Using Four-Lettered Words: Part One


“What Justice Kennedy has undertaken in this initial statement of fact, or more properly, of data, that is to say, facts accepted for purposes of the argument…”

–  Jonathan Z. Smith, “God Save This Honourable Court” (Relating Religion, p. 382)

While she was on our campus a few weeks ago, I noticed Monica Miller using the word “data” to refer to the things that she studied — things such as African American religion, scholars of African American religion, rap lyrics, and rap artists — and so I asked her a question or two about what she thought was entailed in that word and why she seemingly opted for it rather purposefully in both her public lecture, the evening before, and then during an informal lunchtime discussion with our students the next day. And then, just the other day, Leslie Smith posted on this site, using this four-lettered word in her post’s title — a use that did not go unnoticed by some on Facebook who soon were debating what was termed the dehumanizing effects of such objectifying terminology.

This coincidental use of what for some in the human sciences in general, and certainly for many in the study of religion in particular, amounts to a dirty and therefore forbidden word, prompted a few of us at Culture on the Edge to decide to write a collective post (in two parts) in which we offer a few thoughts on the ongoing debate over the discourse on data.

Russell McCutcheon

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Craig Martin

In the conclusion to The Birth of the Clinic, Michel Foucault comments on the dramatic shift in medical knowledge that made new things visible to doctors’ vision: “It is as if for the first time for thousands of years, doctors, free at last of theories and chimeras, agreed to approach the object of their experience with the purity of an unprejudiced gaze.” However, Foucault suggests this “as if” would be a distortion of what actually happened.

But the analysis must be turned around: it is the forms of visibility that have changed; … it is nothing more than a systematical reorganization of disease in which the limits of the visible and invisible follow a new pattern; the abyss beneath the illness, which was the illness itself, has emerged into the light of language.

For me, the practice of identifying subjects of research as “our data” hinges fundamentally on first person possessive. We could depict our research subjects as transparently present before us (fully present, perhaps, in the Derridean sense, without differance), but to do so would be to obscure the contribution of the researcher, her prejudiced gaze, and her theories in making them objects. If subjects come into view, it is because we have turned our vision toward them; to call subjects “our data” is to signify that there is always a “we” who causes subjects to emerge into our language.

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Merinda Simmons

At last year’s American Academy of Religion meeting, I was invited to present some thoughts on objectivity and the scholar’s supposed role/responsibility in analysis of “the other.”  My talk offered a little two-step on objects and objectivity, suggesting that the praise of objective analysis is an arrogant one indeed, as it implies a possibility for scholarly removal from opinion or judgment that somehow is thought nonetheless to allow for a more productive engagement with the object of study.  My point was to slow down and consider the consequences of imagining our scholarly selves to hover in a neutral sphere outside of our…yes, data.  It’s often difficult for scholars to see how their attempt to privilege the voice of the insider/participant — or, to use the language of the debate outlined above, to resist the seeming objectifying and “dehumanizing effects of such terminology” [like using “data” in reference to people] — serves only to exalt the researcher’s status to one that can transcend or get outside of language. To my way of thinking, any talk of objectivity (or “proper subjects” and “the analytic study of religion,” which were intellectual rallying points for that workshop) is, like anything else, a product of discourse that inevitably and invariably changes over time.

The questions posed to me expressed deep anxiety about how to pursue data analysis while avoiding objectification.  Specifically, I was asked how, if we take my ideas seriously, scholars of religion would be able to answer for ourselves and the work we’re doing among the people we study or, for that matter, the AAR itself.  I admit that I still don’t altogether understand the worry.  What I’ve noticed in just a handful of years working in the discipline of Religious Studies is that many scholars apply a level of hand-wringing in academic studies of religion and culture about scholarly responsibility to our objects of study (responsibility that would have us avoid the term “data”) that they do not extend to other studies both inside and outside the humanities.  This phenomenon does not strike me as saying anything about the special status of, and set of academic tasks associated with, religion. It says much, however, about what we fancy our very special abilities as researchers to be — namely, that we can transcend or step outside data.

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Vaia Touna

In all the posts I wrote so far on Culture on the Edge I used myself, or Greeks in general, as my own data — and I don’t find the use of the term “data” unnerving, but I admit that it is a challenge, in the sense that not only the things I do, but the way I think and act, and even the sense of identity I have of myself, is in part made of that same system of ideology that I try to understand and analyze through my research and that is not an easy task, for the reason that Lincoln nicely points out on his 10th thesis on method:

10. Understanding the system of ideology that operates in one’s own society is made difficult by two factors: (i) one’s consciousness is itself a product of that system, and (ii) the system’s very success renders its operations invisible, since one is so consistently immersed in and bombarded by its products that one comes to mistake them (and the apparatus through which they are produced and disseminated) for nothing other than “nature.”

Now, of course, my interest in Greeks — although it might sound weird — is not personal and I do not use them because I want something to change but because of my interest in systems/mechanism of identity production; so I hope that those who read my posts will not only learn something about Greeks (myself included) but will make data of my posts themselves and will be able to see the same things I identify there operating in their own cultures or data-set, doing so for the sake of comparison, all in order to make the strange familiar and the familiar strange.

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Read Part TwoEdgedavince

One Reply to “Using Four-Lettered Words: Part One”

  1. Craig makes by far the strongest theoretical argument for the use of data terminology, and I appreciate his contribution. There’s a sensitivity in Foucault’s construction of ‘constructions,’ and if I’m ever going to buy into the scientism of this way of describing people, it’ll be through using his lens.

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