Notes from the field

In early June, the SSRC program on religion and the public sphere convened twelve advanced graduate students and five distinguished professors for a five-day dissertation workshop on religion and international affairs. Over the course of the workshop, students shared their ongoing work, considered critiques from student and faculty participants, and debated the coherence of the very banner under which they had been gathered.

Throughout the summer, a group of these students will blog regularly for The Immanent Frame, sharing notes and reflections on their emerging research, as well as other insights and questions, ruminations and observations.

Browse all recent contributions below. Read contributions to the 2010 Notes from the field forum here.

September 19th, 2011

Thoughts on Near Eastern legal culture

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My colleagues at The Talmud Blog asked me to provide a guest post about my research interests.

Read Thoughts on Near Eastern legal culture.
September 12th, 2011

From Oneida to the world (part I)

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Tucked in a quiet corner of upstate New York, around a bend in a lonely road, there stands a dramatically large brick building that once housed 300 radical Christian communists. The Oneida Community Mansion House was home to a group of Christians who shared everything among themselves, from possessions to labor. To share as they did required being in each other’s immediate presence with limited interaction with outsiders. How, then, did the Oneidans imagine themselves to connect to the world at all, let alone serve as a model for a new way of global life?

Read From Oneida to the world (part I).
August 30th, 2011

Understanding resacralization (part 3)

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Should religious discourse be welcomed in the public sphere, or should we require that it first be translated into secular terms? Part of the concern in the debate is that such translation would be demeaning to religiously-committed people, and that they would be unwilling to do this. But in something like the Rimini Meeting it seems that the opposite is the case—translation into secular idiom may in fact be an attractive prospect to religious groups: an attempt to retain a freshness of content by changing the form, a way to express their way of life in a public forum that might invite those who might otherwise steer clear.

Read Understanding resacralization (part 3).
August 29th, 2011

Understanding resacralization (part 2)

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The Rimini Meeting is run almost entirely by unpaid volunteers. Everything from the physical construction and take-down of the arena, to its cleaning staff, to the various literary, scientific and artistic exhibits, to food services, is the prerogative of around 4,000 unpaid volunteers who give up their vacation time and pay money (covering their own travel and lodging costs) to work at this event. […] I interviewed nearly 100 of these volunteers, including university students, factory workers, entrepreneurs, lawyers, doctors, housewives, and retirees. Among the questions I asked them was whether they would consider the Meeting a “religious” event. Nearly half of them immediately replied “no.” A handful replied “yes” right away, and the rest couched with “it depends.” But regardless of the initial answer, they all offered very much the same explanation.

Read Understanding resacralization (part 2).
August 29th, 2011

Affect vs. global totality

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The tricky thing about global imaginaries unlike other social imaginaries is the issue of totality. Whereas other kinds of social imaginaries (e.g. nations, publics, counterpublics, commons, etc.) can shore up identity by posing an external or excluded other, there are few possibilities of exclusion in the global. That does not mean, however, that we are doomed to some global apolitical homogeneity. Affect, when understood as a mode of investment through which social meaning is organized, opens a field of difference without succumbing to the closure of totality or the sedimentation of oppositional identity.

Read Affect vs. global totality.
August 20th, 2011

The Help, ethnography, and ickiness

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This is a post about the politics of representation, postcolonial theory, and the Hollywood movie, The Help. And it begins with my Mom.

Read The Help, ethnography, and ickiness.
August 18th, 2011

Normative demands of Islamic studies scholarship

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As a lawyer, I appreciate the critical importance of historical inquiry to contemporary legal challenges; as a historian, I resist attempts to demand normative outcomes from historical research. Balancing these disparate commitments is no easy feat and the endeavor warrants restraint.

Read Normative demands of Islamic studies scholarship.
August 15th, 2011

A struggle between faith and human action? Or, a question of apples and oranges

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But then here, on another level, a question similar to that of the Christians above arises: when is human action deemed to veer away from this will of nature and the universe?

Read A struggle between faith and human action? Or, a question of apples and oranges.
August 15th, 2011

A question on affect

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To write about something that is noncognitive and asignifying requires an incredible stomach for loss; whatever we write about affect necessarily entails the alienation of the very thing we are trying to describe.  Is the best strategy to make affect’s necessary absence from our texts as apparent as possible?

Read A question on affect.
August 9th, 2011

Religion in the call center

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When I set out to examine the lifestyle changes of employees working night shifts in India’s call centers, I was surprised to discover how outsourcing highlights some of the important tensions between new modes of secularity and new religious modernities emerging around the world.

Read Religion in the call center.
August 9th, 2011

Understanding resacralization (part 1)

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Dominant accounts of the religion-modernity relationship, at least among sociologists of religion in the US, have tended to focus mainly on what falls into these categories of decline, capitulation, withdrawal, or confrontation. But the Rimini Meeting and its offshoots are among a host of new phenomena that really don’t fit into the above, and seem to warrant a different category.

Read Understanding resacralization (part 1).
August 4th, 2011

Transmitting “secular” oral traditions

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Why does our academic culture operate under the assumption that “secular” education is fundamentally distinct from or superior to non-“secular” education? The stereotypical notion is that “religious” knowledge is communicated through a ritualized process that emphasizes a teacher-student relationship, whereas “secular” knowledge is conveyed through critical, open discussions and less hierarchical relationships. But how different is the Western academy, really?

Read Transmitting “secular” oral traditions.
August 4th, 2011

Why I don’t read non-fiction from Barnes and Noble, and why that’s a problem for public scholarship; or, what I learned in third grade about epistemology and essentialization

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I have not been interested in the Barnes and Noble non-fiction section for a long time. There might be a few history books that catch my eye, or a few recent works of book-length journalism that show me how to do what I claim to do—which is ethnography—with an eye for detail, insight, and refreshingly clear prose. Yet most of the stuff that’s there—particularly in the social sciences section—is pretty basic, often uninteresting, and available for free (to me) in more rigorous form on JSTOR.

Read Why I don’t read non-fiction from Barnes and Noble, and why that’s a problem for public scholarship; or, what I learned in third grade about epistemology and essentialization.
July 29th, 2011

Avitabile’s handwriting

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Pietro della Valle. Pietro della Valle was a highly sociable geek with an interest in all things Middle Eastern, c. 1620. His extensive surviving personal correspondence, preserved in the Vatican Archives in Rome, allows me to reconstruct the far-flung intellectual community of which he was a part. By exploring Della Valle and his world, I hope to discover why Europeans suddenly became so interested in Arabic and other “Orientalist” studies in the early seventeenth century, and how this knowledge affected the ways in which they related to Middle Eastern Christians and Muslims.

Read Avitabile’s handwriting.
July 27th, 2011

Elsewhere, in the saturation of the body

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About eight months into my fieldwork, I began to have dreams about the morning disciplinary routines at OISCA’s training centers. I told a couple of staff about it, and they laughed, telling me that the routines, and perhaps OISCA, must finally be seeping into my body (mi ni shimitsuite kitanda). The morning routines at the training centers require a heightened awareness, and it’s not surprising that it takes time for it to leave one’s senses. . . . OISCA staff acknowledge that the training style is alien to most people. However, it is thought that repetition of the routines over the year will open people’s minds to understand what the trainings are about: how to work in harmony with others toward the goal of development. The saturation of repetitive bodily experiences is thought to draw the person out of one’s comfort zone, out of one’s self, and craft a sense of community bound by an awareness of each other and a shared commitment to disciplinary demands coming from a place external to everyone, including the staff.  The discipline, in this view, circulates.

Read Elsewhere, in the saturation of the body.
July 14th, 2011

Critiquing reductionism

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There are reductive categories . . . that have been and should be abandoned in scholarly discourse because the terms are inherently pejorative. But there are other terms—such as religion—that, while not explicitly denigratory, can very rarely be used without legitimating a deeply problematic political position.The issue is ideology and not only oversimplification.

Read Critiquing reductionism.
July 11th, 2011

Prayer is technology. I think.

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My dissertation is a comparison of the use of prayer, scripture, science education, and “high technology” in four religious high schools, and I’m rather provocatively labeling these four categories  “moral technologies”: that is, tools created by (or provided to) humans that are used to accomplish certain moral goals. This definition builds upon Mitcham’s more expansive understanding of technology, and it is obviously deeply indebted to Foucault.

Read Prayer is technology. I think..
July 11th, 2011

Utopia now

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Only when utopia is understood in the present continuous, as arriving without completion, can we make sense of the work of modern global imaginaries to declare the unity of the world in the present tense. Many of the modern global imaginaries authored in America around communication technology see no bold line at the temporal horizon; rather, they understand their present to extend into the future that stretches before them as that future comes rushing back, swallowing oceans of distance in its approach.

Read Utopia now.