The Experience of Ethnographic Fieldwork in an English Benedictine Monastery

Or, Not Playing at Being a Monk


  • Richard D. G. Irvine University of Cambridge



Catholicism, ethnography, hospitality, monasticism, participation, silence, work


What is the role of imitation in ethnographic fieldwork, and what are its limits? This article explores what it means to participate in a particular fieldsite; a Catholic English Benedictine monastery. A discussion of the importance of hospitality in the life of the monastery shows how the guest becomes a point of contact between the community and the wider society within which that community exists. The peripheral participation of the ethnographer as monastic guest is not about becoming incorporated, but about creating a space within which knowledge can be communicated. By focusing on the process of re-learning in the monastery – in particular, relearning how to experience silence and work – I discuss some of the ways in which the fieldwork experience helped me to reassess the social world to which I would return.


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Author Biography

Richard D. G. Irvine, University of Cambridge

Richard Irvine is a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Social Anthropology at the University of Cambridge, where he previously carried out doctoral research on contemporary Benedictine monasticism. He is interested in religious experience, ritual, and mysticism, and the question of what it means to be detached from or engaged with the world. His current research investigates scripture reading as a learned bodily practice, with a focus on eye movement.


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How to Cite

Irvine, R. (2011). The Experience of Ethnographic Fieldwork in an English Benedictine Monastery: Or, Not Playing at Being a Monk. Fieldwork in Religion, 5(2), 221–235.