On the Spot with Merinda Simmons

“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”

On the Spot with Vaia Touna

“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?

It all depends on, of course, to whom I’m talking. I admit that in the early years I was feeling quite frustrated explaining that what I was doing is not theology, that I’m not searching whether god exists or not, whether there is paradise, and that finishing my studies I would not become a priest or a nun. Yes, these were/are some of the standards questions I will get and I assume many of my colleagues do. Now, knowing full well that this is the reality and that people in general are likely not to have any knowledge of the Religious Studies discipline, I get less disappointed and in fact sometimes I wonder why should they even know. I certainly don’t know a lot about many disciplines and in fact even though I guard myself against my own misconceptions, it is likely that my own experiences or what ever knowledge I have of a particular discipline inform how I understand them or even misjudge them, so I welcome those misconceptions people have of my own discipline as a challenge. So back to the question, although I don’t have a standard answer that I give to everyone, in general in my reply I would explain that Religious Studies is a discipline within the human sciences and therefore interested in people and their behaviors, with a focus on how people use, talk, define, and understand religion and the consequences those usages, definitions, etc. have for them and the world around them. Then I would go into the more specifics, that is, how my data (the things I’m studying) relate to ancient and modern Greece and that in my research I’m interested in the way both scholars and people define religion (that is, how they understand religion) and how those definitions inform understandings of both the ancient and modern world (I might even give an example or two). If I see interest then I would explain that definitions whether of religion or any other term are one among many acts by which people come to identify themselves and understand, even construct, the world around them. Hashtag REL100. Continue reading “On the Spot with Vaia Touna”

On the Spot with Russell McCutcheon

“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?

Depending who it is I might say “You” and then wink — if it’s a scholar of religion asking, that is. So although I was originally trained in what was called the philosophy of religion — taking doctoral courses on Plato, Kant, with a very early interest in what is commonly called the problem of evil, writing one of my three comprehensive exams on ancient Greek religion and philosophy, etc. — I soon moved to what our program at Toronto had just invented as method & theory, a bit of a catch-all category for some but which, at least for some of us, meant a particular approach to examining how scholars went about their work (not to mention an interest in developing naturalistic theories to explain the existence and function of religion). So although I had an early interest in theories of religion, I’ve come to be interested in theories of “religion” itself, so I study the history of my own field and the ways we go about our work, the tools we use and the larger institutional and social settings in which our work developed and is today carried out. So, really, I’m interested in the politics of classification, as exemplified in this one academic field but in a wide variety of other places as well, dipping into a tradition that owes much to, among others, the late Mary Douglas’s work in anthropology. Continue reading “On the Spot with Russell McCutcheon”

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.

Leslie Smith headshot1. 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”

On the Spot with Andie Alexander

“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 you what you study, what do you tell them?

When asked, I usually say I study the ways in which people talk about something called “religion.”  (No, I don’t whip out the scare-quotes…) I frame it this way to shift the conversation away from “Oh, so you want to work in the church?” and (hopefully) to get them to consider what I’m doing when I make that move. Usually, my response prompts them to ask for an explanation. I tell them that my work examines the varying ways in which the category religion is defined and classified and how those definitions are linked to notions of national identity within the U.S. I’m interested in how different understandings of religion are employed, specifically with immigrant groups, in a way to standardize conceptions of religion, or put differently, as a way to Americanize marginalized immigrant groups in the U.S. So rather than studying religion, as one might commonly think, I study how the category of religion is implemented and adapted by scholars of religion and more systemic effects and consequences for both hegemonic understandings of religion and forced assimilation of immigrant groups.

While this is certainly a longer conversation than simplifying our work to “I study history,” I think it’s worthwhile to do. On the one hand, history is no less complicated of a discipline than religious studies, and on the other, our own attempt to set our field apart from more commonly accepted or understood areas of study not only reinforces the idea of religion being set apart and special — i.e., not intertwined with the social, political, etc. — , but also perpetuates the idea that religion is too complex to easily discuss. Thinking about religion through systems of classification and discourse instead of a stable thing that exists in the world, we can approach the study of religion rather differently. Of course, one cannot always get into such an in-depth discussion, but when time allows, it certainly makes for an interesting conversation and helps to get folks thinking about the category of religion in different ways. Continue reading “On the Spot with Andie Alexander”

On the Spot with Martha Smith Roberts

“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.

Martha Smith Roberts1. When people ask what you study, what do you tell them?

My short answer to this question has actually changed a bit in recent encounters. I used to answer by referencing my sub-field and saying something like, “I study American religions.” However, I now try to answer with something more like “I study religions in the US” or “I study religion in American culture.” While in some ways these statements seem quite similar, there is actually an important distinction. Over the years I have found that the former answer is pretty meaningless and confusing to non-specialists — What is an American religion anyway? — while the latter can be a bit more helpful in designating both the geographical space and the plurality of things that I might be examining. Some assumed that “American religion” was synonymous with Protestant Christianity, and so after underwhelming many a flight companion with my lack of biblical expertise, I started shifting my language to more accurately reflect what I think I do. The longer answer is that my research interests revolve around questions of religious diversity in contemporary US culture, including the ways in which concepts and practices of race, ethnicity, gender, sex, and embodiment affect the classification of human behaviors (e.g., as religious, spiritual, or secular). Continue reading “On the Spot with Martha Smith Roberts”

On the Spot with Steven Ramey

“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?

Typically, I respond with the straightforward “Religions of India, like Hinduism and Islam” or “Religions of Asia.” While the answer prompts some people to talk about whomever they know who is from India or has visited India, the perceived exotic nature of India, Hinduism, and Islam means that fewer people are confident to start a lengthy discourse about India, as some people do if I simply answer “religion.”

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

My initial intention was to study the difference between strict religious identifications and the fluidity of practice, as many in India participate in practices that we commonly identify with competing religions. Self-identified Hindus not only celebrate festivals with their co-workers and friends who identify as Muslim, but they also often pray for healing or assistance at Sufi shrines. Similarly, self-identified Muslims have cooperated with Hindus in both ritual and non-ritual practices, even serving as sponsors and performers in particular festivals. And the same dynamics play out among people who identify as Sikh, Jain, or Christian in many parts of India. Continue reading “On the Spot with Steven Ramey”

On the Spot with Richard Newton

“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?

This is a fun question for me as a scholar and an advisor. Usually I tell people that I study “the anthropology of scriptures.” And as I tell students of religion preparing for job interviews, the response to the original question isn’t designed to satisfy so much as it is to peak the asker’s curiosity. I like to turn a point of information into a point of interest by pairing something presumably familiar (e.g. scriptures) with something presumably strange (e.g. anthropology). And in so doing, I hope to have provided an answer that is interesting enough that I’m granted the chance to elaborate.

If I’m successful at this, then I get to say how I’m interested in how and why some of the cultural texts people read also appear to read them back. We know people and social interests are at work in creating these media, yet we are also aware of instances where people relate to texts in and of themselves. What’s up with that? Quite a lot actually…. Continue reading “On the Spot with Richard Newton”