Social Theory and Naughty Kids

As a social anthropologist and a parent, I’m constantly exploiting the backdrop of my domestic life as data for social theory and theorization. Here’s a recent example that involves disobedient children and exhausted parents.

The other day my two-year-old was, to put it simply, not doing what I asked her to. It was the end of a long day of double-duty parenting and research, as a full-time stay-at-home dad who is supposedly writing a dissertation. Which is to say that I had already overseen breakfast and school preparation by the older girls, made and cleaned up after lunch and dinner, done a load of laundry, maintained the inbox, and made several remarkable pages of progress in writing during nap time. By the evening, I was tired and observed from a chair the toddler’s destruction of my momentarily ordered apartment environs. Luckily for me, my child’s resistance to my commands quickly morphed into an opportune illustration of how power and authority work in the (read: my) real world.

After repeating my request several times to no avail, I reverted to an old disciplinary technique that I’m certain millennial parents across the board are familiar with: the countdown. Here’s how the strategy played out that night:

Parent: “If you don’t [do X or Y or Z] right now, I’m going to count to three.” [1]

Child: “No, Daddy, I cccaaaaaaaannnnnttt.” 

Parent: “You better do [do X or Y or Z] NOW.”

Child: “Nooooooooo, Daaaaaaadddddy.”

Parent: “OK, I’m counting. ONE . . .” [Child’s face flushes with worry.]

Parent: “TWO . . .” [Child scurries to {do X or Y or Z}.] 

That, dear readers, is the performance of authority, power, resistance, and legitimization on a very small and simple scale [2]. Here we have a parental authority, authorized by legal systems, kinship norms, sociocultural convention, and force of habit, making a demand of a subject, in this case, the child. The child resists. She stamps her feet. She flails on the floor. She whines. The authority leverages the situation with threat of force: the 1-2-3 Count. The threat of impending discipline, the specter of censure. The child, fearing imagined repercussions, responds in line with the parent’s demands. Her obedience thus legitimates the power and authority of the parent, regardless of how fragile, elusive, and fabricated it was in that moment of resistance. In other words, I had no clue how I would have disciplined her had I reached the dreaded “THREE.” In fact, I was in that moment of exhaustion dreading with all of my being the use of any sort of non-linguistic disciplinary technique (i.e., removal of the child to the designated time-out location) that would  have required me to leave the comfort of the chair. I was imagining, willing, calling forth, even hoping for her obedience. The parent’s obligations to the child. The child’s obligations to the parent. Fragile, fluid, multi-sited power, extended linguistically through a verbal command, at first challenged and resisted, but then under threat of action and censure legitimated and reified at the last moment by an act of resigned obedience.

Unfortunately, this is a theorization of an interchange with a two-year-old. My elementary school children no longer recognize my weakly constructed authoritative appeals to threat of censure. The 1-2-3 Count lost its authoritative weight, for children more cognizant of their ability to resist and strategize their own powers, a long time ago.

[1] X or Y or Z = picking up a toy off the floor, getting off the table, sharing a toy with a sibling, etc. Such configurations vary per day (and sometimes per hour). 

[2] For more systematic, larger scale, and empirically-based theories of power, authority, resistance, authorization, language, rhetoric, and legitimacy, please do consult James Scott’s Domination and the Arts of Resistance, Michel Foucault’s The History of Sexuality, Bruce Lincoln’s Authority: Construction and Corrosion, Max Weber’s On Charisma and Institution Building, Seven Lukes’s Power: A Radical View, and Pierre Bourdieu’s Outline of a Theory of Practice and Language and Symbolic Power, among other important works. 

Image source: 

CFP: Religion, Conflict, & Boundary Maintenance



Picture credit: Jared Dunn, “My Philosophy Bookshelf (bottom)”

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. 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. Comparative Religious Ethics Scholar

7.6. The Religious Tradition(s) Specialist

7.7. The (Academic) Theologian

1. History. Examines what the category identify as some form of religion—broadly defined and construed—as their 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 through 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 dabble 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 understanding 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 the 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.

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 category 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 religion is cast as it is, 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 which refers 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) 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), 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 hail from departments other than religious studies and this post focuses mainly on scholars in religious studies department 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?

The Social Sciences as Ideologically Loaded, Abstract Constructs (or, The Social Sciences as Leaky Sieves)

Ostensibly engaged in the study of human behavior, the various [social scientific] disciplines parcel out the subject among themselves. Each then proceeds to set up a model, seemingly a means to explain “hard,” observable facts, yet actually an ideologically loaded scheme geared to a narrow definition of subject matter. Such schemes provide self-fulfilling answers, since phenomena other than those covered by the model are ruled out of the court of specialized discourse. If the models leak like sieves, it is then argued that this is either because they are merely abstract constructs and not expected to hold empirical water, or because troublemakers have poked holes into them. The specialized social sciences, having abandoned a holistic perspective, thus come to resemble the Danae sisters of classical Greek legend, ever condemned to pour water into their separate bottomless containers. 

From Eric C. Wolf, Europe and the People Without History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010 [1982]), 10-11.

An Anthropology of Anthropology

The anthropologist has, as part of his culture, his conceptual scheme, a way of ordering his experience of another culture, a way of constructing the reality he believes he is encountering, and he is not easily shaken loose from that secure, reassuring, comfortable, well-worn common language to which he is committed and shares with his community of anthropologists, and which helps to define his place in that community. The anthropologist lives by his culture just as everyone else does, and it is very unnerving to distance oneself from one’s culture and community, for this leaves one without a firm anchor in some secure way of occupying a known place in a known world and ways of viewing the world.

From David Schneider’s A Critique of the Study of Kinship (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1984), 196-197. 

Serpents, Novelty, and Academic Fetish

Novelty draws academics. This is no controversial claim. We cluster around the odd, the uncanny, and the strange. We gather around scenes of violence and ecstasy, field-notebooks in hand, scribbling furiously.  Academics peddle novelty. Without novelty, historical accounts blur into the monotonous progression of historical minutiae, just damn things following after other damn things. Without novelty, anthropological accounts suffer the same fate. Without the strange and uncanny—the disconcerting—ethnographies of everyday life cycle into myopic drudgery. Everyday life, as beautiful as scholars such as Robert Orsi paint it, can be terribly dull.

There is good reason for the emphasis of the novel, of course. “Religion is not nice,” comments J. Z. Smith. “It has been responsible for more death and suffering than any other human activity.” In the laboratory that is religions in America, religious peoples are increasingly exposed to religious peoples. At downtown famers’ markets or on public transportation, especially in urban centers or university towns, one can witness an eclectic blending of cultures only possible in a globalizing world. We are met, face to face, with difference. And difference, while it retains its identity, is novel. Often in American history, groups of people have responded to the novel in similar ways: xenophobic violence.

A form of violence also shrouds a frequent symbol of novelty in contemporary America: the serpent. Snakes, actually, are minor characters in a plot whose protagonists wield the slender bodies of the former, furiously, in scenes of religio-social ecstasy and embodied ferment. Although Dennis Covington’s Salvation on Sand Mountain forever changed the way I think about ethnographic research, it provokes more questions than it answers. What’s the job of the scholar of religion? Where does ethnography end and journalism begin? Where does the line between writing about interesting things and the fetishizing those very things begin and end?

Smith provides some insight. He writes in his provocative essay, “The Devil in Mr. Jones,” that scholars must make intelligible. Scholars can work toward this goal by elucidating mythologies, ideologies, soteriologies, and sociologies. We must extract from the data in front of us its exoticism; we must override its novelty. No “human datum [is] beyond the pale of reason and understanding,” Smith writes of Enlightenment thought, implying that such a modernist endeavor is a more worthy option to “the refusal of the academy” to engage in interpretation.

I’m still thinking about Seth Perry’s recent post, “Adiaphora,” in The Martin Marty Center’s Sightings blog. Perry reflects on journalistic accounts of snake handler Randall Wolford’s death by snake bite, concluding that “we are obligated to respect a faith like this, but not to laud it.” Such discourse, I’m convinced, reinforces novelty and perpetuates intelligibility. “Nothing human is foreign to me,” says Smith, but comments such as Perry’s do nothing to make humanness ordinary or to reduce phenomena to “the known and the knowable.” Perry doesn’t seem to understand what he’s missing, even though it’s there in his post: snake-handlers have facebook pages. Snake-handlers are Americans. They have loved ones. Snake-handlers are human beings.  Respect, lauding, empathy: these concepts seem to me irrelevant, or at best, redundant. They’re mute points. Understand the phenomenon, says Smith. Explain it. Make it human. Use whatever means possible to make it known and knowable.

The issue as I see it is that novelty becomes a protective buffer, a defensive screen, of sorts, by which academics put distance between themselves and the subject matter. I won’t comment on the value of said distance; I’m an ethnographer by method, so you might be able to guess my position when it comes to first-hand, on-the-ground, fieldwork. But, drawing on Bourdieuian theory, I would advise fellow ethnographers and historians that this defensive mechanism is also an advertising ploy, a journalistic tactic. Our task, in Bourdieu’s words, is to “reveal that which is hidden.” Producing novelty does the opposite: it obscures. It hides.

And, of course, the million-dollar, pragmatic question: How? How do we get beyond novelty in our writing and research? How do we actually do it?

What are your thoughts?