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The Insider/Outsider Problem in the Study of Religion

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A longstanding intellectual problem in the human sciences involves the issue of viewpoint: from whose position ought human claims, actions, and institutions be studied: the observer or the participant? Traditionally known as the insider/outsider problem, this issue of position, and the social interests that come with different viewpoints, is particularly relevant to the academic study of religion, a field in which claims concerning non-empirical beings or states of existence are crucial to the way that the people under study talk about the worlds they inhabit. But how do scholars study such claims? Are they to adopt a position of suspicion and explain away the claims under examination or, instead, should they become sympathetic commentators interested only in describing the world as the insider claims to see it?

The second edition of The Insider/Outsider Problem in the Study of Religion prompts students to consider the implications of the position they adopt when studying religion. While classic readings from the original edition are retained, this volume is more focused and includes a new section that makes the insider/outsider problem itself the object on inquiry, inasmuch as not only it is never entirely clear where the boundary between the two begins and ends but, more importantly perhaps, it is not self-evident which of the many people claiming to occupy the normative, orthodox center of an institution or tradition—and thus being its spokesperson—is in fact the authorized insider. If, as the volume invites readers to consider, there are merely contested insides within contested insides, all the way down, then how does our scholarship respond to this insight?

Opening with a substantive introduction, the book’s six main sections, each with its own introduction, includes a paired set of classic and contemporary examples of a variety of ways that scholars have addressed the insider/outside problem. Each essay opens with a summary of the chapter and provides background on its author, so that readers can place the essay into the context in which it was originally written. Designed for undergraduate students, editorial notes accompany all essays to assist those new to the topic with understanding the background and implications of the arguments.

Relevant for entire courses but also useful in setting the methodological stage for a variety of classes throughout the study of religion, the second edition of The Insider/Outsider Problem in the Study of Religion improves upon the widely sold first edition, a book that has set a standard for how scholars address this pressing issue of explanation and interpretation.

Published: Sep 1, 2019