On the Spot with Jason Ellsworth

“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?

The answer I provide to this question is often contingent on the context in which I’m asked. Is the question being asked at an academic conference, with family or friends, or perhaps while doing fieldwork? My general response — I used to simply say that I studied religion (religious studies). Partly because it was a nice quick sentence that bundled everything up into a simple box. But it was also an exercise, as I was curious about what responses and questions people would come up with for me. How did they envision something called religion? Some would ask if I was in training to be a clergy or priest, while others would begin to talk highly about all the good deeds that religions were doing in the world. Some might ask me a question about a very specific recent news story that a so called religion had been mentioned in, or they might ask what I hope to do with a degree in something like this, and others might start talking about the need for the separation of religion and the state (or politics). It provided an opportunity to engage them on their views of the topic of religion and then explain how my own study of “religion” addresses what they were talking or asking about — hopefully extending the conversation into a variety of directions that challenged us both. This can be a longer exchange and so other times I say that I study religion from a social scientific or anthropological perspective. It’s interesting that when I answer this way, I get a lot less of the responses and questions I just mentioned. Instead, since I added the word “science” it seems to justify my study as somehow more legitimate. The question may arise on what I hope to do after I finish my PhD, or they may offer a critique against “religion” in the world — but either way my description usually satisfies them more quickly.

Continue reading “On the Spot with Jason Ellsworth”

Culture Shock

Picture 6A friend on Facebook posted a link the other day to an interesting art exhibition by Gade, who was born in 1971 in Lhasa (to a Chinese father and Tibetan mother).

As the series is described:

Paintings from his ‘New Buddha Series’ and his ‘Diamond Series’ reflect this culture shock with images of such American iconic pop figures as Mickey Mouse, Spiderman and the Hulk appearing in the centre of traditional-looking works. Gade points out that these figures show up in every corner of the earth. “When I visited a tiny village called Pazi at the base of Mount Xishabangma (8,102 metres) in the Himalayas, the kids there had backpacks with Mickey Mouse on them, and were drinking Coca Cola. That made me realise the incredible power of those ubiquitous emblems of Western culture and Western values.”

And it got me thinking: how is this art not an example of code switching? And how is code switching not just a synonym for culture?

Learn more at Lehigh University
when t
he Edge comes to town
on April 14 and 15

What Came First, the Difference or the Similarity? Part 2

Picture 4Yesterday, in Part 1, I wrote about some of the conceptual problems that I find in a recent Hufftington Post article on the ironic similarities between two sets of devotional rituals, said to be shared by Hindus and Buddhists in Sri Lanka, and the way — again, according to the article, and also the site on which it is based — that this commonality might provide a basis to overcome perceived difference and conflict.

But there’s more to talk about at the site (created by, according to the Huff Post article, a Sri Lankan-based, University of Chicago trained anthropologist). For instance, its Intro page opens as follows: Continue reading “What Came First, the Difference or the Similarity? Part 2”

What Came First, the Difference or the Similarity? Part 1

huffpostThe Huffington Post has a new article that opens with:

Hindus and Buddhists in Sri Lanka may have been divided through political strife over the years, but they have one important thing in common. Her name is Pattini to Sinhala Buddhists and Kannaki to Tamil Hindus, but she is one and the same goddess shared in religious practices by the two faiths.

And it closes with the following:

Most importantly, in her shared worship among Hindus and Buddhists Pattini-Kannaki is an ironic reminder of the parallel cultural traditions that may exist between groups divided along ethnic or political lines… Continue reading “What Came First, the Difference or the Similarity? Part 1”

In the Eye of the Beholder

edgemonkcell

A graduating senior in our Department recently wrote a very nice blog post, for our Department’s site, on how disappointed a friend of hers, whom she had met while traveling in India, was when discovering a Buddhist monk using a cell phone. (Read her blog post here.) I posted a link to the article on a Facebook group devoted to the History of Religions — a group that, despite being some people’s preferred technical name for our academic discipline, has attracted a diverse membership. Someone in the group, having read the post, soon commented on how a monk with a cell phone was evidence of decay in religions. Continue reading “In the Eye of the Beholder”

Disciplining the Violent

buddhist monkMonks in Myanmar encouraging violence, while that image challenges common assumptions about those who identify as Buddhists, accounts of such events often actually reinforce those assumptions. On April 30 people identified as Buddhists burned mosques and homes of a minority group identified as Muslim, reportedly resulting in injuries and one death. A recent BBC account of this ongoing conflict in Myanmar reiterates the trope that Buddhists follow a non-violent tradition. The author, a fellow at Brasenose College of Oxford who has studied conflict in Sri Lanka, drew parallels with Sri Lanka to argue that political interests corrupted the ideal teachings of nonviolence and justified violent action to protect position and power. Continue reading “Disciplining the Violent”

Kids Drink Pop, So What?

edgeI think it’s worth pausing for a moment to ask why the above photo (originally found here), recently used as the cover image on the Culture on the Edge facebook page, “works.” Given the theoretical goals of this research group (more on that under Identity), why this image of a young Tibetan Buddhist monk (or at least someone dressed up like one, of course)  drinking so casually from a pop bottle. What do we assume it “says” and about whom? Continue reading “Kids Drink Pop, So What?”