“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.
1. When people ask what you study, what do you tell them?
Well, if they’re asking what I study, they’re probably academics. Because how it typically goes is:
“What do you do?”
“I teach at the University of Alabama.”
“What do you teach?”
If the question doesn’t emphasize what most folx see as the more immediate/visible work of the profession, it’s usually coming from someone inside that same profession. Teaching and research are interconnected, of course (or should be, anyway), but “study” is kinda insider-speak… ain’t it the way? So among my community of insiders, I tell them I study and write about authenticity rhetoric — specifically how/why it appears in theories of gender and race. Even more specifically, my work tends to have a geospatial focus on the Caribbean and the American South as circum-Atlantic regions.
My Ph.D. is in English, so I bring a literary theory background to religious studies and try to put some proverbial money where my interdisciplinary mouth is. What does that mean in practical terms? Well, I write and teach about a lot of different things, but they tend to involve my interest in when and why ideas about authenticity or realness seem to appeal and have traction and when they don’t. Along the way, I apply identity theory outside the field to my own academic study of religion. Continue reading “On the Spot with Merinda Simmons”
According to the headline of a story posted by Tampa’s WFLA news channel, “Wearing makeup can hinder women’s leadership chances, study says.” As someone who doesn’t wear makeup, and rather than continuing to scroll past the link to see the latest good dog on WeRateDogs (@dog_rates), I decided to find out how this decision apparently increased my odds of being a leader. The study, “Negative Effects of Makeup Use on Perceptions of Leadership Ability Across Two Ethnicities,” which was led by Dr. Christopher Watkins in the Division of Psychology at Scotland’s Abertay University, examined what effect the use of makeup (in this case, termed as makeup used for a “social night out”) had on the perception of women’s capacity for leadership. Though the results of the study show that makeup negatively impacts possible leadership ability, the opening line of the WFLA piece seems to draw out the results’ logical conclusion: “A new study found if women want to be great leaders in the workplace, they’ll need to put down the lipstick and go easy on the mascara.”
However, what interests me here is not that someone like me might be promoted as a supervisor over the likes of the latest Revlon spokesperson; rather, I am drawn to how the presumption of authority relates to how we perceive the world around us. That is to say, since our perceptions construct our reality, then they certainly determine who (or what) we find to be authoritative. In other words, authority is not intrinsic to a person or position. But what makes someone capable of being a leader or an authority is not exactly straightforward. Some might say that it’s a person’s credentials or their previous experience. From this study, though, notice that it’s neither of these things that makes these women capable of occupying a role of authority — it’s the way they look. But why do some physical appearances suggest that a person would be a better leader than someone else? Continue reading ““Maybe she’s born with it. Maybe it’s Maybelline.””
To make the point, the left-leaning magazine Current Affairs re-edited the commercial with an audio excerpt from the same sermon that they believe to be more indicative of King’s message. Continue reading “On Kings and Trump Cards”
(Photo: The North American Association for the Study of Religion)
Some of us here at Culture on the Edge are prepping for The North American Association for the Study of Religion (NAASR) annual meeting that kicks off tomorrow. Part of the meeting is dedicated to “The Things We Study When We Study Religion.” Three sets of panels address what counts as data and how that data is handled — specifically tackling the objects, subjects, and the role scholars in our scholarship (find more info on the NAASR site). At the same time, here on the blog we’ve been reading Rogers Brubaker’s trans: Gender and Race in an Age of Unsettled Identities. In light of the topics being addressed at NAASR, there’s a quote from Brubaker that I find to be relevant and worth mulling over:
“Yet recourse to objectivist language is not simply strategic; it also reflects the deep appeal of essentialist understandings of identity outside the academy. Objectivism is further nourished by the cultural authority of biomedical science.”
While Brubaker goes on to discuss biological research in the study of transgender identity, the above quote is rather apt and quite useful in the broader scope of identity studies as well. Though, there may also be a need to address the essentialist notions of identity that are taken for granted within the academy itself and how authority itself is constituted. In recognizing how authority is constructed it can help remind us to be cognizant of the power that resides in making identity claims to begin with, essentialist claims that nourish objectivism, often taking on a life of their own adding to a broader objectivist language, both inside and outside the academy.
The framing of tragedies by government officials and state actors in the USA and Canada this past week raise questions regarding the boundaries around “victims” and related categories – “perpetrators” or often in modern times, “terrorists” – and how such shifting boundaries are constructed and contested through strategies of naming and erasing. Continue reading “Naming and Erasing”
Several years ago, at Chipotle, I realized that one of the workers behind the counter was a student of mine, one to whom I’d spoken the week before about his poor performance and a particularly compulsive (and, for me, wildly distracting) propensity to text during class. As we were suspended in an awkward moment where he was asking me what kind of salsa I wanted, another question came out of his mouth as well: Did he still have to call me “Dr. Smith” when he was at work?
My answer, as I remember it, was stumbling and incoherent, comprised of “uh” and the general surprise of not knowing what to say. On the one hand I didn’t really care what he called me, for plenty of my students call me by my first name. On the other hand, though, Dr. Smith was not mentally in the building, so to speak; I was not expecting anyone to call me by my professional title, so I was caught off guard when it came up in a weekend conversation about tacos and corn salsa. But before I could think much more about the significance of what he had asked and how I had responded, the chatter devolved into guacamole and credit cards, and the exchange was over just as fast as it happened. Continue reading “Standing in Line at Chipotle (or, the Hefty Politics of Naming)”
Anyone who knows me knows that I walk my dog early each morning — lately I’m regularly going to a nearby park where, well, Izzy goes regularly as well. But every now and then I change it up a little — variety is the spice of life and all that — and so I park here and we walk there or park over there and then we walk here. Sometimes I park in one of the lots but other times I pull over off the small loop of a road and park on the grassy shoulder. Continue reading “On Privileges that are Not Universally Shared”
I recently finished reading Stephen S. Bush’s Visions of Religion: Experience, Meaning, and Power (Oxford University Press, 2014). The book argues that scholars of religion who focus on power (e.g., those who use the theories of Foucault or Bourdieu) to the exclusion of the role of religious experience and symbolic meaning of emic discourses do a disservice, and that all three — power, experience, and meaning — should be included in an account of religion. He attempts to offer an argument as to why all three are important, and to counter objections that the different approaches are intrinsically at odds.
One thing that struck me about Bush’s writing style was how often he made a number of explicitly normative claims, as well as a number of “should” statements, which were put forward as if they were self-evidently authoritative. Consider the following passages. Continue reading “Academic Style and the Voice of Authority”