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?