Coffee Break and Lounge Tweets Unite!


Our first RSSA Coffee Break last month was a huge hit, and our next one is fast approaching! Be sure to stop by the lounge in Manly 200 on Tuesday, March 1st from 1:30-3:00pm and enjoy a free cup of coffee, on the house! Mix and mingle with your fellow REL students, and maybe even a professor or two.


We’re also bringing back Live Tweets from the Lounge for this Coffee Break! Dr. Altman will be live-tweeting the event, so find him on Twitter and keep those tweets coming! Don’t forget to tag it #LoungeTweets.

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Unnatural Groups and Protests in India

A_farmer_coming_to_field_with_bullock_cart,IndiaGroup identifications are not something inherent or automatic; they require work to construct and maintain, and that work only makes sense when those group identifications serve some interests, such as gaining access to power and resources. Currently in India, communities based on caste identification, specifically Jats in Haryana (a province in northern India near New Delhi), are protesting for special access to government jobs under the reservation system. Jats are an interesting example of a contested community, as their status in the traditional hierarchy of communities is unclear. Some claim that they are upper caste, like the Rajputs, but many Rajputs dispute that. Some suggest that they lost their upper caste status by failing to maintain upper caste rituals, yet others assert that they were Dalits (formerly untouchables) but eventually raised their status to simply low caste. Each of these status positions creates winners and losers, people who gain or lose access to status, resources, and power.

The current protests relate to this contested position. To redress historical discrimination against those identified as low caste, Dalit, or tribal, people in India who are recognized as part of particular listed groups (known as Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, and Other Backwards Classes, etc.) receive a portion of government jobs and seats in universities. Of course, the exact percentages of those reservations and which people fit under which list become matters of debate. While those identified as Jat in states such as Rajasthan are listed as Other Backwards Classes, those identified as Jat in Haryana are not, and thus have been agitating for similar recognition that would give them reservations in government jobs. Of course, some other groups adamantly oppose this designation.

With those identified as Jat working primarily in agriculture, often as landowners, the recent droughts and struggles in agriculture in this part of India give urgency to the protests, which blocked major roads and cut off temporarily the majority of the water supply for Delhi. The protests for access to resources have certainly succeeded in gaining attention of both local and national governments by cutting off other resources.

The interests served in constructing and maintaining such groups extend further. Some oppose the reservation system, feeling resentment that access for people whom they identify as their community is reduced, yet that reduction is from a position of earlier privilege derived by distinguishing their group as higher than other groups such as the Jats. The reservation system illustrates clearly the ways the definitions of groups, who is included and how they relate in a hierarchy, are not something firm and clear but require work to maintain. These groupings also become ways that politicians mobilize people to vote for themselves, often catering to the interests of one group over another as a strategy for votes rather than principled policy. Some suggest that the Jats in Rajasthan became recognized as Other Backwards Classes to gain their electoral support.

Thus, the formation of these groups is not something automatic, natural, or disinterested. But, of course, groups such as these are most effective when they maintain an appearance of being natural.


Photo by Harvinder Chandigarh [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Making (And Then Trying to Solve) Our Own Puzzles


Have you seen the media trying to explain why so-called evangelical Christians are supporting Donald Trump so much in the Republican primaries? For he’s hardly a model for the sort of family values they’re thought to find important — so why back him?

It’s a puzzle. Continue reading

“I Can’t Believe It”


Sometimes ordinary language tells us far more about social life than we at first realize.

For example, take two common phrases:

“I can’t believe it”


“Let it sink in…”

What’s going on when we say that? Or, better put, when do we say that? And what does it tell us about the word “belief” — a word we usually use as if it names some pristine interior realm that’s only secondarily projected out and expressed in public. Continue reading

What It Gives With One Hand….

timeenoughI found this over at the Huffington Post this morning — an announcement for a new HarvardX (part of edX) course on religious literacy.

The course is described as follows: Continue reading

We Are RELephant!

rel490twitterAlumni from our department emphasize how various skills that they developed in Religious Studies have been useful in a range of careers (e.g., on the Graduate page of this blog here, here, here, and here and through our Grad Tales events). Creative problem solving helps when planning language lessons or legal arguments. Recognizing the range of perspectives and dangers of stereotypes can aid in developing marketing strategies. Clear communication can assist in preparing a persuasive business plan or grant application. Current students similarly have discussed ways that they use skills from Religious Studies classes in courses outside our department.

Teaching the Capstone Senior Seminar this semester, I chose to heighten this discussion of relevance. Seeing these skills as widely relevant for analyzing the world around us, the seminar this year focuses on honing these skills and presenting them in accessible formats across digital platforms. Through course readings and seminar discussions, we are looking at various aspects of social theory, and we are applying these analytical approaches to topics well beyond what is commonly defined as religion. Our readings focus on marginalized communities through the works of scholars like Chandra Talpade Mohanty, Rogers Brubaker, and Gyanendra Pandey. At the same time, we are providing examples of the relevance of these skills, asking questions and presenting analysis of current events and public discourse on a variety of platforms. This week and next, we are focusing on Twitter, then we will shift to Tumblr, Facebook, and our own course blog. As final projects, groups will be developing significant digital projects in formats of their own choosing. Thus, students gain both additional experience applying these analytical skills broadly and communicating their analyses beyond the confines of academia. Whether they head into private sector jobs, internships, non-profit employment, or graduate school, they will have a variety of skills in analysis, broad communication, and digital formats through their degree in Religious Studies.

So, follow us on Twitter (@RELephantUA) now.


We will develop our presence on Tumblr in a few weeks (, then Facebook (, and later our RELephantUA website ( And, if you need a creative co-worker who has sharp analytical and communication skills, look for one of our majors, or any humanities major. If you also want someone who can develop a digital marketing campaign across multiple platforms, especially look at our upcoming graduates at UA.


New Hire in REL


We’re extremely pleased to announce that, as of August 2016, we will have another new colleague in REL.

Suma Ikeuchi is currently a doctoral candidate at Emory University, where she will receive her Ph.D. in Cultural Anthropology in May 2016. She also has an M.A. in Anthropology from Brandeis University and a B.A. in both History and Anthropology from Hokkaido University, Japan. Continue reading

REL 360 Presents Lilies of the Field

Lilies of the Field

REL 360–our one credit hour course–is hosting yet another movie night! To follow this semester’s theme on Democracy, Race, and Religion, the course will be screening Lilies of the Field. The 1963 film focuses on Homer Smith (also known affectionately as Schmidt) who stops for water in a small farm in Arizona and ends up drawn into a lengthy endeavor by Mother Maria and her fellow nuns to build a church for the impoverished community. What begins as a battle of biblical quotes between the two hard-headed protagonists over the simple matter of payment for his work ends in a project that forever changes the people involved.

The screening is open to everyone!

(Even if you’re not in the class!)

WHAT? REL 360 is a one-credit course designed to show four films throughout the semester that will provoke discussion about what exactly takes place when the humanities and popular culture collide.

WHEN? Thursday, February 18th @ 6:00 pm

WHERE? 203 Garland Hall

WHY? To broaden your horizons! The film allows the viewers insights into the backdrop of race and religion in 1960s America. It’s also free to see!

WHAT ELSE? Anyone can attend! If you decide you like the class, you can email Professor Bagger ( for more information on the course, or visit the REL website.

Hope to see you there!