“On the Spot” backs members of Culture on the Edge into a corner to talk about their backgrounds, their ongoing work, and what might be gained by an alternative understanding of how identity works.
Q: Steven, your early work was interested in a specific group that fell between the way we commonly identify some of the world’s religions, so issues of blurred or ambiguous identity have long been a focus for you. How has this interest changed or developed over the past several years?
A: When I began to learn about Sindhi Hindus and their inclusion (typically) of the Guru Granth Sahib within their temples, I assumed that they represented a wonderful example of inter-religious harmony. As I conducted my research, I began to see how my assumptions reflected common definitions that some of them directly rejected, as some Sindhi Hindus specifically argue that the Guru Granth Sahib is a Hindu text. In that argument, the boundaries are not ambiguous at all; in their opinion, most people misrecognize where the boundaries are. Analyzing the ways that they assert particular understandings to further their interests within the social contests of contemporary India and the diaspora (in opposition to others asserting different understandings to promote different interests) became an entry point for me into the larger questions of how people, whether scholars or not, employ categorizations and identifications in their negotiation of the social structures surrounding them, the very questions that my colleagues in Culture on the Edge have helped me to explore in other sites of identification and classification.
Q: Your posts on the Culture on the Edge blog don’t often involve Indian or so-called Hindu materials (though they sometimes do, of course); could you tell us a little about the shift, across your career so far, to incorporate wider social elements in your work, such as your recent interest in the “group” sociologists and demographers have started calling “the Nones” (that is, people who, on recent pools, claim no religious affiliation and who are therefore thought, by some scholars and journalists, to share a coherent identity)?
A: Contests over boundaries and resources take place throughout society, certainly within academia as well. Employing examples that students find familiar has been useful for my teaching, whether about India or more generally, to illustrate broader processes. Even when my focus is outside the primary area of my training, I often discover that my research in India influences what I see in other contexts. That is certainly true in my reflections on those identified as nones in the United States. Sociologists, drawing on responses to one question on a survey “What is your religious affiliation?” have constructed a group and analyzed their attributes, and now some individuals and organizations have begun to self-identify that way. This creation of a “new” group is remarkably similar to the influence of late nineteenth century analysis and discussion of the British Indian census that influenced how some people in India began to view themselves as part of a unified religious community.
Q: Your Department has not had an introduction to world religions for many years – instead, it has taught a general introduction to the study of religion itself, its tools, etc. – that is, until you developed a world religions course of your own last year. Could you talk a little about the goals you had for this course and how you try to accomplish them, for it is not a run of the mill world religions survey, is it? And what do you think your undergraduate students make of it all?
A: Since the standard discourse on world religions has not disappeared since some scholars began critiquing it, I want undergraduates to be able to analyze critically this discourse that frames much public discussion of religion. At the same time, I do not want to reinforce that discourse as being a neutral description. So, the course is organized around a critique of the notion of world religions. Students have a regular textbook, so that they have a relatively clear example of the discourse, and then class sessions and assessments focus primarily on the construction and contestation of the labels that the textbook and other sources use. The first version of the class was this past Spring. As to be expected, a few students understood from the beginning (especially several majors in the class). As the course progressed, more and more began to recognize at least a significant portion of the basic critique. The running joke became that the answer to any question was almost always some form of “It depends” or “It is complicated”.
Q: You’re the series editor for the Culture on the Edge book series; what sort of manuscripts are you interested in seeing? The series is hardly limited to scholars of religion or people working on those aspects of social life we call religion, so what should scholars know about this series?
A: The Culture on the Edge collaborative is interested, with Equinox Publishers, in a range of manuscripts that critically engage with questions of the social structures and competitions that individuals and communities negotiate when they strategically employ classification systems and identifications. As the blog hopefully demonstrates, we are interested in works that range well beyond the academic study of religion in terms of disciplinary approach and research topic. The important component is the critical reflection on the systems of classification and social structures, whatever the location or specific topic.
Read Steven’s Culture on the Edge posts here.