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Religious cliché and stigma

A Response to “Stereotyping Religion: Critical Approaches to Pervasive Clichés”

by Christopher F. Silver

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Historicism, Reflexivity, and Our Discourses on Theory: Or, Why Lacan Is Not a Garnish

In this interview, Adam Miller speaks with Kathryn Lofton and John Modern about their new book series with University of Chicago Press, titled Class 200: New Studies in Religion. According to the series description, Lofton and Modern invite proposals by authors who understand that “descriptions of religion [are] always bound up in explanations for it.” As Lofton notes in the interview, even a scholar such as Clifford Geertz, who presented himself as merely describing rituals he’s observed, for instance, was—as is clear in retrospect—situated in certain relations of power that shaped how he represented the colonial subjects he studied. Our “mere” descriptions are always invested in power relations and unstated assumptions or explanations about how the world works, about which we, as scholars, must be ceaselessly reflexive. We must relentlessly historicize our subjectivity, our scholarly production, and their relation to our object of study. Without that reflexivity, we risk producing the sort of self-serving narratives that orientalist scholars constructed about the “others” of western empire.

I concur with Lofton and Modern: without theoretical sophistication and reflexivity, we risk—at best—falling into naïve empiricism, or—at worst—contributing to the reproduction of hegemonic discourses that reproduce systematic asymmetrical power relations (in the spirit of reflexivity, I should note that of course what I take to be “best” or “worse” hinges on my autobiography, my interests, and the sympathies I’ve been socialized with—your “best” and “worst” may diverge radically).

I suspect that the way we sometimes talk about “theory” contributes to mystifying the complex relations that obtain between scholar, the scholar’s theoretical apparatus, and the object (or subjects) of study. In particular, it is the “add theory and stir” approach to the use of theory in our scholarship, which K. Merinda Simmons rightly criticized on a NAASR panel last November in Atlanta.[1] On this view, theory is something that’s added to our recipe in order to spice up our work. We could do without theory altogether on this view: all that we know about our object of study could be known without theory, although theory makes for a nice finishing touch. Reading all that sociology, anthropology, and literary theory is nice, but at bottom they are just garnishes: you can throw a little parsley and Lacan next to the steak and potatoes to make the presentation more colorful, but the steak and potatoes would taste the same without it.

I often find that those who use this sort of “add theory and stir” approach talk about theory as a “lens” that invites a certain perspective on the subject. The metaphor of the lens is problematic in at least two ways. First, it suggests a metaphysical dualism: the thing in itself is “out there,” and theory gets in between our vision and the thing in itself. The naïve empiricist thus despises theory: wouldn’t we see more clearly if we took the colored glasses off and looked directly at our objects of study? Theory distorts true vision!

The second problem with the “lens” metaphor is that it invites us to consider objects of study as existing “out there” in the world, independently of our vision. On this view, things exist independently of our construction of them, and different theoretical lenses permit differently useful perspectives on those things. Religions just exist, although a Marxist lens might help focus our attention on the class related elements. Religions just exist, although a feminist lens might help focus our attention on gender related elements.

By contrast, as a post-structuralist I’m persuaded that the world does not exist independently of our vision. On this view, scholarship on religion creates religious phenomena (if, indeed, we find “religions” to be useful things to construct). The application of a discursive apparatus is a condition of manifesting the “things” we study in the first place. Theory, from this perspective, is not something that’s added to a world that is already fully present to us; on the contrary, the things are after-effects of the theory. Hence: Freudians find repression and penis envy, Marxists find ideology and exploitation, feminists find constructed genders and patriarchy. Change your discourse and you’ll find different “objects” in front of you, in just the same way that gerrymandered space literally produces different political spaces simply by renaming them. “Language does not enter into a world of completed objective perceptions, simply to add to objects—already given and clearly delimited from one another—‘names’ that would be purely exterior and arbitrary signs; rather, [language] is itself a mediator in the formation of objects.”[2]

If we stopped referring to theory as a “lens” that colors our vision of the things-in-themselves that exist independently of our discourse, we might find we’re more open to seeing the constitutive role of theory in producing the visions we create, or the prior role of explanation in our “mere” descriptions.

In any case, I look forward to the volumes in Lofton and Modern’s series, and I hope the contributing authors rise to meet the demand for reflexivity called for by the series editors.

[1] Simmons’ paper was titled “The High Stakes of Identifying (with) One’s Object of Study.”

[2] Ernst Cassirer, quoted by Marshall Sahlins in Islands of History (University of Chicago Press, 1985).

Identity and Capitalism

This interview with Craig Martin explores the limits of identity formation under modern Capitalism. Martin’s work Capitalizing Religion: Ideology and the Opiate of the Bourgeoisie focuses on the ways in which culture and religion are produced for consumption.

Have we ignored the ways in which identity is produced and reproduced under capitalism’s pressure? The casual use of the term “spirituality” today has become one way literary works have created a space where the social conditions of religious identity appear as identity forming. Cultivating spiritual cache may seem benign, but Martin argues here for a critical gaze about the ways in which even our most basic claims about religious identity are constructed in ways that obscure rather that clarify the cultural pressures and structures that surround us.

Social Constructionism, and Marxist Approaches to the Study of Religion, as well as Craig Martin’s previous podcast appearances. You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us . And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, Gilbert & Sullivan librettos, ruby slippers, and more.

But Mountains, Dammit!

Titus Hjelm’s book Social Constructionisms: Approaches to the Study of the Human World is a fantastic introduction to the topic of “social constructionism.” Titus successfully demonstrates that this term brings together a plurality of approaches that, although they share a great deal in common, have crucial differences. Perhaps the most admirable feature of Titus’ book is it’s clarity—Titus writes about complicated issues with clear and concise prose, making it perhaps a perfect fit for undergraduate “theory and method” courses in which students must be exposed to these critical approaches.

Since commenting on where we agree is unlikely to be productive or advance the conversation, here in my response I’ll focus on Titus’ criticisms of what he considers more “radical” forms of social constructionism, which he associates with the “excesses” of postmodernism or post-structuralism. Hinting in both the RSP interview and the book that he identifies as a type of critical realist, Titus calls into question those forms of social constructionism that are unabashedly anti-realist. Consider the following statements:

According to some social constructionist views, “we can only reach the world through discourse.” (from the interview)

“If everything is discourse and nothing is real, where is the position we can take to critique those constructions?” (from the interview)

“In their most radical form, these [constructionists] claim that we can know about the human world—and the natural world, for that matter—only through discourse. Any ‘reality’ outside of discourse is either bracketed or denied.” (from the book; 88)

For relativist constructionists, “there is nothing [to the world] beyond our description of it.” (from the book; 92)

For relativists, “there is no ‘reality’ to fall back on.” (from the book; 92)

From the relativist perspective, “the ‘world out there’ and perceptions of the world are radically separated, with no access to the former, except through discourse. It is one thing to say that the meaning of, say, gravity is dependent on our ways of talking about it—a position that constructionists would happily embrace. It is another thing for me to jump out of a sixth story window and assume a safe landing because I’m shouting ‘I’m not falling!’” (from the book; 93)

I find such claims frustrating for two reasons. First, I think that Titus is criticizing the forms of constructionism with which I identify—i.e. he’s targeting me—but I think he unfairly represents my view. Second, I’m also frustrated because some of the constructionists I identify with say exactly the sorts of claims Titus is criticizing. All of that is to say: I think that Titus is aiming at a straw man (are there straw women, I wonder?), but unfortunately a straw man that some of my peers stand behind and prop up. Thus, rather than tear down Titus’s excellent work, let me clarify the difference between my view and the view Titus criticizes.

The main problem, for me, is that although I might be a radical constructionist, I absolutely reject the dualist view of the world Titus is partly working with and partly criticizing. This dualism assumes an opposition between the world-as-it-is-in-and-of-itself and the world within discourse. Discourse apparently is “in here” (but where is “here,” one wonders?), and reality is “out there.” (We’re not far here from the contradictions inherent in Kant’s distinction between phenomena and noumena.) Of course, there is some ambiguity for the social constructionists, insofar as they vacillate between the view that there is a world out there—but we have access to it only through discourse—and the view that there isn’t a world out there—that is, everything, even reality, is discourse. This latter view drops the ontological dualism and turns into a type of discursive monism.

Titus’ view seems to be closer to the dualist view, except without the caveat about being locked within discourse: there is a mind-independent or discourse-independent world “out there,” and we can make objective or authoritative rather than merely subjective or relativist claims about it. Despite the insistence of the radical constructionists, there is a real world out there—we can thump the table or point to the mountains on the horizon dammit! Are we to believe those mountains weren’t here before humans came to name them?! Mountains, dammit! They’re real and they’re mind-independent! (It’s at this point that the radical constructionists ask, “can you say that without discourse?” and then the realists really go apoplectic.)

By the time we get here, we’re far afield from where I’d like the conversation to have headed. What’s crucially been lost at this point—from my perspective at least—is the role of discourse in individuation or definition—i.e., the extension of a concept—and the pragmatic ends of the latter.

The best example I can point to for how discourse has a constitutive role in the individuation of something we tend to take for granted as “natural” in the so-called “real world” is in Edward Schiappa’s discussion of the politics of “wetlands” (see Defining Reality: Definitions and the Politics of Meaning; 2003). In the early 1990s, wetlands were a hot topic. Environmentalists wanted to protect wetlands from developers who wanted to clear the land and build on it, while developers wanted the opposite. President George H. W. Bush signed into legislation a bill protecting wetlands from development, but the legislation redefined wetlands in ways that suited the interests of the developers rather than the environmentalists. Wetlands were protected, but there was a bait-and-switch of sorts: the land to which the concept “wetland” extended shrunk dramatically with the novel definition in the new legislation. Both parties used the concept “wetland,” but they individuated something rather different, and—in addition—that to which their concept extended was directly tied to their social or political interests. Schiappa concludes, “definitions are interest-driven and saturated with questions of power and persuasion.”

I think that Titus’ framing of “radical constructionism” fails in helping us to understand Schiappa’s view. First, by no means is Schiappa saying that there’s a world within discourse and then a world out there. For Schiappa, the existence of wetlands is contingent upon the definition we give to the term; if we change the definition of wetland we have a different reality out there to deal with—just as gerrymandered districts are quite literally different districts than before they were gerrymandered. There’s no “reality” of wetlands without first having individuated some types of land as wetland and other types of land as not-wetland. Second, neither is Schiappa saying that all we have access to is the world of discourse. “Wetlands” are constituted by discourse, but that’s not the same thing as saying that wetlands are discourse. Third, it wouldn’t make sense to say that “wetlands” exist independent of discourse; it is we, as humans, who separate this from that, wetlands from not-wetlands, and so on, depending on our interests.

But what about mountains, dammit? Weren’t they there before humans evolved to identify them as mountains? To press the realist position, let me ask: did the state of New York exist before humans came along to identify it as such? Even the realist would have to admit: New York is a human invention—the distinctions between “New York” and “Massachusetts” and “Pennsylvania” aren’t natural, but are lines we as humans draw in the sand. That is, even the realist has to admit that the individuation or extension of “New York” is discursive. But then to press the realist further: what about the Adirondack Mountains? Do the mountains individuate themselves from the land we consider not-mountainous? Or do we, as humans, individuate them for our purposes?

We could of course individuate the stuff of the world in ways that intersect with but don’t exactly match the extension of the term “Adirondack Mountains.” No doubt there are “streams” in the mountains, “hiking paths” over them, “bear hunting grounds” across them, “good fishing areas” in them, and so forth. In addition, whichever discursive concepts we use to slice up the stuff of the Adirondacks will depend on our particular pragmatic interests—do we want fish for dinner? to avoid running across bears? a challenging hike?

In addition, were our interests different—or were we different kinds of animals—no doubt we would individuate our world differently. Does an ant in the Adirondacks see a “mountain”? Is a “mountain” a useful concept for something as small as an insect? If there were alien creatures whose walking stride was the same as the distance from our sun to Pluto, would they have a use for individuating the “Adirondack Mountains”? On the contrary, what we might individuate as the Adirondacks would likely be nothing other than dust on the shoes of their feet, not worth individuation or attention. As some cognitive linguists have noted–for instance, in Lakoff’s Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things (1987) or Lakoff and Johnson’s Philosophy in the Flesh (1999)–what is useful for us to individuate is relative to the type of bodies we are in: “How animals categorize depends on their sensing apparatus and their ability to move themselves and manipulate objects. Categorization is therefore a consequence of how we are embodied” (Lakoff and Johnson 1999, 17-18).

All of this is to say: crucial for understanding so-called radical social constructionism is the pragmatic function of concepts in individuating the stuff of the world. At bottom, drawing lines between mountains and streams is little different than drawing lines between New York and Massachusetts. And, on this view, the practice of discursive or conceptual individuation neither gets between us and the real world, nor do the things of the world exist as “things” independently of our individuation of them as particular things.

Identity or Identification?

Identity or Identification? In this second podcast for Identities? Week, the Culture on the Edge group address the issue of religious identity.

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“There is no such thing as identity, only operational acts of identification.” – Jean-Francois Bayart

Is our identity – cultural, religious or other – something which causes us to act, or something which we choose to mobilise in certain circumstances? And what part do scholars have in reifying these discourses? Why are certain groups “militant” and not others? And what does this have to do with Hinduism? (Don’t ask me, though – I’m a straight white British male and therefore have no cultural identity…)

The group’s blog can be read here – although we’ll also be featuring their posts on the RSP facebook page. You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And if you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us, or use our Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com link to support us when buying your important books etc.

Culture on the Edge is an international scholarly working group, centered at the University of Alabama and begun in the Spring of 2012, whose aim is to use social theory to offer more nuanced understandings of how those things that we commonly call identities are produced, managed, and continually reproduced. Culture on the Edge therefore tackles, at a variety of social sites, the contradiction between, on the one hand, the historicity of identity (which is now generally seen by scholars to be always fluid over place and time), and, on the other, the nagging presumption of a static and ahistorical origin against which cultural change is thought to be measured.

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Russell McCutcheon has a dog named Izzy.

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K. Merinda Simmons is an Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at The University of Alabama. Her manuscript, Mary Prince and Her Sisters: Gender, Race, Migration, and the Problem of Authenticity, has recently been contracted by Ohio State University Press and her other books include Studying Religion: A Reader (Acumen, forthcoming) and the co-edited Race and Displacement (The University of Alabama Press, 2013). She is also the co-editor (along with Houston Baker) for the newly contracted collection, The Trouble with Post-Blackness(Columbia University Press), examining the assumptions that make possible the ideal of “post-blackness” that many media moguls, politicians, and public intellectuals have now adopted.

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Monica R. Miller is Assistant Professor of Religion and Africana Studies at Lehigh University and among other publications, author of Religion and Hip Hop (Routledge, 2012). Miller is Principal Investigator of a large scale survey project entitled “Remaking Religion” which examines changing patterns of religion and irreligion in youth culture in Portland, Oregon. Monica also is editing Claiming Identity in the Study of Religion, the first book in the Culture on the Edge book series. Follow Monica on Twitter.

craigedge

A Critical Introduction to the Study of Religion (Equinox, 2012), and Religious Experience: A Reader, co-edited with Russell T. McCutcheon (Equinox, 2012).

rameyedgeSteven Ramey is Associate Professor in the Department of Religious Studies and Director of Asian Studies at the University of Alabama. His book Hindu Sufi or Sikh (Palgrave, 2008) focuses on communities who identify as Sindhi Hindus and the ways they contest dominant understandings of identities, both in India and beyond. His newest project addresses the assumptions in the language of religious labels and the ways those assumptions determine research and valorize particular constructions of religions. He is Series Editor of Culture on the Edge: Studies in Identity Formation, a book series with Equinox Publishers.

smithedgeLeslie Dorrough Smith is an Assistant Professor of Religious Studies and Director of the Women’s and Gender Studies Department at Avila University (Kansas City, MO). She has just finished a book manuscript, contracted by Oxford University Press, that explores the uses for rhetorics of chaos within such groups as Concerned Women for America, one of the nation’s most powerful and vocal conservative Christian groups. Among her articles are: “Divine Order, Divine Myth: Uncovering the Mythical Construction of Gender Ideals in Protestant Fundamentalist Circles” (ARCThe Journal of the Faculty of Religious Studies, McGill University, 2002) and “What’s in a Name?: Scholarship and the Pathology of Conservative Protestantism” (Method & Theory in the Study of Religion, 2008), and a chapter in After the Passion is Gone: American Religious Consequences (AltaMira Press, 2004) entitled “Living In the World, But Not of the World: Understanding Evangelical Support for ‘The Passion of the Christ’.”

vaia2Vaia Touna earned her BA and MA at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece, in the study of Hellenistic religions, and ancient Greek literature, and is currently writing her doctoral dissertation at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada. Her research focuses on the sociology of identity formation with examples drawn from ancient, to modern Greece. Vaia is the Editorial Assistant for the journal Method & Theory in the Study of Religion (published by Brill of the Netherlands). Among her publications are: “The Manageable Self in the Early Hellenistic Era” published in The Bulletin for the Study of Religion (2010) and “Redescribing Iconoclasm: Holey Frescoes and Identity Formation,” a chapter in Failure and Nerve in the Academic Study of Religion (Acumen, 2012). Vaia is also the editor for The Problem of Nostalgia in the Study of Identification in the Culture on the Edge Book Series.

After the World Religions Paradigm…?

In this week’s podcast, We discussed some of the problems with the World Religions paradigm, most notably its colonial heritage and Christocentrism. Given its dominance in the public perception of “Religion”, however, can we as teachers get away from it? Is there a pedagogical approach which focusses on issues of power and domination, and challenges, rather than reinforces, outmoded common-sense categorisations? In other words, can “Religion 101” ever be more than a survey of “the World”s Faiths”, and if so, what do we replace it with?

We begin with James Cox, who adds a postscript to his previous interview, suggesting some possibilities for pedagogical approaches to Religious Studies without falling back into the  problematic World Religions paradigm. Mark Jurgensmeyer, Peter Beyer and Craig Martin then outline approaches they have utilised in the US – critical, sociological…. – and reflect on their success. Suzanne Owen, however, points out some of the serious practical issues of teaching based on alternative and indigenous religions. We close with Steve Sutcliffe who, while accepting some challenging issues in the UK situation, nevertheless expresses a need for the field as a whole to work together to move Religious Studies pedagogy forward.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us, ‘Like’ us on Facebook, and/or follow us on Twitter. And if you want to support the RSP, you can click through to Amazon.co.uk through our affiliates link, and we will earn referral fees from any transactions during your visit.

Jim CoxJames Cox is Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies in the University of Edinburgh and an Honorary Professorial Fellow in the School of Divinity in the University of Edinburgh. In 2012 he was de Carle Distinguished Lecturer in the University of Otago in Dunedin, during which time he wrote his forthcoming monograph, ‘Inventions of God in Indigenous Societies’. We have interviewed James twice; on Phenomenology, and The World Religions Paradigm.

Mark Juergensmeyer is a former president of the American Academy of Religion and the current director of the here.

here.

here.

Suzanne Owen lectures at Leeds Trinity University College, UK, and is currently co-chair of the Indigenous Religious Traditions Group for the American Academy of Religion. Her PhD focussed on the sharing of Native American ceremonies and included fieldwork among Mi’kmaq in Newfoundland. Listen to her interview on Druidry and the Definition of Religion here.

Steven Sutcliffe is Senior Lecturer in the Study of Religion at the University of Edinburgh, and the author of Children of the New Age, editor of Religion: Empirical Studies and Beyond the New Age (with Marion Bowman).

Book Reviews

When we were contacted earlier this year by a couple of publishers asking if we’d be interested in reviewing books, we immediately thought “Yes – but how?” We’re not a journal, and didn’t want to do the traditional journal review, but we do love books, and especially talking about them. So when Chris suggested we could combine several reviews into a roundtable format, we thought we had to give it a try.

For this first try at a new format, we thought it best to invite a few trusty friends. After many attempts, we finally managed to get David Wilson to a recording. He reviewed Vernacular Religion in Everyday Life: Expressions of Belief, edited by Marion Bowman and Ülo Valk (2012: Equinox). He calls it “a valuable contribution to the task of increasing scholarly awareness of the need to attend to the variety of local practices that are accepted as ‘religious’ but which have tended to be overlooked when investigating religion in terms of ‘world’ religions“. It doesn’t offer easy answers, however, and “like many of the dialogues it explores, this collection is courteously, but deliberately, disruptive“. Read his full review here.

Chris reviewed Church Growth in Britain: 1980 to the Present, edited by David Goodhew. The book purports to ‘provide a forceful critique of the notion of secularization’ “by focusing upon the attendance and membership of Christian churches – the very thing which formed the empirical basis of the secularization thesis“. While he has issues with the volume’s theological imperative and uncritical acceptance of the secularisation thesis, Chris pointed out that it demonstrates “the potential for scholarly theories to, in some cases,  become self-fulfilling prophesies when released into the real world“. You can read his full review here.

Jonathan – philosophical as always – asked to review  Naturalism and Our Knowledge of Reality: Testing Religious Truth-claims by R. Scott Smith (Ashgate 2012). He was less than impressed. As an introduction to naturalism, the philosophical position that there are no non-empirical entities, it is unsatisfactory, because it is “a thinly veiled Christian apologetic dressed in a philosophical discussion about naturalism”. His full review can be read here.

Finally, I reviewed Craig Martin’s A Critical Introduction to the Study of Religion (Equinox, 2012). It is essentially an introduction to critical theory (a “socio-functional” approach which seeks to expose the assumptions which a given group takes for granted) as applied to the study of religion, and aimed at an undergraduate level. “Religion” is a powerful tool in the naturalisation of socio-epistemological norms, of course, but the book is most interesting pedagogically, in offering “a potential alternative Introduction to Religious Studies course than the “here are the world religions” approach that concerns many of us”You can read my review here.

This has been enjoyable, but a lot of work. Please let us know if you found it useful and/or entertaining. We’re open to hearing about other books you’d like us to review, or if you’d like to take part in a future recording (for example, at the next BASR conference…). And we are enormously grateful to Ashgate and Equinox for providing us with books to review.

Podcasts

Religious cliché and stigma

A Response to “Stereotyping Religion: Critical Approaches to Pervasive Clichés”

by Christopher F. Silver

Read more

Historicism, Reflexivity, and Our Discourses on Theory: Or, Why Lacan Is Not a Garnish

In this interview, Adam Miller speaks with Kathryn Lofton and John Modern about their new book series with University of Chicago Press, titled Class 200: New Studies in Religion. According to the series description, Lofton and Modern invite proposals by authors who understand that “descriptions of religion [are] always bound up in explanations for it.” As Lofton notes in the interview, even a scholar such as Clifford Geertz, who presented himself as merely describing rituals he’s observed, for instance, was—as is clear in retrospect—situated in certain relations of power that shaped how he represented the colonial subjects he studied. Our “mere” descriptions are always invested in power relations and unstated assumptions or explanations about how the world works, about which we, as scholars, must be ceaselessly reflexive. We must relentlessly historicize our subjectivity, our scholarly production, and their relation to our object of study. Without that reflexivity, we risk producing the sort of self-serving narratives that orientalist scholars constructed about the “others” of western empire.

I concur with Lofton and Modern: without theoretical sophistication and reflexivity, we risk—at best—falling into naïve empiricism, or—at worst—contributing to the reproduction of hegemonic discourses that reproduce systematic asymmetrical power relations (in the spirit of reflexivity, I should note that of course what I take to be “best” or “worse” hinges on my autobiography, my interests, and the sympathies I’ve been socialized with—your “best” and “worst” may diverge radically).

I suspect that the way we sometimes talk about “theory” contributes to mystifying the complex relations that obtain between scholar, the scholar’s theoretical apparatus, and the object (or subjects) of study. In particular, it is the “add theory and stir” approach to the use of theory in our scholarship, which K. Merinda Simmons rightly criticized on a NAASR panel last November in Atlanta.[1] On this view, theory is something that’s added to our recipe in order to spice up our work. We could do without theory altogether on this view: all that we know about our object of study could be known without theory, although theory makes for a nice finishing touch. Reading all that sociology, anthropology, and literary theory is nice, but at bottom they are just garnishes: you can throw a little parsley and Lacan next to the steak and potatoes to make the presentation more colorful, but the steak and potatoes would taste the same without it.

I often find that those who use this sort of “add theory and stir” approach talk about theory as a “lens” that invites a certain perspective on the subject. The metaphor of the lens is problematic in at least two ways. First, it suggests a metaphysical dualism: the thing in itself is “out there,” and theory gets in between our vision and the thing in itself. The naïve empiricist thus despises theory: wouldn’t we see more clearly if we took the colored glasses off and looked directly at our objects of study? Theory distorts true vision!

The second problem with the “lens” metaphor is that it invites us to consider objects of study as existing “out there” in the world, independently of our vision. On this view, things exist independently of our construction of them, and different theoretical lenses permit differently useful perspectives on those things. Religions just exist, although a Marxist lens might help focus our attention on the class related elements. Religions just exist, although a feminist lens might help focus our attention on gender related elements.

By contrast, as a post-structuralist I’m persuaded that the world does not exist independently of our vision. On this view, scholarship on religion creates religious phenomena (if, indeed, we find “religions” to be useful things to construct). The application of a discursive apparatus is a condition of manifesting the “things” we study in the first place. Theory, from this perspective, is not something that’s added to a world that is already fully present to us; on the contrary, the things are after-effects of the theory. Hence: Freudians find repression and penis envy, Marxists find ideology and exploitation, feminists find constructed genders and patriarchy. Change your discourse and you’ll find different “objects” in front of you, in just the same way that gerrymandered space literally produces different political spaces simply by renaming them. “Language does not enter into a world of completed objective perceptions, simply to add to objects—already given and clearly delimited from one another—‘names’ that would be purely exterior and arbitrary signs; rather, [language] is itself a mediator in the formation of objects.”[2]

If we stopped referring to theory as a “lens” that colors our vision of the things-in-themselves that exist independently of our discourse, we might find we’re more open to seeing the constitutive role of theory in producing the visions we create, or the prior role of explanation in our “mere” descriptions.

In any case, I look forward to the volumes in Lofton and Modern’s series, and I hope the contributing authors rise to meet the demand for reflexivity called for by the series editors.

[1] Simmons’ paper was titled “The High Stakes of Identifying (with) One’s Object of Study.”

[2] Ernst Cassirer, quoted by Marshall Sahlins in Islands of History (University of Chicago Press, 1985).

Identity and Capitalism

This interview with Craig Martin explores the limits of identity formation under modern Capitalism. Martin’s work Capitalizing Religion: Ideology and the Opiate of the Bourgeoisie focuses on the ways in which culture and religion are produced for consumption.

Have we ignored the ways in which identity is produced and reproduced under capitalism’s pressure? The casual use of the term “spirituality” today has become one way literary works have created a space where the social conditions of religious identity appear as identity forming. Cultivating spiritual cache may seem benign, but Martin argues here for a critical gaze about the ways in which even our most basic claims about religious identity are constructed in ways that obscure rather that clarify the cultural pressures and structures that surround us.

Social Constructionism, and Marxist Approaches to the Study of Religion, as well as Craig Martin’s previous podcast appearances. You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us . And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, Gilbert & Sullivan librettos, ruby slippers, and more.

But Mountains, Dammit!

Titus Hjelm’s book Social Constructionisms: Approaches to the Study of the Human World is a fantastic introduction to the topic of “social constructionism.” Titus successfully demonstrates that this term brings together a plurality of approaches that, although they share a great deal in common, have crucial differences. Perhaps the most admirable feature of Titus’ book is it’s clarity—Titus writes about complicated issues with clear and concise prose, making it perhaps a perfect fit for undergraduate “theory and method” courses in which students must be exposed to these critical approaches.

Since commenting on where we agree is unlikely to be productive or advance the conversation, here in my response I’ll focus on Titus’ criticisms of what he considers more “radical” forms of social constructionism, which he associates with the “excesses” of postmodernism or post-structuralism. Hinting in both the RSP interview and the book that he identifies as a type of critical realist, Titus calls into question those forms of social constructionism that are unabashedly anti-realist. Consider the following statements:

According to some social constructionist views, “we can only reach the world through discourse.” (from the interview)

“If everything is discourse and nothing is real, where is the position we can take to critique those constructions?” (from the interview)

“In their most radical form, these [constructionists] claim that we can know about the human world—and the natural world, for that matter—only through discourse. Any ‘reality’ outside of discourse is either bracketed or denied.” (from the book; 88)

For relativist constructionists, “there is nothing [to the world] beyond our description of it.” (from the book; 92)

For relativists, “there is no ‘reality’ to fall back on.” (from the book; 92)

From the relativist perspective, “the ‘world out there’ and perceptions of the world are radically separated, with no access to the former, except through discourse. It is one thing to say that the meaning of, say, gravity is dependent on our ways of talking about it—a position that constructionists would happily embrace. It is another thing for me to jump out of a sixth story window and assume a safe landing because I’m shouting ‘I’m not falling!’” (from the book; 93)

I find such claims frustrating for two reasons. First, I think that Titus is criticizing the forms of constructionism with which I identify—i.e. he’s targeting me—but I think he unfairly represents my view. Second, I’m also frustrated because some of the constructionists I identify with say exactly the sorts of claims Titus is criticizing. All of that is to say: I think that Titus is aiming at a straw man (are there straw women, I wonder?), but unfortunately a straw man that some of my peers stand behind and prop up. Thus, rather than tear down Titus’s excellent work, let me clarify the difference between my view and the view Titus criticizes.

The main problem, for me, is that although I might be a radical constructionist, I absolutely reject the dualist view of the world Titus is partly working with and partly criticizing. This dualism assumes an opposition between the world-as-it-is-in-and-of-itself and the world within discourse. Discourse apparently is “in here” (but where is “here,” one wonders?), and reality is “out there.” (We’re not far here from the contradictions inherent in Kant’s distinction between phenomena and noumena.) Of course, there is some ambiguity for the social constructionists, insofar as they vacillate between the view that there is a world out there—but we have access to it only through discourse—and the view that there isn’t a world out there—that is, everything, even reality, is discourse. This latter view drops the ontological dualism and turns into a type of discursive monism.

Titus’ view seems to be closer to the dualist view, except without the caveat about being locked within discourse: there is a mind-independent or discourse-independent world “out there,” and we can make objective or authoritative rather than merely subjective or relativist claims about it. Despite the insistence of the radical constructionists, there is a real world out there—we can thump the table or point to the mountains on the horizon dammit! Are we to believe those mountains weren’t here before humans came to name them?! Mountains, dammit! They’re real and they’re mind-independent! (It’s at this point that the radical constructionists ask, “can you say that without discourse?” and then the realists really go apoplectic.)

By the time we get here, we’re far afield from where I’d like the conversation to have headed. What’s crucially been lost at this point—from my perspective at least—is the role of discourse in individuation or definition—i.e., the extension of a concept—and the pragmatic ends of the latter.

The best example I can point to for how discourse has a constitutive role in the individuation of something we tend to take for granted as “natural” in the so-called “real world” is in Edward Schiappa’s discussion of the politics of “wetlands” (see Defining Reality: Definitions and the Politics of Meaning; 2003). In the early 1990s, wetlands were a hot topic. Environmentalists wanted to protect wetlands from developers who wanted to clear the land and build on it, while developers wanted the opposite. President George H. W. Bush signed into legislation a bill protecting wetlands from development, but the legislation redefined wetlands in ways that suited the interests of the developers rather than the environmentalists. Wetlands were protected, but there was a bait-and-switch of sorts: the land to which the concept “wetland” extended shrunk dramatically with the novel definition in the new legislation. Both parties used the concept “wetland,” but they individuated something rather different, and—in addition—that to which their concept extended was directly tied to their social or political interests. Schiappa concludes, “definitions are interest-driven and saturated with questions of power and persuasion.”

I think that Titus’ framing of “radical constructionism” fails in helping us to understand Schiappa’s view. First, by no means is Schiappa saying that there’s a world within discourse and then a world out there. For Schiappa, the existence of wetlands is contingent upon the definition we give to the term; if we change the definition of wetland we have a different reality out there to deal with—just as gerrymandered districts are quite literally different districts than before they were gerrymandered. There’s no “reality” of wetlands without first having individuated some types of land as wetland and other types of land as not-wetland. Second, neither is Schiappa saying that all we have access to is the world of discourse. “Wetlands” are constituted by discourse, but that’s not the same thing as saying that wetlands are discourse. Third, it wouldn’t make sense to say that “wetlands” exist independent of discourse; it is we, as humans, who separate this from that, wetlands from not-wetlands, and so on, depending on our interests.

But what about mountains, dammit? Weren’t they there before humans evolved to identify them as mountains? To press the realist position, let me ask: did the state of New York exist before humans came along to identify it as such? Even the realist would have to admit: New York is a human invention—the distinctions between “New York” and “Massachusetts” and “Pennsylvania” aren’t natural, but are lines we as humans draw in the sand. That is, even the realist has to admit that the individuation or extension of “New York” is discursive. But then to press the realist further: what about the Adirondack Mountains? Do the mountains individuate themselves from the land we consider not-mountainous? Or do we, as humans, individuate them for our purposes?

We could of course individuate the stuff of the world in ways that intersect with but don’t exactly match the extension of the term “Adirondack Mountains.” No doubt there are “streams” in the mountains, “hiking paths” over them, “bear hunting grounds” across them, “good fishing areas” in them, and so forth. In addition, whichever discursive concepts we use to slice up the stuff of the Adirondacks will depend on our particular pragmatic interests—do we want fish for dinner? to avoid running across bears? a challenging hike?

In addition, were our interests different—or were we different kinds of animals—no doubt we would individuate our world differently. Does an ant in the Adirondacks see a “mountain”? Is a “mountain” a useful concept for something as small as an insect? If there were alien creatures whose walking stride was the same as the distance from our sun to Pluto, would they have a use for individuating the “Adirondack Mountains”? On the contrary, what we might individuate as the Adirondacks would likely be nothing other than dust on the shoes of their feet, not worth individuation or attention. As some cognitive linguists have noted–for instance, in Lakoff’s Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things (1987) or Lakoff and Johnson’s Philosophy in the Flesh (1999)–what is useful for us to individuate is relative to the type of bodies we are in: “How animals categorize depends on their sensing apparatus and their ability to move themselves and manipulate objects. Categorization is therefore a consequence of how we are embodied” (Lakoff and Johnson 1999, 17-18).

All of this is to say: crucial for understanding so-called radical social constructionism is the pragmatic function of concepts in individuating the stuff of the world. At bottom, drawing lines between mountains and streams is little different than drawing lines between New York and Massachusetts. And, on this view, the practice of discursive or conceptual individuation neither gets between us and the real world, nor do the things of the world exist as “things” independently of our individuation of them as particular things.

Identity or Identification?

Identity or Identification? In this second podcast for Identities? Week, the Culture on the Edge group address the issue of religious identity.

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“There is no such thing as identity, only operational acts of identification.” – Jean-Francois Bayart

Is our identity – cultural, religious or other – something which causes us to act, or something which we choose to mobilise in certain circumstances? And what part do scholars have in reifying these discourses? Why are certain groups “militant” and not others? And what does this have to do with Hinduism? (Don’t ask me, though – I’m a straight white British male and therefore have no cultural identity…)

The group’s blog can be read here – although we’ll also be featuring their posts on the RSP facebook page. You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And if you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us, or use our Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com link to support us when buying your important books etc.

Culture on the Edge is an international scholarly working group, centered at the University of Alabama and begun in the Spring of 2012, whose aim is to use social theory to offer more nuanced understandings of how those things that we commonly call identities are produced, managed, and continually reproduced. Culture on the Edge therefore tackles, at a variety of social sites, the contradiction between, on the one hand, the historicity of identity (which is now generally seen by scholars to be always fluid over place and time), and, on the other, the nagging presumption of a static and ahistorical origin against which cultural change is thought to be measured.

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Russell McCutcheon has a dog named Izzy.

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K. Merinda Simmons is an Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at The University of Alabama. Her manuscript, Mary Prince and Her Sisters: Gender, Race, Migration, and the Problem of Authenticity, has recently been contracted by Ohio State University Press and her other books include Studying Religion: A Reader (Acumen, forthcoming) and the co-edited Race and Displacement (The University of Alabama Press, 2013). She is also the co-editor (along with Houston Baker) for the newly contracted collection, The Trouble with Post-Blackness(Columbia University Press), examining the assumptions that make possible the ideal of “post-blackness” that many media moguls, politicians, and public intellectuals have now adopted.

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Monica R. Miller is Assistant Professor of Religion and Africana Studies at Lehigh University and among other publications, author of Religion and Hip Hop (Routledge, 2012). Miller is Principal Investigator of a large scale survey project entitled “Remaking Religion” which examines changing patterns of religion and irreligion in youth culture in Portland, Oregon. Monica also is editing Claiming Identity in the Study of Religion, the first book in the Culture on the Edge book series. Follow Monica on Twitter.

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A Critical Introduction to the Study of Religion (Equinox, 2012), and Religious Experience: A Reader, co-edited with Russell T. McCutcheon (Equinox, 2012).

rameyedgeSteven Ramey is Associate Professor in the Department of Religious Studies and Director of Asian Studies at the University of Alabama. His book Hindu Sufi or Sikh (Palgrave, 2008) focuses on communities who identify as Sindhi Hindus and the ways they contest dominant understandings of identities, both in India and beyond. His newest project addresses the assumptions in the language of religious labels and the ways those assumptions determine research and valorize particular constructions of religions. He is Series Editor of Culture on the Edge: Studies in Identity Formation, a book series with Equinox Publishers.

smithedgeLeslie Dorrough Smith is an Assistant Professor of Religious Studies and Director of the Women’s and Gender Studies Department at Avila University (Kansas City, MO). She has just finished a book manuscript, contracted by Oxford University Press, that explores the uses for rhetorics of chaos within such groups as Concerned Women for America, one of the nation’s most powerful and vocal conservative Christian groups. Among her articles are: “Divine Order, Divine Myth: Uncovering the Mythical Construction of Gender Ideals in Protestant Fundamentalist Circles” (ARCThe Journal of the Faculty of Religious Studies, McGill University, 2002) and “What’s in a Name?: Scholarship and the Pathology of Conservative Protestantism” (Method & Theory in the Study of Religion, 2008), and a chapter in After the Passion is Gone: American Religious Consequences (AltaMira Press, 2004) entitled “Living In the World, But Not of the World: Understanding Evangelical Support for ‘The Passion of the Christ’.”

vaia2Vaia Touna earned her BA and MA at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece, in the study of Hellenistic religions, and ancient Greek literature, and is currently writing her doctoral dissertation at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada. Her research focuses on the sociology of identity formation with examples drawn from ancient, to modern Greece. Vaia is the Editorial Assistant for the journal Method & Theory in the Study of Religion (published by Brill of the Netherlands). Among her publications are: “The Manageable Self in the Early Hellenistic Era” published in The Bulletin for the Study of Religion (2010) and “Redescribing Iconoclasm: Holey Frescoes and Identity Formation,” a chapter in Failure and Nerve in the Academic Study of Religion (Acumen, 2012). Vaia is also the editor for The Problem of Nostalgia in the Study of Identification in the Culture on the Edge Book Series.

After the World Religions Paradigm…?

In this week’s podcast, We discussed some of the problems with the World Religions paradigm, most notably its colonial heritage and Christocentrism. Given its dominance in the public perception of “Religion”, however, can we as teachers get away from it? Is there a pedagogical approach which focusses on issues of power and domination, and challenges, rather than reinforces, outmoded common-sense categorisations? In other words, can “Religion 101” ever be more than a survey of “the World”s Faiths”, and if so, what do we replace it with?

We begin with James Cox, who adds a postscript to his previous interview, suggesting some possibilities for pedagogical approaches to Religious Studies without falling back into the  problematic World Religions paradigm. Mark Jurgensmeyer, Peter Beyer and Craig Martin then outline approaches they have utilised in the US – critical, sociological…. – and reflect on their success. Suzanne Owen, however, points out some of the serious practical issues of teaching based on alternative and indigenous religions. We close with Steve Sutcliffe who, while accepting some challenging issues in the UK situation, nevertheless expresses a need for the field as a whole to work together to move Religious Studies pedagogy forward.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us, ‘Like’ us on Facebook, and/or follow us on Twitter. And if you want to support the RSP, you can click through to Amazon.co.uk through our affiliates link, and we will earn referral fees from any transactions during your visit.

Jim CoxJames Cox is Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies in the University of Edinburgh and an Honorary Professorial Fellow in the School of Divinity in the University of Edinburgh. In 2012 he was de Carle Distinguished Lecturer in the University of Otago in Dunedin, during which time he wrote his forthcoming monograph, ‘Inventions of God in Indigenous Societies’. We have interviewed James twice; on Phenomenology, and The World Religions Paradigm.

Mark Juergensmeyer is a former president of the American Academy of Religion and the current director of the here.

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Suzanne Owen lectures at Leeds Trinity University College, UK, and is currently co-chair of the Indigenous Religious Traditions Group for the American Academy of Religion. Her PhD focussed on the sharing of Native American ceremonies and included fieldwork among Mi’kmaq in Newfoundland. Listen to her interview on Druidry and the Definition of Religion here.

Steven Sutcliffe is Senior Lecturer in the Study of Religion at the University of Edinburgh, and the author of Children of the New Age, editor of Religion: Empirical Studies and Beyond the New Age (with Marion Bowman).

Book Reviews

When we were contacted earlier this year by a couple of publishers asking if we’d be interested in reviewing books, we immediately thought “Yes – but how?” We’re not a journal, and didn’t want to do the traditional journal review, but we do love books, and especially talking about them. So when Chris suggested we could combine several reviews into a roundtable format, we thought we had to give it a try.

For this first try at a new format, we thought it best to invite a few trusty friends. After many attempts, we finally managed to get David Wilson to a recording. He reviewed Vernacular Religion in Everyday Life: Expressions of Belief, edited by Marion Bowman and Ülo Valk (2012: Equinox). He calls it “a valuable contribution to the task of increasing scholarly awareness of the need to attend to the variety of local practices that are accepted as ‘religious’ but which have tended to be overlooked when investigating religion in terms of ‘world’ religions“. It doesn’t offer easy answers, however, and “like many of the dialogues it explores, this collection is courteously, but deliberately, disruptive“. Read his full review here.

Chris reviewed Church Growth in Britain: 1980 to the Present, edited by David Goodhew. The book purports to ‘provide a forceful critique of the notion of secularization’ “by focusing upon the attendance and membership of Christian churches – the very thing which formed the empirical basis of the secularization thesis“. While he has issues with the volume’s theological imperative and uncritical acceptance of the secularisation thesis, Chris pointed out that it demonstrates “the potential for scholarly theories to, in some cases,  become self-fulfilling prophesies when released into the real world“. You can read his full review here.

Jonathan – philosophical as always – asked to review  Naturalism and Our Knowledge of Reality: Testing Religious Truth-claims by R. Scott Smith (Ashgate 2012). He was less than impressed. As an introduction to naturalism, the philosophical position that there are no non-empirical entities, it is unsatisfactory, because it is “a thinly veiled Christian apologetic dressed in a philosophical discussion about naturalism”. His full review can be read here.

Finally, I reviewed Craig Martin’s A Critical Introduction to the Study of Religion (Equinox, 2012). It is essentially an introduction to critical theory (a “socio-functional” approach which seeks to expose the assumptions which a given group takes for granted) as applied to the study of religion, and aimed at an undergraduate level. “Religion” is a powerful tool in the naturalisation of socio-epistemological norms, of course, but the book is most interesting pedagogically, in offering “a potential alternative Introduction to Religious Studies course than the “here are the world religions” approach that concerns many of us”You can read my review here.

This has been enjoyable, but a lot of work. Please let us know if you found it useful and/or entertaining. We’re open to hearing about other books you’d like us to review, or if you’d like to take part in a future recording (for example, at the next BASR conference…). And we are enormously grateful to Ashgate and Equinox for providing us with books to review.