Method and Consequence in the Study of U.S. Orthodoxy

by Robert Saler

Much of the recent controversy about Sarah Riccardi-Swartz’s book Between Heaven and Russia (as well as the National Public Radio piece that highlighted her work along with that of other scholars investigating the influence of far-right currents within U.S. Orthodoxy) has exhibited some confusion about the epistemology of social science disciplines. Sarah’s book is an anthropological study based on over a year of fieldwork at a West Virginia monastery. In the book, she outlines a series of discoveries that she made in conversation with the largely convert population of monks and parishioners in the nearby parish, many of which relate to currents of pro-Putin sentiment, nationalism, and illiberal understandings of gender and racial hierarchies. Much of the ensuing controversy around her book (carried out largely among non-academic Orthodox audiences, many of whom boldly claim they have not read the book but are rather listening to likeminded online actors) relates to whether she has been sufficiently transparent in her methods, or—put more bluntly—whether her project was some sort of deception perpetrated upon the community. In effect, this commentary has been a broadside against the enterprise of anthropology itself.

While I have collaborated with Dr. Riccardi-Swartz and have, like many others, benefited from her insights, my goal in this short essay is less about the substance of her book per se and more about the necessity to understand the epistemological strictures that govern different enterprises in the social sciences, and why it is important to get them right—especially when critiquing conclusions based on methodologies. I will consider three examples: sociology, anthropology, and journalism.

Academic disciplines, broadly speaking, do not only delineate certain kinds of methodologies and canons, but also standards of argumentation by which different interlocutors within a given guild might assess the validity and cogency of an evidence-based proposition. Put more simply, the sort of argumentative standards and data deployment that would be appropriate for a strictly sociological study are different from those suited to anthropology, history, etc.

In the main, cultural sociologists work with large-scale social forces in order to explain—and perhaps predict—how given portions of the population behave or might behave. Particular attention is given to sampling methods (e.g. probability sampling, weighted to account for different variables present in the sample set and in the population under study, is generally necessary to establish strict causation as opposed to simple correlation). Surveys, “big data” mining, longitudinal textual analysis, and large-scale observation are thus the most frequent method employed. Why does this matter? To take one instance: Fr. Mikel Hill’s mistake in his recent review of identifying Riccardi-Swartz as a “sociologist” is thus tied to his concern as to whether her sample size was adequate to substantiate her claims, and were Riccardi-Swartz trying to put forward a strictly sociological argument, then this concern might have some merit.

However, anthropology—again, the discipline to which Between Heaven and Russia belongs—as a social science is a fundamentally different enterprise, in which more localized populations are engaged in far more depth across time, generally via fieldwork, although increasingly online spaces are also fertile ground for anthropological engagement. Anthropologists no less than sociologists have interest in intervening in discussions around broader cultural forces; however, the anthropologist’s contribution to this interdisciplinary discussion is to offer what Clifford Geertz famously called “thick description” of a context as an intersection of multiple cultural, political, and—to use a term favored by Riccardi-Swartz—“worldmaking” strategies.

Both enterprises, meanwhile, are distinct from journalism. Although journalism—when carried on ethically—is certainly accountable to ethical standards, verification strictures, and best practices, sociology and anthropology carried out from a research institution such as a university undergo rigorous scrutiny by Internal Review Boards (IRB), peers who oversee and verify the ethics of the study methods used on any research involving live human subjects. Readers of Riccardi-Swartz’s book will find that she is remarkably transparent about her methods used, the inevitable limitations of such methods, and the relatively modest scope of the conclusions that she feels are warranted by her findings. Again, while fellow social scientists and others can certainly contest the specifics of these findings and conclusions, they reflect a process far more publicly and peer-accountable than journalism proper.

The distinction between journalism and anthropology is particularly important because much of the popular objection to Riccardi-Swartz’s methods seems to be that she somehow deceived the subjects of her field study; however, upon closer inspection, the only evidence offered for this assertion is that she said things in aggregate about the worldmaking dynamics of her interlocutors that they would not say about themselves. However, this is precisely the point of anthropology as a social science: to discern larger cultural, discursive, and political currents that might impact how given actors think and operate even apart from their explicit comprehension of these factors. That is not to say that these interpretations on the part of the anthropologist are therefore incontestable; indeed, the scholarly assessment of anthropological work consists precisely in the warrants of a given set of conclusions based on the data gathered. However, this is a very different enterprise than the comparatively more straightforward reportage of journalism.

Between Heaven and Russia certainly deserves the academic attention that it already is receiving and will doubtless inspire to an even greater degree in the months ahead; and indeed, it is a great compliment to social scientists such as Riccardi-Swartz when peers engage their work critically along the disciplinary strictures of accountability, evidence/data deployment, and epistemology described above. However, this scholarly engagement is a far more rigorous task than simple accusations of muckraking journalism, and requires critics who are sufficiently familiar with the academic procedures that delineate different social sciences to be able to tell when they are being applied to productive and ethical effect. 

Robert Saler is Assistant Professor of Theology and Culture at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, IN.

Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.