This reflection was born out of an encounter between two researchers working on the same urban space in Cairo, a neighborhood called Shubra, known for its large Christian population and often cited as an example of interreligious coexistence. We started a conversation in 2017 about our positionality in the field. Interreligious boundaries are difficult to fully grasp as objects of investigation because they are omnipresent and a social taboo in Egypt. Yet these boundaries are often brought up in the social sciences for other purposes, especially to comment on Islam in the West and the critique of Western perceptions of the Middle East. One of us (Gaétan du Roy) is a Belgian historian and ethnographer interested in interreligious interactions. The other (Mina Ibrahim) is a scholar from Shubra, studying Copts in their relations to their Church and to Muslims. We coauthored a paper about Copts and Muslims in Shubra that explores the heuristic possibilities offered by our “identities.”1 Being an insider or an outsider is sometimes described as a potential source of bias, but we argue that both positions offer rich insights if we carefully unpack the complex set of relations between us and the people studied, between Copts and Muslims and also between our subject and the field of religious studies dominated by the question of Islamism. Along the way, our reflection on positionality raised the question of our relations to the people observed and described in our research and on possible ways of including them in the knowledge production process.

Our reflections here are thus rooted in an experience of indirect collaboration. We mainly did fieldwork separately (Gaétan between 2015 and 2017 and Mina between January 2017 and October 2019), but reflected on our experiences together afterwards. We consider that the social sciences, and particularly ethnography as a method, consist in an exercise of translation of local realities—Egyptian, in this case—and that an accurate translation should respect the plurality of voices, the polyphony, encountered in the field, in order to allow those whom we study to become real interlocutors and not only informants. We understand this process through two interrelated problems that have to do with the spaces where Western researchers or Egyptians affiliated with universities in the West publish their work, and how people’s experiences are translated and integrated into complex theories and used in debates that, for the most part, address Western concerns.

This complex relationship between the researcher and local communities does not only implicate the Western gaze. Inequalities and class contempt remain very present in Egypt, including in Shubra where we did our work. For example, one of us (Gaétan du Roy) once met the head of an NGO that was active in the neighborhood and who belonged to the upper class. After hearing about the project, he suggested several names of people who could inform the researcher about Shubra’s social life and looked astonished when the researcher asked if those people lived in Shubra (they did not). The idea of asking people about their own place of living seemed somehow strange to the head of the association. He considered, on the contrary, that a question like interreligious relations would be better understood and explained by intellectuals. These intellectuals at far remove, not locals, were believed to know how things are.

We share this anecdote because of its resonance with notions of scholarly expertise. Within the realm of academic scholarship, the Coptic “question” is entangled in debates about Islam and interactions with Muslims. At one end of the spectrum, most common in Christian circles, Copts are either perceived as victims or as steadfast believers of an antique and “authentic” faith. At the other end, among people motivated by anti-imperialist ideas, Copts constitute an uneasy object because of their shared religion with the colonizers.2 To give only one striking example, Saba Mahmood addresses the question of sectarianism in Egypt without considering the level of interreligious relations lived on a daily basis, focusing almost entirely on the role of the West. The Coptic question is also a tricky one in public debates within Egypt, as the unity of the cross and the crescent have come to symbolize national unity and any sectarian issue is often equated with a desire to destabilize the country.

In our research, we wanted to somehow extract the Coptic “question” from these sterile oppositions. We tried to observe and make sense of Copts’ and Muslims’ daily lives without hiding parochialisms and sometimes hatred, but also moments of conviviality. To do so, we paid special attention to the many moments when our interlocutors, Muslims and Christians, refused to trust us with their real emotions and opinions regarding members of the “other” religion. We tried to capture the ways in which people adapt their discourse to their context, including the ways in which cosmopolitan or ethnocentric attitudes are adopted when one is speaking and in relation to whom they are speaking. Being a Coptic insider or perceived as a foreign Christian are not the same. These positions provide access to different aspects of reality. Some feelings and opinions stay untold in certain circumstances by the actors but also sometimes by researchers. We noticed that intolerant discourses heard in the field are often absent from the ethnographies both about Copts and Muslims. Anyone who has spent time with Copts or Muslims in Egypt is likely to have heard these discourses.

Another problem we find important to address and that is related to the question of positionality is the distance between our texts and the people we study. Our peer-reviewed books and journal articles are located far away from the livelihoods of the people they purport to describe. While humanities and social science researchers claim that their work is embedded in ethnographic and/or archival fieldwork, the means by which the authors arrange and analyze their projects usually exclude any interactions with the protagonists of the stories collected after they extracted the needed information. The final academic product is above all shaped by the necessity to pass the peer-review process which implies conforming to a certain format. The pressure and the competition to publish in prestigious journals are significant indeed, a situation that tends to standardize arguments in favor of conceptual generalization at the expense of fieldwork descriptions. Instead of taking the time to present incomplete explanations and carefully analyze the data collected, researchers try to meet the requirements of publishers, with the ultimate goal of achieving stable employment in academia. Meanwhile, at the other side of the research process, researchers working in settings such as Egypt must deal with the delicate question of sensitive issues, among them state repression and censorship. In our case, evoking sectarian tensions could put us and our interlocutors at risk.

How can we invite the people with whom we work to care about, and to share in, the research projects that are concerned with their lives? And above all, how do we proceed without adopting a patronizing attitude that is concerned only with imposing one’s expertise on the lives of others and thus failing to do justice to the complexity people’s lives evoke, particularly as they entangle with this expertise? Similar to how Samuli Schielke and Liza Debevec attempt to link people’s ordinary experiences of piety with the “grand schemes” (i.e., perfect and complete religiosities) that exist “above and outside the struggles and manifold paths of daily life,” we believe that scholarship should avoid overlaying people’s voices with thick layers of theory. The idea is certainly not to defend a purely empiricist stance but to stay open to what the “fieldwork” says and not only use the case study to confirm a theory. For instance, Asef Bayat wrote an interesting piece on “everyday cosmopolitism” in Shubra that seems overly optimistic for whoever has spent time analyzing this subject. His goal was indeed to show that relations between Copts and Muslims are not as bad as it is often assumed in the West.

The case study is often simplified to locate it in a broader, scholarly picture. This is so because we, researchers, mainly address an audience of our peers. Refining case studies also allows scholars to compare and theorize. However, we would like to explore other paths for scholarship by experimenting with new forms of writing and communicating research. These paths would allow for a broader range of voices, even ones that express sectarian hatred. Our aim is to investigate how to create a space for discussion between us and the people we study. The idea is not to delegitimize Western researchers but to translate our academic results in order to make them accessible for an audience of nonspecialists, especially the people whose lives we address in our articles and books, as well as Egyptian scholars. What we propose is not easy. Having the texts read and checked by people in the field could lead to a self-censorship that undermines the indispensable work of critique, without which the social sciences would lose their viability

First, we would like to underline the importance of organizing conferences and seminars in the field and in the local language to allow for local researchers to participate in those forums more actively. In September 2017, Gaétan du Roy and Séverine Gabry-Thienpont organized a conference entitled Religious Dynamics in Contemporary Egypt that was held in Cairo. The debates and presentations were held in Arabic, French, and English, with simultaneous translations.

Another initiative in which we are both involved seems even more crucial to us as it builds constant interactions with our interlocutors through interactive learning and research. In the summer of 2020, Mina Ibrahim cofounded a research center in Shubra with Egyptian researcher Mohammed Ezz, for which Gaétan du Roy acts as a member of the scientific committee and research board. The center is called Shubra’s Archive for Research and Development (SARD) and is registered with the Egyptian Ministry of Internal Trade.3 Nearly all similar centers in Egypt are located far away from what are called the “popular neighborhoods” (“low” or “working” class areas) like Shubra. In fact, the very term popular should not be disconnected from the critical gap between the production and the consumption of knowledge. In other words, many dissertations, books, and journal articles are written about and with those who live in Shubra, Helwan, Zawiyya Al-Hamra, Shubra El-Kheima, Imbaba, al-Warraq, and other districts in and outside Cairo. Nevertheless, the inhabitants of these areas rarely get the chance to read what is written about them and the neighborhood’s name (especially when it is an informal area) rarely appears in the title of the publication (contrary to places such as upper-class Heliopolis). The main aim of SARD is to reduce this gap by collecting and archiving relevant academic writings and also by engaging local communities to give their feedback on and to improve existing scholarship. The center also aims to help local scholars navigate the academic institutions and processes, which require a certain way of presenting oneself and one’s research in order to access funding and get published. Furthermore, SARD plans to organize workshops where “local” and “foreign” researchers can come together and exchange their methodological and theoretical insights.

SARD seeks to learn from and to join the post-2011 uprisings scene that has witnessed the emergence of diverse workshops related to social sciences, oral history, and urbanism. Aimed at helping people to appropriate the environment they live in, we think this type of initiative should be supported and valued by Western and local universities as a way to make social science methods and theories accessible to a broader audience. In sum, we would like to see the social sciences expanded beyond academic journals and university seminars so that knowledge is shared, discussed, and contested more often and among a wider subset of people. Our experience suggests that these efforts have a good chance of success.

  1. The paper has not been published yet. It was presented at a conference in Cairo in 2019.

  2. We see those “two ends of the spectrum” as a Weberian ideal type, as traps to be avoided. Real scholarly works rarely fall entirely in one category. It can be compared to what Grignon and Passeron have described concerning the study of popular cultures in which case the two extremes are miserabilism and romanticism.

  3. Website is under construction.