Conflict of Interest?


The other day I was watching an episode of HBO’s weekly satirical news round-up, “Last Week Tonight,” in which they focused on how payday loan businesses prey on poor people — specifically noting an interaction in the Texas state legislature in which Vicki Truitt (pictured above), then a Republican state legislator, called out one of her colleagues for having a conflict of interest when he opposed legislation aimed at controlling payday loans. (He owns a bunch of payday loan businesses; that she herself became a lobbyist, after leaving politics, for, yes, a payday loan business is, at best, ironic.)

And then it occurred to me — why is no one in the academic study of religion pursuing this line when critiquing colleagues who are scholars of religion while also being deeply invested in the very institutions and groups that they study? Why is this not considered a conflict of interest, thereby making the value of their work questionable. For, in bracketing certain sorts of approaches (such as explanatory, in favor of, say, interpretive) their scholarship could be argued to be aimed at supporting, nurturing, or reproducing the object of study (or a small segment of it) instead of trying to, for example, account for it or explain why anyone would be inclined to even participate in it to begin with.

So is there a difference between being a scholar and a lobbyist?

That’s a question that goes right to the heart of why and how we study religion and what we hope to accomplish by doing it. For there are those who, presumably, would question why I even draw a distinction between those two roles.

Case in point — consider this as but one example to put some meat on these bones:

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What does one do with the fact that one of the most influential sociologists of religion in the UK — the person who, between 2007 and 2012, headed up the British government’s 12 million Pound (about $20 million US) “Religion and Society” research initiative — is now the president of a more than 100-year old organization that is charged with promoting liberal theology among Christian churches in the UK? Is this an academic appointment, to be recorded on a C.V. and for which scholarly expertise qualifies one, or, instead, just something a scholar happens to do in the off-hours — for we all, no doubt, have rich personal lives.

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Simply put, what would we — we = scholars of religion — do if we learned of a leading scholar being elected president of a no less theologically inclined organization but one which was charged with promoting, say, evangelical theology among Christian churches throughout the country? (In this thought experiment I won’t even go down the road of various other theological options in various other world religions — for we surely know it’s improper for a scholar to promote the wrong theological position, right?) Would we see such a person as being on the cutting edge of their scholarly field? Or would we see them as possibly having an agenda that falls outside the professional limits of a scholarly enterprise, prompting us, possibly, to re-read their corpus to find evidence that their work was somehow doing something other than what we consider scholarship to be (as we have done with other scholars whose, for instance, unpopular youthful politics later come to light)? If this would bother us, then why doesn’t a talk such as the following prompt us to get a bit curious about what the study of religion has become — for is our field really all about defending how normal religious people are?

The trouble, here, is that instead of studying so-called religious people, scholars on the political and theological left see their role as being to defend religion from those whom they see to be attacking it (Isn’t this what Schleiermacher saw his role as being, a couple centuries ago, yet we don’t see him as a role model for the field today — do we?). Now, while I’ve got little interest to support the work of the so-called new atheists (see this recent critique of their work), as a scholar of religion I’m not here to defend religion from their attacks either — while that’s a tennis match I might find fascinating to study it is not one I care to play myself.

For, if that’s the game scholars of religion decide to play, then there’s no reason one has to join the side replying to the likes of Dawkins, Dennett, and Harris — one could instead jump in to support them (no doubt some contemporary scholars of religion think religion is, I don’t know, silly or a primitive survival) or one could jump into a fight to define religion as only being what you and yours do and no one else (looking over the program for the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion makes abundantly clear that there’s quite a spectrum of people who call themselves scholars of religion, coming to the table with very different social agendas). That is, once this is the game we decide to play then all bets are off, for we necessarily leave professional modesty and expertise at the door and, in their place, we start fighting over self-identities that we’re each trying to promote (like how often we see notions of diversity, dialogue, and tolerance in those UK projects) — instead of studying this very social process itself (e.g., what counts as tolerance, what are its limits, who gets to step over them, etc.), with no interest in supporting any one side over the other.

So what do you make of people who participate in the very thing they’re studying, taking sides over what counts as normal and authentic while also being a scholar of religion? Is that our role? Is it acceptable to be lobbyists for positions with which enough other scholars happen to agree? Or is that a conflict of interest to be avoided?

Watch the clip from “Last Week Tonight” on payday loans here (beware, it’s HBO, so the clip’s labguage is for adults).

12 thoughts on “Conflict of Interest?

  1. “…what do you make of people who participate in the very thing they’re studying?”

    The meaning of “participate” requires greater specificity for this to have purchase. Example: As scholars we participate in the academy. We receive salaries (sometimes pretty good ones), with the tacit assumption that, in general, we will participate in the social norms of the institution and/or the society at large (e.g., we will cover our genitals when we are teaching classes). Western academic institutions participate in the maintenance of human privilege (over other life forms); “male” privilege, and race privilege, to name a few. Some scholars deny such patterns of unearned privilege exist; as a historical claim this is difficult (more likely, impossible) to support.

    All of us as scholars participate *willingly* (if not always fully knowingly) in maintaining patterns of privilege in the academy (there are more ways to play this out than the one I have selected here.)

    As a scholar designated “female” I have a particular interest in dismantling male privilege, and I have studied it intensively and extensively to that purpose. Indeed, I have even joined “women’s organizations” such as the IAHR Woman Scholars group.

    If there is little to no difference between ideological and religious commitment (a position with which I am comfortable), how does the example I have outlined above fit?

    • Strikes me that you’re trying to find a nuance to “participate” that allows your concerns in and others out. No? Sure, we all participate in all sorts of things but one thing we participate in is the profession we’ve trained to become part of and are lucky enough to be part of, and what ought to constitute its professional limits. That’s the post’s point. That is, stick to the example I offered before bringing penises into it. Is Woodhead’s scholarship–if you’re familiar with it–a suitable example of what constitutes the academic study of religion. Why or why not.

    • And, I see a considerable difference between studying how authority works and working to dismantle forms of authority you happen to disagree with. If your work focuses on the former, great, if the latter, then what distinguishes you from those working like hell to reproduce that form of authority inasmuch as they happen to support it? That’s the tennis match I have little interest to participate in, as an academic.

      • Doesn’t that comment assume the homogeneity of authority? As if there can’t be different kinds of authority for different domains? As I understand Randi’s comment the authority she (apologies if I have the gender wrong) seems to be referring pertains to the very domain you are trying to defend – the academic institution. Following Don Wiebe’s comment the argument of what Religious Studies (or whatever you want to call the discipline) is a political argument. It’s “ideological” – though some of us hope those ideologies have consequences specific to only that institution.
        Now, if Randi intends her critique of authority to go beyond the institution then I cannot agree with her stance in so far as it represents how RS should operate. She is right to resolve a problem within the institution but I do not feel success in this domain qualifies us to right the “wrongs” of other institutions. Beyond the institution we are studying how authority works.

  2. It seems like a conflict of interest but I don’t think it’s that much of an issue as long as such appointments are public knowledge. When I read someone’s research on a religious topic, depending on the claims being made, I almost always take a look at the scholar’s other articles and/or take a bit of time to check affiliations/any relevant external information. But I do this for most other topics too; it just seems like good practice these days and with the internet its not a particularly time consuming task. Heading a church advocacy group would make me wary of a scholar’s independence on assessing religious communities and I would accordingly adjust my response to their work/claims but I wouldn’t dismiss their ability to be impartial out of hand.

  3. Reply to first comment:

    Upon what basis do you make the claim that I’m “trying to find a nuance to “participate” that allows [my] concerns in and others out?

    If this is a personal opinion, ungrounded in scholarly analysis, fine. If there is evidence in my work that you think supports the claim, please identify it.

    As to “stick to the example I offered before bringing penises into it” – well, one hardly knows how to reply. : )

  4. Regarding the second comment:

    How do you analyze how your own authority works? Being disinterested in its origins and manifestations in no way abrogates its existence. If one doesn’t acknowledge one’s own groundedness and specificities, how can one be confident in having sufficient critical distance to make reliable judgments about the positions of others?

    Issues like these are founded in, and reflect, serious intellectual, academic queries. Not everyone might like them, but as an academic, that’s really not my concern.

  5. To make my own understanding of what I was doing more clear: I was asking questions, hoping to be part of a discussion that might further my own understanding. If there are questions that are not allowed in this forum, the rules should be posted, so that the participants do not contravene them unwittingly.

    I made no claims about “righting wrongs” in the world. I asked how “religion” differs from “ideology,” or indeed “interests.” Perhaps I should have used an different example, e.g., should a biologist whose works focus on breeding strains of different plants be allowed to keep a garden? Instead I used a more complicated (and apparently more provocative) example of gender, and gender-embeddedness. My point(s) here, as elsewhere, are that we are all gendered one way or another by ourselves, by others, and by our contexts at large. The academy has historically functioned within a gender ideology that privileges certain gendered performances over others (race, class, etc. are others). It is not a politically neutral environment.

    I am interested in structures of power and authority work, and I have always been curious about how they work in the academic study of religion. That’s what I was asking about.

    And I am still in awe of the statement about penises.

    • Randi, that was just me being unsure of how far your argument extended. Nor should you take my views as the views of “Studying Religion in Culture”. I have particular views about what it means to be social scientific but I am not so naive as to think that the academy does or should share them.
      The issue you highlight of a gender ideology that permeates the academy is entirely fair and one in need of consideration. Picking up on something Robert Merton once said, science should pay no interest to people’s gender, class, race, etc.
      As to your intended question of the difference between “religion”, “ideology” and “interests”? To make a tentative Schutzian distinction “interests” are what people have, “religion” and “ideology” are what people use to fulfil those “interests”. I doubt that’s a satisfactory response but any more and I’m liable to say something I’d struggle to justify.
      And finally I share your awe.

  6. This has nothing to do with the conflict of interest topic…
    I believe I have to blog my opinion for one of my classes, so below are some thoughts I have on religion.

    Religion has been the number one cause of the death throughout time. Although that was a statement, I have no statistics at my disposal to back that up.

    I, a nonreligious yet somewhat spiritual person, view religion as a bittersweet notion. Bitter because of the violence committed “in the name of religion,” yet sweet when it gives hope to someone or a group of people in need of it (optimism goes a long way).

    That being said, I feel atheists who try to convince those who are religious that religion is idiotic (I’m not referring to McCutcheon; but I’m sure many know some proud atheists like this) are inadvertently attempting to take hope from someone who is happy with his or her religious beliefs (negative). But when I am confronted by a Mormon who wants to discuss his church and beliefs, I feel as if he is truly concerned with my afterlife (positive; at least he thinks he’s helping me in his mind). I do not enjoy those who loiter the sidewalk corner and try to promote religion through fear though. Sorry I’m a fornicator bro, chill.

    So basically, all I’m saying is some religious and some nonreligious people annoy me. Not all of them of course.

    I don’t support false hope in the afterlife, but I’m also not afraid to break any rules of whatever religion that don’t correspond with US law.

    I do support hope in the hopeless.

  7. I would just like to note that “bringing penises into it” is what is understood by being contextually gender-critical illustrates (this one person’s) male privilege in a rather hysterical way (both senses intended).

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