Posts Tagged ‘public scholarship’

March 28th, 2017

Scholar or retailer of import goods? Reza Aslan, his guru, and his critics

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Image via Ken Wieland [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons“I came to Varanasi India to do a show about Hinduism, about karma, reincarnation, the caste system, and a little known Hindu sect called the Aghori. That’s when things got out of hand,” Reza Aslan narrates in the opening minute of his new show, Believer. The narration is accompanied by shots of Aslan riding down the Ganges on the bow of a boat, saffron robed Hindu holy men, fires burning on the ghats, cows, and ascetics covered in ashes.

Aslan’s new show is a kind of Anthony Bourdain, but for religion. Each week our fearless host embeds with a different religious community. It’s spiritual adventure television. In the debut episode, Aslan visits Varanasi to spend time among the Aghori, a small sect of ascetics that attempt to dismantle distinctions between pure and impure by engaging in rituals of defilement. After making him bathe in the Ganges, the Aghori guru promises to teach Aslan the ways of the Aghori. They offer Aslan human brains and charred human remains to eat. They cover him in ashes from the cremation ground. While the episode shifts focus later to a group of middle-class Aghori that use the rejection of purity distinctions to fight against caste discrimination and pursue social justice, it is the exotic images of the ascetics on the riverbank that dominated the advertising for the show and the reaction to it afterward.

May 8th, 2012

West’s witness

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For New York Magazine, Lisa Miller profiles Cornel West, surveying the course of his academic career, personal life, and variety of public spats with figures like Larry Summers and Barack Obama.

March 9th, 2012

Back to his roots

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When writing about other people, we all should follow Pierre Bourdieu’s advice to not be too fascinated by our human subjects. This is necessary in order to escape the “biographical fallacy,” the temptation to narrate lives as if they were historically continuous and logically consistent wholes. Bourdieu is right. Our lives are a mess of disparate events, novelties and routines, strategic decisions and lapses of reason, chances and regrets, with little, if any, overall meaning. At the same time, as Robert N. Bellah writes at the beginning of his magisterial tour de force, we are narrative animals. We cannot avoid telling stories, and every story has to have a hero, a quest, and a finale. In this brief essay I recount a couple of stories about Religion in Human Evolution, reading through the lines of this fascinating work to find and highlight some of the many threads which connect it to its author’s past.

December 19th, 2011

Public sociology: rigor and relevance

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Any authors would be pleased by an array of laudatory and thoughtful comments on their work, especially by a group of critics as distinguished and diverse as this. We are grateful for the care and attention our commentators have taken with American Grace, especially given that they are outside of our own discipline of political science. In writing this book, our hope was to speak beyond disciplinary boundaries. It is thus particularly gratifying to read John Torpey describe American Grace as “public sociology.” This is precisely what we hoped to achieve. We believe that more social science should be directed toward informing our public discourse, and that rigor versus relevance is a false choice.

October 3rd, 2011

American Grace and public sociology

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Robert Putnam and David E. Campbell’s American Grace follows up on these Tocquevillean themes, exploring the contemporary American religious landscape to understand, in the words of the subtitle, “how religion divides and unites us.” As in Putnam’s earlier work, the book mobilizes the full array of methods available to the social scientist—survey research, interviews, participant observation in relevant settings, historical comparisons. Vignettes drawn from qualitative research are interspersed with discussions of the quantitative data accessible to the uninitiated. The authors draw frequently on other pertinent studies to buttress their own findings, helping reassure us that the results of their research are reliable.

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.

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.

May 9th, 2011

Explaining Islam to the public

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Perhaps no group of scholars has had as much at stake in the public understanding of religion of late as Islamic studies specialists. The attacks of 9/11 indirectly created opportunities for career advancement for Islam specialists. . . . The pressures to become the academic voice of Islam both on campus and in the media frequently led scholars to abandon caution. We reached for our copies of the Encyclopedia of Islam and sent out queries, sometimes quite urgently, to the AAR Study of Islam listserv. “What does Islam say about x?” was the way questions were often framed. We were not allowed to answer, “It depends.” What was generally desired, it seems, was a fatwa, an authoritative ruling on what the Qur’an, the Sunna, and the ulama say about “x,” not a lecture on how the historical practices of real people refuse easy generalization.

May 2nd, 2011

O tedious selfhood, O aftertaste of splinters

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It’s striking to me how often, with what little resistance, the many scholarly forums this book has now generated have likewise settled into for-and-against discussions of Oprah. This no doubt is tribute to Lofton’s remarkable creation of what Daphne Brooks calls a “self-help meta-empire of scholars trying to come to terms with their own Oprah addictions.” It’s also, perhaps unavoidably, an Oprah effect: What other books have so readily pressed scholars into sharing our experiences, our feelings, about the subjects they engage? (Could we imagine Born Again Bodies prompting a gabfest on our struggles with weight loss and gain? The Mormon Question drawing out our deepest thoughts on monogamy alternatives? The New Metaphysicals eliciting a coming-clean on the checks we wrote to the astrologer?)