'Are you sure you're not a Christian?': Negotiating identity within and beyond fieldwork, by Jess Carter

Jess Carter won a Kākano Award in 2017, which she used to help pay for fieldwork and thesis-binding expenses for her MA in Cultural Anthropology at Victoria University of Wellington. Jess submitted her thesis, Christian experiences and imaginings of the Secular in New Zealand, in March 2018. In the piece below, she reflects on the identity work she engaged in as part of her research, including her surprise at the way her non-Christian friends and family members responded to her research project.

Something that stood out to me from fieldwork was how research can impact, shape, and challenge your own identity  sometimes in unexpected, and even frustrating ways. While I have never been Christian, I did not have a non-Christian ‘identity’ until I entered the field. This became an identity ascribed to me by both my participants and myself when I started my fieldwork, but the meaning and strategies behind this identification varied.

From my perspective, I actively identified as non-Christian in the field to facilitate learning (i.e. “I am not a Christian, I am ignorant”) and for transparency. For my participants, labelling me as a non-Christian could have served a number of purposes; it could have marked me as someone ignorant requiring education (or salvation); it could have been an act of asserting their own Christianity identity; and, it could also have positioned me as representative of the Secular, and hence someone of whom to be wary. 

I had anticipated forming this non-Christian identity in the field, because I knew this would be what primarily distinguished me from my participants. What I found more surprising was that non-Christians in my personal life demanded that I create and affirm a non-Christian identity as a result of doing, and talking about, my research. Prior to doing fieldwork, I had never been asked ‘Are you sure you’re not a Christian?’ During my fieldwork, however, I lost count.

I think it was my proximity to Christian ‘others’ and my apparent unwillingness to engage in sentiments disparaging Christianity that made the certainty of my non-Christian status suddenly suspect. As I continued further into my fieldwork, I realised that this was not simply an issue of labelling: for my non-Christian friends and family, to affirm my identity as non-Christian was to confirm that I ‘still’ adhered to ‘our’ way of knowing the world and that I had not turned into one of ‘them’.

At church, where I conducted most of my fieldwork, I had no problem with readily identifying, and labelling myself, as non-Christian. However, I became increasingly hesitant to do so in my personal conversations outside of the field, which was perceived by those I knew as further evidence of my gradual conversion.

Not only did these conversations highlight to me how sudden changes in circumstances and contexts can require reformulations of identity, but that the momentum for this reformulation – or in my case, reaffirmation – may come from others.

Doing this research involved the creation and management of a non-Christian identity; an identity which was simultaneously seen to be legitimising and delegitimising Christianity in different contexts. This identity work could not be neatly ring fenced between my ‘personal life’ and ‘fieldwork’, and consistently bled between the two.

My participants, who had each had different faith journeys, challenges, and experiences, conveyed in their stories to me how messy identity work can be.  And while I have not had the same experiences as my participants (as Christians in an increasingly secular society), my experiences during fieldwork nonetheless allowed me to appreciate this messiness first hand.

My participants demonstrated utter compassion, kindness, and patience towards me, despite often experiencing indifference, discrimination, and ridicule from non-Christians about their faith. Some of this identity messiness therefore involved challenging my own prejudices and assumptions, which definitely impacted the outcome of my thesis, and I hope, me as a person.  

By Jess Carter