The Academic Study of Religions: Insider and Outsider Perspectives

Angelina Merisi

Angelina Merisi

The academic study of religions has evolved into a diverse, interdisciplinary field due to its recognized affiliation with many areas of the social sciences, in particular, anthropology, ethnography, politics, sociology and in light of the globalization of world views. Writing in 1999, Flood contends that ‘religions are abstracted from wider cultural narratives and a discourse about religions cannot be separated from a discourse about culture, society and politics.’ (1) For Durkheim (1858-1912), ‘Religion and society are inseparable and to each other-virtually indispensable.’ (2) McCutcheon states that the ‘Enlightenment,’ with its focus on human intellect and reasoning, triumphed over superstitions and ignorance connected with religion. (3) Formerly accepted literary critique and theoretical perspectives based on phenomenological and hermeneutical approaches, focused on ‘neutrality and objectivity’ on the part of the student. In light of post-modern/post-colonial discourse, scholars have further questioned the limitations of knowledge and understanding, in relation to ontological realities, truth claims and meanings associated with religions and their representation: can we fully understand the religious experience of another? The insider/outsider distinction emerged in the 1980s problematizing ‘subjectivity and objectivity;’ their boundaries and character. The distinction attempts to address issues such as: who can deliver and describe the most authoritative account of ‘religions;’ can the distance dividing subject under study/informant and scholar be bridged? While I am of the view that the distinction is a valuable and useful ‘tool,’ I nonetheless argue that a greater emphasis on ‘reflexivity’ is required in consideration of the dialogical nature of scholarly research.

The philosopher Shahab al-Din Suhrawardi (1155-1191), believed ‘the most important knowledge is idealistic: one should see what cannot be seen by physical eyes.’ (4) Schleiermacher (1768-1834) emphasised: ‘the essence of religion is found neither in metaphysics nor morality, but in intuition and feeling.’ (5) The concept of the ‘numinous’ and religion perceived as ‘Sui Generis,’ was popularised by Rudolf Otto (1868-1937) in his book “The Idea of the Holy” (1917) and subsequently ‘sparked methodological and theological debates which remain central to contemporary religious studies.’ (6) The idea of the numinous as foundation of religion thus became the focus of scholarly debate at the beginning of the 19th century, maintaining students should utilise their own sense of the numinous in order to fully comprehend and explain its manifestation in others. Eliade (1907-1986) insisted that religion can only be understood by trying to see it from the believer’s viewpoint. (7) Phenomenologists moreover devised a methodological structure with foundations based on empirical evidence and ‘epoch:’ promoting suspension of judgement and personal preconceptions, by empathetically entering the religious world of others in order to grasp their experience of phenomena. Phenomenologists endeavoured to ‘avoid all misconstructions and impositions placed on experience in advance, whether drawn from religious or cultural traditions, common sense or science.’ (8) Methodological agnosticism, espoused by Ninian Smart (1927-2001) adopted a neutral approach: ‘relying on insider accounts without evaluating their truth or falsity.’ (9)

The insider/outsider distinction, understood in ‘etic’ and ‘emic’ terms, creates a facility to further understand how the study of religions should be conducted and to what extent can each perspective produce reliable, authentic accounts. Etic viewpoint studies behaviour from outside a particular system, while emic studies behaviour from inside. Based on a model of participant/observer roles from the social sciences, Kim Knott further separates the distinction into four categories: (Outsider/complete observer; Insider/complete participant; Observer as participant; participant as observer), accompanied by four case studies: each providing analysis within their respective categories. (10)

The individual scholarly accounts demonstrated to some extent how etic and emic perspectives inform the study of religions; which territories were impenetrable; what were the advantages, boundaries and problematic areas. The accounts do not claim to form a consensus result, but merely portray to what extent the scholar could describe, understand and evaluate that particular world view from their respective etic and emic perspectives. In my view, the distinction also raises the question of ‘power position’ and ‘epistemic privilege’ which Flood problematized in his critique of phenomenological discourse: through ‘bracketing’ (eliminating all prejudice), the scholar remains in control of knowledge and ultimately over objects of academic study. (11) This theory was developed by Husserl (1859-1938) who believed the transcendental ego can grasp ‘otherness’ through empathy, yet remain detached. (12) By the very nature of remaining detached, or ‘bracketing’ the objectivity of religious experience, the scholar partially constructs their meaning. (13)

This theory raises questions such as: can emic/insider scholarly accounts produce authentic, critical, impartial analysis of their ‘own’ world view, or can etic/outsider accounts fully grasp and describe ontological realities and ‘truth claims’ of others? The insider/outsider distinction demonstrates that a thorough, satisfactory and holistic analysis of any ‘world view’ assessed from any ‘one’ viewpoint is not possible (in my view). Each perspective, whether etic or emic, can provide a certain amount of knowledge and understanding, while concurrently raising problematic issues. I suggest that whether approaching from etic or emic perspectives: individual scholarly accounts that attempt to express, understand and recount the experiences and world views of ‘others’ or themselves, will inevitably vary from person to person and therefore should involve the process of reflexivity.

In his critique of the insider/outsider distinction, Jensen states ‘at best it demonstrates the reality that knowledge is unevenly distributed among subjects.’ (14) Hufford wrote: ‘all knowledge is subjective; knowing is an experience that is had by someone. Reflexivity in knowledge-making involves bringing the subject, the ‘doer’ of the knowledge-making activity back into the account of knowledge.’ (15) Reflexivity is an inter-subjective dialogical approach and method. Through discussion and recording observations, feelings, actions, reactions, assumptions, activities and ‘truth claims’ of oneself and ‘others,’ the interaction provides a means for greater mutual understanding, building a relationship between scholar and object of study: thus informing the research through a conscious methodological approach. If all art is autobiographical then should we consider that scholarly research (communicated through language), whether from insider or outsider perspectives will inevitably reflect the personality, experience, opinions and values of the scholar either intentionally or unintentionally? According to Derrida (1930-2001), there is no outside text: nothing exists in the world outside language. Flood contends that ‘all research programmes are dialogically constructed in interaction between self and subject.’ (16) The term ‘dialogism’ is a Bakhtinian term, suggesting that all language and existence are relational and responsive; each speech or communicative act is dialogical through its responsiveness to other past, present and future speech acts.’ (17)

Flood states: ‘the development of a dialogical approach allows place for cultural critique, debates and issues, traditionally regarded as existing outside the academic study of religions.’ (18) A reflexive dialogical paradigm creates a facility for mutual awareness and understanding between scholar and informant, recording evidence of method, meaning and procedures undertaken throughout each stage of research. By turning back to oneself, the research produces ‘accountability’ providing a more accurate and holistic analysis of ‘object’ of study including the scholar’s own journey.

The method however, is not without its detractors. Salzman questions: ‘what weight can be put on self-reports; self-deception is one of the most valued human skills. How many self-reports are uncontaminated with ideal presentation of self-manipulation of image?’ (19) This draws attention to the fact that an ethical approach would be fundamental to the investigation, requiring sincerity, transparency and pragmatism on the part of the researcher. The study would have to ‘recognise the inevitable ethical nature of research, awareness of the object of study and procedures involved as well as the context from where the study stems.’ (20) A dialogical model implies that researcher and researched are co-partners in dialogue; reflexivity answers the questions; by whom, for whom, and for what reasons; allowing criticism from the same place as from other places.’ (21)

In recognition of the multi-faceted dimensions of world views, the insider/outsider distinction moved the study of religions forward in an attempt to decipher what is known or understood by some and not by others. The dichotomy attempts to demonstrate whether deep understanding, information and access to any religion can only be experienced by privileged insiders and to what degree is this possible from an outsider perspective. The distinction also addresses whether an ‘outsider’s’ study of any world view is nothing more than reporting what insiders say. (22) The relationship between scholar and informant form the basis of subsequent theorising and conclusion, expressed through social interaction in which the scholar participates; thus the scholar helps construct observations which become their data.


  • Gavin Flood, “Beyond Phenomenology: Rethinking the Study of Religion,” Continuum, 1999, p.235.
  • Daniel L. Pals, “Seven Theories of Religion,” Oxford University Press, 1996, p.89.
  • Russell T. McCutcheon, “The Insider/Outsider Problem in the Study of Religion,” Continuum, 2005, p.67.
  • Nowrozi, Reza Ali, Shiri. Ardakani & Ali Shiravani, Syed. Hassan Hashemi. “Suhrawardi’s Epistemological Point of View and its Educational Outcomes,” Journal of Religious Education Association, Routledge, (107:3), May-June 2012, p.284.
  • James Cox, “A Guide to the Phenomenology of Religion,” Continuum, 2006, p.41.
  • Melissa Raphael. “Rudolf Otto and the Concept of Holiness,” Clarendon Press, 1997, p.1.
  • Pals, 1996, p.186.
  • Dermot Moran. “Introduction to Phenomenology,” Routledge, 2000, p.4.
  • McCutcheon, 2005, p.261.
  • Kim Knott in: John R. Hinnells. “The Routledge Companion to the Study of Religion,” Routledge, 2010, pp.246-253.
  • Cox, 2006, p.215.
  • Ibid, p.32.
  • Flood, 1999, p.107.
  • Jeppe Sinding Jensen. “Revisiting the Insider/Outsider Debate,” Method and Theory in the Study of Religion, Brill, 2011, p. 30.
  • David J. Hufford. “The Scholarly Voice and the Personal Voice: Reflexivity in Belief Studies,” Western Folklore, 1995, v54, p.57.
  • Flood, 1999, p.15.
  • Kneale J. Holloway. “Dialogism (After Bakhtin)” Elsevier Ltd., 2009, p.143.
  • Flood, 1999, p.39.
  • Philip Carl Salzman. “On Reflexivity,” American Anthropologist, Sept.2002, (104:3), p.809.
  • Flood, 1999, p.39.

By Angelina Merisi

The is a writer and columnist with the Pashtun Times. She has a master degree in the study of Religions, and she has been studying Pashtun culture and society for six years. Angelina Merisi can be contacted at:


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