On the Spot with Leslie Dorrough Smith

“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?

I tell them that I study religious people. I say this instead of “religion” because I want to emphasize that there is no religion without people behind the enterprise. That may seem a truism, to some, but since our field still engages so readily with talking about all sorts of disembodied religious traditions — i.e., differentiating between “Christianity” and the “Christians” who practice it — I think this is a really important distinction that places the emphasis back on human behavior. This explanation also helps with the task of clarifying that I’m not involved in some sort of ministry or theological pursuit, which is a presumption that most of us get when asked this question.

2. How do questions of identity manifest in your research?

My research up to this point in time has dealt largely with how various American conservative Christian entities re-negotiate their identities within a religious framework in order to secure certain social outcomes. More specifically, I’ve been looking at how evangelicals use religious ideas for particular ends within the American political system. I think the most important takeaway from this research has been that the identities and other types of portrayals that evangelicals make for themselves and others shift substantially as the political winds dictate, all while claiming no such shifting at all (in the name of eternality or god’s will). Instead of calling this hypocrisy or some sort of failure to live out “authentic values,” as is often the rhetoric from those on the left, I just see this as the normal mechanics of a social group. Everyone does it, in other words, because social groups are always looking to secure their own legitimacy, and when the social conditions change dramatically, so will, at times, their own identities. Continue reading “On the Spot with Leslie Dorrough Smith”

On the Spot with Matt Sheedy

“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?

My current elevator pitch is that I study religion, culture, and politics in the Euro-West, with an emphasis on North America. When I expand on this description, I typically say that my work centers on questions of religion in the public sphere. On the meta-level this means paying attention to how dominant ideologies, such as multiculturalism, liberalism, and secularism, construct how ‘religion’ is mediated or understood and thus how it functions to regulate group identities in particular ways. As for methodology, I tend to rely on ideology critique, along with discourse and narrative analysis (including theories of affect and rhetoric)  to examine the various ways that religion and culture are represented — in news media, film, and popular culture. While my data is, in theory, open to any groups that make these sort of claims, I tend to focus on insiders and outsiders representations of Islam, (North American) Indigenous traditions, atheism, and Christianity.

2. How do questions of identity manifest in your research?

Questions of identity are often central to kind of work that I do. For example, I’ll look at popular examples of how religion (or secularism) is narrated (e.g., by pundits, politicians, or in pop culture) as instances of identity formation. Here the focus is on how actors attempt to draw lines around what, e.g., ‘Islam’ or ‘Christianity’ is, while at the same time failing to reflect upon the ways in which these normative statement function to shore-up their own identities (e.g., as superior, better, more rational, ethical, etc.). In short, this line of inquiry forces us to ask where (and why) people are ‘hiding the ball’? Continue reading “On the Spot with Matt Sheedy”

“Guess Who?”: A Game of Differentiation

When I was a kid, “Guess Who?” was a very popular game with me and my friends at my after school program. It was always a pretty quick game, which had friends gathered around while waiting for their chance to play the winner. Perhaps you recall the game — two players, each choose a yellow card, which had the picture of one of the faces on the board, and take turns guessing which card the other person has. While each of the pictures has a name on it, players can only ask yes or no questions about physical appearance: hair color, hair style, age, etc. Continue reading ““Guess Who?”: A Game of Differentiation”

Trick or Treat Doctors of Philosophy

Recently on Twitter, I was reflecting about the everyday encounters where the study of religion (and really “religion” as identity formation) becomes a topic of conversation.

In case it’s TL;DR, the long and short is that I’m convinced that there’s plenty of opportunity for scholars to contribute to public discourse if we hold vigilant in our commitment to observation and intelligibility. To me, the minute that we insist upon our expertise at the expense of our willingness to explain our point is when we’ve shifted a potential exchange with someone into an effort to change the other.

A really long essay explaining that "TL;DR" means "too long, didn't read," and advocating readers to "be precise."
A long explanation of what “TL;DR” or “too long; didn’t read,” means. Wikipedia, October 15, 2018.

And while I prefer to see change as a social fact rather than an intrinsically bad thing, there is something disturbing about clearly veiled efforts at affecting change.  They are all well and good when they go unnoticed, like the way I hand my kids a sealed salt shaker when they want to add more seasoning to their food. But when we know how this works, we label these acts differently–manipulation, lying, bait-and-switch, etc.

It’s the trick-or-treat conundrum. Continue reading “Trick or Treat Doctors of Philosophy”

When You Don’t Look the Part

I brought my car to the dealership recently to have some work done. While the service department — interesting they’re called “service” and not “mechanics,” signaling (or suggesting?) perhaps a higher level of expertise — was working on my car, I started checking out some of the cars in the showroom. As I started eyeing the car I hope to get in a few years, I expected to be interrupted by a salesperson who would come running over to try and sell me on the car. Continue reading “When You Don’t Look the Part”

Green, St. Patrick’s Day, and the Politics of Identity

By Andie Alexander

As you likely know, Friday last was St. Patrick’s Day, so, of course, many people were donning green apparel, drinking green beer, etc. As St. Patrick’s Day is one of my favorite holidays, I’ve never put much thought into the whole “green thing.” Growing up, I remember my elementary school teachers encouraging us to wear green every March 17th so that we didn’t get pinched! (And yes, you were fair game for a pinching if you weren’t wearing green — grade school kids can get a little too into the free-license to pinch, i.e., sanctioned violence one day a year.)

While jokingly discussing the necessity of wearing green on St. Patrick’s Day, I began to wonder why we were wearing green and decorating with shamrocks. Having assumed it had to do with the rich emerald green landscape of Ireland, I had never thought twice about it. But now, insisting that green must be worn, I decided to “go to Google” to find out what was up with all the green. Continue reading “Green, St. Patrick’s Day, and the Politics of Identity”

On Online Selves


In a recent interview, the creator and primary writer of the British anthology series, Black Mirror, Charlie Brooker, offered the following commentary on selves and social media.

Social media has made it…, and the internet and technology in general, has sharpened all of those things — I guess they’ve always been there, that performative nature of life, has always been there, that you sort of perform your personality, I guess, to everyone, on some level. I remember…, my theory is that we’ve got…, that we used to have several personalities and now we’re encouraged to have one, online. By which I mean…, I remember once having a birthday party and people from different aspects of my life showed up…, and I behaved differently with all of these people, in the real world, but once they were all together in one space, and they were all mingled in, in one group, if I walked over to them I suddenly didn’t know how to speak. Do you know what I mean? Because like, with some of them I’d try to be all intellectual and erudite and with others I’d just swear and curse and be an idiot. And suddenly when they’re all in one space I don’t know who I am. And I kind’a feel like one sort of thing is that online you’re encouraged to perform one personality for everyone. And I wonder if that’s one of the things that’s feeding into the kind of polarization that seems to be going on…. I think that lends itself to group-think, in some way… I wonder if we’re better equipped to deal with having slightly different personas…, that come out when you interact with different types of people.

For the full interview, see 28:46 onward from this episode of Fresh Air.

Watch the trailer for the newly released third season:

The Manly Vasectomy: When a Symbol Gets Snipped


Some of you may have heard the recent hubbub surrounding urology clinics that are running March Madness specials. The idea is that men might be more likely to have the procedure done if their recovery can be timed to coincide with a period of sports-related TV watching that might otherwise be considered indulgent. As Time magazine tells it, the practice of advertising vasectomies with March Madness isn’t particularly new, but simply makes public a scheduling trend that had already long been in place, one initiated by men themselves. Time also reports that for those who like their sports with pizza, there is also at least one urology clinic that will throw in a pie with one’s procedure to accompany that bag of frozen peas.

This might strike many as somewhat laughable, but for me it reveals a rather ordinary (if often interesting) practice by which we socially negotiate the demise of a critical symbol. If one’s virility — the marker of manhood across the millennia — is now gone thanks to a vasectomy, then that masculinity can be rebuilt simply by symbolically interjecting a masculinized sporting event (and presumably being pampered by one’s wife, as these adds often imply) on the procedure’s other side. Continue reading “The Manly Vasectomy: When a Symbol Gets Snipped”