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.

Profs. Simmons and Altman Talk About the New MA Degree

Have you heard about the Religions Studies Project? It’s a great website and podcast based out of the United Kingdom. This week they are featuring a podcast episode with Profs. Mike Altman and Merinda Simmons all about our new Religion in Culture master’s degree program.

Give it a listen and learn about our new program. We’re still accepting applications!

 

One Week of Research in an Archive: A Journal

Professors around the department often talk about their “research.” But what exactly is that? It’s something to do with books and articles, right? In hopes of showing how some of us work–or at least how I work–below is a day by day running journal of a five day research trip I took to the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley.

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Another Good Book with Prof. Michael Altman

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The tenth installment in our A Good Book series is now on vimeo! This episode revisits Prof. Michael Altman as he shares yet another influential book, The Invention of World Religions by Tomoko Masuzawa. Be sure to give it a watch!

Another Good Book with Prof. Altman from UA Religious Studies.

Coffee Break and Lounge Tweets Unite!

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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.

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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.

The Long Argument Over Religious Freedom

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One of the major themes in my REL 241: American Religious History course this semester has been “religious liberty.” What our class has seen over and over again is that religious freedom isn’t really about religion or freedom. More often, arguments over “religious liberty,” “religious freedom,” or “freedom of conscience” are really arguments about governance, structures, and the individual. Continue reading

Whence Mother Earth?

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John D. James is a senior at the University of Alabama majoring in Religious Studies and minoring in General Business. This book review was written for Dr. Michael J. Altman’s REL 370: Empire and the Construction of Religion course.

In Mother Earth: An American Story, Sam D. Gill begins to articulate and explain with physical evidence that the term “Mother Earth” is commonly misused and presented to audiences as some common knowledge involving Native American thought and belief. Gill takes an interesting approach when trying to carefully argue that Mother Earth is not an ancient central Native American figure. This book’s message is a radical rethinking of how the figure Mother Earth came to be used and ultimately misused by so many who failed to ask questions concerning Mother Earth’s origin.

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Authenticity and the Nation-State, Or Why Thai Food is a Lot Like ISIS

 

tumblr_mdls46sPdt1qawtgfo1_1280We love Thai food around here. But how do you know the food on your plate is actually Thai? What makes it Thai? The sign in the restaurant window? The “Thai tea?” What is “authentic Thai food?”

Well, the government of Thailand is sick and tired of your sad excuses for Thai food and they have a plan to ensure you never settle for fake Thai food again. It’s not just a plan, it’s a robot. Continue reading

The Politics of Misconceptions

meditationIn a recent blog post, my colleague, Mike Altman, makes a crucial point; after quoting a site that describes early European scholarship on Buddhism as being based on earlier “misconceptions, he writes: Continue reading

Europeanizing the Buddha and Constructing a World Religion

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Have you seen Prof. Altman’s new blog post? Here’s a sampling of what he has to say:

“Europeans and Americans conceived of Buddhism as a world religion not because of ‘misconceptions’ that were corrected by ‘better understandings,’ but because it served their purposes within a growing discourse of ‘world religions’ in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The Buddha became European because Europeans imagined him in their own image to serve their own purposes.”

Interest piqued? Read the full post here.