Critical Questions Series 2: Steven Ramey

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In this second instalment of the Critical Questions Series, we ask scholars of religion how they negotiate the difficult line between “politics” and scholarship. The previous responses can be found hereherehereherehere and here.

The line between scholarship and politics or, if you like, between theory building and political commitments, is a notoriously difficult one to negotiate. For some, scholarship should only be about describing and explaining, while for others advocacy (i.e., changing the world for the better) is also an important part of what we do in the academy. While making explicit one’s historical and institutional circumstances, along with the logic and process behind one’s methods and theories is an important step in addressing this issue, it still does not answer the question of advocacy—whether or not it should be done or what counts for it in the first place. With reference to your own experience, institutional affiliation and scholarly identity, what are your thoughts on this matter?

Is yoga religious? A recently filed court case in California centers on this question to determine whether yoga can be taught in public schools. In a declaration filed with the case, an Indiana University religious studies professor asserts that a California school system’s “yoga program is inherently and pervasively religious, having its roots firmly planted in Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist, and Western Metaphysical religious beliefs and practices.”

That expert declaration illustrates the issue with scholarship as political advocacy. Like many respondents to this series, I recognize the construction of knowledge as a political act that involves the negotiation of a range of interests. However, I see a distinction between this generalized sense of the political and the act of advocating a specific public policy. Ideally, scholarship is about learning, and learning requires a willingness to challenge one’s own preconceptions (which we often hope students are willing to do). It follows, then, that scholarship involves an openness to changing oneself. My research on Sindhi Hindus has pushed me to rethink assumptions and sets of interests that informed my initial construction of these communities, including my interest in studying a different conception of inter-religious cooperation. My work since has involved questioning additional assumptions concerning the construction of ethnicities and nationalities.

In contrast, the advocate is not studying to learn something that might challenge the advocate’s preconceptions but is presenting things in a manner to change the perspectives of others. Often, advocacy results in the suppression of counter-points and nuance to construct an effective, persuasive assertion. The expert witness’s declarations in this yoga case, for example, elide the nuance in the conception of the category “religion” and “religions” that the theoretical study of religion often highlights. Similarly, she asserts a static, uncontested meaning for specific terms, symbols, and practices, such as “yogi,” the lotus, and bodily positions, assuming that singular meanings adhere to any appearance of those elements. Political advocacy, in this case being an expert witness for one side, often necessitates a gloss over complexity and contestation for the certainty of a simple answer that yoga is “inherently, pervasively religious”.

This does not mean that we should never speak as advocates. We can be engaged citizens on any issue that we choose. But when scholars speak as academic authorities, it is important to consider what is lost when we become advocates, including our own willingness to learn.

Steven Ramey is Associate Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama, where he also directs the Asian Studies program. He received his Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, where his work focused on contemporary religions and identity in India. His book Hindu Sufi or Sikh (Palgrave 2008) analyzes issues of identity within Sindhi Hindu communities. 

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