
ly real. Indeed, the need to make room for a spiritual dimension of identity is a
central point. Flanagan (1996) argues that sociologists have little understanding
of theology and tend to ignore signs of the sacred in their own lives as well as
their work. Similarly Martin (1997) feels that social scientists have difficulty
with theology because their analyses must deal with socially grounded empirical
generalisations that often challenge theological claims. In terms of researcher
presentation of data, Neitz and Spickard (1990) suggest that sociologists tend not
to focus on the divine, as taking religious experiences seriously may lead readers
to believe the researcher was not being objective enough. But if we are doing our
jobs as sociologists properly, we must resist the temptation to reduce religious
identity to social categories and boundary maintenance.
There is evidence that respondents related to us spiritually, rather than on
the basis of social categories. Whilst a sociologist might assume that evangelical
is a social category, for many of our interviewees it is a spiritual identity above all
else. When, for example, I (Claire) experienced people evangelising me, this may
have been an individual trying to relate to me spiritually rather than socially. I
deduced this when one participant explained (in a follow up interview) that she
had been praying for me regularly and that God had a plan for my life. She relat-
ed this in a loving way, not as if I was an outsider to her social group, but as if she
was communicating with my soul. Throughout my research I (Gladys) developed
strong friendships with several liberal and post-evangelicals and stayed with one
of those friends whenever I visited Belfast. Inevitably, conversations with those
participants touched on the spiritual dimensions of our lives and included pray-
ing for one another.
With liberal evangelicals and post-evangelicals, our experiences were similar
to Guest (2002), who found in his research with post-evangelical alternative
worship communities that his participants did not label him in any particular
way. In fact, he notes that he was hardly ever asked to describe his own religious
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position because the groups he was working with tended towards unquestioning
acceptance of individuals, regardless of background of faith-to the point of per-
ceiving direct questions judgemental and impossible to answer definitively in any
case. Therefore, a theological position of openness on the part of respondents
may mitigate social categorisation along the conventional binary of saved and
Despite prioritising the need to enter our respondents' world of meanings,
however, it is likely that our own perspectives are so unconsciously embedded
that this is not fully possible. Whilst I (Claire) endeavour to analyse data to take
account of spirituality, this is a realm of experience that I do not engage with and
cannot fully comprehend. As researchers we can never enjoy full access to our
respondents' mental worlds. Duneier (1999:353) calls this the 'blindness' we may
have to the circumstances of people who are different from ourselves. Even as an
evangelical, I (Gladys) cannot claim to fully know what my respondents think
and feel. Even if one shares in a specific spiritual experience, such as one of
Poloma's charismatic meetings, it is not possible to know whether participants
understood the experience similarly. We can but acknowledge these limitations.
In addition to spirituality, sociologists increasingly see emotions as a signifi-
cant way in which humans interact with one another and with social structures
(see Barbalet 2002, Turner and Stets 2005). The choice to confide in a researcher
is no doubt shaped by a respondent's reading of the 'inner attitude' of the
researcher. When a respondent tells their story and bursts into tears, as was the
case with two of my (Claire) interviewees (one male and one female), it is unlike-
ly that they are taking into account the researcher's social identity in any con-
ventional sociological sense. Rather, there is an emotional engagement between
researcher and respondent that becomes more significant than their initial social
assumptions about one another. Indeed, doing in-depth interviews on sensitive
topics, especially life-history interviews, can be an intense emotional experience
for both parties (Miller 2000). Revealing intimate details about oneself to a
stranger requires a level of trust that is not automatically conferred by sharing
someone's social characteristics. When trust or an emotional bond is established,
a researcher-whatever their status-may be invited to come inside the respon-
dent's world, and may be helped to cross pre-existing, imagined social boundaries.
Of course if we take our respondents' emotional engagement with us into
account, we must also scrutinize how our own emotions may impact upon the
collection and interpretation of data. We have highlighted our feelings of guilt,
discomfort and annoyance above. According to Kleinman and Copp (1993:2),
taking account of emotions in social scientific fieldwork has been regarded as sus-
pect-a contamination of objectivity. However, rather than deny having these
feelings, Kleinman and Copp (1993:52) encourage us to ask 'How did the
researcher's emotions play a role in data collection and analysis of this social
group or setting?'
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As a youth I (Gladys) attended more conservative American evangelical
churches than I do now, and I was surprised at the extent of the guilt that I still
felt during my fieldwork. The guilt was not about leaving those conservative
churches but rather about the prospect of misleading, offending or
the people who still attend them. I think that this feeling gave me a fuller under-
standing of the social, theological, and emotional pressure to conform to the
standards of the conservative evangelical subculture. If a participant in this sub-
culture experienced feelings of guilt similar to mine, or doubts about some aspect
of their faith, they might feel as if they had to silence themselves, or leave. In the
same way, rather than simply suppressing my feelings of annoyance in response to
the conversion attempts, I (Claire) was able to reflect on my discomfort to under-
stand how others react negatively to evangelicals when they discuss their faith,
and how this in turn constructs evangelical identity as oppositional, in battle
with a hostile modern world (see also Smith 1998). Similarly we were both able
to use our discomfort with the women's subservient role in our fieldwork settings
in order to analyse the gender dynamics of evangelical life in more depth.
Emotions in the research process may blind as well as enlighten. If we have
positive feelings towards an interviewee, or our sympathy is roused, we may
unconsciously take this with us into analysis. If we become close with our respon-
dents, as I (Gladys) did with the participant I stayed with in Belfast, we may be
less inclined to be rigorously analytical. Thus we must take our positive as well as
our negative emotions into account. In short, respondents and researchers can
relate to one another emotionally as well as on the basis of social categories. The
research process is greatly enriched where researchers are able to listen to the
respondents' emotions as well as their own, and consider this as data and in
Our fieldwork experiences have left us with a number of reflections on the
insider/outsider debate as it applies to the study of religious groups. First, follow-
ing Neitz, we do not think that the insider/outsider dichotomy as it is generally
characterized in the literature is adequate to describe research relationships.
Whilst some may be more clearly in or out depending on whether one is a devot-
ed pilgrim or a hostile non-believer, most people occupy some place in between
these positions. Moreover, the place we occupy may shift backwards or forwards,
as if on a continuum. It encompasses doubts as well as beliefs. It can be changed
through the research process itself. Most religious groups are so internally diverse
that the pilgrim researcher may feel alienated from some members, whilst the
non-believer researcher may experience religious commonalities with others.
Of course in some cases, the religious continuum is less readily negotiated
than in others. Some boundaries may be so deeply underpinned by inequalities in
power that they are difficult to transcend. Other groups may maintain the bound-
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ary vigilantly out of concern for numbers or purity. All religious groups, and all
researchers, are different. Neitz found Catholic charismatic identity relatively
closed to her, and witches relatively open. We were surprised that we were able
to permeate boundaries with Northern Irish evangelicals. The point is that the
permeability of the religious boundary is contextually variable, and we should
leave enough conceptual space in our research to reflect on the ways in which
the religious boundaries may be recreated and transformed.
Secondly, and this has been noted before, one's religious identity is mediated
through a host of other social identities. Depending on the relational, political or
environmental context, certain identifications can become more or less impor-
tant. They can intersect with religious identity in a variety of ways. These iden-
tifications may also be seen as continuums, although some may be more socially
fixed than others. For example it was difficult to transcend the gender difference
with many of our male interviewees, some of whom saw us simply as young girls,
however, the communal boundary may have been more fluid. It is difficult to pre-
dict which identities will be important in research, and when they will be impor-
tant. Continual reflection throughout the research process, on what is said and
what is unsaid, is therefore required in order to comprehend researcher-partici-
pant interactions.
Thirdly, we would question whether social categories are the only, or even
the primary, way in which respondents' relate to researchers. We found that the
spiritual and emotional dimensions of identity and interaction were very signifi-
cant, and often mediated social categories. Reflecting on participants' spiritual
and emotional responses, and one's own, must be seen as an essential part of data
collection and analysis. That said, all we can do is note verbal and non-verbal
cues and analyse our own reactions. It is never fully possible to claim knowledge
of the mental world of another individual. However, we believe that refraining
the insider/outsider debate in terms of these more complex identifications, and
allowing for multiple types of interaction, will contribute to more reflexive
approaches in religious ethnography.
The material analysed in this article is based on two separate studies of
Northern Irish evangelicalism. Below are short summaries of the studies and their
My project (Claire) focused on why religious beliefs change over the life
course. I conducted one-to-one life history interviews with 28 evangelicals in
2002/2003. Participants were gained as part of a snowball sample based on a vari-
ety of evangelical contacts from a previous research project. The initial contacts
were made through a variety of friends, neighbours and community workers. I did
not attend many religious services during this time, although I spent much time
with participants at their workplaces and in their homes. Interviews lasted
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between one to three hours and there were often follow-up visits, emails, and
telephone conversations. Of the 28, 22 were male and only 6 were female. Most
participants were in the 30-50 age group; the youngest was 20 and the oldest was
62. Eleven had third level educations, 11 lived in urban locations and 17 in rural
My project (Gladys) focused on how Northern Irish evangelicalism is chang-
ing, both within congregational life and evangelical organisations. Congrega-
tional interviews were concerned with how evangelical identities change over
time. Organisational interviews were concerned with the links between activists'
religious journeys and changes in how their organisations present themselves in
the public sphere. I conducted 61 interviews (with 57 individuals) from 2002-
2004. Participants were gained through my evangelical contacts in my Baptist
church in Dublin and my Orthodox Presbyterian church in Maine. I attended a
number of religious services and evangelical events during the course of the
research. Interviews lasted between one to three hours and there were often fol-
low up emails and conversations. Of the 57, 32 were in the 30-50 age group; the
youngest was 16 and the oldest was 81. Forty-three had third level educations, 39
lived in urban locations and 18 in rural locations.
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