Outside the Box

spectaclesOn the flight home from a visit to Lehigh University this past week I started reading Steven Johnson’s engaging How We Got to Now (2014) — a popularly-written book on the conditions and unanticipated connections that helped to make possible the innovations that many of us now take for granted (e.g., public sanitation or refrigeration). Continue reading

Is This Really a College Town?


The label “college town” can produce a variety of expectations. Having spent several years attending UNC Chapel Hill, my expectations of a college town derive from some specific observations. When I traveled to Ithaca, New York, at the end of September to participate in Cornell University’s South Asia Program Seminar, the plane trip heightened my expectations for a thriving college town, with a professor sitting beside me and another seated in front of me, and someone reading a journal article across the aisle. After landing, though, the trip from the airport to my hotel was a surprise. With the two-lane roads, fields, and a one-lane bridge over a river in a steep gorge, the trip did not include the lively environment that I expected. I encountered no sign of the student culture and businesses catering to them. My expectations and my initial observations did not match.

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The Category Religion — Twenty Years Later

Picture 8I’ve got a review essay coming out in 2015 in Numen (issue 62/1) that I just proofed. It’s on recent works concerned with the category religion. It was interesting to write, since it’s been twenty years since I wrote a similar essay on the category religion in scholarship. Continue reading

Create Your Own Identity

welcome-to-queens-2 On Oct. 23, a “hatchet-wielding” man attacked and wounded several police officers in New York City (Queens). Naturally, media outlets immediately started speculating about what could have prompted this man to carry out such a horrific attack. According to several accounts, the man was a recent convert to Islam who had “self-radicalized.” The New York Times headline reads: Capture The article goes on to paint a portrait of this lone wolf who was “self-directed in his activities”: Capture2This depiction is fairly absurd to anyone familiar with social theory. First of all, how does one “self-radicalize” or “grow radical on his own”? The characterization of “radical” Islam requires that there is a normative understanding of Islam present to which one can react. Therefore, the very suggestion that one expresses “radical Islam” means one did not develop one’s interpretation in a vacuum. Second, the New York Times piece provides plenty of evidence to conclude that this interpretation of Islam did, in fact, not happen in social isolation. There was a larger community of interpretation, made up of “radical websites,” Facebook, and YouTube. These venues, though existing only digitally, are inherently social—hence social media. They are not individual media. What’s to be gained in pretending that this interpretative community doesn’t exist?

The idea that any of these violent actors “grows radical” on their own is indeed bizarre. They, like others, operate in social structures (of which the internet is certainly part) that provide and create meanings, forge connections to other social actors, and construct contexts of interpretation. An “extremist terrorist” can no more create his or her identity ex nihilo than anyone else can. By assuming that this man managed to create his radical interpretation “on his own” suggests that we don’t have to engage in the messy enterprise of trying understand his community of interpretation. brad That may be the easy way out, but if we’re interested in understanding–and hence intervening–in this sort of violence, it won’t suffice. This is similar to labeling these phenomena “evil”–whether we call these figures “evil,” “self-radicalized,” or something similar, it all amounts to letting ourselves off the hook for explaining them. So James Dawes:

We can say they are evil people doing evil things for evil ends. Or we can do the hard work of understanding the context that made them, so that we can create a context that unmakes them.

(See also: Bruce Lincoln’s “Theses on Religion & Violence“)

#LoungeTweets: The Be Sure To Feed Your Garden Gnomes Edition


On Wednesday, Prof. Michael Altman was the first faculty member to take part in Live Tweets from the Lounge. It was a riveting hour of Twitter exchanges. Rumor has it that faculty are now fighting over who gets to hang out in the lounge next. Stay tuned for more details. Continue reading

Voting is over: McCutcheon Says It’s @McCutcheonSays

(The official soundtrack to this post.)

Thanks to everyone who voted. After all the votes were counted and the local board of elections argued over hanging chads, we have dubbed a winner. You can now find Dr. Russell Mccutcheon on Twitter at @McCutcheonSays.  So know your role and tweet at him.