A Response to “Responsible Research Practices,” Part 9: Broader Public

lecturehallThis is an installment in an ongoing series on the American Academy of Religion’s recently released draft statement on research responsibilities.
An index of the
complete series (updated as each
article is posted) can be found here.

Much like the earlier post on doing human subjects research, we find a truism enshrined in the draft document’s eighth bullet point (at least in the opening clause; I include the ninth also since it too is related):

publicunderstandingI’m not sure if there are many scholars out there who decline to provide an account of what they’re up to — it would not be difficult to understand conference presentations, publications, and even the teaching that we do to be doing just that. So I’m unsure why this needs to be included as one of the thirteen obligations the AAR’s committee sees fit to put into their document. Even paying attention to the threefold grouping into which they divide this reporting — our research questions, methods, and findings — isn’t innovative and therefore doesn’t help to clarify why this item was included; for this reads as if it was offering instructions to a lower level undergraduate students on how to write a research paper.

In fact, given that this is pretty much what we, as scholars, all already do, without being told to, it’s somewhat surprising that we also weren’t advised to have a thesis when we write a paper. Continue reading

A Response to “Responsible Research Practices,” Part 8: Diverse Approaches

journalsThis is an installment in an ongoing series on the American Academy of Religion’s recently released draft statement on research responsibilities.
An index of the
complete series (updated as each
article is posted) can be found here.

The seventh bullet point concerns the Academy’s common description of itself as being devoted to religious studies and theology, for it reads as follows:

diverseapproachesBut what exactly are these guiding principles that rule scholarship in or out — in a word, what makes it “responsible”? To rephrase: what might irresponsible scholarship look like? For with the inclusion of the word “may” — as in “responsible scholarship may be conducted ‘both from within and outside…'” [emphasis mine] — I assume they’re entertaining that, in some cases, it may not.

So under what conditions might scholarship carried out from within a so-called community of belief and practice not?

Working within the bounds of the document, I’m not sure how to answer this, for so far, as several of the previous posts have made plain, I’ve only found undefined terms with no plainly stated criteria to adjudicate, say, a fair from an unfair interpretation. Which is pretty ironic, as I’ve also said already, for here we have a statement on research responsibilities that fails to define any of its own technical terms or make its own presuppositions explicit… So, much like the eventual downfall of the positivists’ verificationalist criterion, I’m not sure this document lives up to its own ambitions. And now, halfway into it, we find a bullet point that cites the document itself as providing clarification on one of the most foundation issues of our entire field. But it turns out to be rather Kafkaesque, if you think about it, because we here have a document that justifies a stance on a crucial issue by citing things it doesn’t actually say. Continue reading

A Response to “Responsible Research Practices,” Part 7: Methodological Pluralism

blindmenandtheelephantThis is an installment in an ongoing series on the American Academy of Religion’s recently released draft statement on research responsibilities.
An index of the
complete series (updated as each
article is posted) can be found here.

Hanabusa Itchō‘s (d. 1724) print of the well-known parable of the blindmen and the elephant seemed to me a fitting image to open this commentary on the sixth bullet point in this document.

It reads:

pluralismI won’t quibble as to why the word “theoretical” isn’t bolded, but I tend to think it’s rather significant and not just a copyediting oversight; for “theory” is still (to borrow a phrase of my own, from an earlier but, I think, still relevant, time) a four-lettered word for many in our field, inasmuch as it implies, for them, determining the cause of religion as opposed to interpreting its enduring and deeply personal meaning. And, while many think that the era is long past when religion was claimed by scholars to be unique and unexplainable (what is meant by a Latin term we used to see a lot in the literature: sui generis), the still widespread commitment to seeing religion as a site where transcendent meaning is manifested (or embodied, as some now prefer to say), as opposed to seeing what we call religion to be a secondary phenomenon that results from some other mundane aspect of historical existence, tells me that not much has changed in our field. Continue reading

A Response to “Responsible Research Practices,” Part 6: Irrevocable Commitments

cakeandeatThis is an installment in an ongoing series on the American Academy of Religion’s recently released draft statement on research responsibilities.
An index of the
complete series (updated as each
article is posted) can be found here.

This is, at least to me, perhaps the most troubling of all the bullet points in the document, because of the way it fails to take a stand despite providing the impression of taking a very strong one.

irrevocablecommitmentAs with other portions of this document, there’s a contradiction here that’s left unaddressed. Continue reading

A Response to “Responsible Research Practices,” Part 5: Sources and Interpretations

fairbalancedThis is an installment in an ongoing series on the American Academy of Religion’s recently released draft statement on research responsibilities.
An index of the
complete series (updated as each
article is posted) can be found here.

What should be clear from my previous comments is that I don’t think the draft document simply needs some editing or a few words added to it, in order to make it work. Instead, I think the entire exercise needs to be rethought, form the ground up. But to get there we first need to take the committee seriously and offer the response they solicited to what they’ve put in front of us, if for no other reason than to know how not to tackle such a topic.

Hence this series.

So, we turn to the fourth bullet point:

Picture 22There is much to comment on in this item, so much so that its two sentences really deserve to be elaborated into at least several paragraphs, so that readers understand what’s going on here — i.e., what are the issues and what’s at stake in this particular statement?

After all, modern hermeneutic theory’s been a few centuries in the making, suggesting that a “fair interpretation” is a little more complex to achieve than it here seems.

But I’m getting ahead of myself… Continue reading

A Response to “Responsible Research Practices,” Part 4: Research on Human Subjects

Picture 18This is an installment in an ongoing series on the American Academy of Religion’s recently released draft statement on research responsibilities.
An index of the
complete series (updated as each
article is posted) can be found here.

The previous post ended by citing the fourth of Bruce Lincoln’s “Theses on Method” — specifically, his call for scholars always to contextual, historicize, what they study by asking “who speaks here?” and “to what audience?” Among my difficulties with the AAR’s draft document is that it reads as if its authors had never read or taken seriously comments on the field such as Lincoln’s. Again, while I have no idea what debates took place between the members — or better yet, what compromises were required — reading their draft’s second bullet point’s advice that we “promote good” by, among other things, “telling the truth” flies in the face of Lincoln’s own widely read thoughts on what we ought to be doing in this field when we do research. Continue reading

A Response to “Responsible Research Practices,” Part 3: Do No Harm

hippocraticoath This is an installment in an ongoing series on the American Academy of Religion’s recently released draft statement on research responsibilities.
An index of the
complete series (updated as each
article is posted) can be found here.

The previous post — concerned with a group of Academy members who, I argued, are necessarily absent from the draft statement on responsibilities (why necessarily? If they were explicitly acknowledged it would likely undermine our ability, as an Academy, to advocate for academic freedom) — was implicitly about the lack of systematicity of this draft document. Although I am, of course, unaware of what the committee discussed, what they produced and distributed does not suggest they itemized a complete list of the groups to which they think a researcher owes something (i.e., has responsibilities). After all, church hierarchies are oddly absent from the document despite many members within our big tent surely working in private religiously-affiliated schools that sometimes require faculty to sign and follow a statement of faith (which likely has a direct impact on what they teach and study). But acknowledging this to be one such constituency likely undermines some of the ways that the AAR seeks to authorize itself as an academic organization.

The absence of self-awareness for what, in principle and in practice, the Academy is therefore seems to be a strategic necessity to make a document such as this work. Continue reading

The Effects of Stained Glass: Rose-Tinted Views of Antebellum Life

flaxpic1Ben Flax graduated from UA in 2014 with a double major in History and Religious Studies. He is interested in the public memory of American slavery and the Confederacy. Ben now lives in Cambrige, MA, where he works as an Administrative and Development Associate for MIT Hillel.

As a flag outside the South Carolina legislature, seen by many to be a symbol of hate and violence, remained at full staff not long ago while other banners in the vicinity were lowered, two questions arose for many: Why is it above the rest? And, why is it present at all? Over the past few weeks, following the shootings in Charleston, governments, retailers, and individuals have purged this flag from countless locations (even Alabama’s governor had it taken down at his state capital). Just the other day I read an article about how the Birmingham Parks and Recreation board voted to remove a 110-year old Confederate soldier and sailor memorial from a local park. As the nation suddenly seems more ready to entertain the removal of all symbols and items that refer to the idea of the Confederate flag, I ask the misleadingly simple question: What is okay? Or better: When, or how, do items that are seen by some as icons of hate and brutal actions become respected parts of a nation’s history by others?

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A Response to “Responsible Research Practices,” Part 2: Academic Freedom

wisconsinplaqueThis is an installment in an ongoing series on the American Academy of Religion’s recently released draft statement on research responsibilities.
An index of the
complete series (updated as each
article is posted) can be found here.

The first of the thirteen bullet points that comprise the main part of the draft document reads as follows:

academicfreedomShould we follow Marx, then we’d make the relatively uncontroversial prediction that every institution contains contradictions that, if unaddressed, threaten its existence as a uniform whole. And here, in the opening item, I think that we see some evidence of this — correction, we do not see it for, as will all such contradictions, it is not identified and thus there is no need to manage it. For the document is completely silent on the fact that the AAR, by design, houses a number of members who are decidedly not free to research as they see fit and thus cannot honor what the document describes as the highest ideals of intellectual inquiry.

Continue reading