Blog: The Materiality of Mistrust

11 July, 2018

This blog post is a shortened version of a paper that Religious Matters team members Annelise Reid and Erik Meinema presented at the ‘Urban Matters’ conference’ on June 21, 2018.1


The recent ‘Urban Matters’ Conference’ was a golden chance for us to reflect together on the problem of researching religious matters in urban settings which are characterized by mistrust. In both our research settings, certain religious phenomena are perceived as suspect or dangerous and consequently subjected to government regulations, surveillance, and securitization. Such government interference facilitates complex patterns of mistrust and suspicion, in which value is placed in concealing (aspects of, or associations to) particular religious matters under surveillance. This in turn makes these matters even more intractable for us as researchers. While our projects were guided by very different questions and took place in quite different geographical locations, we discovered that they were however connected and comparable by the mutual difficulties we faced in researching religion in contexts of mistrust.
Erik Meinema recently did fieldwork in the coastal Kenyan town Malindi. In recent years, Kenya’s coast witnessed activity of terrorist organization Al-Shabaab. Western donors therefore currently support NGOs in Malindi to improve interreligious relations and counter violent extremism. The willingness of Western donors to fund NGOs suggests that they assume that Al-Shabaab activity has led to growing interreligious tensions in Malindi. Many interlocutors however argued that Malindi is peaceful, and did not like to talk publicly about relations between religious groups. Similarly, local NGOs often avoid conversations about violent extremism, as they feared this could stigmatize Muslims, or lead to Al-Shabaab reprisals. They rather use funds to preach peace and national unity, messages also popular among religious leaders and politicians. Despite this emphasis on peace and unity, the Kenyan state is simultaneously involved in the surveillance of Muslims, and covertly tracks down, and sometimes violently cracks down on suspected Al-Shabaab members. Because of this, many Muslims avoid associations to violent extremism (for example by shaving beards), which could attract attention from security agents, while Muslims in turn mistrust security agents for religiously profiling them. These developments have led to a high degree of mistrust in Malindi. This mistrust is rarely discursively addressed, yet nevertheless expressed in subtle ways. For example, Erik remembers being corrected when walking through a Muslim neighbourhood, as he was told by a friend that he could easily be seen as a spy because of his investigative posture.
A similar context of mistrust holds for Annelise’s research on conversion to Christianity among Persian speaking refugees in the Netherlands. In this specific context, the Dutch Immigration and Naturalization Service (IND) grapples with measuring the ‘sincerity’ of conversion claims in order to determine which refugees have the right to asylum and which not. The impossibility of measuring ‘sincere belief’ means that the IND, as well as other entangled actors such as lawyers, churches and translators, must rely on the ways in which refugees engage with particular types of knowledge, narratives, materials, and practices. The IND thus runs up against both the impossibility of actually being able to measure ‘inner transformation’ as well as recognizing the possibility for refugees to learn how to perform sincerely. Therefore, the IND and churches treat concrete evidence of conversion also with suspicion. The IND’s monitoring and testing have resulted in a context of mistrust in which Annelise as a researcher also became implicated. During her ongoing fieldwork, this mistrust manifests itself discursively in avoidance techniques, gossip, rehearsed narratives, silence, as well as feelings of paranoia and interviews appointments to be retracted via e-mail or whatsapp. It also manifests in small acts such as the wearing of crucifixes by refugees in particular settings and requests to be filmed at certain moments but not others.
We both noticed during fieldwork that the mistrust we encountered is also directed towards us as researchers. This is because our own investigations also threaten to expose what people strive to conceal. This poses additional problems, as it becomes difficult to find out why people act in particular ways, and what they are exactly seeking to conceal. Furthermore, we also become implicated in the unequal power relations that are integral to such hide-and-seek dynamics of exposure and concealment. This gives rise to all sorts of ethical issues that need to be navigated with great care, given the ‘do no harm principle’ that guides anthropological research.2 Taking into account all such issues in researching religion in urban contexts, we felt the need to reflect on how researchers can best engage with sensitive religious matters that are not easily accessible or observable. For us, thinking through the relationship and overlaps between a material approach to religion and a theory of mistrust was a helpful exercise which allowed us to (re)appreciate the value of a material approach for researching sensitive religious matters in urban contexts today. 

Mistrust and Religion

In his recent book Mistrust: an Ethnographic Theory (2017), anthropologist Matthew Carey argues that mistrust should be taken seriously as a particular understanding of ‘self’ and ‘other’, and be seen as social technology in its own right.3 Contrary to trust, mistrust as a strategy and a disposition holds that the inner worlds of ‘others’ cannot and should not be known, as people are essentially unpredictable and uncontrollable. Carey argues that trust is essentially a way of exercising control over people and situations, and that mistrust in this regard, allows people to remain unpredictable and autonomous. Following Carey’s argument, we understand mistrust not as a lack of trust or a breakdown of social relations, but rather a productive social technology in its own right with its own material presence, which also binds people and objects together in particular social formations.

In many ways, an ethnographic theory of mistrust resonates well with a material approach to religion, which has informed both our researches. Such a material approach understands religion as concerned with ideas and practices that relate humans to a transcendent realm or ‘beyond’ that is not directly observable, but which is made tangible and concrete through processes of mediation. This approach understands media and mediation as central to human communication more generally, as it is through material mediations that knowledge and a sense of community are established. A material approach to religion thus takes matter and material mediation as a suitable starting point for investigations. 

We found incorporating Carey’s theory of mistrust with a material approach helpful for studying social settings that are characterized by mistrust –, for example when the state deploys techniques of surveillance and regulation in order to manage religious forms considered (potentially) immoral or dangerous. As we have sought to highlight with our research examples, these techniques set in motion complex dynamics of hide and seek, concealment and exposure. While various agencies use all kinds of techniques to shed light on particular groups of people, these very same people respond by concealing certain materials, behaviour, or ideas in return.

We emphasize that anthropologists can benefit from a material focus in settings such as these, by exploring and documenting the ways in which various agencies and interlocutors relate to each other, and to various materials. A long-term, in-depth engagement with the materiality of mistrust, which include not only human-human relations, but also human-object relations within broader assemblages, can thus be a fruitful starting point for studying religion in a setting characterized by mistrust. For example, tracing in which contexts and how refugees wear crucifixes can reveal important information about the ways refugees negotiate ‘sincere belief’ within certain power relations involving legal institutions, churches and researchers. Similarly, Erik found out that in Malindi, food and money distributed at NGO-meetings are of essential importance to attract jobless youth who are supposedly ‘at-risk’ of radicalization to these meetings. Food and money therefore tie youth and leaders together in aesthetic performances of preaching peace and national unity, even though it is difficult to directly address the problem of violent extremism.
Such an approach raises pressing questions concerning anthropologists’ own implication in complex dynamics of concealing and exposing. For example, how should researchers discuss or write about sensitive matters, which informants strive to avoid or conceal? We have aimed to navigate such issues in our projects by (1) being open about our purpose and interests, and (2) not pressing interlocutors to reveal what they aim to conceal. We will also (3) maintain extreme care especially when disseminating research results. Despite the ethical dilemmas that arise out of anthropological research in settings characterized by mistrust, we do believe that it can provide important insights into how religion comes to matter in the settings that we study. These insights also offer opportunities to better understand how state policies that aim to regulate particular religious forms affect complex interactions between people in vulnerable positions, various materials, and public institutions.


Through the two examples from our fieldwork we have illustrated the value of a material approach for researching religious phenomenon in urban contexts. We have argued that fieldwork provides opportunities for tracing phenomena over time, which allows particular relationships and entanglements to emerge that may otherwise remain concealed. This is because fieldwork entails interacting with people for extended periods of time and involves multiple methods, perspectives, roles and levels of analysis. Attending to matter within a fieldwork context, makes it therefore possible to empirically engage with phenomena that are otherwise not directly observable or easily accessible because of mistrust. 

While religion may be understood as dealing with an intangible ‘beyond’ and mistrust with inner states that are also not directly observable, we argue through a material approach that both must be mediated materially and therefore come to matter. This process of mediation or mattering, in turn transforms that which is being mediated — in an ongoing process of making and being made in return. The example of ‘sincere belief’ needing a material presence in order to be judged as worthy of asylum, changes in turn how refugees perform and experience their belief and how churches adjust their practices as a result of their entanglement in asylum processes. Although such complex entanglements may seem to hinder a direct inter-human, inter-subjective engagement, a material approach would argue that direct engagement is never possible as all knowledge is mediated and emerges dynamically in the space between humans and other humans, humans and things as well as humans and their environments. Even claims to the sincere, the authentic and the true must become tangible through mediation and consequently also become subject to policies, legal arrangements and social-cultural conventions, which are imbedded in historical patterns. We hope to have demonstrated that paying attention to how the materiality of mistrust is entangled with aesthetic practices, can produce valuable insights into the production of social formations in religiously diverse urban settings.


1 See:


3 See: