Religion today: Themes and issues
Religion today: Themes and issues

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Religion today: Themes and issues

2.2 Insider/outsider perspectives

Social historians have long argued that we must study history ‘from the underside’, if we want to thoroughly understand a society. In other words, it is not sufficient to have a top-down knowledge of a society's institutions and politics. We need also to examine how ordinary, ‘unimportant’ people operate within a culture: what influences them and what they can (and cannot) influence; how they see their role in society and how others see it. The outsider view is the view from the outside: the perspective of the (theoretically) dispassionate observer whose observation does not influence the observed. This can be called the academic view. In the academic discipline of Religious Studies, it is sometimes called the etic perspective. The insider view is that of the practitioners, the people who are engaged in and more or less committed to the group or society in which they move. In Religious Studies, the view from the inside, the perspective of the practitioners, is called the emic perspective. This is a central distinction in the study of religion. The Canadian scholar Wilfred Cantwell Smith goes so far as to say that no statement made about religion can be considered valid unless an insider would agree with it.


At this point, please click on 'View document' below to read ‘Body ritual among the Nacirema’ by Horace Miner.

View document [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)]

Please make sure that you read the text and think about the questions below before reading on in this course, because I don't want to give away the plot! (As with all the exercises, I want to stress that you may read a text quite differently from members of the course team, and that alternative responses are possible, and perfectly feasible.)

  1. Ask yourself what this text contributes to your understanding of the insider/outsider dynamic.

  2. Why might practitioners of this ritual feel misrepresented and misunderstood, and are their objections valid?

  3. Can you think of another example of the outsider view making the familiar seem very strange indeed?


At some point in your reading, it probably became obvious to you that this was a spoof, a parody of American personal hygiene, with certain key words spelled backwards or slightly distorted to make recognition less immediate.

  1. My answer would be that the example chosen in this text makes immediate the problems inherent in studying religion. The outsider, who in this example sees the bathroom shrines and has the activities carried out therein described to him, is never actually present when they are performed. He tries to put together a coherent and all-encompassing set of explanatory devices, but we as readers see that his scheme is fatally flawed, because he is so much of an outsider that he cannot understand that the motivation for these activities is not ritual propitiation of the gods, but a concern (some might say obsession) with bodily hygiene and outward appearance. In a very real sense, the outsider is never where the action is, because that is with the participants. The insiders he describes are silent. We never hear their explanations for their behaviour, or their probably indignant rebuttal of his views. On the other hand, we who share many of these ritual behaviours with the Nacirema, may have been jolted out of our complacency by some of Miner's remarks. The insider may know exactly why he is carrying out a certain practice, but may not realize how profoundly difficult it is to distance oneself from activities or beliefs that one is personally committed to. I expect that most readers identified to a certain extent with the discomfort experienced by practitioners when ‘studied’ by an outsider who clearly lacks sympathy with their world-view. Is it that the outsider cannot really understand? Or are we insiders stranger than we realize?

  2. One response would be that the outsider, in his attempt to describe what he does not fully understand or have any sympathy with, unintentionally distorts it in line with his own interests. This fictional anthropologist is clearly interested in ritual actions; another anthropologist, who was interested in (for example) explanatory devices or myths of origin, might have painted a picture of the same group that made them appear completely different. As to validity, there are arguments in both directions: the practitioners presumably understand their practice better than he observer, but they may be operating in a mode sometimes called ‘world-taken-for-granted’, where they have never really thought about or examined their beliefs and actions. In addition, insiders may unconsciously or deliberately misrepresent their beliefs and practices in order to make them more acceptable to scrutiny.

  3. I hope you tried to think up your own example. Here is one from David Lodge's novel, The British Museum is Falling Down (1965), where a frustrated Roman Catholic husband is thinking etically about his experiences with the rhythm method of birth control: ‘he mentally composed a short article, 'Catholicism, Roman', for a Martian enyclopaedia compiled after life on earth had been destroyed by atomic warfare’.

Roman Catholicism was, according to archaeological evidence, distributed fairly widely over the planet Earth in the twentieth century. As far as the Western Hemisphere is concerned, it appears to have been characterized by a complex system of sexual taboos and rituals. Intercourse between married partners was restricted to certain limited periods determined by the calendar and the body-temperature of the female. Martian archaeologists have learned to identify the domiciles of Roman Catholics by the presence of large numbers of complicated graphs, calendars, small booklets full of figures, and quantities of broken thermometers, evidence of the great importance attached to this code. Some scholars have argued that it was merely a method of limiting the number of offspring; but as it has been conclusively proved that the Roman Catholics produced more children on the average than any other section of the community, this seems untenable. Other doctrines of the Roman Catholics included a belief in a Divine Redeemer and a life after death.

(Lodge, 1981 edn, pp.11–12)

While Lodge is pushing one aspect of Catholic custom to an extreme in order to make a humorous point, the dispassionate language of the text is a voice that is probably familiar to you. Academic religious studies scholars have traditionally adopted the outsider perspective.


Please read and consider the following quotation. Is it the view of an insider or an outsider? How can you tell?

As we all know, fools proffer definitions of religion. We, in our superior wisdom, do not even try to; but we describe and analyze religious phenomena and their functions, no doubt on the basis of some preceding [understanding …]. And though I believe that the origin and beginnings of religion (with or without a capital ‘R’) are not fit subjects for scientific discourse, I think I can venture to locate the beginning of religion: it begins wherever human beings do more to a corpse than is strictly necessary for its disposal; which is another way of saying that religion itself is an act of interpretation – of interpreting ourselves, the world in which we find ourselves, our uncertainties and anxieties, the horizon that bounds our world – and our capacity to conceive the notion that, if there is a horizon, there may be a ‘beyond’ that horizon which will always remain ‘beyond’ no matter how hard we run toward that constantly receding horizon.

(Zwi Werblowsky, 1992, p.6)


I think that this quotation displays both emic and etic qualities. The outsider view is strong at the outset, where the superior tone is that of the detached scholar who does not waste his or her time on the really big question, but studies what can be studied. But by the end of the passage, the scholar, like all of humanity, is anxiously scrutinizing the horizon for clues to the mystery of life. This suggests that when studying religion, which can be an academic pursuit, or even a job, scholars cannot avoid noticing that the thing studied claims to reveal the truth about issues which are important to all human beings, and from which scholars cannot dissociate themselves. I base my judgement on whether this is insider/outsider on ‘tone of voice’ as well as on content.

While there are many definitions of religion, and some would not agree with the idea of its beginnings as given above, the idea that ‘religion itself is an act of interpretation’ is important. To give you a simple example of this, let us consider for a moment the historical phenomenon of ‘fasting girls’ in Britain (Vandereycken and van Deth, 1994). These were women and girls who denied themselves food and drink for periods that seemed to last far longer than human biological needs would permit. For centuries, such fasting girls were considered to be manifesting a special sign of God's favour and grace, and were viewed as an asset to the community in which they lived. By the eighteenth century, however, suspicions of fraud and of making false claims of fasting for financial gain or self-promotion had become a prevalent way of responding to such phenomena, and it became commonplace by the early nineteenth century to set watchers around such fasting girls, to test whether they were really living without sustenance. In the late nineteenth century, the term ‘anorexia nervosa’ was coined, and with it the idea that refusal of food was a psychological disorder. So, in this simple example, we see the movement of the interpretative pendulum away from religious explanations, through economic ones, to psychological interpretation, but at all times the behaviour being explained was identical. The same three explanations given above for fasting girls are offered simultaneously, by friends and foes of the practice.

However, fasting (more or less extended) is still commonly accepted practice in many religious traditions. Others might argue that today's obsession with ‘detoxing’ (a modified form of fasting) is, ultimately, a spiritual phenomenon, as well as an example of our current obsession with the health of our bodies. I have no doubt that the pendulum will swing back again, as it appears to be doing with the Breatharians, a contemporary movement, which actively recruits people of both sexes, and which has attracted considerable controversy with claims that people can live on ‘spiritual energy’ alone. (For more information on the Breatharians, you can visit the Breatharian Institute of America website [accessed 13 March 2006]).

You will see another, more extended example of the variety of interpretation in religion in ‘Rose of Lima: some thoughts on purity and penance’ by Sara Maitland. The patron saint of the Americas, Rose (1586–1617) practised extreme forms of bodily mortification, or, to use more ‘modern’ terminology, self-mutilation. Please read the instructions in the following exercise, and then turn to the text and read it.


Click on 'View document' below to read 'Rose of Lima: some thoughts on purity and penance'.

View document

  1. When reading this text, please note down the varieties of ways in which Rose's behaviour has been viewed over time, and see if you can suggest some explanations for the interpretative shifts that are evident.

  2. Can you distinguish between what might be emic and etic views of her case?


  1. One of the very interesting points made by Maitland is that we have no idea of how Rose viewed her own behaviour: she – a rarity among ‘modern’ saints – left no writings whatsoever. So her sainthood, we must conclude, is based on what she did, and not on what she wrote. And what she did is profoundly disquieting to the modern reader, and may have disgusted or dismayed you as you read this account in the twenty-first century. Moving backwards in time, her nineteenth-century biographers exalted her piety and presented a pretty and infantilized image of Rose, but preferred to gloss over her actual actions. This infantilization extended to pictorial images of Rose. Earlier accounts seem to have accepted the idea that suffering is in itself meritorious, and that the suffering of the innocent can redeem the sins of the guilty. So, is Rose a parallel to Jesus, who many Christians believe died sinless to atone for the sins of others? Or is it that Christianity (viewed from another point of view as a religion based on the story of a man who was tortured to death for political reasons in first-century Palestine) skews human nature to seek what it would otherwise avoid – suffering? There are lots of other ways of interpreting Rose's story, but as you continue to reflect on it, remember that how we understand it, and how it was understood in the past, can be profoundly different. Even in the space of a few years, Maitland has seen her own understanding of Rose's actions and their meaning shift quite significantly. How much more do such understandings change over centuries?

  2. On the emic/etic question, I think it is quite possible to make a case for both! On one level, we cannot attain an insider view of Rose: we cannot get into her head or live in her time; she left no writings for us to read, and in her case ‘the past is a foreign country: they do things differently there’ (Hartley, 1953, p.9) is indubitably true. On the other hand, those who concentrate on the elements of Rose as a person on the margins, as a woman in a society where women were not highly valued, and as someone who concerned herself with the dispossessed, could argue that it is possible to view Rose's situation at least partially and imperfectly from an emic perspective.

Before we move on, I want to tell you a brief cautionary tale, recounted to me by a former missionary who was teaching at an Open University summer school. When he was a very young man and had just gone to a remote mission station for the first time, he wanted to discover why the people among whom he lived had carried out a certain ritual practice. While they were no longer doing this, in living memory there had been a ceremony where each family disinterred the bones of their ancestors (buried in a large pot) once a year, and held a feast in their presence. My friend decided to question some of the members of the tribe about this practice. He asked one man, ‘Why did you do this? Was it to propitiate your ancestors, so that they would not return and haunt you as ghosts?’ His informant said yes. Not long afterwards, the practice came up again in conversation with another member of the group, and the missionary asked, ‘Did you do this to honour your ancestors and show them that you have not forgotten them?’ His informant said yes. He later asked a third person if it was a way of ensuring that the dead had food in the afterlife, and this was confirmed. I could continue with this anecdote, but the point has been made. (Thanks to Dr Jim Pottinger for this story.)The questions we formulate, either verbally or in our own minds, can skew the answers we ‘find’: it would be naive to assume that we can observe (or participate in) religious behaviour and then, with some kind of scholarly omnipotence, always interpret it correctly. It would also be naive to assume that explanations for any behaviour, let alone religious behaviour and beliefs, are normally mono-causal: multi-causal explanations, although less neat, are much more typical. (Thanks to Dr Jim Pottinger for this story.)


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