Uncertainty in the study of belief: the risks and benefits of methodological agnosticism

Bell, Emma and Taylor, Scott (2014). Uncertainty in the study of belief: the risks and benefits of methodological agnosticism. International Journal of Social Research Methodology, 17(5) pp. 543–557.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/13645579.2013.798973


The study of religious and spiritual beliefs raises complex epistemological and methodological questions for interpretive social scientists concerning our ability to understand the everyday lifeworlds that belief-based communities inhabit. The primary focus of recent debates has been on the long-standing methodological insider/outsider dynamic, defined in terms of religious belief or affiliation, which intersects with other social categories such as gender or ethnicity. We contribute to this debate by considering a relatively neglected position, methodological agnosticism, which informs our study of religion and spirituality in the workplace. We argue that an agnostic position can be methodologically productive as a research strategy, but this must be counterbalanced by awareness of the fieldworker risks, which include emotional distress and identity threats. Agnosticism also encourages greater epistemological reflexivity as it implies ‘not knowing’ in relation to both metaphysics and social scientific knowledge construction. Through this, we highlight the productive nature of uncertainty in the study of belief as an epistemologically and methodologically constructive standpoint.

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