Isms, Ists, and Co-producing Knowledge

Young people with open books at a wooden picnic table
Credit: Alexis Brown via Upsplash

[Note: This post is written autoethnographically as a stylistic choice.]

I sit down and begin. Gut the book, make something with its contents. Don’t we do this every week?

Natalie Wigg-Stevenson is a theologian, that much is for sure. Besides admitting it in the title (the book is “An Inquiry into the Production of Theological Knowledge), she focuses squarely on a question about theology: “How can ethnographic methods help us foster the already organic relationship between everyday and academic theologies in order to bolster their shared production of theological knowledge?” (10). If anthropologists of Christianity may be aided by knowing something about theology, Wigg-Stevenson wants to use their tools to produce theology. I’ll come back to that last part in a bit.

I say it’s for sure she’s a theologian (as in a systematic one) in part because she uses anthropomorphized theologies. Everyday theologies and academic theologies “relate” to each other in her book—this is fictive relational language. Why not say theologians relate to each other? If a theologian is “made” (47-48), why not focus on the relationship between everyday theologians and academic theologians?

I stand up and grab a book by a theologian. Kosuke Koyama has some of the best book titles; this one is Water Buffalo Theology. He distinguishes between religious traditions (“isms” he calls them) and their practitioners (“ists”) (93-95). Comparison between isms is easy, he says, but talking to other ists is much harder. After all, “Buddhistm does not feel hungry [. . .] Buddhism does not suffer from flood or drought. A Buddhist, on the contrary, [. . .] complains, laughs, grieves, sweats, suffers, thirsts, and hungers” (94). One could just as easily say the same about a Christian, a Jew, a Muslim. This is what makes talking to other ists difficult, even those of the same ism. We have the immediate needs, hopes, hangups, relationships, and emotional reactions that come with having bodies. Ism and ist are related,” Koyama acknowledges. He makes his point nonetheless: “Don’t let ism walk alone!” (95).

I plop back down with Wigg-Stevenson. To her credit (despite those anthropomorphic theologies), focusing on ethnography means she must focus on people—her study is largely about ists. Two twists distinguish her book from most of what we’ve been reading. First, she implicates herself as one of the study’s ists. She does this in complex ways, drawing first on Bourdieu’s notions of habitus and doxa (and if you can keep these two straight, please help), and then Ortner’s idea of making a field (not just structuring, à la Bourdieu) before connecting directly with Wacquant’s “sociology of the body.” Wigg-Stevenson, though, is not content to “mine knowledge out of the site” of her inquiry like Bourdieu or even Wacquant. She seeks “to produce—or, better, coproduce—knowledge from [her] embodied location within it” (61).

That’s the second twist: Wigg-Stevenson is aware of the ways she influences her fields (both ecclesial and academic), and she’s actively trying to enact (or make, following Ortner) change among her co-participants. She is trying to not only produce knowledge about a particular place and people and their theologies but produce it with and for them (cf. 2). The goal, in other words, is to affect both ists and ism, and to be affected by the process as an ist herself, and it is these attempts and interaction that produce theological knowledge.

I lean back and think for a bit, mirroring (mimicking?) Wiggs-Stevenson’s self-narrated episode on her study floor (66-71). (I do eventually get to the constructive chapters, but in good book-gutting fashion I browse them after having scooped out the theory.) What might all this entail for us in this “field” of Studying Religious Practices? Some of us (like me) want to engage ethnography precisely as part of theological knowledge production; the applications are pretty direct for us. What about those whose projects (seminar-level and larger) are decidedly not theological, at least not in the same way that Wigg-Stevenson’s is? What might they draw from her book? Certainly the role that the researcher has in affecting their field (as seen in Wacquant and the boxing gym). But if there are “moments of slippage and social change” and the researcher, as “objectified participant” has “the power to create them,” then it seems a high degree of reflexivity is absolutely crucial.

I’m tired, and book-gutting is work. I’m left with these questions, which I’d really like my colleagues’ help thinking through. We do this every week, too: We co-produce knowledge.

1. Wigg-Stevenson is focused on the (co-)production of theological knowledge, but in a sense all knowledge produced by ethnography is a co-production. Is the work of other ethnographers to “get the story straight” (Orsi) a different kind of co-production, or is Wigg-Stevenson just being more up front about the ethnographer’s role?

2. What is transferable here? Would someone from a different religious tradition (or none) be able to engage in the same kind of knowledge production that Wigg-Stevenson does, or is it particular only to Christian theology?

3. How is Wigg-Stevenson’s “objectified participation” different (if at all) from being a highly reflexive ethnographer? What distinction is there in the knowledge that it produces?

6 Replies to “Isms, Ists, and Co-producing Knowledge”

  1. Evgeniia Muzychenko

    Thanks, Peter, for your insightful post and thought-provoking questions. You ask a great question about what is transferrable. I do not think that the project of articulating theologies in writing is unique to Christian theology. I include in this not merely academic papers but also the indoctrination of faith forms in scripture and other religious writings. In Asia, there are examples of religions that emerged in reaction to what Wigg-Stevenson calls “crises of faith” (28) – Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism produced their own bodies of writing, articulating new, alternative forms of practice. Thus, the “continuity between these everyday and specialized forms of theological reasoning” is not Christianity-specific. (27) The author reminds us that the religious change on the ground, as well as its articulation through authoritative sources, happens within other fields of practice that exist within the wider field of power (48). That means, faith expressions are defined in relation to broader social constructs. However, speaking about the academia in particular, I am not aware of whether the relationship between everyday and academic theology specifically exists outside the non-Western academia, in relation to religions other than Christianity.

  2. Brittany Lynn Fiscus-van Rossum

    Peter, let me start by applauding your creative use of auto-ethnography. Your post was so fun to read!

    I would like to jump in with your first question regarding whether or not all ethnography is co-production. My short answer is yes, sure. Ethnographers make something that is not merely “about” communities but crafted alongside them. To be a participant observer is to on some level participate in the life of a community and let our work be shaped by our experiences and relationships there. The work usually reflects this collaboration (even if it’s not so openly acknowledged).

    Still, I also think Wigg-Stevenson is doing something distinctly different in the level of open and intentional co-production of her methods. I do think this level of purposeful involvement in the community is different from what Orsi calls “getting the story straight.” She’s not just collaborating to then share or report or theorize “the story” of others, she’s a key player in the story! The collaboration, interplay, and coproduction are themselves goals and not just part of her methods.

    I appreciate Wigg-Stevenson’s desire to study “the organic overlap between everyday and academic forms of theological knowledge” by putting these forms in intentional “conversation” (168). And in many ways, I think in her level of co-production she successfully prioritizes the voices (and theories!) of people in her community alongside “academic” theologies without too much over-explaining of theory on top of their distinct insights. For those of us interested in using ethnographic methods for producing theology, I think she also poses some great questions about the authority of claims and what we want our work to “do” (169).

    One question I would add to the discussion is how we see this work as making a theological claim. Wigg-Stevenson is definitely a theologian (as are her community members). But what is the theological claim that is co-produced here? Does theology have to say something about God? Or is it also a “theological” claim if it is about the formation of theological claims?

    I have thoughts but this response is already too long, so I’ll save them for discussion tomorrow! I look forward to chatting with you all and learning more!

    -Brittany Fiscus-van Rossum

  3. Prakash Raju

    What I found interesting in Wigg-Stevenson’s book is the idea of ‘revision’ and ‘reaffirmation’ through vibrant theological conversations, and how community of Christian practitioners pursue wisdom together. A dialectical space between everyday theologies and academic theologians is important, of course the power dynamics between these groups are inherently evident; what is central is the outcome of the discourse. For instance, take ‘Dalit theology’, though the label emerged from a group of theologians in South India, nevertheless, they don’t speak only from their experience, rather from the experience of the underprivileged and oppressed communities in the society. On one hand, Dalit theology is a response to the ongoing structural oppression in India; on the other, it is responding to the dominant theology where the lower echelon’s voice was unrepresented. Until the 1970s the dominant Christian theology in India didn’t engage with the questions of social oppression, it was this ‘theological crisis’ which gave birth to Dalit theology. Therefore, it is difficult to draw a line between academic theology and everyday theology. Some of the questions I had was about the limitations of doing ethnographic research is a single church, would this mean that the ‘knowledge produced’ will also be limited?

  4. Yaa Baker

    The primes of this book really stood out to me. I have always considered the study of religion and the practice of religion to in some ways, be like oil and water. While I carry my academic background with me wherever I go, as I do my spiritual one, I never discuss it in faith communities for fear of being considered a heretic. The fact that she explicitly integrates academics into her community and then studies the orientation of it is wild and unfathomable to me. I also love her concept of mapping. It seems that one must genuinely integrate themselves to understand the sense of spiritual orientation a community has. I have never thought of ethnography as discovering orientation. This leads me to Peter’s question; in terms of “getting the story straight,” I think that Wigg-Stevenson is doing the same as many other anthropologists. She treats her field as being filled with interlocutors and not necessarily research subjects reducible to data. She is just breaking this down a bit more because she is not only herself embedded in the community she is studying but she is also intentionally embedding her discipline into the community and mapping how they orient around it. Because of the structure of her research, I think that the explicit breakdown was necessary for clarity and to sort of help the reader keep up with her, but I think the method itself, in that way, is not necessarily unique.

  5. Taha Firdous Shah

    Thank you, Peter, for such an engaging read. It was a treat for the eyes and, more so, for the brain.

    Your autoethnographic exploration of Natalie Wigg-Stevenson’s work provides a fascinating lens through which to critically engage with her approach to the co-production of theological knowledge. Wigg-Stevenson’s main question about how ethnographic methods can be used to improve the connection between everyday and academic theologies pushes the limits of what ethnography normally does. It raises the intriguing issue of whether her approach is an evolution of ethnography or simply a more overt form of the co-production that inherently occurs in ethnographic research. This question invites us to reevaluate the nature of ethnographic research itself and whether, in varying degrees, all ethnography entails a form of co-production that is frequently unacknowledged. (Central or perhaps breakthrough in the field of ethnography)

    Furthermore, your second question regarding the transferability of Wigg-Stevenson’s methodology to different religious traditions or non-religious contexts is so important. Can the principles of co-production and the intentional involvement of the ethnographer extend beyond Christian theology? If so, this could have profound implications for scholars across disciplines, opening doors to innovative research methodologies that prioritize collaboration and dialogue with the communities being studied. (I am also looking at the interesting comments raised by Evgeniia and Prakash that call for a discussion).

    Finally, the distinction between “objectified participation” and the role of a highly reflexive ethnographer is a key point of consideration. Wigg-Stevenson’s focus on being actively involved in and possibly shaping the community she studies suggests that this has a bigger effect on the knowledge that is created than a reflexive approach. This distinction prompts us to question not only the methodology but also the ethical implications of such engagement. As scholars continue to navigate the evolving landscape of ethnographic research, these questions become increasingly important for shaping the future of the field. Perhaps a deeper analysis of the book and a comparative study with other ethnographies would help us flesh out more interesting nuances. I am interested to know if others have some works to compare Stevenson’s work with and can comment on it.

    Thank you again, and I look forward to our discussion tomorrow.

  6. Laura Montoya Cifuentes

    Peter, thank you so much for your post. I second everyone applauding!
    I also agree with Brittany’s response to your first question. Wigg-Stevenson distances from Orsi’s “getting the story straight” perspective when she brings not only theories or other people’s experiences about embodiment but the reflection on her own body as part of the co-creation experience. Her embodied experience serves as the point of departure to inquire about and interpret the field, and others embodied experience. Besides, Wigg-Stevenson manages to intertwine Bourdieu’s habitus and Ortner’s insights on “making” to show how everyday theology (and lived religion), “unconscious” and “unintended” as it was for BFS members, end up both reproducing and transforming theology. And she does it not from the external “participant observer” but as a “habituated” subject. Finally, Bourdieu’s objectification also expands on Wigg-Stevenson’s role as an ethnographer since it allows her to account for the cultural (theological) production itself while accounting for her own role in the field.
    I’d also like to address Brittany’s questions, “Does theology have to say something about God?” “Or is it also a “theological” claim if it is about the formation of theological claims?” because something similar came to mind when I read Wigg-Stevenson. It is interesting how her claims on her community as theologians and co-producers of theology mirror Gramsci’s ideas on organic intellectuals (keeping the proportions). What I have in mind is how theological reflection about theological reflection is a complex way to end up talking about God but is not that what we do as ethnographers every time? I hope I can expand more on my idea tomorrow!


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