How to Study a Secret
Keywords:Islam, charity, India, ethics, anthropology
Islamic scriptures teach that charity is best given in secret. If it is a secret, however, this poses a methodological problem for the ethnographer. How do we study it? Answering this question has led me to some surprising insights for fieldwork in religion. My recent research investigated five Islamic charity organizations operating in north India. As an anthropologist, I now see “ethics” not only as a critical component of culture, or what we take as the object of our study as ethnographers, but I argue that ethics are also a tool that enables our work. Our ethics, and the professional processes that encode them like the Institutional Review Board (IRB), are as much an indispensable tool for the field as the notebooks, pens and microphones we carry.
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