Time, Fidelity and the Ethnographic Method in Religious Studies


  • Brendan Jamal Thornton University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill



ethnographic fieldwork, temporality, research ethics, fieldwork methods, anthropology of religion


Fieldwork, a term frequently employed in religious studies to describe qualitative research with contemporary subjects in their own milieu, is a concept inextricably linked with the ethnographic project. Anthropologists have for years challenged and pushed the limits of what fieldwork is, where fieldwork takes place, and how fieldwork is conducted by asking productive questions about where exactly “the field” is located and what precisely constitutes “the work”. In religious studies, debates about ethnographic fieldwork, per se, are less advanced. Traditional notions of fieldwork in anthropology assume long-term engagement with folk and their communities. This often means living and working with research subjects for years, even decades. A critical reflection on the method and idea of fieldwork in religious studies brings to the fore important issues of legitimacy, accuracy and comprehensiveness in the study of “lived religion” and raises anew enduring questions about the ethics of ethnography when time, access and intimacy are ever-shifting and precarious.


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Author Biography

Brendan Jamal Thornton, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

Brendan Jamal Thornton is an anthropologist and associate professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. His scholarship on religion and culture in the Caribbean has been published in Anthropological Quarterly, Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Latin American Research Review, and elsewhere. He is the author of the award-winning book Negotiating Respect: Pentecostalism, Masculinity, and the Politics of Spiritual Authority in the Dominican Republic (University Press of Florida, 2016).


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Spickard, James V., and J. Shawn Landres 2002 Introduction: Wither Ethnography? Transforming the Social-Scientific Study of Religion. In Personal Knowledge and Beyond: Reshaping the Ethnography of Religion, edited by James V. Spickard, J. Shawn Landres and Meredith B. McGuire, 1–17. New York: New York University Press.

Thornton, Brendan Jamal 2016 Negotiating Respect: Pentecostalism, Masculinity, and the Politics of Spiritual Authority in the Dominican Republic. Gainesville: University Press of Florida.

Further Reading

Amit, Vered (ed.) 2000 Constructing the Field: Ethnographic Fieldwork in the Contemporary World. New York: Routledge.

Faubion, James D., and George E. Marcus (eds) 2009 Fieldwork is Not What it Used to be: Learning Anthropology’s Method in a Time of Transition. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Gupta, Akhil, and James Ferguson (eds) 1997 Anthropological Locations: Boundaries and Grounds of a Field Science. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Marcus, George E. 1998 Ethnography through Thick and Thin. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Robben, Antonius C. G. M., and Jeffrey A. Sluka (eds) 2007 Ethnographic Fieldwork: An Anthropological Reader. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Watson, C. W. (ed.) 1999 Being There: Fieldwork in Anthropology. London: Pluto Press.




How to Cite

Thornton, B. J. (2022). Fieldwork: Time, Fidelity and the Ethnographic Method in Religious Studies. Fieldwork in Religion, 17(1), 13–25.

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