The Insider/Outsider Debate

New Perspectives in the Study of Religion

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
George D. Chryssides, Stephen E. Gregg
  • Sheffield, UK: 
    , October
     434 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Although there is a broad agreement in the study of religion about approaching “religion” as a discursive formation, this multi-layered concept, which has been used through centuries and is deeply rooted in the cultural histories of classical antiquity and Europe, still remains a challenge for academic research. In fact, the systematic reflection on epistemologies and the hermeneutical implications in researching “religion” urgently needs to be developed further. The Insider/Outsider Debate, inspired by Russell McCutcheon’s famous reader “The Insider/Outsider Problem in the Study of Religion” published by Cassell in 1999, makes a significant contribution to this debate. Its inspiring reflection arises not only from the twenty chapters it encompasses, but also even more in the dialogue arising from the different insights, analyses, and methodological strategies the book gathers. For approaching the crucial subject matter of epistemologies in the study of religion, the academic genre of an edited volume proves to be an ideal form for involving the readers in an exchange with different positions. The volume opens up a horizon for an in-depth reflection and offers stimulating proposals for approaching the complexity of “religion” in an accurate way.

The book is organized in two parts. The first part, “New Methodological Approaches in the Study of Religion” focuses on the limits and problems of the sharp divide between the “outsider” and “insider” perspective on religious traditions and communities and explores alternatives for overcoming binary essentialist assumptions about perspectives within the study of religion. The second part, “Contested Identities in the Study of Religion” focuses on the identities of actors involved in the study of religion, members of communities, believers and non-believers, and researchers. Abandoning the dichotomy of a subject-object rhetoric, this part puts forward the dynamics of identity formation and academic meaning-making processes. The volume highlights the dynamics involved in researching religion past and present, stressing the fact that belongings to religious and/or academic traditions and communities are never fixed.

It is impossible to recapitulate in detail the richness of insights and arguments the publication presents to interested colleagues, researchers, and students. Therefore, I will emphasize three fundamental aspects emerging from a cross-reading of the chapters.

First, the book as a whole addresses the question of the subject of research in the study of religion and argues that the classification of researchers as belonging to a religious tradition (insiders) or not (outsiders) is not defensible from an epistemological and hermeneutical point of view. Still, the problematic distinction between outsides and insiders—inherited from the history of research and biased by gender and ethnic categories—even though it has been rightfully rejected in the last decades, continues to be at work. There is an ambivalence towards accepting that multiple identities and a broad range of relationships with religious traditions characterize both the subjects of research in religion and people living their lives. On this level, the collection inspires further thinking about the multiple roles researchers assume not only in academia, but also in the familial, religious, and political communities they are actively participating in and the possibilities to build a conceptual bridge between the different identities they assume in the various fields.

Second, the book invites readers to think about shifting from a focus on subjects to a focus on perspectives. Recalling the linguistic roots of the emic/etic tension, some book chapters critically consider the legitimacy of different approaches to religion. A subject can address religion from different perspectives at the same time, according to the multiplicities of roles people may assume in dealing with religion in different sociohistorical and cultural situations. There are different constructions of religion in different spheres—media, politics, education, arts, health systems, religious organizations, or academia. When we engage with a phenomenon we may define as “religious,” a reflection about the hermeneutical, theoretical, and methodological approaches that are used to explore the selected topic can establish an academic exploration that is at the same time transparent and able to reduce complexity by means of scientific procedures.

Third, the volume as a whole states the importance of accepting the relevance and necessity to take a position while conducting academic research. We are researching aspects of the human (and sometime extra-human) culture while being part of it. There is no “objective” academic position “outside” but rather negotiations of methods and reflections upon discursive practices and interpretation processes to produce valuable results. Accepting the partiality of positions by presenting the different dimensions of an investigation leads to giving open account about the main dimensions of an investigation, its methods, theoretical concepts, goals, interests, funding, and ethics. An accurate reflection of the interpretation process as a whole enriches thinking and produces essential knowledge about religion, culture, and ourselves.

With a broad and variegated selection of contributions, the book offers a kaleidoscopic view on how research practices consider subjects, approaches, identities, values, and responsibilities. It is a beneficial reading I would recommend to share with unterdgraduate and graduate students of theology and religion.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Daria Pezzoli-Olgiati is professor of the history and the study of religion at the University of Munich (LMU).

Date of Review: 
June 25, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

George D. Chryssides is an Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Birmingham and York St John University (UK). He has taught at various British universities and was head of religious studies at the University of Wolverhampton from 2001 until 2008.

Stephen E. Gregg is Senior Lecturer in Religious Studies at the University of Wolverhampton, and Hon. Secretary of the British Association for the Study of Religions. He studied at the University of Wales, Lampeter, and has previously taught at the University of Wales, and Liverpool Hope University.


Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.