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Could this be Political Anthropology? Reflections on Studying Conservative Evangelical Subcultures

30 Pages Posted: 29 Aug 2010  

Nancy Wadsworth

University of Denver

Date Written: August 27, 2010


For the last three decades (and in fact, the length of U.S. history), faith-based social and political movements – right, left, and center – have been sculpting the American political landscape. Yet the vast majority of our discipline’s coverage of religion and politics (at least in the U.S.) has, until recently, depended on quantitative analysis, usually using large-scale survey and opinion polling on attitudes, practices, and beliefs. If political scientists hope to understand religious politics and faith-based social change efforts in more than superficial, stereotyping ways, we must be willing to explore religious subcultures up close. That involves developing a set of ethnographic research skills that may be less familiar (or comfortable) for political scientists than for sociologists and anthropologists. To some extent, it means carrying out creative observational and interactive research at the fuzzy (and undertheorized) boundary between the realms of “culture” and “politics”.

This paper summarizes insights from a multi-methods book project I am completing on racial change efforts among contemporary evangelical Protestants in the U.S. Participants in this movement draw on theology- and culture-based resources to promote a variety of racial change outcomes, including racial reconciliation processes, multiethnic church-building, and cross-racial political coalitions. In addition to using textual analysis, survey data, and interviews with participants in the movement, I conducted ethnographic research in a variety of evangelical cultural contexts (sermons, meetings, prayer groups, workshops, actions), and developed long-term, discussion-based relationships with a few movement leaders. I will discuss the lessons learned and the potential minefields to avoid in studying religious subcultures. My hope is that other political scientists, particularly those working on faith-based movements and the intersections of identities (race, religion, class, gender, etc.) will benefit from these reflections on how we can develop smarter, more creative and nuanced studies of culture and politics.

Keywords: qualitative methodology, political ethnography, religion and politics

Suggested Citation

Wadsworth, Nancy, Could this be Political Anthropology? Reflections on Studying Conservative Evangelical Subcultures (August 27, 2010). Available at SSRN: or

Nancy Wadsworth (Contact Author)

University of Denver ( email )

2201 S. Gaylord St
Denver, CO 80208-2685
United States


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