Public Service Announcement

The day I meet postmodernists whose relativism does not disappear the minute they start talking about salaries and workloads is the day I will take relativism seriously.

That’s a quotation I saw posted on social media yesterday, from Steve Bruce‘s new book Researching Religion: Why We Need Social Science.

My comment on the site?

I find positions one disagrees with are easiest critiqued when one parodies them.

Fending off parodies of postmodernism’s influence in our field is a full-time job these days, whether they come from the theologians looking for evidence of God’s truth, the humanists in search of Meaning and the Enduring Human Spirit (the uppercase is intended), or, yes, the social scientists who equally need religion to be some real, tangible thing but in order to explain it in some fashion. But despite the obvious differences among these three broad approaches, I see representatives of each routinely drawing upon the same parodies of critical or postmodern stances.

So, as a public service, let me comment here that to take a self-interested and apparently absolutist stand concerning a salary or a workload RELATIVE TO one’s practical and changeable interests is not some sort contradictory “Aha!” moment that exposes the weakness at the heart of a social constructionist or so-called relativist approach. Instead, it is actually a pretty good argument for why we should take such an approach, as Bruce phrases it, seriously.

Social actors, after all, aren’t the most consistent players and I see no reason why scholars are somehow different from the rest of their peers. So an approach that they adopt in the study of others which they apparently suspend when advancing their own interests strikes me as a good example of how social life actually works, providing a pretty compelling case for why we ought to be doing anything but dismissing that approach in our study of human behavior and organization.

It’s All Relative

batmanRelativism, and criticisms of it — “Oh, you’re a relativist!” — strike me as similar to claims of reductionism: the problem isn’t (as critics of reductionism claim) that one reduces one’s object of study to something other than what it already is, but that someone else reduces it to something different than what you want to boil it down to. That not a lot of so-called religious people are walking around spontaneously reporting that they’ve experienced a hierophany of a structure of human consciousness called the sacred (as one well known arch-nemisis of reductionists everywhere might have once phrased it) suggests that no matter what a scholar thinks lies at the base of religion, inasmuch as they think there’s a universal base they are all deeply invested in reducing complexity and difference to unity and simplicity. Continue reading