The use of ethnography for theological inquiry is no longer novel. Yet, as the introduction to this special issue indicates, the ethnographic turn in Christian theology is animated by distinct postliberal and liberationist trajectories, each with their own theological presumptions and methodological aims. Should the future development of this turn favour one trajectory over another? This paper explores this question in conversation with Todd Whitmore’s Imitating Christ in Magwi: An Anthropological Theology. Through a sustained engagement with Imitating Christ in Magwi, I unearth both postliberal and liberationist inheritances to show that Whitmore’s text exceeds a postliberal-liberationist binary. I then ask what the dual inheritance of his work signifies for the future of the ethnographic turn. Drawing from cultural anthropology’s mode of ‘studying up,’ I suggest that the turn should orient itself more broadly to the care of our common life by expanding attention to subjects with power.
The fieldwork experience often manifests itself to the researcher as a tangled cluster of thoughts and feelings that is difficult to write into accessible prose. However, pre-set narratives reduce the subjects of the fieldwork to being mere exemplifications of arguments worked out in advance. This article offers the confession as a kind of retrospective narrative that at once renders the field experience accessible to the reader and maintains the three-dimensional fullness of the lives of the fieldwork subjects. The author draws on his work among persons with opioid use disorders to display the possibilities.
This article argues that an ethnographic method informed by a sacramental worldview and guided by the ethical imperative of the preferential option for the poor can give theologians a fundamental tool to access revelation found in our everyday lives. This article begins with a case study investigating the presence of God in the midst of suffering among a community of domestic violence survivors. Then, this article argues that the Divine presence found through this case study can be theologically investigated through an ethnographic methodology informed by a sacramental worldview and the preferential option for the poor. Finally, to embody this proposed methodology and its radical potential, this article brings the narratives of the domestic violence survivors into critical dialogue with the Markan ‘Empty Tomb’ tradition, to uncover a renewed sense of God’s presence in the ‘Empty Tomb.’
This article considers the complicated nature of self-reporting within the in-depth interview. Despite the adoption of ethnographic methods in Christian ethics and related disciplines, the accuracy of interview data has received relatively little attention. Drawing upon my fieldwork with Christian social workers in the American southeast, as well as sociological and anthropological sources, I argue that research participants frequently endeavor to present an admirable portrait of themselves. Through selecting, omitting, and revising their stories, they undertake a kind of moral work, assessing their actions and attitudes according to available ethical criteria. Broader cultural norms, their own moral ideals, and anticipations of the interviewer’s judgments all supply resources for self-evaluation. Rather than presenting a methodological problem, understanding this possible dynamic within the interview supplies the Christian ethicist with firsthand insights into the moral labors of naming a good life.