Theorizing Modernities article

Theology, Ethnography, and the Question of Genre: A Response to Emmanuel Katongole’s Who Are My People?

Bishops outside of a church in Uganda. Taken by the author on a fieldwork trip. Image via Todd Whitmore.

Reading Emmanuel Katongole’s
Who are my People?: Love, Violence, and Christianity in Sub-Saharan Africa was like listening to a longtime friend, and that it was. It is a lucid, beautifully written book. I will focus my response on the question of genre. Just what genre—or, rather, mix of genres—is Who Are My People?  There are elements of social science, the theology of Stanley Hauerwas, and confession literature. The question is whether these elements constitute robust genres in the book.

Social Science (Qualitative Sociology/Social and Cultural Anthropology)

There is an early gesture in the book towards being in the genre of qualitative social science research, and being, more specifically, a study in qualitative sociology or cultural anthropology. (Side note: I don’t have a dog in the fight over whether qualitative sociology and cultural anthropology are themselves truly sciences; it depends on what one means by “science.”) It is possible, in my judgment, to be at the same time a theologian and a cultural anthropologist or qualitative sociologist—to mix the two constellations of genres without the loss of either—so the gesture towards these disciplines caught my attention. 

Katongole refers early on to his “decision to do ethnographic research” (7). And in the conclusion, he refers to his work as “a unique blend of analysis and ethnography” (173). But if by “ethnographic research” and “ethnography” one means what is most often meant in cultural anthropology—extended time spent on the ground living with the subjects of research, engaging in participant observation supplemented by other field methods, then in Who Are My People? we seem to have something else. The anthropologist Alpa Shah articulates the most common understanding of participant observation: “Duration . . . is important because it takes a long time to become a part of people’s lives. . . . Participant observation, it is typically suggested, should . . . be conducted over at least a year, preferably living with the people one is studying” (51). There is payoff for such work: the upending of our theoretical presuppositions. “Participant observation is potentially revolutionary because it forces one to question one’s theoretical presuppositions about the world by an intimate long-term engagement with, and participation in the lives of strangers” (49).

With the exception of the mention of a two-week trip to the Central African Republic, there is little indication of duration in the three countries—CAR, Rwanda, and Benin—featured in Who Are My People?, so it is hard to know to what degree the work fits the genre of ethnographic research. More, the book is structured such that the theoretical work is set up in the first two chapters before the display of the time in the field in the following three chapters. For this reason, it is difficult to get a sense of a disruption of theoretical presuppositions, as Shah suggests is one of the most important payoffs of participant observation.

Katongole also refers to “extensive interviews and structured conversations,” and cites the influence of Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot’s method of “portraiture.” However, after this one brief citing, there is not another mention of Lawrence-Lightfoot, or even of portraiture, until there is again brief mention in the conclusion (173–74).  

There are extensive debates about the genre of the interview: what form it should take, and how many are necessary for purposes of rigor, such that a standard part of the research genre is for the author to state what kind of and how many interviews she conducted. There are few such genre markers in Who Are My People? In one instance in the book that does pay attention to interview method, Katongole, like with “ethnography,” uses a key term in a way not used by social scientists. He states that he “conducted a random series of interviews” in slums on the outskirts of Kampala (149), but it is evident that the selection of interviewees was quite different from what is meant by “random sampling” in social science procedure. (He directly selected, in his words, a “cross section” of people rather than randomly sampled in the statistical sense.) 

My point about the use of the terms like “ethnography” and “random” is not that the fieldwork in Who Are My People? does not have value; on the contrary, in a moment, I will argue just the opposite. And the book is far more than anecdotal. But the terms and methods theologians use to describe our work are important in part because one of the criticisms made of theologians claiming to do some form of social scientific inquiry is that our work lacks adequate accountability in the claims we make, and thus is thin methodologically and substantively. (“Thin” is a word that social scientists use to swear at each other.)     

There will likely always be social scientists who reject as a matter of principle theological modes of reasoning. But if theologians want to be in conversation as also scholars doing social science with qualitative sociologists and cultural anthropologists, then we need to use their terms in ways recognizable to at least those among them who do not rule theological modes of reflection out of court a priori. 

Given the number of times Katongole uses the terms “story” or “narrative”—my informal count is that the words appear on 33 pages with as many as 11 mentions on a page—we might expect some engagement with narrative sociology and anthropology. But there is no such engagement in Who are My People?

More important than even the number or kind of interviews or which social scientists Katongole engages with is the place of narrative in Who Are My People?: it is at the opposite end of the research project from that in qualitative sociology or cultural anthropology. In Who Are My People?, the specification of the Christian account comes in the second chapter, subtitled, “The Journey of Christian Identity.” It is only in the chapters that follow that Katongole displays specific instances of living that narrative in contexts of violence. In Lawrence-Lightfoot and Jessica Hoffman Davis’ The Art and Science of Portraiture, the turn to the building of narrative comes in the last chapter: “Composing the narrative” they write, is “the last and most comprehensive feature of portraiture” (261). 

But if theologians want to be in conversation as also scholars doing social science with qualitative sociologists and cultural anthropologists, then we need to use their terms in ways recognizable to at least those among them who do not rule theological modes of reflection out of court a priori

In other words, for qualitative sociologists, the ultimately definitive narrative for a study is retrospective. This does not mean that a researcher does not bring theories and narratives to the field; one cannot help but do so. All qualitative researchers that I know of reject any idea of observational neutrality as a chimera. But the aim is to hold such theories and narratives lightly enough that they can be fundamentally challenged and even changed, and this goes even for whatever ultimate convictions the researcher might have, Christian or otherwise. To be clear: for a researcher to do both Christian theology and qualitative social science accountably is to necessarily risk that she will convert to a different—that is, other than Christian—way of construing God and the world by the end of the study. There is no way around this possibility. (Of course, the reverse is also true: intensive fieldwork might lead the researcher deeper into her faith tradition in a way that significantly reconstitutes her previous understanding of it. But this, too, she cannot know except retrospectively.)

Whatever narrative that the qualitative researcher constructs in grant proposals is subject to radical alteration such that the final framing narrative can turn out to be drastically different from the first one. This is particularly the case in more immersive forms of qualitative inquiry, and is Alpa Shah’s point. The structure of Who Are My People? indicates that the framing narrative used to interpret events is and remains prospective: it is formulated in the early, more theoretical chapters; the later chapters constituting a search for illustrations or instantiations to populate it.

In other words, from a qualitative sociological perspective, but in a way that makes sense (hear me out) in a particular kind of theology, Who Are My People? is unapologetically confirmation-biased: its primary aim is to seek confirmation of the Christian story. Thus, at the end of the second theoretical chapter, where Katongole works out what it means to be a Christian—narrated as accepting God’s invitation to self-sacrificing love—and just before the field chapters, he writes, “But what does . . . God’s self-sacrificing love look like?” (64). And the ensuing chapters provide illustrations or instantiations (for instance, 136 and 173). Here, one or two or three instantiations is sufficient. 

And, from a particular kind of theological perspective, this approach makes full sense. The Christian story is that God has redeemed forever the world and has promised both that such redemption will come to full realization and that, in the meantime, the presence of the Holy Spirit will assure that there will be at least some contemporary instantiations of it. The Christian faith is a faith of prospective hope. In a world where Reinhold Niebuhr can say, “The doctrine of original sin is the only empirically verifiable doctrine of the Christian faith,” it makes theological sense to search for and lift up counterfactuals, even if this establishes the ultimate narrative construction at the opposite end of research as does the qualitative sociologist. Katongole writes, “Throughout my time in CAR, the question of hope was foremost on my mind. . . . What visible signs of hope might there be in the aftermath of the Séléka and anti-balaka violence?” (118). 

From a qualitative sociological perspective, but in a way that makes sense in a particular kind of theology, Who Are My People? is unapologetically confirmation-biased: its primary aim is to seek confirmation of the Christian story.

Pre-narrated prospective hope turns what would be a vice in social science—confirmation bias—into a virtue. There does not need to be a preponderant number of positive cases for there to be hope. Read this way, Who Are My People is a kind of Lives of the (Contemporary) Saints. And if the researcher can find no such cases, well then, following Paul’s letter to the Hebrews (11:1), that very hope is for “things unseen.” The prospective bias therefore cannot be overturned.

In my reading, then, the fundamental aim and primary achievement of the book is to offer empirical grounds for hope, and in this it succeeds tremendously. In a world full of violence and Reinhold Niebuhrs, this is no small accomplishment.

So if it is not qualitative sociology or cultural anthropology, what are the deep influences in play in Who Are My People?

Theology in the Hauerwasian Tradition: Prospective Narration 

The terms “story” and “narrative” are central to the theology of Stanley Hauerwas. Katongole’s first book, Beyond Universal Reason, made the case for Hauerwas’ theology. The influence clearly remains in this most recent book. Katongole states in Who Are My People?, “Through Hauerwas’s work I had already come to appreciate the role that stories play in shaping individual and communal identities” (28, emphasis added).

For lack of a specific genre term, we can call this “theology in the Hauerwasian tradition.” But Who are My People? moves beyond Hauerwas’s work in important ways. Hauerwas refers to Christians as “resident aliens,” meaning that they are fundamentally different from those around them. He therefore argues that different religions “produce fundamentally different experiences of what it is to be human” (2–3).  

However, Katongole writes in the first, more theoretical part of the book, “We never have (or are) one identity . . . Christian life and identity cannot but be a life of constant negotiation and boundary crossing” (47). And he displays this claim clearly in the second part of the book, where sometimes particular Muslims serve as exemplars of faith. They influence Christians and vice versa. Instead of Hauerwas, Katongole here turns to Virgilio Elizondo’s understanding of Christian identity as “mestizo,” where, in Elizondo’s words, “I am always both kin (at home) and a foreigner at the same time” (56). This is a quite different vision than that of the resident alien. It offers greater complexity in its accounts, and leavens the books as a whole.

Thus the second important contribution of Who Are My People? is that it moves narrative theological ethics past the work of Stanley Hauerwas. Katongole illustrates this in part through his own life story, which is full of negotiation and boundary crossing. This leads me to my final genre observation. 

Confession as Retrospective Narrative

Threaded throughout the book, in both the early more theoretical chapters and the later chapters that display the theory, are autobiographical vignettes and personal life overviews. Taken as a whole, these vignettes and overviews begin with Katongole’s childhood in Uganda as the son of a Hutu mother and Tutsi father; extend through his graduate studies in Belgium, where he witnessed in befuddlement through television the Rwandan genocide; and lead finally up to his recent trips to Rwanda, the Central African Republic, and Benin. The writing here is among the most elegant in an elegantly written book.

Though there is not enough in the autobiographical moments to call the book an autobiography or autoethnography, there is enough to say that there are elements, at the very least, of the theological genre of the confession. In the tradition of Augustine and Dorothy Day, the confession places the author in the center of the story not to convey primarily the self, but—through the self—the world, and the God who made it. And the confession as a genre is a form of retrospective narrative, a looking back on a life of change, of conversion. The book’s overall structure, with the ultimate theoretical framing presented as preceding the time in the field, then, can be misleading, and perhaps does not do the author justice. Who Are My People? may not be retrospective in the way that qualitative sociology seeks to be, but significant aspects of it are retrospective nonetheless.   

Looking Forward to Further Retrospection: Can Theology Speak to Social Science?

Late in Who Are My People?, Katongole refers in one sentence to his co-founding in 2012 of the Bethany Land Institute, “to address the challenges of food insecurity, deforestation, and poverty in the rural communities” in the diocese of Luweero, Uganda (177). In response to the duration and intensity of immersion suggested even by this short statement, I scrawled in the page margin, “This could be an ethnog.”  Shortly thereafter, in a presentation to some colleagues, Katongole indicated that he planned to follow some of the graduates of the Institute’s training program for five years.  This could definitely become a (theological) ethnography.  

Again, in my judgment, one can be at once both a theologian and a social scientist, and given the rise of autoethnography, this can be done in the confessional mode.  For the work to become recognized as an ethnography would require deeper engagement with the literature and methods of the social sciences. I suggest that for it to become a theology that might be received by social scientists, it would do well to pick up and carry further an argument that some social scientists are already making as a result of their fieldwork. For instance, anthropologists Amira Mittermaier, China Scherz, and George Mpanga make the case through their fieldwork that spiritual beings can and do intervene in persons’ lives precisely by coming, in Mittermaier’s words, “from elsewhere” than the mundane world. The advantage of grounding this observation in fieldwork rather than (or at least in addition to) received doctrine is that it keeps the narrative far more open-ended than received doctrine does. Mittermaier, Scherz, and Mpanga all stress the relative unpredictability, for the recipients at least, of such interventions by spirits. The outcome of such interventions is also unpredictable. Whatever meaning arises from the intervention can only be discerned, in a way fitting with the social sciences, retrospectively.

Importantly, and in conclusion, one can make this point in terms of Christian doctrine as well: when theologians do ethnography, they need to have more confidence in the activity— however unpredictable—of the Holy Spirit speaking and working through the words and lives of the persons encountered in the field. This is the case even when—or rather particularly when— the Spirit speaking and working appears to challenge received doctrine. This, in fact, is what faith looks like. We creatures do not know and cannot know beforehand the work of the Spirit. That is for the Creator alone. 

Todd Whitmore
Todd Whitmore is an Associate Professor in the Department of Theology and a Concurrent Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Notre Dame.  His work draws upon ethnographic methods to raise moral and theological questions.  He is the author of Imitating Christ in Magwi: An Anthropological Theology (Bloomsbury/T&T Clark, 2019). Dr. Whitmore's present fieldwork focuses on the opioid and methamphetamine epidemic in northern Indiana, where he works as a Certified Addiction Peer Recovery Coach.  

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