AAA Conference Preview: Being a Curious Potential

Title Card for my AAA Presentation

Title Card for my AAA Presentation

My Presentation

Being a Curious Potential: Collaborating With Muslims On Ethnography and Conversion

Angela Kristin VandenBroek (Binghamton University, State University of New York)

Friday, November 22, 2013: 11:15 AM-11:30 AM

“There is no compulsion in religion; truly the right way has become clearly distinct from error,” (Surat Al-Baqarah 2:256). My informants believed that this passage of the Qur’an forbade them from proselytizing. They believed that conversion that stemmed from proselytizing was tainted and makes one particularly susceptible to loss of faith. Conversion was spoken of as a process that was facilitated through interaction with the Muslim community, but was motivated and driven by the convert. The outreach activities within the masjid revolved, not around conversion, but around knowledge and community building and respect for diversity. My informants believed that by practicing their religion publicly and being open and honest about Islam with anyone who asked, they would inspire curiosity. The curious-potential-convert would gain knowledge through interaction, observation, and eventually practice. Leading the convert to find that they could see only the “right way” and thus make the free choice to accept a Muslim identity. As a non-religious person, I was surprised to find that my religious beliefs were a popular topic and that I was being represented with a new identity – potential convert. My behavior – attending outreach events, observing other women, participating in prayer and events, and studying the Qu’ran – was being interpreted by the community as the behavior of a curious-potential-convert. This presentation will explore the impact of my identity on my engagements with informants and how my curious, almost playful interaction with Islam changed my ethnographic position and my perspective of self.

The Panel

Engagements and Entanglements: Reflexive Ethnography with the Religious Other

Reviewed By: Society for the Anthropology of Religion

Friday, November 22, 2013: 10:15 AM-12:00 PM

El (Renaissance Blackstone Hotel)

The fluid nature of religious communities, and the potentially fluid nature of an anthropologist’s own religious beliefs, make ethnography of religion a particularly useful venue for rethinking “collaborations beyond the categories of researcher/subject, expert/lay, [and] anthropologist/other.” This session, conceived as a continuation and development of the themes of the 2007 AAA session “Missionary Impositions,” further explores the tension and opportunities that exist for ethnographers conducting fieldwork among proselytizing religious populations. Because in this context participant-observation may involve engaging in practices that signal religiosity – such as attending services, joining in rituals, and making pilgrimages – research may indicate conversion to those in the community being studied. At the same time, these activities may also result in a variety of responses within the ethnographer, ranging from academic interest to unexpected feelings of identification with the religion and one’s informants. This panel explores the role of religious identity in fieldwork and questions of how anthropologists should approach the divergence between belief and disbelief in research that presents possibilities for both collaboration and contention with informants.


Derrick Lemons (The University of Georgia) and Deana L Weibel (Grand Valley State University)


Derrick Lemons (The University of Georgia)


Ronald Lukens-Bull (University of North Florida)

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