Religion Snapshots is a new feature with the Bulletin for the Study of Religion blog, where a number of contributors are asked to briefly comment on popular news items or pressing theoretical issues in the field, especially those topics relating to definitions, classification and method and theory in the study of religion more generally.
Question: What are your thoughts on scholars of religion using the term “data” to designate individuals or groups of people in their work? Can this serve certain useful purposes or does it cause more problems by being perceived as de-humanizing, apart from its intended effects?
Eoin O’Mahony: This is an issue that I have confronted in my own work on the representation of religion in Ireland and discourses of the secular. People are data when they can be scaled as such. What I mean by this is that, for analytical purposes, the research calls into being a scale at which s/he believes s/he will be understood. To imply that people’s experience and practice can be quantified as data draws these into other relations which are quantifiable.
When drawn into these relations, a sense of the public is often invoked. This public is seen to be self-creating except when it is politically inconvenient to do so. For example, when two children from the Roma ethnic group in Ireland were taken into state care earlier this week, the Roma became data. ‘They’ are different and not like us; ‘they’ have been shown to abduct children in the past.
On a very ordinary and academic basis, scaling people’s experiences and lifeworlds ‘up’ is a directly political act which is often invoked to perpetuate actual and symbolic violence. This often happens when we speak about religious minorities too: Islamism says… Protestants are more likely to… and so forth.
Kelly Baker: Data makes me flinch. No, that is not entirely accurate. The term “data” when applied to the people who we study makes me flinch. This physical reaction is a learned response to the overuse of the term, and it communicates more deep-seated ambivalence than displeasure. This might be because I am trained as a religious historian who relies upon ethnographic methods. Ethnographers, more than historians, engage the question of how scholars relate, analyze, and write about our conversants, and they realize the futility of so-called objective distance. The power dynamics of scholarship, then, are not taken for granted.
In my book on the Klan, I wrangled with the ethics of portraying the words and actions of historical actors, especially those people who make us uncomfortable. These Klansmen and Klanswomen didn’t ask to be data, but my choices made them into objects of study. This disquiets me. I fear the dehumanizing power of the scholarly gaze. Our work as scholars always objectifies what we study. Monica Miller makes an eloquent case for the use of “data” as a way to protect “real” people from the dehumanizing aspects of scholarship. I like this sentiment; I am still unsure about “data.”
Data is mutually constituted in our interactions, analysis, and writing. Data, then, are glimpses of the complexity of both the worlds we inhabit and the worlds we attempt to analyze. We corral intricacies, nuances, subtleties, and entanglements into narrative frames. To me, relying on the term reflects a sterile distillation of what we do. Life’s messiness overflows the neatness of data. Therein lies my discomfort.
Travis Cooper: People are data. Pentecostal prayer meetings are data. Texts including scripture, theological manuals, women’s home journals, and blog sites are data. Media coverage on “religions” is data. Religious Studies departmental meetings are data. AAR program lists are data. Everything bears potential as some academic’s data; as critical scholars we will spare nothing this designation. The issue, though, and I speak primarily for ethnographers, is not whether or not one’s informants are data—they are. The question is whether or not they are exclusively that. We anthropologists have ethical obligations to our subjects. We enter into relational contracts with them, through IRB confidentiality forms. When one spends two or three years in the field, the data become one’s friends and confidants. People are data, but might they be, to at least some degree, collaborators?
I like the term “data” and use it in the classroom and in my writings. But I do wonder if at times the designation becomes a protective buffer of self-authorization—a defense mechanism—by which the researcher endeavors to pull herself out of the fray and separate herself from those she studies. As the ethnographic adage goes, fieldwork is messy and ambiguous. Boundaries, and even the categories of one’s identity, tend to blur and muddle. Perhaps, then, I’m actually making the case for the term; could the descriptor serve as a useful reminder to the ethnographer of her status as participant observer (and not practitioner), as researcher (and not researched)? Either way, employing the term is as much about enforcing the scholar’s identity as it is delineating one’s study subjects.
Kenneth MacKendrick: One of the definitions provided by the OED, “things known or assumed as facts, making the basis of reasoning or calculation,” suggests that the term should be used only in a circumscribed way. Data appears as such only through a particular theoretical lens. We construe something as data within a theoretical field, which issues forth from an observational or objectivating perspective. The theoretical framework creates and maintains data within its explanatory or descriptive or interpretive modelling. Data does not exist apart from theorizing.
Kate Daley-Bailey: While I do not think most scholars who use the term ‘data’ to describe people they study envision their choice of terminology as highly problematic, I am of a different view. The concept of ‘datum/data’ seemed to reach the height of its usage in conjunction with the many Enlightenment methodologies known for systematically slicing the world into pieces and parts, for the purpose of the method and those who controlled and applied the method. I need not remind scholars that this word has a history, one that has been tied up with political and social hegemonies. No one can claim that they themselves are a datum because a datum must be constructed, parsed, sliced and diced BY something outside of itself and FOR something else. We can look to a common definition (from Merriam-Webster) to see this:
Data: facts or information used usually to calculate, analyze, or plan something.
Datum do not exist for themselves… they are created and shaped for something. Now if the ‘data’ in question are people, then yes, I find this distinction troublesome… especially because of the ideological metaphors employed in such distinctions. We cut data, we slice it, we truncate it to fit our ideological needs… these images, especially when applied to a human body are gruesome indeed. They also seem to imply a lack on power on those being subjected to this language. I am of the mind that by merely invoking the word ‘data’ (like other words with long and controversial histories in our ‘discipline’) in order to distinguish between the viewer and the viewed (to use problematic ocular terminology) one is participating in a power move. Acknowledging the integrated relationship between knowledge and power, as Foucault so brilliantly highlights for readers, shouldn’t this terminology give us pause and engender a certain amount of handwringing? What might be useful in deploying a term such as ‘data’?