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Book: The Insider/Outsider Debate

Chapter: Chapter 6: Negotiating Blurred Boundaries: Ethnographic and Methodological Considerations

DOI: 10.1558/equinox.27458


The boundaries between being an insider and an outsider in the study of religion are seldom clear-cut. This is in part because fieldwork or any type of qualitative research involves a process of increased knowledge, familiarity and, one might hope, acceptance by those being studied. This can be the case whether one is studying a group of which one was not initially a member (making the strange familiar) or negotiating new relationships as a researcher rather than just a member of a particular community (making the familiar strange). With any work with human subjects relations are dynamic and fluid, and the communities being studied are not necessarily coherent uniform entities. There will be degrees of membership according to one’s positionality, whether one is initially an insider or outsider. This chapter examines some of the ways in which fieldwork relationships are negotiated, and the blurred boundaries between the terms ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’. The author uses examples from her anthropological fieldwork with two communities in a number of settings: the Focolare Movement and the Bangwa people of Cameroon. The first setting is the Cameroonian ‘town’ of Fontem where the Focolare and Bangwa live as neighbours, and where the author has conducted long-term fieldwork. The other settings are the UK, Europe and the United States, where members of the Focolare and Bangwa also interact with one another, and with the researcher (separately and together). Bowie concludes that methodological approaches to studying religious communities based on dialogue, empathy and respect are similar whatever one’s status and relationship to those studied.

Chapter Contributors

  • Fiona Bowie ( - fbowie) 'Wolfson College, Oxford'