Not every text has been written. This is why ethnographic research is so important – it provides a way to listen beyond our current body of knowledge as we discover the lived experiences of people’s lives. As a feminist theologian, I place a high importance on ethnography because it provides a means of discovering particularities and listening to voices that have been overlooked or marginalized. Yet at the same time, I recognize the limitations of the researcher. Even as careful listeners we should not presume we are able to “read” the unwritten texts of people’s lives.
In my own research, I have used ethnographic fieldwork in my work with street children, refugees, internally displaced persons, women living with HIV and AIDS, and adolescents participating in abstinence education programs. My most recent book, Risky Marriage: HIV and Intimate Relationships in Tanzania uses qualitative interviews and participatory action research to explore the reasons why marriage is an HIV risk factor in East Africa.
While the use of ethnographic research is an established discipline within the fields of Religious Studies and Sociology of Religion, it is still a new discipline in the fields of Theology and Ethics. Within ethics, ethnography represents a growing edge and a new way to speak normatively as it recognizes sources of authority beyond the church and the academy. Ethnographic research is a way of speaking with, rather than about, the people who have a stake in our work.
I also see ethnography as an important pedagogical tool. The classroom is a space of privilege. It is an exclusive space primarily for those who have the credentials, time, and resources to become students. While other forms of privilege (such as white privilege or economic privilege) are often obstacles to intercultural learning, educational privilege can provide a sacred opportunity and obligation to dismantle other privileges, if we allow it. By using ethnography as a pedagogical tool to explore themes of privilege, I find students are able to build on this new knowledge of lived experience to work for solidarity and social justice both inside and outside of the classroom.
Beyond writing and teaching, I also believe research provides a space for engagement with the community. In some of my research projects, I have worked along side churches and faith-based organizations to create new programs or attain new knowledge to reshape current programs. For example, in my most recent project, I both observed and worked alongside a HIV/AIDS support group meeting in an Anglican church in Mwanza, Tanzania. In this way, ethnographic research provides not only a space for new knowledge, but can provide a space for advocacy and service as well.