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The Threat of Ambiguity: Risk and Faith in Relational Ethnography and Interdisciplinary Dialogue

Jamie Glisson


Mary Douglas has identified the discomfort people feel in circumstances of ambiguity. For social groups, both informal and institutionalized, the wish for what Douglas calls “hard lines and clear concepts” (1966:200) can create in-groups that are self-referential and oppressive. While boundaries are integral to any community, I suggest that social groups must interact with one another with a sense of ontological permeability that is rooted in dialogical relationship in order to both transcend and affirm their boundaries appropriately. The same is true between ethnographers and those they study. In this paper, I will draw on a conversation I had with several young Norwegian Christians I interviewed during field research conducted at the Grimstad Bible School in Southern Norway to illustrate how reflexive ethnography and transcultural dialogue can be conducted with a sense of both risk and faith. I will also argue that both ethnographic work and interdisciplinary discourse can benefit from creating permeable boundaries, and that in order to do so, academics from all disciplines will need to let go of the myth of objective reporting and embrace the possibility of finding a sense of what John Milbank would call moving from “unity to difference” and back.


Norway, Christianity, youth, ambiguity, faith, risk, unity, difference

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Copyright (c) 2018 Jamie Glisson

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