Introduction: Self-Positionalities (An essay in the Self-Positionality in the Anthropology of Christianity series)

By Girish Daswani (University of Toronto), with Jon Bialecki (University of California, San Diego)

“In asking others to share their stories, it is necessary to share our own, starting with self-location”

Margaret Kovach, 2009: 98

In her book Indigenous Methodologies Margaret Kovach (2009) argues that, in any “story-based methodology,” the researcher’s self-location is important as it provides our interlocutors (and, we would add, our readers) with access to our motivations. It also makes contradictions and inconsistencies visible. Social location becomes an important consideration because telling stories – something socio-cultural anthropologists do extremely well – can also involve curating stories in ways that “shift the focus away from structurally defined axes of oppression” (Fernandes 2017: 3), especially since many of us conduct research on sites that can be described as either settler-colonial, post/colonial or (straight-up) colonial. In other words, when there is too much focus on making the story fit into an existing script (or a set of Androcentric and Eurocentric citational practices), and when removing ourselves and (our) colonial and racial histories from the script, we simultaneously serve to occlude our own intersectional positionalities as storytellers, including our investments in making the story speak to others in “interesting” ways. 

In this series of essays, we want to consider why the kinds of Christianity that is usually considered ‘interesting,’ is frequently a result of an unstated assumption about ‘who’ we are as anthropologists. How much of ourselves do we make invisible when telling stories and what are some of the assumptions when telling an “interesting” story? How much of this “interest” is an effect not of the forms of life we encounter, but rather how those we encounter are viewed from (unmarked) racial and national vantages that we may not inhabit? What of ourselves do we silence or occlude when telling these stories? When and how is a “politics of location” (hooks 2015: 144) important – where our spaces, social class, race and gender matter – in the way we tell our stories? We believe that we often do not look at ourselves enough and that in interrogating ourselves – our social locations, intersectional positionalities and perspectives – that the ethnographic study of Christianities can be made richer. As bell hooks writes: 

“Participants in contemporary discussions of culture highlighting difference and otherness who have not interrogated their perspectives, the location from which they write in a culture of domination, can easily make of this potentially radical discipline a new ethnographic terrain, a field of study where old practices are simultaneously critiqued, re-enacted and sustained.”

bell hooks (2015: 196)

hooks point is that, as ethnographers, we often make gestures towards self-critique but that we continue to sustain the same politics/practice of writing that silences our own discomfort or the power relations we are immersed in. If we are the gatekeepers of what is put into print, then another question to ask is, who are our gatekeepers in the field and in academia? How do we move from acknowledging what these boundaries and barriers are, to pushing against them in a way that allows our own multiplicity to be revealed? How do we create spaces within a culture of domination? bell hooks, again, provides suggestions: 

“that movement requires pushing against oppressive boundaries set by race, sex, and class domination. Initially, then, it is a defiant political gesture. Moving, we confront the realities of choice and location… I have been working to change the way I speak and write, to incorporate in the manner of telling a sense of place, of not just who I am in the present but where I am coming from, the multiple voices within me”.

bell hooks (2015: 223-4)

This is our attempt to acknowledge the multiple voices within us as anthropologists studying Christianity. In what follows, we have differently positioned anthropologists talk about how their positioning affected their fieldwork experience and/or their ethnographic writings. Our contributors, in one way or another, are speaking from the “margins… [as] part of the whole but outside the main body” (hooks 2015: 229). These tales of ethnographic research and anthropological writing will cross geographical and metaphorical borders, drawing on experiences from South America, Africa, Southeast Asia, Europe, and the United States; these narratives will involve how researchers sometimes forget, sometimes remember, and sometimes learn through difficult surprises that there is no necessary sharp demarcation between ‘who they are’ and ‘who they study,’ even where one might expect sizable disconnections. Through a focus on these various positionalities and through “making room in methodology for life, for the unexpected, for the path that emerges rather than the one initially planned” (Kovach 2009: 108), we might find alternative ways of re-imagining an Anthropology of Christianity.

References

Fernandes, Sujatha. 2017. Curated Stories: The Uses and Misuses of Storytelling. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

hooks, bell. 2015. yearning: race, gender and cultural politics. New York and London: Routledge Press.

Kovach, Margaret. 2009. Indigenous Methodologies: Characteristics, Conversations and Contexts. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.