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 here, here, here, here, here, here 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?
I will pick up on one of the comments that Craig Martin made in his own response to this prompt when he suggested that “everything is political.” If we academicians really take seriously our invocations of the familiar academic adage of the personal being political, the premise of the question asked here begins to break down. In other words, I’m not sure how even to begin thinking of scholarship that is not laden with political commitments—or what such scholarship would look like if it could, in fact, exist. This is my problem with the ways in which the positivistic proponents of descriptive analysis often cast their work. There remains an implicit suggestion that we can somehow dispassionately report on the peoples and practices in the world—that our service to the marketplace of ideas is one of Walter Cronkite-esque detachment and refreshing objectivity.
In that way, no one is ever “only” describing and explaining. Every description is its own suggestive claim in the way it offers up a piece of data—what elements it includes and excludes, what weight it gives to insider or participant viewpoints, etc. And frankly, I don’t think that the process of making explicit one’s context and methodologies needs to answer the question of advocacy. As soon as we start getting into issues of what “should” be (whether or not we should partner activism with academe, how it should be executed if so, etc.), we are doing the work of ethics rather than critical analysis.
In my own areas of feminist and postcolonial theory, “the personal is political” as an intellectual starting point too often serves as a justificatory move toward “recuperating” marginalized identities and providing a sounding board for silenced voices. This advocacy work, while perhaps noble in its intentions, strikes me as not taking entirely seriously the implications of the personal/political conflation. If every personal standpoint is a political claim, then no one position is more or less valid than another. We are better served as scholars to talk about how “margins” (and the maintenance thereof) work to construct and regulate identities in the first place, or about what conditions need met in order to achieve a certain level of voice in a particular context.
My role in the classroom and in my writing is to encourage and challenge those of us engaged in academic discourse to reflect critically on our own positionalities so as to avoid the pretenses of being able to stand outside of my own analyses on the one hand, and to suggest no difference between activist and academic work on the other.
K. Merinda Simmons is an assistant professor in the department of religious studies at the University of Alabama, Tuscaloossa. Her research interests include theories of myth and ritual, feminist and black liberation theologies, African American religious traditions, early and 20th century American literature, transnational feminist theory, cultural history and diaspora studies.