response to Headland
elmer s. miller (ESM@VM.TEMPLE.EDU)
Tue, 2 Jul 1996 15:24:14 EDT
A colleague passed along Thomas Headland's comments about my book "Nurturing
Doubt," which has stimulated this response to him and to any interested reader.
My motive for writing the book was an attempt to show undergraduate students
how an ethnographer produces disciplinary knowledge based upon interactions in
a field situation. Consequently, I set out to demonstrate how my experiences
growing up Mennonite shaped the kind of field interactions I had with the Toba
of Northern Argentina as missionary, which, in turn, fundamentally influenced
my ethnographic fieldwork and writing as anthropologist. In the process of writ
ing it occurred to me that the text may have a broader appeal to others who
find themselves questioning dogma but are discouraged from doing so by those in
charge of the dogma.
Contrary to what Heading states, a careful reading of my book shows that I did
not grow up in a fundamentalist home, but rather found the fundamentalism of
Youth-for Christ to be a ticket out of my restricted home community by allowing
me to be a part of the world I was taught to renounce and reject. My seminary
training introduced me to biblical texts, source criticism and church history,
which germinated the seeds of doubt which ultimately led me to resign from the
At no time do I speak of a "loss of faith." Rather, I state that my early reli-
gious encounters were meaningful to me at the time, but as my intellectual hori
zon expanded I tended to interpret experiences in less iconic and more symbolic
terms. My students consistently state that the book is not about rejecting
faith, but rather about questioning deeply held myths and traditions.
Furthermore, I spent two full academic years at Pitt, having arrived there with
an MA in Anthro. My ten weeks of fieldwork in 1966 came on the heals of a five-
year stint there with the mission from 1959-1963. I also returned for an eight-
months stay in 1972 and for six months in 1988.
Finally, nowhere do I question the "accuracy" of standard ethnographic writing,
but rather point out that the absence of the "I" in such texts does not make
them more objective; on the contrary, it restricts the capacity of the reader
to interpret the work by withholding information that would contribute to a
greater understanding of why certain choices were made in the writing process.
For a response to my work which seems to grasp the meanings of the terms doubt
and pilgrim as I use them, see David Berreby's piece in "The Sciences," July/
August, 1966, pp. 41-46.
Elmer S. Miller
Dept. of Anthropology
Phila., PA 19122