Using Four-Lettered Words: Part Two


“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. (And now the Bulletin‘s blog has entered the debate as well.)

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 (below is part two) in which we offer a few thoughts on the ongoing debate over the discourse on data.

Russell McCutcheon

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Monica Miller

In a public presentation a few years back, someone in the Q&A suggested that my use of the word data to refer to my “objects” of study was abhorrent and de-materialized the social actors “within” my talk — thus stripping them of their humanity. In other words, this person was suggesting that there was a way in which such talk did a certain sort of violence to the “people” and “things” in which I was studying.  More recently, similar criticism arose on Facebook.

I find such concerns curious, as my use of the word “data” is a self-conscious move that is at least partially meant to protect “real people” — whatever they are — from the discursively violent effects of scholarship.  In other words, I realize that I bring my own social interests, assumptions, and desires to the fields, people, and rhetoric which I am examining through the confluence of language and such things; I cannot pretend that I am self-evidently representing the actual voices and bodies of the people or groups of people of which I write about. Therefore, when I talk about people as data, I am wearing an apron, or a bib. I’m protecting the integrity of my story from coalescing into their own stories, and I’m protecting my ears and eyes from the discursive cries of my data so that a fuller portrait might emerge.

To the critics, I hear you. I do. And I’m excited to turn you and this moment into, of course, my data. In the words of James Baldwin,

Well, I know this and anyone who has ever tried to live knows this, that what you say about somebody else, anybody else, reveals you. What I think of you as being is dictated by my own necessities, my own psychology, my own fears and desires, I’m not describing you when I talk about you, I’m describing me.

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Steven Ramey

The question about the term “data,” in my reading, stands for concerns about the critical analysis of what people say about their lives, practices, and conceptions. In ethnographic methods, discussions about what terms to use when referring to the people whom scholars observe and interview intersects with questions about the voice of the people studied. Should the people studied review material before it is published? Must they be able to recognize themselves in the scholars representation?

Yet, such questions seldom arise when talking about some groups. For example, the critical analysis of politicians and their statements in both the media and scholarship is seldom questioned as inappropriate. In fact, if someone simply accepts a politician’s assertions as presented, academics typically question that person’s integrity. While politicians are public figures, they certainly don’t appreciate the critical analysis or see themselves within some critical characterizations of them. (Just ask the Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.) The difference seems to be more about how the scholar views the people studied. Politicians are generally seen as savvy about spin, presenting themselves and their positions in the best possible light, thus necessitating a critical analysis of their statements. In this way, employing critical analysis of someone’s statements, treating them like “data,” is not a sign of disrespect (despite the comparison to politicians) but a sign of respect for the person’s abilities to “spin” their self-representation. Treating everyone as capable of representing themselves, their practices, their conceptions in strategic ways, depending on the context and audience, acknowledges the ability of the people whom we study to resist telling us the complete truth. If you are not our “data” in this sense, then we are not recognizing your ability to control your own self-representation.

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Leslie Smith

As someone who studies a highly controversial group, I find the scholarly debates over whether it’s appropriate to refer to humans as “data” fascinating. Since I use the term “data” simply to indicate a thing that is studied, I have no problem with regarding most anything as data, so long as I have the capacity to record and analyze certain aspects of it. But my sense is that, in many cases, the disputes that arise over the issue are actually much more about our own politicization of the term — that is, the controversy is often about which groups and individuals we prefer to call data rather than over the general utility of the category or concept itself.

For instance, I often hear concern over the possible dehumanization of disenfranchised groups when they are studied, but rarely do I hear anyone concerned about whether the group I analyze –i.e., the Christian Right — is somehow dehumanized in my scholarship. In fact, if anything, most scholars assume that, if I’m doing my job right, there will be some aspect of political pushback on my part, if not outright denigration of my data. While there are many other ways to approach this issue of what it means to categorize “data” (which my fine colleagues here at Culture on the Edge have already addressed), my take on it is that we actually become something worth studying (that is, we become our own data!) when we consider the dynamics that lead to the contestation of the term.

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Read Part One


3 Replies to “Using Four-Lettered Words: Part Two”

  1. A long time ago, at a university far, far away, I used to say of a particular scholar that if he scented smoke he would run over and pour gasoline on the source, and then yell fire! fire!. I am reminded of that now.

    1. A point of clarification – I think this whole discussion is immensely valuable, and its subject key for scholars. I don’t agree with the characterization of data as a “four letter word” from which some recoil. It is that framing with which I was taking issue. : )

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