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Book: The Insider/Outsider Debate

Chapter: Chapter 11: Close Encounters of a Guru Kind: Ethnographic Research as Encounters with the Cognitive Worlds of Others

DOI: 10.1558/equinox.27454


This contribution is a reflection on the author’s experiences of undertaking ethnographic fieldwork in religious communities in which he might be considered as an ‘outsider’ trying to understand the ‘insider’s’ world. The specific stimuli for this paper were brief encounters I had with two Hindu gurus: Swami Divyananda Saraswati ‒ the head of a traditional Hindu lineage ‒ and Sri Sri Ravi Shankar ‒ the head of Art of Living a global meditation movement. The chapter is a response to Pierre Bourdieu’s call in Outline of a Theory of Practice that anthropological research requires a ‘double break’, which involves not only investigating the other, but also interrogating one’s own presuppositions as a researcher. The recognition that all research is situated suggests that it is not possible to produce neutral objectives accounts of the lives of others.

Ethnographic research is a relational encounter. The researcher’s encounters with these two gurus were framed by his own background and presuppositions, the cognitive world of the gurus and the specific context of these encounters. Consequently, it could be argued that there are multiple insiders and outsiders. Different encounters produce different accounts. Furthermore, as ethnographic research can be characterised as a particular encounter between researcher and researched at a particular time and place, those participating in that encounter, in this case the researcher and the guru, could be considered as insiders and those not involved in the encounter could be considered as outsiders. This understanding of ethnographic research as specific encounters, defined by the interlocutors and the temporal and spatial context, does not invalidate the research, but knowledge and understanding is achieved through recognition of the specificity of encounters.

Chapter Contributors

  • Stephen Jacobs ( - Jacobs472499073)