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Missionary Impositions: Conversion, Resistance, and Other Challenges to Objectivity in Religious Ethnography


Missionary Impositions: Conversion, Resistance, and Other Challenges to Objectivity in Religious Ethnography



In this collection of essays, anthropologists of religion examine the special challenges they face when studying populations that proselytize. Conducting fieldwork among these groups may involve attending services, meditating, praying, and making pilgrimages. Anthropologists participating in such research may unwittingly give the impression that their interest is more personal than professional, and inadvertently encourage missionaries to impose conversion upon them. Moreover, anthropologists’ attitudes about religion, belief, and faith, as well as their response to conversion pressures, may interfere with their objectivity and cause them to impose their own understandings on the missionaries. Although anthropologists have extensively and fruitfully examined the role of identity in research—particularly gender and ethnic identity—religious identity, which is more fluid and changeable, has been relatively neglected. This volume explores the role of religious identity in fieldwork by examining how researchers respond to participation in religious activities and to the ministrations of missionaries, both academically and personally. Including essays by anthropologists studying the proselytizing religions of Buddhism, Islam, Christianity, as well as other religions, this volume provides a range of responses to the question of how anthropologists should approach the gap between belief and disbelief when missionary zeal imposes its interpretations on anthropological curiosity.



Publication Date



Lexington Books


Lanham, Md.


Religion | Social and Cultural Anthropology


Description, cover image, and reviews courtesy of Lexington Books.

Subject Areas

Anthropology of religion -- Research; Ethnology -- Fieldwork

Author/Editor Bio

Hillary K. Crane is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Linfield College. She holds a Ph.D. in Anthropology from Brown University, an M.A. in Anthropology from Brown University, and a B.A. in History from Seattle University.

Deana L. Weibel is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Grand Valley State University. She earned her Ph.D. at the University of California-San Diego.


“This collection of provocative essays reveals the challenges, anxieties, and dilemmas involved in the ethnographic study of religion and faith. These are valuable and honest assessments and reflections—full of insight for those who find themselves negotiating their personal and research identities while being objects of proselytizing.” — Kevin K. Birth, Queens College, City University of New York

Missionary Impositions is a fine collection of reflections on how a fieldworker's relationship to religion, whether one of doubt, faith, or something else, influences their relationship to the people they encounter and the process of doing ethnography. It raises many fascinating and indeed profound questions about the nature of anthropology as knowledge, not only what implicit assumptions anthropologists make about their subjects, but also what those subjects think about anthropologists, and how their mutual misunderstandings both enable working relationships while troubling the conscience and confidence of the people involved. Many chapters also dwell on the often neglected emotional and experiential side of fieldwork, and suggest that personal involvement in the lives of one's research community can lead to greater insight. The chapters describe a variety of types of field settings in many different kinds of religious communities and many different types of research, and will contribute to ongoing debates about ethnographic practice and anthropological epistemology." — Ryan Schram, University of Sydney

“The one thing that every ethnographer brings to the field is her or his own self, complete with histories, beliefs, identities, habits, and bodily dispositions that can open ethnographic doors – or close them. With this thoughtful collection of essays, we finally have a whole book that grapples with the special challenges that this inescapable fact brings to the anthropology of religion. Reflexive without being solipsistic, sensitive without being alarmist, this book raises enough provocative questions to encourage anyone from a beginning student to a seasoned ethnographer to rethink what it means to study religion ‘in the wild.'” — Jon Bialecki, University of California, San Diego

Missionary Impositions: Conversion, Resistance, and Other Challenges to Objectivity in Religious Ethnography