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…First off, taking them in the order in which they’re mentioned, the term “representing” immediately jumped out at me, much as “reflection” did in the AAR mission statement that I previously discussed. Apparently, we’re not studying things; we are, instead, representing them — but (as I’ve asked before, of other words), how do they use this term? For the apparent realism of the document (e.g., “telling the truth”) now seems to take a curiously postmodern turn — unless, of course, the committee is using the word in its popular sense (after all, few of what I see to be technical terms in the document are defined or discussed, so they’re likely not being used as technical terms). So I take it that the committee means “to stand in for something,” as in to be a proxy, to speak on behalf of, or to exhibit and exemplify something — such that we, as researchers, are here understood to be the representatives of the religious people and the religious items which we study. (This is a common enough position in the field, one that, some time ago, prompted me to write a series of essays advocating for a rather different role for the scholar of religion.) Our research, this position might argue, should therefore not portray who or what we study in a poor light, i.e., we should represent them fairly (more on that one below). I suspect this is the correct reading of the first sentence’s gerund — a reading of what we do as scholars that I find deeply troublesome, to be sure.

(Aside 1: as someone who is himself currently reading a text [i.e., the draft document] and having a devil of a time making sense of it, I find myself in the curious position of not knowing how to implement the text’s own rules for how it ought to be read.)

Next, I’m perplexed by the threefold list that follows the verb: textual sources, material culture, and new media. So far as I can tell, the first and the third are a subtype of the second, no? For as I see it, all we study is material culture and its results/leftovers. Fingers pluck tightly strung strings in repeated patterns that have been taught and tweaked by social actors, thereby producing sound waves that interact with our middle and inner ear and, eventually, our temporal lobe’s auditory cortex. Voila: seemingly ethereal melodies are material culture too.

But putting material culture on a par with these others is telling, for I read it as another instance of what some scholars now find to be a very provocative move: studying so-called religion on the ground or embodied religion. This isn’t the place to critique this in detail (since I’ve addressed this on past occasions) but suffice it to say that distinguishing texts (which are themselves material artifacts, yes? We see them, hold them, make them with our hands, etc.) from all other tangible things that we, as humans, produce (from birdhouses to marble columns) reproduces the very idealism such writers claim to be overcoming with their emphasis on “the material.” For it reads to me like they still assume that texts are special sorts of repositories of some disembodied thing they call meaning and thus are written in language that conveys ideas, as opposed to the way someone like Derrida blew that term “text” wide open some years ago.

(Aside 2: this conservative reading of the term “text” supports my hunch that “representation” is hardly used here in a technical, postmodern sense.)

That the term “material culture” itself is prone to be used in an idealist manner, despite its apparent materialism (inasmuch as an artifact is often assumed to manifest some prior, immaterial thing, like meaning, tradition, identity or, of course, culture), cannot be overlooked either.

But, moving on, those who study these apparently different sorts of things need to be aware of two specific responsibilities: preserving evidence and offering fair interpretations.

I’ll tackle each in order.

Without providing more information I’m not really sure what the committee’s concerns are for the preservation of evidence (has there been a rash of falsifications lately?); with regard to so-called new media, I know that we now add “accessed on [insert date]” to citations of web pages but, given the transitory nature of this medium, are we to now begin printing those webpages out and retaining them in a file, in case they’re taken down and someone wishes to check our sources? So what concern animates this item’s inclusion in their document? For given that it fails to take a stand on the requirement for scholars only to study empirical evidence or observable situations that can be reproduced (a common enough definition of science that, I suspect, some of the committee’s members would contest), I find it curious that here, in this one item, the principle of tangible evidence suddenly arises.

(Aside 3: I know of scholars who routinely protect the identity of informants by renaming them or giving fictitious names to places where they’ve done their fieldwork, making their scholarship impossible to reproduce or fact check; in light of their strong statement to retain evidence so that it might be made available to others, what might the committee think of this common research practice?)

Which brings me to the obligation first mentioned near the start of this post: offering a fair interpretation that considers other readings and multiple points of view….

By this point in this series it might be obvious what I’m going to say about this responsibility. Truthfully (and I really really mean that), I have no idea what a fair interpretation is. I have no idea how many viewpoints must be canvassed to satisfy the spirit of “multiple.” As for considering other possible readings? Well, lacking some way of regulating that economy, let’s just say semioticians will have a heyday with that one.

But I have other questions. Does scholarship now become a form of consensus-building? Do agents even have meanings in their heads when they carry out actions — meanings we need to take into account in our study of their doings? Is the intentional fallacy no longer something we should be concerned with and, despite reports to the contrary, is the author still very much alive and kicking? Moreover, what now happens to the hermeneutics of suspicion? And I won’t even get into the fact that there are a few of us who think that interpretation is merely a first order, descriptive activity that needs to be followed by explanatory theorizing (i.e., studying why someone could understand something in this or that fashion — at least that’s how Willi Braun and I understood it in the Guide to the Study of Religion, for example). So where’s explanatory studies in this document?

I have posed too many unanswered questions, I know; but, without far more information than these two sentences provide, I’m stumped and unsure what the committee even means to imply in this bullet point — so I’m unable to interpret it, fairly or not.