Reflections on Research beyond Ourselves
My partner and I have this conversation often. In the midst of discussing some theorist or interesting twist in the methodological approach to my research project, suddenly overwhelmed by my disciplinary jargon, he’ll roll both eyes to one side of his head and let out an exaggerated sigh. “What does all this mean in real life?” it usually starts. “Do religious studies scholars just read books all day and make things up from what they see?” it usually continues. The first few times our conversation ventured down this path, it was hard not to take offense while spewing my doctrinal commitments with a self-righteousness common of the humanities. The next few times we had this discussion, compelled by his commitments to his own field of study at the cross-section of biology and psychology, I could see where, for him, and others like him, the disconnect was happening. For him, as a neuroscientist, theories and methods were simply obsolete without hard, statistical data to back them up. And though, in time, he has been able to own up to his own epistemological blind spots and biases, his constant concern for the real has sparked a parallel concern of my own.
Because a term like real carries such weight and nuance, particularly in the realm of academia, it’s important to outline what I mean when I use it in relation to both the broader field of religion as a category of analysis, as well as my own particular project on race, sexuality, and women’s religious social networking. By real, what I mean to imply is not the polarity between existence and non-existence, or genuineness and inauthenticity, but, instead, the notion of actuality, where real serves as a stand in for a sort of tangibility that includes yet transcends the senses. In this framing, realness is best understood through causes and effects, or the series of chain reactions and tangential consequences that don’t just give research meaning, but make it possible from the start. This sort of realness privileges the full context of scholarship by first asking how, why, and for whom this research matters. Functioning, then, as a kind of metric of relatablity, realness, as I’ve come to understand it, lifts the veil masking our own self-importance—however well-meaning and well-placed it may be—to bridge the gap between meaningful work and the various communities that are impacted by it.
For my doctoral project on the parachurch organization Pinky Promise—an evangelical network of women committed to conservative understandings of biblical womanhood, including premarital abstinence and marital submission—bridging this gap has meant truly privileging the voices of my informants over the narrative and research expectations I’ve constructed by myself. Especially given their allegiance to traditional notions of gender and sexuality as more than just a countercultural commitment, disrupting my own preconceived notions of who these women are and what they’re doing has pushed me to consider the full complexity of their lived religious experiences. This translates into my work in at least two ways. First, as an ethnographer, privileging the voices of my informants over my own forces me to acknowledge my ethnographic authority and account for the ways I select, arrange, and highlight their stories. By confronting my subjectivity, I am able to place their experiences at the foreground of the research in a way that distinguishes their accounts from my interpretations. This kind of introspective honesty unsettles embedded claims of objectivity—implicit or otherwise—while astutely pointing out the perspectives that mistakenly get taken as truths.
The second way this translates into my work is through conceptions of religion as lived, extending beyond the confines of religious institutions, practices, and beliefs. By emphasizing the voices of my informants, and not just the official narrative or organizational account of Pinky Promise, my project looks at the ways that religious actors do religion—how they call upon and engage theo-religious ideas and concepts in the everyday. This attention to the daily realities of religious folk, namely the ways that their faith-based motivations animate their quotidian experience, allows me to highlight how these women act out their commitments to Pinky Promise ideals, even as they push against solitary, fixed notions of what those ideals mean or look like to them.
For my second project—a sponsored study on faith communities’ understandings of sexual and gender-based violence in the Boston area—bridging the gap has been necessary not only for the sustainability of the research, but also for strengthening relationships with stakeholders who do this work outside the academy. Alongside our effort to engage leaders and laypeople alike in order to capture their viewpoints, connecting with ministers and professionals whose concerns are greatly informed by the experiences of victims/survivors has colored our understanding of this work in a number of ways. First, it has forced us to recognize the sheer number and diversity of perspectives and approaches to the issue. Having to reckon with the plurality of the field keeps us attentive to the range and reach of its concern. Second, it has also forced us to recognize our accountability to this plurality. In this context, accountability does not imply that as researchers we necessarily agree with or subscribe to the modes or tactics of this community, but rather that we are committed to creating and maintaining opportunities for dialogue and discussion across efforts and intentions. Thinking about accountability in this way opens up channels for cooperation that would otherwise be lost to professional divisions. By linking across these divisions instead, we acknowledge the interdependence of our work and the mutual benefits of our commitments.
The final revelation of our work on faith communities and sexual and gender-based violence is the realization that our research has implications that extend beyond the particularities of this study. More than the sum of its parts, what this revelation forces us to recognize is that our research speaks a language of possibility that reaches beyond the academy and transcends fixed translations. Knowing this, I am compelled to not just present concrete answers, but to offer a thick description that gives account of the context and perspectives at play. By addressing possibility in this way, I’m able to present themes that emerge from this work, while, at once, creating space for twists, turns, and divergences that may result from its presentation.
Though this ongoing conversation with my partner has forced me to interrogate my own research interests in a way that has sometimes been quite uncomfortable, the questioning it has sparked has been extremely helpful to the process of outlining what I appreciate most about religious scholarship and thereby what I’ve come to identify as real research. More than statistics or theories or methodologies that speak to one discipline or another, real research, for me, is relational. It’s a dedication to the loose communities whose depth naturally breathes sustaining life into our topics. As such, in seeking to do real research, our goal should not be to simply find these communities and acquiesce to their ways of knowing, but, instead, to be in conversation with them in a way that neither shies away from their epistemologies or the implications of its translation. As actual, tangible, and relatable, real research, then, necessarily moves us outside of ourselves into a broader relationship that embraces its impact.
Kera Street is a fourth-year doctoral student in the Committee on the Study of Religion in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Harvard University. Her research interests coalesce, generally, around issues of race, gender, sexuality, and social media, and her current project considers the ways in which contemporary women-only networks in evangelical Christian circles use digital media to form and inform ideals of proper womanhood. In addition to this research, Kera serves as the Project Coordinator for an IMA World Health–sponsored project on sexual and gender-based violence through the Science, Religion, and Culture program at Harvard Divinity School. Kera received her Bachelor of Arts in religious studies from Spelman College and her Master of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School.