The REL Journal Group: Durkheim and Data Edition

The following exchange between Prof. Mike Altman and Sarah Griswold, a student in our MA program, reflects on the recent meeting of the journal reading group, part of our Religion in Culture MA.

Mike Altman: Sarah, for our first journal reading group you chose the article “Durkheim with Data: The Databse of Religious History” from a recent issue of JAAR. What’s the gist of the article and why did you think we should read it in our group of MA students and faculty?

Sarah Griswold: The article is basically an introduction (and justification) for the Database of Religious History. This database is meant to serve two purposes: to be a database for “religious groups” in the premodern world and to provide evidence for a theory of religious evolution. In effect, the database tries to play both fields of holding and providing both quantitative and qualitative data. The article mostly reads as an attempt to draw more scholars in in order to add data to the database.

As far as why I thought we should read it, there were a few reasons. First, as someone with a background in both the humanities and math, I think understanding how and why qualitative data is quantified is really important to understanding and critiquing the purpose and use of databases like this one. Second, as the humanities (and particularly religious studies) moves more and more towards digital projects, we need to be aware of what’s out there so we can emulate what is done well and improve on what is lacking. Finally, the article also offers us insight into the theoretical workings of the project itself. Although titled “Durkheim with Data,” it seemed as though the creators of this project have not critically considered or defined the very categories they have opted to work within, making the move from qualitative to quantitative data suspect. That, I think, can be quite telling of the ultimate success or failure of a project of this size.

MA: As a student in this new MA program that has an emphasis on digital and public humanities what can you learn from this article and what can we as a program learn?

SG: Personally, this article reinforced the importance of thinking through the categories you use when quantifying data. It can be easy to point to something you “know” is religion and label it as such without thinking about why you’ve decided on that label in the first place. It’s also interesting to think about the collaboration across disciplines that these projects require. It would be impossible for one or two scholars to gain all the skills needed to make these things even work. It turns out that group projects exist in real life too and not just in school.

As a program, I think the biggest take away is to pay attention to the developments of these projects. Because the DRH has a capacity to refine their methods, I don’t think they should be entirely dismissed as uncritical. There are positive and negative take aways from critically examining any digital project. Learning more about digital projects and examining their goals and functions can and will tell us a lot about how to move forward in our own individual and collaborative projects.

Structure and Agency in Starbucks

Sierra is a recent graduate of our B.A. program with a double major in Anthropology and Religious Studies and a minor in Spanish, and she plans to continue working with us to pursue an M.A. in the Fall. She has previously produced independent research on cemetery artwork and the category of myth at the University of Alabama and worked as a research assistant for a variety of groups and projects at UA during her undergraduate career.

Recently, I was denied closure at a Starbucks drive-thru when a specific group, working within the structures of society, interrupted my daily caffeine ritual. As my 1997 butter-colored vehicle creaked to the pick up window, the hand that usually supplied me with my beverage was instead holding a bright card with bold turquoise lettering that read “Something extra to show you God loves you.” Operating within the structures that favor standard American English, my barista briefly explained my purchase had been taken on by a third party as my drink mechanically moved from their hand to my cup holder and I pulled away. Continue reading

Loving India Back? Routine Violence and Rewriting History in a British Airways Ad

Parker Evans is a junior majoring in English and Religious Studies, with a minor in the Blount Scholars Program. This post was written for Dr. Ramey’s ​class on Religion and Identity in South Asia. 

Take a few minutes to consider the violence in this advertisement for British Airways:

Continue reading

Music for the Masses: Hindu Identity and Artistic Expression

TM Krishna and other musicians play a concert for the public in southern India.

Keeley McMurray is a junior double majoring in English and Religious Studies with a minor in Theatre. The following post was written for Dr. Ramey’s REL 321 course, Religion & Identity in South Asia. 

Visual and performing arts continue to be seen as bold expressions of personal identity in modern cultures throughout the world.  Despite the fundamental inclusivity of art as means of sharing and preserving culture, the politics of artistic expression have limited the opportunity for certain groups to practice and perfect their crafts.  In South Asia, art is complicated by the complex religious and social identities of those living in the region.  Elite Hindus often restrict India’s cultural legacy to artistic forms that they dominate, overshadowing a myriad of minority contributions and subaltern narratives.

A primary example is Carnatic music, a religiously-inspired genre significant to Hindu culture.  For centuries, upper castes have preserved this music as a divine art form symbolic of brahman and practiced it with utmost artistry.  Because of its association with divinity, purity, and pleasure, upper castes have often limited the practice and enjoyment of traditional Carnatic music to major temples, royal courts, and a few rich landowners; local kings, some being composers or musicians themselves, would traditionally patronize performances.  In recent years, however, the exclusivity of cultural and religious identity associated with Carnatic music is changing to accommodate a more diversely artistic society.  Activists are making an effort to ensure that those left out of the cultural narrative are given their recognition, and have a fair opportunity to explore their artistic potential.

Thodur Madabusi Krishna, a classical musician in southern India, has made it his mission to break the social barriers surrounding Carnatic music in order to “liberate the art to new spaces.”  While he has encountered opposition from those that wish to preserve the restrictions on this genre of music, Krishna was recently bestowed the Ramon Magsaysay Award for emergent leadership in “ensuring social inclusiveness in culture.”  Characteristic to southern India and largely untouched by Persian and Islamic influence, elements of Carnatic music trace their divine origin to the Vedas.  Thousands of hymns are dedicated to the gods and chanted in Hindu ritual, put to complex melodies called Ragas.  These proponents assert that the potency of this music demands ritual tutoring through the gurukula system, in which a student would live and learn with a Carnatic guru.  Gurus often descended from ancient lines of musicians and composers, and thus were selective and rigorous with instruction.  With these qualifications to become a worthy and revered musician, many were left unable to pursue their art.

This degree of discipline and the significance of Carnatic music to Hindu culture assured the social superiority of both patrons and practitioners, still to this day.  Krishna, a musician born into the Brahmin caste, recognizes the present social implications of this music considered Hindu.  The Magsaysay Award Foundation praises Krishna for seeing that his art was “a caste-dominated art that fostered an unjust, hierarchic order by effectively excluding the lower classes from sharing in a vital part of India’s cultural legacy.”  The musical performances of the Dalits and other non-Brahmin communities, for example, are rarely given praise or publicity.  Music festivals and large concerts around India have been notoriously guilty of showcasing only upper-caste talent, disregarding other groups without the luxury of guru education or elite sponsorship.  This is an unfair representation based on social identity and a conservative interpretation of Hinduism that chooses to ignore “the music of the marginalized.”

The way society has restricted Hindu culture further divides those who identify as Hindu.  In a region as complex as India, it is problematic to homogenize artistic expression in reflection of the elite few.  In hopes of promoting a more unified culture, Krishna is taking action to transform the arts into a more egalitarian space.  He began by hosting concerts in unconventional locations:  crowded buses, railway platforms, and even the slums of Sri Lanka.  In areas that would have remained unexposed to classical music, Krishna has introduced school curriculums for Carnatic instruction, musical scholarships for rural youth, and free music festivals for the general public.  Most importantly, his Svanubhava movement brings together musicians of diverse social backgrounds in an attempt to “heal differences and break stereotypes.”  By dismantling the social structure of Hindu culture, one achieves a more reformed portrayal of India:  a diverse nation where art is appreciated, regardless of social identity.

Barometers in the Field: Another Student Report from the Regional AAR

Sierra Lynn Lawson is an Anthropology and Religious Studies double major and a Spanish minor. She is from a small town in Wyoming and hopes to study the illegality of midwifery in Alabama as it relates to post-civil war identity formation.

I was most pleased with my experience at the Southeastern Commission for the Study of Religion (SECSOR) because it provided me with the opportunity to see what is, and what is not, happening in the academic study of religion. As someone completing a B.A. this Spring and entering an M.A. program in the Fall, I believe the connections I made at SECSOR could be foundational to the work I hope to do in the near future.

Outside of attending panels such as ‘Religion and Ecology’, ‘Ethics, Wellbeing and Sexuality’, and another looking at narratives of Utopia and Dystopia, I made a point to be present at less-formal meetings, such as meals for marginalized groups. My method for choosing specific panels, and events, was to seek out individuals exploring critical issues of authorship, identity formation and representation in their work.

The majority of the conference was based around research reflecting Christian theological endeavors. As SECSOR is co-hosted by the Society of Biblical Literature, this was not particularly surprising. While Christian theology is on the opposite end of where I would place my academic interests on of the spectrum of religious scholarship, I found its presence critical to understanding of the current state of the field.

One of my peers, Parker Evans, was presenting his own undergraduate research regarding the influence of nationalism on Heidegger’s thought. Upon mentioning that he was from the University of Alabama before his presentation, the chair for the undergraduate panel replied that Parker was “…probably from the most South out of all of us”. While this was an erroneous comment in terms of literal geography, because many Floridian and Georgian schools were also attending the conference, in my mind it summoned all sorts of interesting discussions about where we draw boundaries for the ‘South’.

Similarly – it seemed academic approaches to religion also negotiate specific margins constituting different means to more or less critical ends. The name-dropping of Russell McCutcheon seemed to serve as a barometer measuring self-alliance with the study of religion as its own category. Academics from Emory to Florida State proudly displayed their loyalty to McCutcheon’s work and specific paradigms, and I chuckled at the serious tone they adopted when speaking of the man whose office I find myself in more often than my own living room. I knew McCutcheon was somewhat of a polarizing figure in the field, but I had never seen a group of people adhere so stringently to another individual as a euphemism for the paradigms they themselves operate from.

On the opposite end of the spectrum were academics who seemed to consider themselves, or their work, to lie outside of phenomena which is ‘fair game’ for data. From personal conversations I was aware of Dr. McCutcheon’s critique of Mircea Eliade, and was utterly dumbfounded by academics who counterintuitively avoided investigating  the obvious connection between their critical inquiries and their own predispositions or desires.

I consider the humanities to be integral to understanding the implicit and explicit intentions, which inform interactions between members of society as well as the phenomena they invest meaning into. Unfortunately, it has become increasingly difficult to find other individuals aligning with this mentality as students flock to majors providing a straightforward map for entering the work force.

The funding I received from both the University of Alabama, as well as the Amy Lynn Petersen Endowed Support fund within the Department of Religious Studies, provided me with the opportunity to travel to Raleigh, NC for the regional conference for the American Academy of Religion. At the SECSOR I engaged with fellow aspiring academics, as well as individuals who are well established in academia and known for their scholarship. I am forever indebted to the generous contributions, for without the connections I made at the conference I fear I may have never expanded my horizons to appreciate the field of Religious Studies, as it exists in its contemporary form, as well as the role I might play in it.

“Yes, and I’ve Met His Dog”: A Student Report from the Regional AAR

Parker Evans is junior studying English and Religious Studies. He spends most of his time drinking coffee and making reading lists when he should be reading.

The regional AAR, or SECSOR, was a fantastic chance for a professionalizing experience. Sierra Lawson, another REL major, and I arrived late in the afternoon, and between checking into the hotel and presenting my paper, I had just enough time to change clothes from my flight and eat dinner. I was the first presenter on the first undergraduate panel, but this was actually a relief. Once I gave my paper, I was free to sit back and explore the conference. The presentation itself was painless and even a little gratifying. I don’t consider myself afraid of public speaking, but I was a little anxious about how it would go over. Since there were other panels going on simultaneously, the nine or ten audience members who had chosen to come to the undergraduate panel were almost exclusively undergrads themselves. Our panel was loosely organized around our paper topics covering a range of subjects from my own paper on Heidegger to Orientalist travelogues to the effect of psychedelics on “spiritual” experiences to a close reading of a passage in the New Testament book of Hebrews. The audience members were very receptive to our papers, and we each received a couple of questions.

Just from the range of undergraduate paper topics, it was clear that this conference was not just gathered under the banner of Religious Studies. After my panel, Sierra, Dr. Finnegan and I attended the pre-reception event, which consisted of two short papers, one from a member of the American Academy of Religion and one from a member of the Society of Biblical Literature. For a field built on the colonial Christian enterprise of cataloging “religious” traditions, it was clear that the associations of the AAR still skew towards its roots. Both presenters were engaging, and they had an interesting conversation after their talks, but it was apparent that a Christian hermeneutic tradition still pulls at the academic study of religion. Along with the speaker from the SBL, several papers given at panels I attended were direct hermeneutic approaches to Christian scripture (although I understand that several papers were given on Islamic theology as well). By virtue of sharing a conference with the SBL, the AAR maintains a serious imbalance between its relationship with Christian academics and academic groups representing any other religious tradition, without even getting into the question of whether such a relationship should exist.

With that said, I had many interesting conversations with professors and students. On Sunday I had breakfast (out of coincidence) with a professor whose panel on ethics I attended on Saturday. Her paper focused on a study she did with her students in which she had them practice techniques analogous to Buddhist mindfulness practices. I found it extremely interesting that she had the students define religion before and after engaging in these techniques, and after engaging in them, the percentage of students who included practice (as opposed to, or in conjunction with belief) in their definition of religion doubled. We had an excellent chat about methodology and how to approach teaching the study of religion.

In addition to the ethics panel, I went to a panel on the philosophy of religion as well as another undergraduate panel. The papers on the undergraduate panel ranged from the relationship between “religiosity” and the sex lives of young Latinas in a community outside Raleigh to the long-lasting effects of the British colonial classification of a group of devotees as prostitutes. All the members of the panel did extensive research within the communities they discussed, and the resulting papers were impressive.

I was told before going to SECSOR that, as a student from the University of Alabama, I was marked by my association with Dr. McCutcheon. It was amusing how quickly I found this to be true. Several times, other students would say something along the lines of “Oh, you know Dr. McCutcheon?” to which I usually responded, “Yes, and I’ve met his dog.” Some professors took digs at a McCutcheon-y figure when discussing the direction of the field, while others would name-drop him to represent a vague counterpoint to which they were responding. (I am currently theorizing the phenomenon of the straw-McCutcheon argument.) But on the whole, our department received high praise whenever I mentioned it, and I was able to get a sense of where we reside in the larger field. The conference has given me a much better understanding of where my interests can expand within the field and how I can situate them within existing bodies of research. I’m already looking forward to Atlanta next March.