Models and theories for the researcher and the researched

This post was inspired mostly by a Savage Minds post. Below are some excerpts from one section of my honours thesis. The thesis as a whole argues that knowledge of the world has consequences for human action in the world, as demonstrated through data gathered from short term participant observation within a Christian welfare organisation. In focusing on the content of beliefs (in the enactment of community construction, frameworks for action, and explanatory models) this thesis demonstrates that beliefs matter. My conclusion is that research subjects’ accounts of truth, and the frameworks and models they use, hold significance for anthropological enquiry.

The section I have included excerpts from is the final section of my thesis. It builds on my discussion of the significance of the specific beliefs held by the staff of the welfare organisation (CA). The most significant model for understanding the world used in morning devotions, the development of materials to use in primary and high schools and in conversations with me was that of the ‘world view’. Not included here is my more detailed discussion of the use of the term (and the notion) of ‘world view’ in the organisation, Christian academic work (I am not a Christian, but when I was doing my research I found it useful to read Christian academics) and general anthropology.

What does a student researcher do when the people being researched suggest they already have the answer?

You can take advantage of me as many ways as you want. Hopefully there will be enough objectivity that comes through to show that there is more to this than a culturally informed space.(From an interview with a CA staff member)

So, how does your faith stand now that you’ve done all this? (From an interview with a CA staff member)

The staff of CA approach their faith as being reason based, and acknowledge that premises of a higher order are significant for conclusions, evaluations and decisions. CA staff are aware that there are many different interpretations of the same evidence they draw on in their faith. The worldview model provides the primary explanation for how people living in the same world can come to such radically different understandings when, in their understanding, truth is universal. How the worldview model is to be presented or analysed in anthropology, a discipline which has given rise at varying times to (and to critiques of) similar models, is the main question for this section. […]

The worldview model in CA resembles some claims that can be described as part of the postmodern movement37. Both are sceptical of evolutionary models, and both point to incommensurable difference because they each require the individual to be the site at which truth can be strived for. Beyond this surface similarity is a radical opposition. Postmodernism is portrayed as a worldview worthy of ridicule38 because of its emphasis on personal truth. While faith is held by the individual, and Born Again Christianity calls for a personal relationship with Jesus, the truth provides a reference outside of and beyond the individual39. […] The worldview model suggests, much like the sociology of knowledge, all authority and logic rests upon a prior premise or legitimacy (Kearney 1984:133-134). One of the tenants of the worldview model, that people make interpretations through existing frameworks of a higher order, is not an unusual claim. […]

If where you stand determines what you see, then this is going to have significant consequences not only for how the ‘secular world’ and Born Again Christians approach issues around welfare and political decisions, but also for methodology and theory in social research. […] As [Joel] Robbins says, ‘to claim, as anthropologists must, that Christians make sense in their own terms is at least to admit that it is possible to argue in a reasonable way that anthropologists do not make sense in their own.’ (Robbins 2003:192-193). […] While the worldview model used within CA is both emic in the sense of being a model used within the group and etic in the sense that it exists within the social sciences, in this setting it is an insider understanding with particular consequences both epistemologically and politically. After all, ‘ differences between the high theory, ideology, and group discourse are more a function of scholarly description and category making than of any empirical distinctions between the objects of description.’ (Burack 2004:54). The researcher, in considering both the model used and the consequences of this model, can often provide an interpretation which is not in direct conflict with that of the research subjects, but is qualitatively different. […]

Models of the world legitimate orders, but they also call orders into being. […] The concept of worldview can be seen as an epistemological orientation, it is a means of assessing knowledge. It was shown that the research question had been based on a premises to the worldview model, that certain beliefs or truths will shape how you then evaluation other claims and actions in the world. While it is important to address the epistemological significance, or perhaps accuracy, of the world view approach, ultimately anthropology asks for something other than a thorough presentation of indigenous models. The closeness in the assumptions underlying the research project and the models used by my interlocutors in the field highlights the need for reflexivity in research50. […]

Just as the search for the defining difference between humans and animals is a moral question and not only a problem in the science of taxonomy, so the search for the defining difference between the anthropologist and the interlocutor, or especially the informant, reveals more about anthropology than it allows for useful fieldwork to continue. Perhaps as soon as the researcher feels the explanations and interpretations presented by his or her interlocutors in the field leaves no place for further abstraction it is the indication that it aligns with the researcher’s own taken forgranted notions about the world. […]

There are alternatives to the outside researcher coming in with their own frameworks, however on examination these shift rather than address such concerns. Radin’s Primitive man as philosopher (1957) did not move the role of anthropologist to that of simply putting forward the insights. Even when anthropology is done ‘at home’, it is still translated into the academic world. Therefore, anthropological discourse is not based on genuine engagement on the terms of the subjects of research.

Anthropology has used concepts of worldview and frameworks, but the anthropologist is challenged to transcend ethnocentrism (Spiro 2006[1996]:525). Framework or worldview models matter in both anthropological methodology and theory. The Christian use of worldview provides an understanding as to why people in the same world may not accept their/ the truth. In order for anthropology to understand the form attention needs to be paid to the content. Form and content are not clearly defined, real world categories. Not only can structures can be used to obscure or naturalise the ideological drive behind them, but form can also give rise to goals. […]

One of the staff members quoted at the start of this section was concerned about objectivity. Perhaps he does feel taken advantage of as, in this piece of work, the truth of the story of Jesus has been situated as ‘truth in inverted commas’. The worldview model may be employed by Christian readers to explain my reduction of their truth. However, there is also a chance that something of what I have written will spark off questions and ideas particular to the concerns and interests of a Born Again Christian reader, just as my engagement with texts by Christians and the time spent in CA have opened up spaces for my own thoughts. Thoughts that would have not been possible without an attention to the content of Christian beliefs.

List of references

Burack, C. 2004. Healing identities : Black feminist thought and the politics of groups. Psychoanalysis and social theory. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Kearney, M. 1984. World view. Chandler & Sharp publications in anthropology and related fields.

Novato: Chandler & Sharp.

Radin, P. 1957. Primitive man as philosopher, 2nd edition. New York: Dover Publications.

Robbins, J. 2003. What is a Christian? Notes toward an anthropology of Christianity. Religion 33:191-199.

Spiro, M. E. 2006[1996]. “Postmodernist anthropology, subjectivity, and science: A modernist critique,” in Anthropology in theory: Issues in epistemology. Edited by H. L. Moore and T. Sanders, pp. 523-535. Malden, Oxford & Carlton: Blackwell Publishing.


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