Religion Snapshots: On the Uses of “Data,” Part 1


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?

*Due to several responses to this question, we will be running a second round of replies this coming Wednesday.

Dennis LoRusso: On one hand, it is de-humanizing. I know Sam Gill faced a litany of criticism over his work on the cultural history of Native Americans because he directly contradicted the cherished beliefs of his subjects through his analysis. But it’s also about setting boundaries around what is the acceptable scope for scholarly research. As for myself, as an ethnographer, I would even include myself as “data” when I am a participant-observer, because to separate my subjects from my role in the process would be irresponsible. I suppose what I’m getting at is that viewing things/people as “data” reminds the scholar of the methods to which we are committed.

Ian Brown: It seems to me calling people “data” doesn’t quite describe what we are actually doing (calling groups data might be a little more accurate for reasons that hopefully will become clear below). It doesn’t describe what we do, because I don’t think we really study people, at least not the fleshy masses driven by brain chemicals, moved by muscles, and sustained by oxygen. I’m not a biologist, so humans as a biological entities are not my data. I’m a social scientist, so human practices, or the material remains left from past human practices are my data. Russell McCutcheon’s famous button reading, “Are You My Data?” refers to the discourses in which people were involved, not individual humans removed from their social practices (in this sense groups as data makes more sense in that groups of humans are bound by social practices). One might rightly point out that I’m not answering the question, but rather moving it back one step. So, as an attempt to answer; we study human practices and the material remains left by human practices, I don’t really see a way not to classify these things as data.

Tenzan Eaghll: The problem with using the term “data” to designate individuals or groups is not that it is de-humanizing (after all, what is the “human”), but that it assumes an objective position from which “we,” as social analysts, study the “religious.” Although this model is practical, and can allow for concrete statistical results, it ignores that we are lost in a deluge of data and we can’t see our way out. In the past century there has been an explosion of knowledge that has blown apart the traditional intellectual canons into a world of difference; Google, Wikipedia, Amazon, blogs written by your mother… nobody knows what it all means and barely anybody cares. Given this deluge of data, “the sacred” now appears as a term that is invented by the scholar or the fanatic, and “religion” is attacked by Richard Dawkins and Cultural Theorists alike, as a hypostatization of the real. I think we should be using this explosion of data to theorize how all categorization is unworked and destabilized, not by collecting all “individuals” and “groups” into traditional distinctions.

I also don’t like the data/theory distinction because it implies an a priori critical perspective from which “I” decide who and what counts as data. Our job should not be to expand the canons of religious data, but to theorize those things which are classified as religion. Let us neither defend nor decide what counts as religious data, but show how what is called “religious” is in retreat from signification, and therefore not religious in any essentialized manner (not voluntarily given as “holy” or “sacred”). The threat of using the word “data” is therefore not de-humanization, but of assuming some essentialized definition in which humanity consists.

As one of my favorite teachers said years ago to a student who used the (Christian) Bible to make an authoritative statement: “the Bible can’t be quoted to affirm one particular position because the Bible does not say one particular thing, it says a million things!”

Though this difference is constantly pointed towards in introductory classes on religion, it is not emphasized enough that this multiplicity, which constitutes the horizon of religious studies, is its own type of knowledge: a knowledge of incommensurability. For this reason, I would argue that the basis for the study of religion can never be the data of some individual or group, but only the incommensurably that surrounds the question of religion. The question of religion, religions, and the religious, as J.Z. Smith suggested, will always be multiple, and our job is to examine this multiplicity.

Karen de Vries: My gut reaction to this question is that instead of worrying about who can and should use the word “data,” we might pay attention to just how lively and variegated alleged data can be. My response presumes a capacious notion of data that includes whatever the “stuff” (bodies, theories, groups – human and otherwise) is that one is orienting one’s work around. The suggestion that it’s dehumanizing to use the word “data” to describe human actors seems rooted in a rationalist accounting of objectivity (which Merinda Simmons nicely undoes in her post at Culture on the Edge) that promotes a variety of human exceptionalisms or humanisms. While figuring out how to interact with subjects that are offended by the terminology might present a rhetorical challenge, policing vocabulary is not the way around it. Long live data!

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