Positionality seems to be an emerging--dare I write "trendy"--topic in sociology as of late. As I understand it, positionality is the acknowledgement that the social location of the researcher has some bearing on her/his study of others, particularly when there is great social distance between the researcher and the subject. A recent example of this that has garnered a lot of discussion is Alice Goffman (white, upper class woman) and her ethnography of black, lower class men in her book, On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City.
It occurs to me that positionality has not been discussed to my knowledge within the sociology of religion. If it matters that a woman studying race is white, does it not matter in the same way what a man's religious identity is who studies religion? Consider the following hypothetical research reports:
- a study of Black Protestantism by a Black Protestant sociologist
- a study of Black Protestantism by a white Episcopalian sociologist
- a study of Black Protestantism by a white atheist
Which of the above is the most trustworthy? Do we benefit from knowing about the researchers' identities? Should the researchers feel compelled to share their identities? Consider these as well:
- a study of nones by an atheist sociologist
- a study of nones by a conservative Evangelical/sectarian Christian sociologist
- a study of nones by a Mainline Protestant sociologist
In research methods, I regularly teach that researchers who are in-group members have the advantage of entree, in that they have access to people, opinions, and insider perspectives that outsiders do not; on the other hand, out-group members can offer critique and outsider perspectives that insiders cannot. Every academic can tell you a story about a discussion s/he had with a dissertation committee chair about this kind of status and one's ability, or even whether, to remain objective. However, this is a discussion I think that happens far less often in the scholarship of religion. In the wake of much discussion over the not-so-hidden religious motivations for some fairly high-profile research in the sociology of religion and of family (see here, here, and here for starters), I think this discussion is overdue. Consider this a call to extend the discussion of positionality into the subfield.