will you pray with me?

The idea that I might be asked this question when in the field next year simultaneously fills me with delight and trepidation. I hope to do anthropological fieldwork in churches with Christians. But I feel just a little bit uncomfortable with the idea of engaging with research participants in prayer.

As an anthropologist, prayer is fascinating. It can reveal the inner desires of the heart. It puts emotions and longings into words. It connects the pray-er’s understanding of God and God’s will with their own actions and desires. As a source of data – and as a relational expression of having connected with your research consultants, to be invited to pray together seems like a (forgive the pun) holy grail of anthropological research with Christians.

So, why do I feel uncomfortable with praying with Christian consultants when it is something that is both natural to me and an anthropologically rich source of data?

It’s taken me weeks of incidental conversations and reading, and I’m still not sure I’ve framed this properly, but here’s my attempt at framing my discomfort…

When I pray I am oriented to God and when I do cultural analysis I am oriented to the speaker, to the world. As a Christian, I share both the ritual practice and the belief that what I am doing in prayer is directed to God. To turn away from God towards another person during that act, I think, makes a liar out of me when I say “yes, I will pray with you”. I do not know if it’s possible to both pray and analyse, and I suspect I will only find out in the field!

To read more, check out the full transcript on my project blog On The Way Home.


  1. Why don’t you just record the prayer and analyse it later? That way you can truly pray and still do your research. But I also think there’s an element of turning towards the other person when we pray. Is that wrong?

    1. Thanks Clive – I’d love to hear more about how you think we turn to one another when we pray!

      Praying with someone is definitely enacting relationship. I found a wonderful throwaway line in old-school anthropologist Franz Boas’ work about people who pray together, playing together.

  2. I don’t know how to express it really.

    I guess it’s like holding hands while going for a walk. Maybe it’s not turning toward one another completely, but turning to God together. It’s asking the other person, will you join me as I present my deepest desire to God?

    1. It sounds very much like we’re on the same page! I suppose I’m wondering if it somehow violates that turning together to God to do analysis…

      I’ve been reflecting on your comment about recording too. I find recording stuff appealing for lots of reasons – my limited memory the most pressing one! But I suppose the idea that you can simply participate in the present and do analysis after the event from the recording throws up profound questions about why you’d do fieldwork at all. Why do you need to be there if you can do ethnography from recordings? In fact, surely the observer would be less in the way? These are big methodological, discipline-shaking questions that I’m not sure I’m ready to answer yet!

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