A Quasi-Caricatured Taxonomy of Religious Studies Instructors

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by Travis Cooper

* This post originally appeared on the author’s blog.

As an advanced graduate student in religious studies, among other departments, I’ve been advised by or have sat under for classes a number of different types of instructors in this hyper-eclectic field. The taxonomy below represents an incomplete, overly-essentialist, and (admittedly) biased listing of said types, followed by brief discussions of each category’s posturing in relation to others:

1. The Historian (not to be confused with subcategory 7.3 below)

2. The Philosophy of Religion Scholar

3. The Textualist (i.e., Biblical Studies, and/or the Study of Ancient Sacred Texts)

4. The Sociologist (of Religion)

5. The Anthropologist (of Religion)

6. The Critical Method and Theory of Religion Scholar

7. The Hybrids

7.1. The Historian-Ethnographer (or Ethnographer-Historian)

7.2. The Social Anthropologist (or Socio-Cultural Anthropologist)

7.3. The History of Religions Scholar

7.4. The Area Specialist

7.5. The Comparative Religious Ethics Scholar

7.6. The Religious Tradition(s) Specialist

7.7. The (Academic) Theologian

1. History. Examines what the category identifies as some form of religion—broadly defined and construed—as its study subject. Think: Historians of Eighteenth-Century Protestantism. Historians of Medieval Catholicism. Historians of Shia Islam. These scholars spend much of their time in dusty libraries digging through archives (or in their cozy, air-conditioned offices perusing digitized collections). They construct high quality, relatively plausible, compelling narratives of factual and teleological value. Historians make rote occurences of past events mean something by placing them, via compelling theoretical and interpretive grids, within broader sequences of happenings. Historians tend to critique categories #4 and 5 for not paying attention to temporal situatedness and conditioned meaning in terms of past trajectories (e.g., regimes or institutions) of power.

2. Philosophy of Religion. Specializes in (the history of) philosophy dealing with religious topics and also dabbles in what sometimes falls under the rubric of “theory of religion.” These scholars find it frustrating that categories #4, 5, 7.1, 7.2 (and perhaps 7.4) liberally employ classic and modern philosophers and/or theorists of religion but do so haphazardly, selectively, and at times incoherently. This category also critiques category #1 for tending to abstain from the overt application of philosophical/theoretical ideas to their historical analyses. Philosophy of religion scholars tend to underscore the idealogically positioned and perspectival understandings of any historical, cultural, and social phenomena, occurrence, or event and thus largely function in an interpretive mode of inquiry.

3. Textual Analysis. Employs a wide and eclectic variety of methods and approaches to the reading, interpretation (i.e., hermeneutics), and analysis of ancient religious texts. Skilled in languages, both ancient and modern, dead and contemporary. Critiques categories #4 and 5 for failing to realize how important a role texts, words, and languages play in the lives of human persons. Does not function as a discrete methodology, school, or category, per se, but draws on aspects diffused throughout the other listed fields.

4. Sociology. Following in the wake of the Max Weber, Emile Durkheim, and Karl Marx, this category takes the mysterious “social” as its primary line of inquiry, especially as the social pertains to institutions, organizations, and other human groupings. Has an infatuation with numbers, graphs and charts, and predictive variables. Sees category #5—the field closest to it in terms of method and inquiry—as tantamount to glorified journalism. Finds category #1’s methods as speculative in nature and akin to detailed guesswork. Engages categories #2 and 6 consistently and uses theories from these categories to guide methodologies and the interpretation of data derived from said methodologies.

5. Anthropology. Specializes in the study of particular lived aspects of human life (e.g., kinship and/or ritual) and the overlap between domains of religion, culture, and the social. Methods: Primarily ethnographic and field-work based. Believe that category #1 (and #7.3) makes at best obtuse guesses about how once living peoples might have existed, thought, believed, and behaved. Often pat anthropological comrades on the back for doing the “real” academic grunt work, that is, going out into “the field” to collect data from “actual” people in situ. Critiques a number of categories, including #2 and 6, from theorizing too abstractly and for failing to find compelling evidence of their hypothesizing on the ground in “real” time. Challenges category #4 for reifying culture and society through an overemphasis on numeric, quantitative analysis that ultimately misconstrues both how culture as well as social institutions work. Takes category #7.1 to task for doing “ethnography lite.”

6. The Critical Study of Religious Studies. This group of scholars, difficult to pinpoint, tends to hail from category #2 but also engages in a smattering of methodologies common to #1, 3-5, and 7. Takes the methods and strategies of categories #1-7 as its subject matter. In other words, this field describes, analyzes, and critiques the work of scholars who consider religion—in all its descriptive and definitional manifestations—as a productive area of academic inquiry. Work in this category tends to be at least partially historical (read: genealogical) and by definition engages in the study of power, discourse, rhetoric, structure, and function of cultural and social institutions. Often—as this field engages in the study of the study of religion—critical religious studies scholars tend to be hyper-reflexive in that they take interest in the ways that religion scholars load analytically descriptive terms such as “religion” with meaning, and in the quest to understand why and for which reasons such scholars cast religion as such, pay attention to the dynamics of power (and boundary construction and maintenance) within the academy. Critiques category #5 (and perhaps 6) for failing to see that ethnographically derived data on “real” people constitute representations of human meaning as much as, say, the historical study of traditions through texts. Often engages in its own academic purity rituals, however, as the category is constantly on the look-out for scholars (with hidden agendas) hailing from sub-category #7.7.

7. Hybrid Methods.

7.1. The Historian-Ethnographer (or Ethnographer-Historian). Made up of scholars who blend, to varying degrees, methods from categories #1 and 4 (or 5).

7.2. The Social Anthropologist. Scholars who fit somewhat awkwardly between categories #4 and 5.

7.3. The History of Religions Scholar. An older term referring to a specific group of pre-twenty-first-century scholars interested in the academic study of religion (as opposed to theology proper).

7.4. The Area Specialist. Scholars who define their academic identity primarily on the geographic (or national/political) area studied (e.g., Americanists, Sinologists, or experts of Southeast Asian religions).

7.5. Comparative Religious Ethics Scholar. Takes ethics systems, writ broadly, as its primary area of interest and draws methodologically on many of the above categories. Invested in description and analysis of human ethics but finds as enlightening and productive the comparison of both similar and disparate systems and phenomena.

7.6. The Religious Tradition(s) Specialist. Similar to category #7.4, above, traditions specialists define themselves primarily as scholars of a particular religious traditions (e.g., scholars of Buddhism, Christianity, Zoroastrianism, or Judaism), sub-traditions (e.g., Pure Land Buddhism, Evangelicalism, Pentecostalism, etc.) or even further as sub-traditions clarified regionally or geographically, thus collapsing into category #7.4 (e.g., Pure Land Japanese Buddhism, Pentecostalism in the Global South, or American Judaism).

7.7. The Theologian. Since Abington v. Schempp (1963), these scholars do not exist in public schools funded by taxpayer dollars (or at least do so covertly). Tend to hail from seminaries and/or religiously-affiliated academic institutions. Methods vary and draw on a number of the above categories.

Finally, some questions: How accurate or descriptive are these categories and sub-categories listed above? Have any fields been grossly misrepresented (or omitted altogether)? (Combinations, mixtures, and sub-fields abound, so which would you add to the list? I’ve neglected to include, for instance, an important field in the study of religion—the psychological, cognitive, or neuroscientific study of religion—simply because, in my understanding, such scholars tend to come from departments other than religious studies and this post focuses primarily on scholars in religious studies departments proper. Related to categories #1, 4, and 7.1, I’ve also not included the field of social history as social historians tend to work within history departments.) Given the increasingly interdisciplinary direction the academy is moving in, do sharp distinctions between schools or categories pertain? And how are scholars such as myself—presently training at least partially in religious studies graduate departments—going about identifying themselves and their scholarly identities in light of these categories? What are your thoughts?

This entry was posted in Pedagogy, Religion and Theory, Ruminations, Theory and Method, Theory in the Real World, Travis Cooper, Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to A Quasi-Caricatured Taxonomy of Religious Studies Instructors

  1. Josh Lloyd-Trinque says:

    Perhaps because much of my own research involves examining the nature of Islamic studies, I would take some issue with 7.7. I think you would be accurate in the theory that theologians are not supposed to indoctrinate the public academy with a particular theology, but it certainly occurs on more than a “covert” level.

    I am sure that such categories are useful, but, as you said, the academic study of religion is becoming increasingly interdisciplinary. As a result, it is becoming more difficult to pinpoint where a scholar fits. Perhaps a sort of ratio would be more effective, i.e. Aaron Hughes is 70% “The Critical Study of Religious Studies” and 30% “History” (just an example, not by final analysis of categorizing Aaron Hughes).

  2. herbie says:

    Make this into a cartoon. It’d be epic.

  3. Pingback: Sam Harris: You Are My Data | Bulletin for the Study of Religion

  4. Eoin O'Mahony says:

    No room for the geographer of religion? The perspective is weakly and narrowly represented in 7.4.

  5. Pirkka says:

    The categories 5 and 7.2 are identical insofar as the kind of anthropologist you have described in category 5 is a social/cultural anthropologist – and the distinction between the two is now largely redundant.

    Aside from that minor point you’ve described “us” very well. We can be insufferably smug when it comes to the pissing contest of who spent the most time in the field and put up with the most deprivations. Much like the early colonial missionaries – who “we” stole so much of our early data from – no doubt did.

    It’s also worth noting that 7.7 still exists in public universities in the UK and much of continental Europe. With notable exceptions such as Richard Dawkins their presence is usually met with benign indifference.

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