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25 June 2012

Research Tourism! The World Is Yours to Suffer

When I embarked on my dissertation research, my third, outside reader inquired about why I chose the topic. I was looking at the Prosperity Gospel. When I told her my interest was mainly because I found the tenet historically and theologically suspect, she said, "Why do you all [grad students] do this to yourselves? Why put yourself through the pain of studying something that you disagree with?" At the time, I thought it was a compliment, as in, "Good for you for taking one for the team!" but in retrospect, I think it was more of a chiding, as in, "What's wrong with you?" Jessica Holden Sherwood, executive officer for the Sociologists for Women in Society, tweeted the other day along these same lines, and it got me thinking.

Let me coin the phrase officially, then:
Research Tourism  noun  /ˈrēˌsərCH ˈto͝orizəm/

  1. the study of a topic or field outside of one's own purview
  2. the investigation of something novel, foreign, or disagreeable for the sake of its novelty, otherness, or cognitive dissonance
One definition of science is that it's the investigation of our ignorance (see this previous post). It does us little good (sometimes) to study that which we already fully understand; instead, we head off for the frontier. This philosophy served the natural/physical sciences quite well. When social scientists began embracing the same agenda in the 19th century, however, things got problematic. We can see this best within anthropology. Countless researchers headed into the jungle or the outback or the otherwise remote--both geographically and socially--location to study some forgotten tribe. Social scientists started to fetishize the study of the exotic. Heading out into the hinterlands, both literally and figuratively, became a kind of academic initiation rite. But, is this model good for social science? Here are the two non-mutually exclusive perspectives as I see them.

First, what if we only studied things we knew? Are outside perspectives not necessary? Don't we all assume knowledge that can only truly (or at least easily) be perceived and investigated by an outsider? Can one really be critical of something of which he is a part, in which he is invested? The current controversy in the sociology of religion about the outcomes for children of parents who ever had a same-sex sexual encounter is a case in point. Are religious sociologists of religion too close to the institution that they study? (More on this in an upcoming post.)

Second, is it an efficient use of research person-hours for people, and students in particular, to study groups or fields of which they don't have a base knowledge or to which they do not have preexisting access? A failed half of my dissertation project was qualitative interviews among Prosperity adherents. I was not a part of this religious tradition, though, and had no direct access to those who were a part of it. Despite my best efforts, I was plagued by suspicion from stakeholders and after-the-fact withdrawals from participants. (Like many Evangelical strains, Prosperity folks are generally anti-intellectual. It also didn't help that my requests for interviews and access came on the heels of a congressional investigation into many prominent Prosperity preachers. Thank God I had secondary quantitative data!) My time could have potentially been put to better use interviewing the declining ranks of the Episcopal Church, my home denomination at the time, leaving the study of Prosperity Theology to those with ties to those congregations.

Here are the risks. If we only research that which we know, we are in danger of limiting our knowledge to that which is familiar and of systematically eliminating the critical approach necessary to understanding. If we only research that which is foreign, we are in danger of limiting our knowledge because of social barriers and of neglecting that to which we have unique access. The rub is in the balance.

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