Monday, May 25, 2015

Activist research: an examination of lived practices Conference paper accepted

Delighted that my conference paper for the 2015 Ethnography and Ecclesiology Conference, September 15-17 has been accepted.

In this paper, I will be trying to unpick some of the complexity around studying the living church. Picture this – Augustine withdrawing his approval for you to use his Confessions in your research, because the letter belongs to him. The Ethiopian Enuch shuffling into your sermon on Acts 8, and putting up his hand at the end to ask a question of your exegesis of his community. Such is the complexity that surrounds doing ethnographic research on the church today – when our participants are still shaping the research process. I want to explore the limits and opportunities that result.

It will be my 3rd conference visit to Durham, having been there in 2010 (for the Fresh Expressions Research conference) and 2011 (for the first ever Ethnography and Ecclesiology Conference) and I’m looking forward to being in that beautiful, historic and compact city again.

Here’s the full abstract –

Activist research: an examination of lived practices in ethnography and ecclesiology

Implicit in the project known as ethnography and ecclesiology is a reconceived epistemology. The turn toward lived experience, along with a commitment to both empirical and theological understandings, ushers in a set of ambiguities. These tensions, while disturbing Enlightenment notions of objectivity, hard facts and replicability, if conceived accurately, can become a rich source of data.

One set of tensions is between researched and researcher. To focus on these interactions is consistent with the argument by Paul Fiddes that empirical-ecclesiological study is a shared habitus characterised by relationships in which Christ can be embodied (Perspectives on Ecclesiology and Ethnography (Studies in Ecclesiology and Ethnography)). It is also consistent with the particular complexities of empirical-ecclesiological study, in which, unlike historical-ecclesiological study, the researched are active agents.

The interaction between researcher and researched will be examined through the lens of activist research. Charles Hale defines activist research as distinct from pure and applied research, with implications at every stage of the research process.

This category of activist research as it applies to the interaction between researched and researcher will be examined in four different sites. The sites will include practices of both research and teaching, since both are essential to the academic “habitus.”

First, the research by Paul Bramadat of the activities of an Evangelical Christian Group on a Canadian University campus (The Church on the World’s Turf: An Evangelical Christian Group at a Secular University (Religion in America Life)). His theoretical commitments are disturbed as Bramadat realises that the community has welcomed him because of their desire to convert him.

Second, the research by Steve Taylor of an emerging church in New Zealand. During the research, the attempt to locate the researcher as objective and detached was challenged in a focus group as unhelpful for this community.

Third, the research by Robert Orsi of contemporary Catholic religious practices in USA (Between Heaven and Earth: The Religious Worlds People Make and the Scholars Who Study Them). He finds himself questioned by a participant. How can he as a researcher understand the researched unless he shares their beliefs regarding the practices (of prayer) being studied? In each study, the researcher is challenged by the “activism” of the researched.

Fourth, the teaching of an undergraduate University topic, reshaped in light of the epistemological demands inherent in ethnography and ecclesiology. Changes included bringing activists into the classroom to present their research in a case study format and expecting students to engage in the class as “activist researchers.” Feedback demonstrated increased levels of student engagement and a redefinition of their understandings of ecclesiology. However it also indicated that the “activist” shift resulted in a more contested space between individuals within the classroom.

What becomes evident in each of these four studies is that activist research is a helpful lens by which to understand ecclesiology and ethnography. Categories of pure and applied are contested as the researched asks fundamental questions in the research of the researcher.

This provides a way to theorise the relationship between social science methods and theology. The turn toward ethnography and ecclesiology is based on a reconceived epistemology, in which research is relocated as a set of “activist” practices in, with and among communities.

Dr Steve Taylor, Senior Lecturer Flinders University and Principal, Uniting College for Leadership and Theology

Posted by steve at 08:32 AM


  1. Would love to be present to hear you present your paper. Any chance after the event of having access to the paper? Cheers. Bruce

    Comment by Bruce Grindlay — May 25, 2015 @ 10:54 am

  2. Cheers Bruce.

    If I’m organised, I could send it to you prior and you could give me critique and feedback – Dr Grindlay 🙂


    Comment by steve — May 25, 2015 @ 11:03 am

  3. Had this piece but didn’t use it in my thesis. Can’t find the origins at the moment.
    In 1977 Paul Rabinow prescribed a tenet that has become, at least in theory, a staple of anthropological practice today: “We can pretend that we are neutral scientists collecting unambiguous data and that the people we are studying are living amidst various unconscious sys- tems of determining forces of which they have no clue and to which only we have the key. But it is only pretense” (1977, 152). It is hard to imagine that our predecessors could find this concept of intersubjec- tivity—the notion that fieldwork is an interaction between living, sen- tient agents—such a novel idea, and it is all the more unbelievable for the anthropologist whose ties to a research community (or a significant portion thereof ) are defined by kinship and platonic relationships with the other agents in the ethnographic equation.

    Comment by Bruce Grindlay — May 25, 2015 @ 11:08 am

  4. Yes. What I want to do is to explore the reality of that theory.

    If we are not neutral, what is the impact on research (with a particular focus on research into ecclesial communities)?

    Note that I’m including the class you spoke at. How did your quote from Rabinow apply in that class? In what ways was the status of neutral observor changed? What was the impact, on you and the class, as you worked with case study, of a reality that they had visited during that week? !


    Comment by steve — May 25, 2015 @ 11:17 am

  5. Steve, if I may – I have recently purchased a copy of Max Haiven & Alex Khasnabish “The Radical Imagination – Social movement research in the age of austerity”. I’ve planned to use it for some study I plan to do. You might be interested in it. Cheers. Bruce.

    Comment by Bruce Grindlay — May 26, 2015 @ 11:11 am

  6. Cheers Bruce. Looks interesting

    Comment by Steve — May 26, 2015 @ 9:44 pm

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