Hoel Nina | On Being a Feminist in the Discipline of Religious Studies: Reflections on Research Methodology and Positionality

when Researching Muslim women’s Experiences in South Africa.


This paper explores theoretical and empirical debates on the relationship between the researcher and the researched within the discipline of Religious Studies. By drawing on experiences from my own empirical research, this paper specifically addresses questions of research methodology, positionality, power dynamics in the interview encounter, and critically engages notions of ‘objectivity/subjectivity’ in empirical research. 
My research is informed by the feminist commitment of recognising and utilising women’s experiences as a crucial component in contemporary knowledge production. Through investigating the experiences of South African Muslim women in relation to sexual dynamics and marital relationships the study undertaken foregrounds women’s voices in the production of religious meaning.
There were some marked differences between myself as the researcher – I am white, Norwegian, and agnostic – and that of the research participants in this study – South African Muslim women of colour. Thus an intrinsic part of my research journey involved reflections on the nature of diverse subjectivities in the research process. As such I have drawn on related debates in the study of religion as well as broader feminist literature – the two main discursive frameworks that guided my study.
In the study of religion, the insider/outsider debate developed alongside the emergence of the phenomenological approach within which the increased attention to one’s presuppositions coupled with the value of empathy and sympathetic understanding is elaborated. Discussions included whether an outsider, who does not share religious affiliation with the research subject, can adequately understand, present and convey information about the respondent’s understandings/experiences of a particular faith tradition, the favouring of the religious insider, and the autonomy of religious experience, and the advantages of being an outsider researcher when studying religious experience and norms/behaviour. In addition, the case has been made for a neutral position, sometimes referred to as methodological agnosticism. Through utilising the “methodological agnosticism” approach, the scholar of religion is not attempting to determine whether particular religious traditions and/or individual utterances rooted in belief systems are true or false, but rather to investigate, analyse and compare narratives from various subject positions. However, this approach also underwent scholarly critique from feminists, deconstructionists and post-structuralists who argued that neutrality and complete detachment on the part of the researcher is unattainable.
Particularly among committed feminists in the social sciences, debates about researcher neutrality/objectivity, and diverse subjectivities are central to analysing the nature of the research relationship. I am of the view that a shared identity between researcher and research subject does not automatically remove relationships of power, nor does it guarantee neutrality. The advantages that might come with shared identity traits, for example, the possibility of enhanced rapport and understanding, must not be confused with shared experiences.
Similarly, the researcher is not a disinterested party, but one whose particular socio-economic and political context is historically situated. Hence, it is important that the researcher cultivates self-reflexivity throughout the research process, calling into question assumptions around objectivity and detachment.
I found that multiple locations of sameness and difference can emerge during the research encounter. Hence, a researcher is never fully an insider, nor, never fully an outsider. By moving like a pendulum along the insider/outsider continuum, a shifting interactional process defines the relationship between the researcher and the respondent affording an opportunity to explore the multiple subjectivities of both researcher and respondent.