Language, Power and Relationality in Decolonial Ethnographic Practice


  • Lauren Leve University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill



fieldwork, ethics, positionality, materiality, decolonial methods, interlocutor


A significant challenge for ethnographers since the 1980s has been how to name their relationships to the people with whom and about whom they produce knowledge. Following critiques of how the term “informant” encodes and reproduces colonial power dynamics, ethnographers have sought alternative language to describe fieldwork-based relations. This article examines one of the most commonly used terms—“interlocutor”—and considers the implications of adopting a word that emphasizes voice and speech over embodied participation. “Interlocutor” is appealing to contemporary scholars because it signals respect for the people we work with using a vocabulary that reflects modern secular ideologies. Yet, research that advances decolonial goals may depend less on transforming styles of ethnographic representation than on opening the ethnographer and ethnographic inquiry to other ways of knowing and being, via embodied experience and relational practices. When ethnographers of religion engage the people we work with primarily as voices we set ourselves up for misunderstanding and miss opportunities to trouble imperial structures of knowledge.


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Author Biography

Lauren Leve, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Lauren Leve is an associate professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her research focuses on the relations between political and economic liberalization, ethical personhood and religious change. She is the author of The Buddhist Art of Living in Nepal: Ethical Practice and Religious Reform (Routledge, 2016) and articles about gender, democracy, development and religion in Nepal. Other ongoing work includes a community-engaged digital project on Buddhist heritage sites.


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How to Cite

Leve, L. (2022). Interlocutors: Language, Power and Relationality in Decolonial Ethnographic Practice. Fieldwork in Religion, 17(1), 47–61.