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Feminism & Psychology

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III. An Ethic of Involvement in Researching Spirituality


Helen Lee
Feminism Psychology 2005; 15; 501
DOI: 10.1177/0959-353505057622
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III

An Ethic of Involvement in Researching Spirituality


Helen LEE
In this article, I reflect on my experience as a researcher carrying out research that
explores the sociocultural and psychological construction of new forms of spirituality (Lee, 2000; Lee and Marshall, 2002, 2003). In this research, new forms
of spirituality and spirituality refer to a non-institutional spirituality that is
often constructed as separate from religion. Often characterized as myriad and
eclectic, new forms of spirituality refers to the various traditions and practices1
frequently presented in the UK as new age spirituality or mind, body, spirit.
In part, this research involved an analysis of spoken and written texts from
semi-structured interviews with people who self-identified with spirituality, as
well as popular mind, body, spirit books.

INVOLVEMENT AND THE DYNAMICS OF AN INSIDER IDENTITY

Prior to researching spirituality, I was involved with new forms of spirituality


I attended workshops, seminars and classes2 over a span of 10 years. Consequently, I was never a value-neutral observer, but rather practised an ethic of
involvement a preferred standpoint of many feminists as well as some critical
psychologists3 (Bevan and Bevan, 1999; Kitzinger and Wilkinson, 1996).
While I might characterize myself as an insider because I was involved with
spirituality prior to research, the boundaries of insider/outsider are not clear-cut.
Pitman (2002) usefully characterizes herself as outsider/insider in identifying as
a white, lesbian researcher researching two populations women of colour and
LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered). In addition, she problematizes
the illusion of sameness that can characterize an insider perspective. She
draws on an example of how as a lesbian she mistakenly made the assumption
that, like her, one of her participants was publicly lesbian and consequently
outed her participant.
Similarly, my position as insider is not clear-cut. It is not a stable or mutually
exclusive position in which an ethic of involvement simply implies that of
insider. Although I was involved throughout the research process by virtue of my
Feminism & Psychology 2005 SAGE (London, Thousand Oaks and New Delhi)
Vol. 15(4): 501506; 0959-3535
DOI: 10.1177/0959-353505057622

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Feminism & Psychology 15(4)

prior involvement with spirituality, my insider position shifted in relation to the


participants I was interviewing and in regard to what was being talked about in
any given moment. By means of illustration, my involvement with spirituality
was an aspect of my identity that when made salient before and during the interviews did in many ways position me as similar to the participants as an
insider. This helped me to recruit participants and also build up a rapport. But
during the interviews there were instances where dissimilarity emerged. For
example, in the latter part of one interview, a participant related how she had
come to identify with the Buddhist religion and would now call herself a
Buddhist. This worked to position us as different. Also, there were ways in which
I differed from some of the participants in terms of ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation and other identities, as well as being a researcher who ultimately has
control over their words. Consequently, while valuing an ethic of involvement, I
cannot claim a simplistic position as an insider. Instead, insider/outsider is a
dynamic positioning, changing in relation to social context, shifting with different participants and with the same participant dependent on the identities they
take up at any given time.
The shifting of my insider/outsider position continued after the interview. At
the onset of research, my position was one whose sense of a spiritual self was
dominated by an individualist, self-orientated discourse of spirituality I use
dominated because at that initial starting point spirituality was not something
that I questioned, it was somewhat taken for granted. But, in bringing a constructionist analysis to new forms of spirituality, my subjectivity, like the texts I
was analysing, became deconstructed. Consequently, my position shifted to a
critical stance in which I no longer want to be involved in individualist spiritual
practices.

SOME OF THE DIFFICULTIES I ENCOUNTERED IN RESEARCHING


SPIRITUALITY

Feminist debates have addressed problems that some researchers have encountered in researching sensitive topics such as child sexual abuse and sexuality
(Stoler, 2002; Zurbriggen, 2002). Spirituality is not a sensitive topic per se, but
it is often construed as personal. By personal I mean that a dominant discourse
constructs spirituality as fundamental and intrapsychic something inherent,
and within as well as beyond the person. For me, this created a problematic
identity as someone whose sense of self was dominated by this individualist
discourse of spirituality4 but also as a researcher working to deconstruct spirituality.
This difficulty became most prominent during the process of analysis which,
as a discourse analyst, involved my questioning taken-for-granted discourses and
exploring the rhetorical strategies in written texts which construct certain discourses as real. This meant that I needed to question and challenge discourses

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Observations & Commentaries

503

which had in large part constituted my own subjectivity. This created difficulties
in terms of producing a constructionist analysis, but also in dealing with my own
changing subjectivity.
In academia, it has been difficult seeking support to help me work through
these difficulties. One reason is because spirituality is somewhat taboo. Israel
(2002) talks of marginalization because she researches dancers (commonly
referred to as strippers); likewise, research on spirituality is often not well
received. Moreover, my research is marginalized because it brings together
spirituality with a feminist and critical psychology. Spirituality is marginalized
within critical and feminist psychology, and a critical, feminist perspective that
questions established systems of knowledge is often viewed inappropriate by
psychologists who are working with spirituality. Sometimes I wonder if I could
have chosen a more problematic research area in terms of seeking support.
Nonetheless, some strategies helped me work out these difficulties and I outline
these below.
Difficulties emerged first and foremost when attempting to analyse the interview text. A lot of what participants talked about seemed obvious to me. I found
it difficult analysing what I myself took for granted. I found it difficult to ask
broad questions about the construction of spirituality, let alone start identifying
specific discourses or rhetorical strategies. But, as Gill (1996) argues, discourse
analysts need to question what seems obvious, as this often indicates a dominant
discourse. For me, this part of the analysis was difficult precisely because I was
researching spirituality, given that this is often constructed as something fundamental within a person, as a form of knowing rather than a belief.
One strategy that helped me begin to read the text within a constructionist
framework was to work through some lengthy extracts in a reading group. Within
this group, other researchers read and gave preliminary analytic comments on the
extracts. Their comments helped me to begin a critical reading of the interview
texts and to start to question some of the assumptions that were being made by
participants assumptions that previously I had not even read as assumptions but
rather as just the way it is. The reading group did not provide support that
directly focused on my problematic identity, but, importantly, it did help me to
start developing a critical analysis which enabled a further shift in my subjectivity. This shift was gradual and by no means easy or comfortable to negotiate
as my research diary illustrates:
I feel as if my analysis is going in a direction of its own. I know that I am
shaping this analysis, yet at the same time, I am writing and thinking things that
are contrary to my spiritual standpoint. Its as if the analysis is doing something
that non-academic Helen is uncertain about. (Research diary extract, January
1998)

Another strategy that helped with my problematic identity was to produce first a
less contentious analysis one that did not take as a starting point a critical analysis of a discourse that at the time dominated my sense of spiritual self. Accord-

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Feminism & Psychology 15(4)

ingly, I began to identify and develop a critical analysis of a discourse I call consciousness or catastrophe, which was most prevalent in the written texts (Lee and
Marshall, 2003). I found it easier to question the assumptions and implications of
this discourse because it did not dominate my own spiritual subjectivity. Once
developed, this part of the analysis helped me to adopt a critical reading of the
discourses that had dominated my sense of a spiritual self.
In addition, reading widely from feminist spirituality gave me access to alternative discourses on spirituality. I found readings, such as Finlay (1991),
Spretnak (1994) and Starhawk (1989) useful in that they constructed spirituality
as bound up with relationality and political action. These readings helped me to
build up a critical review of research in psychology but also, importantly, they
helped me negotiate a shift in my subjectivity. Moreover, while a wider political
context for instance, where neoliberalist policies have worked to create gross
inequalities was and continues to be important to me, these particular feminist
readings on spirituality instigated a questioning of the ways in which new forms
of spirituality engaged with inequalities and/or theorized social/political change.
This was important because it allowed me to maintain an identity as someone
engaged with spirituality be that in a different way while also providing the
opportunity to challenge individualist discourses of spirituality. So, deconstructing my subjectivity as part of an ethic of involvement in researching spirituality
did not leave me with nothing.
Although I have pointed to difficulties I experienced as a researcher involved
with research on spirituality, I do encourage an ethic of involvement as this can
offer a means of challenging inequalities inside and outside psychology. When
supervising research students working with this agenda, I temper encouragement
with a forewarning of some of the difficulties they may encounter through the
research process I hope this will help facilitate a space for discussing and implementing strategies should problems occur.
Although the strategies I outline are not particularly novel, as they are perhaps
part of practice for many feminist researchers, my research experience is somewhat unique. It is not only an ethic of involvement but involvement in research
on spirituality using a constructionist framework that makes my research experience novel. While Pitman (2002) points to a shifting insider/outsider position, I
have outlined the ways this dynamic is bound up with the process of doing a constructionist analysis as well as my subjectivity. A critical analysis of spirituality
involved a deconstruction of my subjectivity. This has been problematic because
unlike adolescence and sexual violence, which I have deconstructed in the past,
spirituality is frequently constructed as fundamental, personal, as a form of
knowledge rather than belief and, consequently, as something that perhaps should
not be critically analysed.
To have my subjectivity challenged is useful despite the difficulties incurred
along the way. On reflection, I wonder if these difficulties occurred because the
research was on spirituality or whether research on love or sexuality might produce similar problems. These can also be constructed as fundamental aspects of

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Observations & Commentaries

505

human being and so may also produce similar difficulties. I wonder whether the
difficulties I experienced during my research are dissimilar from those that occur
as part of the process of doing any research as a feminist or critical psychologist
whose research is informed by a particular agenda.

NOTES
1. These practices include forms of meditation, yoga and shamanic dance, and draw from
Buddhist, Native American and Hindu traditions.
2. These practices include meditation (at the London School of Buddhism and the Dhyana
Centre, London); shamanic dance; yoga; seminars at the Theosophical Society,
London, and Alternatives at St James, Piccadilly, London; Dharma classes in Tibetan
Buddhism, Dharamsala, India; and attendance of seminars at Mind, Body, Spirit exhibitions in the UK.
3. In drawing on critical psychology as well as feminist psychology, I am not assuming
that they are one and the same (see Wilkinson, 1997). Nonetheless, because my
research has been informed by debates in feminist psychology and critical psychology,
it seems relevant to refer to both.
4. Elsewhere I have referred to this discourse as divine individualism (see Lee and
Marshall, 2003).

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS
Thanks to Harriette Marshall and Angie Burns for their encouragement and helpful
comments.

REFERENCES
Bevan, S. and Bevan, K. (1999) Interviews: Meaning in Groups, in I. Parker (ed.)
Critical Textwork, pp.1528. Buckingham: OUP.
Finlay, N. (1991) Political Activism and Feminist Spirituality, Sociological Analysis 52:
34962.
Gill, R. (1996) Discourse Analysis: Practical Implementation, in J.T.E. Richardson (ed.)
Handbook of Qualitative Research Methods, pp. 14156. Leicester: BPS Books.
Israel, T. (2002) Studying Sexuality: Strategies for Surviving Stigma, Feminism and
Psychology 12(2): 25660.
Kitzinger, C. and Wilkinson, S. (1996) Theorizing Representing the Other, in S.
Wilkinson and Celia Kitzinger (eds) Representing the Other: A Feminism and Psychology Reader, pp. 132. London: Sage.
Lee, H. (2000) Towards Ungendered Relationality: Psychology and Feminist Spirituality, Feminism and Psychology 10(4): 4704.
Lee, H. and Marshall, H. (2002) Embodying the Spirit in Psychology: Questioning the
Politics of Psychology and Spirituality, in V. Walkerdine (ed.) Challenging Subjects,
pp. 14960. Baskingstoke: Palgrave.

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Lee, H. and Marshall, H. (2003) Divine Individualism: Transcending Psychology,


International Journal of Critical Psychology 8: 1333.
Pitman, G.E. (2002) Outsider/Insider: The Politics of Shifting Identities in the Research
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Spretnak, C. (1994) The Politics of Spirituality. New York: Doubleday.
Starhawk (1989) The Spiral Dance. New York: HarperCollins.
Stoler, L.R. (2002) Researching Childhood Sexual Abuse: Anticipating Effects on the
Researcher, Feminism and Psychology 12(2): 26974.
Wilkinson, S. (1997) Prioritizing the Political: Feminist Psychology, in T. Ibez and L.
iguez (eds) Critical Social Psychology, pp. 17894. London: Sage.
Zurbriggen, E.L. (2002) Sexual Objectification by Research Participants: Recent Experiences and Strategies for Coping, Feminism and Psychology 12(2): 2618.

Helen LEE is a lecturer in Critical Psychology at Staffordshire University. Her


research interests centre on the role of psychology in producing and maintaining
inequalities, knowledge construction and sociocultural and psychological
constructions of spirituality.
ADDRESS: Department of Psychology and Mental Health, Staffordshire
University, Faculty of Health and Sciences, College Rd, Stoke-on-Trent,
Staffordshire, ST4 2DE, UK.
[email: h.a.n.lee@staffs.ac.uk]

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