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.Continue reading