February 20, 2012

The Insider/Outsider Problem

The Insider/Outsider problem is one of the most perennial problems in the academic study of religion. This distinction, relating to where scholars position themselves relating to the subject matter (whatever that may be), permeates not only almost every aspect of academia, but has profound implications for each and every one of us conducts ourselves in relationship with the other people we encounter in our day-to-day lives. Dr George Chryssides joins Chris this week to discuss this fascinating issue.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes.

Does one have to be a member of a community for your testimony about that community to be valid? Or does your membership of the community invalidate your objectivity? It is certainly the opinion of a large minority within the academic study of religion that, in the words of Andrew Walls, ‘religion can best understand religion’.  For Walls ‘”religious commitment” provides the best “entrance gate” for understanding religion because “it at least presupposes the reality of the subject matter”‘ (in Cox, 2006:154). However, from another perspective a personal religious commitment, whether to the group being studied or another group, can be seen as a hindrance to seeing the social reality of the matter at hand.

Does an academic training permanently exclude you from insider status regardless of your personal ‘beliefs’ or sense of belonging? There is always a danger when scholars attempt to impute or discern ‘meaning’ that perhaps it is they, and not the informant who is seeking it. (Day, 2010:16). According to Cox, classical phenomenologists were well aware of the ‘otherwise insurmountable distance between the scholar of religion and religious adherents’ (2006:212), yet believed that they had found an answer to this problem (for an in depth discussion of the phenomenology of religion, see James Cox’s interview, and Jonathan Tuckett’s “What is Phenomenology?“). A key phenomenological dictum, and one which holds throughout many scholars’ approaches to studying religion, is that ‘the question of [the truth of a religion…] is a question not asked, not a question left undecided’ (Ninian Smart, in Cox 2006:162). However, ‘by performing the phenomenological bracketing to eliminate every type of prejudice, the scholar of religion paradoxically remains in control of knowledge and thereby dictates the rules for interpreting religious phenomena’ (Cox, 2006:215). And as Robert Segal has stated, ‘the scholar of religion can never appreciate the reality of religion for believers without endorsing the very assumptions that motivate the devotee’s faith’ (1983:108). These questions and many more form part of the theoretical backdrop for this interview with Dr Chryssides.


Update 3 September 2012: Today, George has published an article in the Daily Telegraph, following the death of Sun Myung Moon, entitled Can the Moonies keep on shining?

This interview was recorded in September 2011 at the British Association for the Study of Religions‘ Annual Conference, hosted by Durham University.


Cox, James L. 2006. A Guide to the Phenomenology of Religion: Key Figures, Formative Influences and Subsequent Debates. Continuum

Day, Abby, 2010. “Propositions and performativity: Relocating belief to the social”, Culture and Religion, 11(1), pp.9-30.

Segal, Robert A. 1983. “In Defense of Reductionism,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion. Vol. 51 (March 1983), pp. 97-124.


5 replies to “The Insider/Outsider Problem

  1. Frank Flinn

    Dear George,

    Found your insider/outsider piece interesting. I have always found Simone Weil the paradigm of holding together critical reason and passionate faith.

    Good to find you again.



  2. Jonathan

    Chris actually misquotes Kristensen in the podcast. Kristensen said that “the believers are always right” not that “the believer is always right”. There is a significant difference between the two statements and Kristensen devotes some space in ‘The Meaning of Religion’ as to why we cannot accept the statement “the believer is always right”. Kristensen focused on groups rather than individuals so while it is possibel to hold tha the group is is always right his conception allows the possibility that an individual within that group can deviate from the norm.


  3. carole cusack

    Listeners and readers might find interesting a recent article by Jeppe Sinding Jensen, ‘Revisiting the Insider-Outsider Debate: Dismantling a Pseudo-problem in the Study of Religion’, Method and Theory in the Study of Religion, Vol. 23, No. 1 (2011), pp. 29-47. You may not be convinced, but it’s an interesting approach to the problem.


  4. Christopher Cotter

    Just read the following from Graham Harvey (2011, in the Routledge Handbook of Research Methods for the Study of Religion, 227) – “However, within Maori protocols, being a ‘guest’ is not like being either an ‘insider’ or an ‘outsider’. Guests cannot become locals, but locals cannot become hosts without guests. Culturally rich ceremonies would cease if there were no strangers seeking guesthood. Maori protocols recognize more than this. They make it possible for strangers to choose, once offered the possibility, between being enemies or becoming guests.”


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