Critical Religious Studies in Higher Education: An Ongoing Column in JCC Connexions
I have recently been exploring the question of religious, secular, and spiritual identity (RSSI) disclosures in research positionality statements. In tenet 7 of my Critical Religious Pluralism Theory (CRPT) I urge scholars to promote the writings of those who are marginalized in terms of RSSI, so that these authors can be lifted up and centered in the work toward religious pluralism, justice, and equity (Small, 2020, p. 62). In order to do so, scholars must know which authors hold these identities, and the most straightforward way to make this information known is through author self-disclosure.
In addition to facilitating the process of centering marginalized voices, authors’ disclosure of their RSSIs in research positionality statements aids the reader in understanding their inherent biases:
Researcher bias tends to result from … allowing one's personal views and perspectives to affect how data are interpreted and how the research is conducted. The key strategy used to understand researcher bias is called reflexivity, which means that the researcher actively engages in critical self reflection about his or her potential biases and predispositions. (Johnson, 1997, p. 284)
Just as individuals of all races are embedded in structural racism, so too are individuals of all RSSIs embedded in Christian supremacy. But the impact of Christian supremacy is quite different if one is privileged by it than if one is oppressed by it. Scholars who have not critically self-reflected about their social placement relative to Christian supremacy risk allowing their biases to permeate their writing.
In order to get a basic understanding of the RSSI content within positionality statements, I conducted an unscientific examination of 15 research articles published between 2013 and 2021. These pieces were all published in higher education student affairs or adjacent fields (i.e., K-12 education, diversity studies) on the topics of religion (including various traditions), spirituality, Christian privilege, etc., and all contained positionality statements by the author(s). I have previously used all of these articles within my own research and writing. I did not search for additional pieces beyond those I had already collected in the past. Certainly, future research on this topic should be more rigorous and methodical; this survey is a mere starting point for conversation.
Of these 15 articles, eight contained what I am calling “clear” statements of researcher RSSI positionality for all authors of the piece. A clear statement always declares the researcher’s RSSI by name and, in the best cases, describes how that positionality impacts the study at hand. For example, Bowling (2021) offers the following clear statement:
My own work spans academic and student affairs and chaplaincy. A genuine respect for the expertise of each motivates my desire to facilitate cooperation. I disclose my positionality as an evangelical Christian with a background in U.S. and international religious literacy and interfaith work to demonstrate the impossibility of neutrality, as religious, spiritual, and secular worldviews are always embodied and situated … (Bowling, 2021, p. 5)
A further two pieces were all multi-authored pieces in which some, but not all, of the authors offered clear statements. In these pieces, one or more authors offered no statement at all. Although I hesitate to call out any authors for imperfect positionality statements, particularly as this is a new subject of conversation, I share an example to highlight the discrepancy between authors who disclose their RSSI and those who do not:
Because researcher values and identities are an important part of the research process even for quantitative work …, we are including a positionality statement. Ellison identifies as a cisgender, White, straight, Jewish female. Todd identifies as a cisgender, White, gay man. Orth identifies a cisgender, White, straight, Christian male. McConnell identifies as a queer, gender-nonconforming, White woman. (Ellison et al., 2019, p. 567)
Finally, of the remaining five articles, three offered “intermediate” statements, meaning that the author(s) claimed an alignment of identity with their research subjects, but did not name or describe that identity in clear terms. One pair of authors offered a “vague” statement, asserting that their research team held a variety of religious identities (which were not named), and the author of the final piece stated that researcher positionality is critical, but then did not share her own.
I acknowledge that there are legitimate reasons why an author may not be able to disclose their RSSI. They might fear for their safety or about academic repercussions at their place of employment or within their discipline. Perhaps the authors of the pieces I reviewed who did not disclose their identities did not do so for one of these reasons. Some authors of clear statements did self-disclose non-Christian identities or identities contested within Christianity, such as atheist, humanist, Jewish, Muslim, Pagan, and Unitarian Universalist (for example, see Al-Sharif & Curley, 2021; Ali, 2019; Aronson et al., 2020; Maples et al., 2021). These clear statements allow fellow scholars to understand the natural biases of the authors and to center the words of the marginalized in future writings.
Al-Sharif, M. A. B., & Curley, K. (2021). Living on the borders of religious intersections: Being centered within one’s dissonance. Journal of College and Character, 22(4), 307-324. https://doi.org/10.1080/2194587X.2021.1977145
Ali, A. I. (2019). The campus as crucible: A critical race analysis of campus climate in the experiences of American Muslim undergraduates. Teachers College Record, 121(5), 1-38.
Aronson, B., Altowajri, M. A., Brown, D. M., Enright, E., & Stohry, H. R. (2020). A call for critical intersectional religious literacies: An intersectional examination of whiteness and Christian privilege in teacher education. Religion & Education, 48(2), 155-177. https://doi.org/10.1080/15507394.2020.1856306
Bowling, R. L. (2021). Religious literacy and interfaith cooperation: Toward a common understanding. Religious Education, 117(1), 4-18. https://doi.org/10.1080/00344087.2021.1983286
Ellison, R. L., Todd, N. R., Orth, R. D., & McConnell, E. A. (2019). White privilege awareness and openness to diversity: The moderating role of gender for white, Christian students. Journal of College Student Development, 60(5), 563-576. https://doi.org/10.1353/csd.2019.0050
Johnson, R. B. (1997). Examining the validity structure of qualitative research. Education, 118, 282-292.
Maples, G., Rediger, L., & Small, J. L. (2021). Privilege as policy? An analysis of student religious accommodation policies in higher education. Journal of College and Character, 22(4), 272-290. https://doi.org/10.1080/2194587X.2021.1977151
Small, J. L. (2020). Critical religious pluralism in higher education: A social justice framework to support religious diversity. Routledge.