Interested Descriptions

by Russell McCutcheon

* This post originally appeared on the Culture on the Edge blog.

Editor’s note: This past Monday’s piece, entitled “Definitions are Never Innocent” by Kate Daley-Bailey, was a response to this post by Russell McCutcheon, which we have reproduced here.


The way that descriptions, encoded in definitions, tacitly reproduce theories, sets of interests, and ways of prioritizing, paying attention & ignoring, is pretty evident in the commonsense definition of ritual that many of us walk around with — and, sadly, which many scholars adopt and use as well. Or maybe I should say that it is pretty evident once one compares it to another sort of description, as found in a different sort of definition. For example, just consider if the above definitions instead read:

ritual (n.): repetitive behavioral means whereby members of groups become convinced that collectivities exist in some tangible manner.

ritual (adj.): of, relating to, or done as a form of ideological indoctrination.

Failing to see that the first set of definitions carry as much baggage as do the second — though it is different baggage, of course, normalizing different interests — is a shortcoming of much scholarship.

Russell McCutcheon is a Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama. Interested generally in issue of theory in the study of religion, and specifically in the social and political utility of the very term “religion” itself, he has worked at three different public universities in the US. He came to Tuscaloosa in 2001 to be the Chair of the Department, a role he played until 2009. He teaches a variety of courses in the Department, on such topics as the rhetoric of religious experience or authenticity, and continues his research on such topics as religion and modernity. He also has a dog, Izzy.

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