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

Border Patrol

Picture 1Seen this article? Students in our Department read anthropologists, historians, sociologists, psychologists, literary critics, philosophers, along with scholars of religion, to name just a few of the other fields that we regularly draw on in carrying out our work. So what do you think the implications of this cross-disciplinary work are for our field — is it interdisciplinary at its core? Are we valued by those in other fields?

Or maybe the better question is: What fields are not interdisciplinary — to whatever degree — today? For while departments and academic disciplines are, of course, still administrative units of varying consequence, for whom are they still so rigid that a colleague would be puzzled by your citation of someone from another field?

Come to think of it, at a time when many of us read so widely, how do you even define cross-disciplinary as a distinct thing? After all, the same small handful of scholars in the late-19th century seem to be the common founding figures to which a host of different fields today all trace themselves, suggesting that we’re all interdisciplinary to begin with, no?