How to Study a Secret


  • Christopher B Taylor George Mason University



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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Author Biography

  • Christopher B Taylor, George Mason University

    Christopher Taylor is currently a Fellow at George Mason University, in the Ali Vural Ak Center for Global Islamic Studies. He received his PhD from Boston University in Anthropology. He has held previous fellowships at the US Agency for International Development (USAID), the National Science Foundation (NSF), and the Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University. He has published on India, the ethics of economic practice, socioeconomic mobility, and Islamic law.


Laidlaw, James 2013 The Subject of Virtue: An Anthropology of Ethics and Freedom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lambek, Michael 2010 Ordinary Ethics: Anthropology, Language, and Action. New York: Fordham University Press.

Mahmood, Saba 2005 The Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Mauss, Marcel 2000 [1925] The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies. New York: W.W. Norton Press.




How to Cite

Taylor, C. B. (2022). Ethics: How to Study a Secret. Fieldwork in Religion, 17(1), 62–71.