Fiction, Ethnography and the New York Times

by Steven Ramey

Mark Oppenheimer’s account of the annual AAR/SBL meeting in the New York Times, which Matt Sheedy already dissected in a recent post, is an ethnography of religious studies scholars that provides insight into the nature of ethnography. Oppenheimer begins with a description of the “polyglot eccentrics” at the conference. “One saw robed Buddhist monks; priests and friars, collared or cassocked; nuns, in habit or not; imams in kufis; the occasional yarmulked Jew. And thousands more in rumpled khakis.” This description, as Sheedy points out, highlights the exotic dress and commitments of a few and then homogenizes everyone else in “rumpled khakis” spouting “dead languages” and “scholarly jargon.”

The fissures inherent in this description appear in his assertion, “They clutched biblical concordances, Hebrew lexicons, Gospel commentaries.” Beyond the issue that conference participants seldom, if ever, carry hefty reference books, his account also ignores the diversity he had just described, as all of the reference books relate to the Bible, not the Qur’an or the Pali canon, not to mention his exclusion of non-scriptural topics. Rather than detailed precision, this account creates an exotic image for readers that reflects Oppenheimer’s assumptions.

Following these descriptions, Oppenheimer focuses on one participant, Carolyn Roncolato, who organized support for the labor boycott of Hyatt hotels. After focusing on the boycott, Oppenheimer concludes the article with a quote from Roncolato, “‘The Gospels are very clear that the Christian call is to stand on the side of the marginalized, and in that case it’s very clear that’s the hotel workers,’ she said. ‘So the idea that as academics we would ignore the people around us while we talk is hypocritical.’” This conclusion conflates the academic study of religion and scriptural dictates, notably only Christian scriptural dictates. In addition to emphasizing one informant’s assertions over alternate views that were briefly referenced, Oppenheimer presumably made selections among Roncolato’s statements that enable him to create a particular image, regardless of any nuances about ideological positions or the relation of scholarship and scripture that she might have expressed. Thus, both the descriptions and the interview statements are not complete accounts but represent his constructions. How does this differ from fiction?

Of course, we can ask the same question about academic ethnography, including my own research. Both journalists and scholars construct descriptions and present portions of interviews that highlight the issues that enable an author to construct a consistent, useful, engaging narrative. My frustration at Oppenheimer’s representation of the AAR/SBL conference illustrates the limits to the descriptive aspect of both ethnographies and the news. Much like Hayden White’s assertions about historiography, ethnography incorporates elements of fiction and imagination.

This entry was posted in Politics and Religion, Religion in the News, Steven Ramey, Theory and Method, Theory in the Real World and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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