Components of What?

Picture of cards nad poker chipsOne of our grad students has pointed out a problem with a recent article that we read in our Department’s monthly journal group; Sarah wrote:

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…

I think this is a pretty keen insight, for when I first read the article I was struck by a passage on p. 323, coming after a long quotation concerning the difficulties of defining “society” and “culture”: Continue reading

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.

What Gets Labeled as Religion

Still not quite sure what scholars study when they say that they study the classification or the category religion itself…? Think that all scholars of religion need a definition of religion to get started with their work?

If so, why not give a listen to episode 21, that was just posted the other day. It’s a short podcast by Malory Nye, author of a widely used intro book in our field, and he elaborates on the simple fact that he’s

“a student of religion who doesn’t study religion…”

Make It So

Did you catch Titus Hjelm‘s excellent post the other day?

His argument concerned the manner in which otherwise routine claims or actions are represented by specific groups, for specific reasons, as controversial; the apparent controversy of some religions (notably, in his post, Islam — at least to a number of people in so-called Western countries) is thus not an essential trait but one that is acquired in the public marketplace. Continue reading

The Devil’s in the Details

detailsMy early book was cited near the start of Chris Kavanagh‘s recent online essay, as an example of a work in the study of religion that — despite him agreeing that there is “much that is valid in such critiques” — seems to constitute “academic minutiae” that we should put behind us, so we can just get on with our work.

If you’ve not read the piece, you should.

Here’s the closing two paragraphs.

kavanaghquote

I’d like to focus on what is being claimed here, in these closing lines, and raise some of the implications that I see to be of importance. For paying attention to the little details is sometimes quite beneficial.

Continue reading

Skillz

empty-classroom

For sometime I’ve been concerned that the American Academy of Religion would venture into the waters of learning outcomes and assessment. But now one of its committees is  working on this and its the topic of a leadership workshop, offered by the Academic Religions committee, at the upcoming annual meeting.

Continue reading

Too Hard, Too Soft, Just Right

courtdecisionI’ve seen some comments on social media about this recent court decision — click the image to read about it. (If you don’t know much about Pastafarianism then go here.) As a scholar of religion interested not so much in studying religion but, rather, in studying those who use the term to accomplish practical social work (by classifying this or that as religion [or not!]), I admit that I can be a little disappointed when I see other scholars of religion chime in about such decisions. For by failing to see the term “religion” as a rhetorical device, as a tool some people use to manage social life by naming,  distinguishing, and then ranking assorted items, scholars often unwittingly enter into debates over what religion really is (or isn’t).

And, in the process, they make themselves data for people like me. Continue reading

“They’re Not All That Evangelical”

Picture 9

Maybe you saw my post the other day on how the way we define and use the category religion can create the very thing that we then set about to examine — failing to see that it wasn’t a naturally occurring item in the world, and thus in need of study, but was our creation to begin with. The example was the way we define so-called evangelicals, understanding them as doing something that involves “faith” as opposed to “politics” and the quandary that then results when we see them voting in large numbers for Donald Trump in the Republican primaries.

How do we explain this? Continue reading

“And Yet They Thought That We Had an Organic, Genetic Loyalty to the Emperor…”

japaneseinternmentStill wondering about the relevance of a liberal arts degree, in general, or of taking a course in the academic study of religion in particular — where, among other things, we examine the various ways that people define religion, such as essentialism, which posits a necessary and universal inner identity to all things defined as religious…?

Well, if you are, then take a look at the headlines these days and maybe you’ll see some application of the skills you’ve acquired in our classes — such as being able to identify the problems with (and maybe the interests that drive) generalizing to all a trait shared only by some. For George Takei, who was interned as a child in a camp for Japanese-Americans (who, post-Pearl Harbor, were thought by many in the US to be untrustworthy and disloyal), has something to say about the way current political discourse paints others with rather broad brushes…

Click here if the embedded video fails to play.
The title for this post comes form the 1:40 point of the interview.

How Your Phone Defines Religion

giphy-48

As the Faculty Technology Liaison to the College of Arts and Sciences at UA, I am part of a Mac Administrators forum. I was surprised to notice the exclusion of deities from emoji eligibility while glancing over an update notice. After some investigation, I was surprised to learn about the selection factors of the Unicode Consortium.

emoji criteria

In fact, the Unicode Consortium has produced a very detailed report, “Emoji and Symbol Additions – Religious Symbols and Structures,” for which “The objective has been to have symbols and structures of major belief systems worldwide represented with an emphasis on filling up existing gaps in the encoded symbol repertoire.”

The report is an excellent “common sense inventory” for what ready-to-hand assumptions exist for thinking about the study of religion. For example, the emoji for “place of worship”  is that of a person kneeling in prayer under a roof. What does this representation include or exclude from considerations about religion?place-of-worship