Death by Area Studies


by Aaron W. Hughes and Randi R. Warne

A worrying trend is gaining momentum in the academic study of religion.  There appears to us to be an increasing tendency toward filling professorial vacancies with individuals with PhDs in area studies (e.g., Jewish Studies, Islamic Studies, East Asian Studies, South Asian Studies).  We say “worrying” due to the changes in academic climate and intellectual agenda this development potentially carries with it.  Specifically, we are concerned that the focus on textual and largely premodern forms of “religious tradition” that characterizes area studies means that individuals within departments, and increasingly departments writ large, will boundary their data in such a way that the “meta-questions” and critical discourses that characterize much of current intellectual discussion, intentionally or not, will be discouraged or overshadowed, much as Christian studies (theology) overshadowed the field in years past.

The result, we fear, will be the gradual diminution and eventual death of the field of Religious Studies. Please be assured that we do not advocate a return to the heyday of phenomenology with its concomitant claims of the “irreducibility of the sacred.”  We are deeply concerned, however, with the history and problematics underlying the creation of “Religious Studies” itself.  Rather than defer to the false inclusivity of area studies, we would like to encourage a collective rethinking of what the discipline of Religious Studies is and, by extension, what its future should be.

To examine some of these issues, let us begin with a couple of anecdotes that we believe are illustrative of the problem.

When Hughes was hired at the University of Calgary in 2001 he was expected, even though he had a PhD in Religious Studies with a specialty in Islam, to be the exact replacement of his predecessor who had a PhD in Islamic Studies (i.e, area studies, not religious studies) from McGill.  Although he knew enough Arabic to read texts (slowly!), he was expected to teach a four-semester sequence in classical Arabic.  He found this very difficult for a number of reasons – he was not an Arabist (nor had he ever, despite the later claims of his colleagues, styled himself as one); and he had many native speakers in his class who knew Arabic much, much better than he did but claimed that they had very little knowledge of classical grammar, though he suspected that they just wanted an easy A.  One thing he was not expected to teach, or supposed to even be interested in, was theory and method in the field.  An Islamicist interested in theory and method – heaven forbid!  He envisaged himself as a religionist, yet his colleagues in the department saw him as an Arabist or as an Islamicist.  These radically divergent expectations – on how he was to succeed personally amongst his coworkers in a department (who would vote on his tenure case) and professionally amongst his colleagues in the larger field (with whom he would establish his bona fides and reputation) – on a young, pre-tenure faculty member were extremely difficult.  Of about 15 or so faculty members in that department (he no longer works there), roughly half received doctorates from fields outside of Religious Studies.  And, despite the fact that the department has seen some turnover in recent years, that percentage of non-religious studies doctorates to religious studies doctorates among the full-time faculty remains.

Warne’s challenges as a graduate student at the University of Toronto’s Centre for the Study of Religion in its inaugural year were somewhat different, though with similar practical results. In keeping with the times, she brought to Toronto a thorough exposure to Neo-orthodox theology, psychology of religion a la Alan Watts and Esalen, and a complete drenching in Eliade.  That her primary interests were counter/sub cultures and 19th c. questions of faith and atheism was indicative of the composition of Religious Studies departments at the time.  Toronto was not an improvement. Eager to prove its scholarly seriousness to a skeptical Dean, the program emphasized languages and conventional configurations of “traditions.” Much could be said about those years, but two anecdotes will have to suffice: wanting to study Marxism as a religion, she was shuffled off to a few of the theological colleges to do the Social Gospel and Liberation Theology.

Her graduate comprehensive exams reflected the suspicion in which her analytical interests were held: five four hour exams in History of Christianity; Judaism since the Enlightenment; Philosophy of Religion; Social-Scientific Studies of Religion; and Religion in Canada. The Centre’s coordinator helpfully offered the option of doing a comp. in the social sciences (Freud, Jung, Erikson, Weber, Durkheim and Marx) as a substitute for the language exams in Latin, Hebrew and Greek that might be reasonably expected of a student of Christian tradition. The end result of three degrees in Religious Studies (BA Religion and Literature; MA Philosophy of Religion; Ph.D. Religion and Culture) was a candidate allegedly unemployable in Religious Studies due to being a “generalist.”

Tales of woe abound, and we will not belabor them here.  Our concern with the constitution of authorities (i.e. tenured faculty) in Religious Studies is nonetheless genuine. Religionists cannot just write the turn to Area Studies as the idiosyncracies of a particular department or departments. A quick examination of, for example, those departments in Canada with PhD programs in Religious Studies – at the University of British Columbia, the University of Alberta, the University of Manitoba, McGill University, the University of Toronto, and the University of Waterloo/Wilfrid Laurier University – reveals something remarkably similar.  This will have, if it has not had already, major repercussions on how Religious Studies is thought about and taught on Canadian campuses.  It will, moreover, have major effects on the makeup of graduate education in the discipline, and hence the character of its continuation.

We would like to raise some questions for reflection and further conversation. First, why have departments of Religious Studies if they are to function solely as an institutional canopy for disciplines in which the category of “religion” is NOT rigorously interrogated?  Presumably, that highly contested subject matter is still of some interest and worth. (As an aside, it is useful to note a veritable explosion of North American scholarly interest in Religion and Culture, evident in conferences, scholarly literature and popular culture venues.)  Yet, despite this growing interest, Religious Studies will frequently hire someone with a PhD in area studies (because it is wrongly assumed that they must know the “area” in question better than someone trained in Religious Studies). The opposite scenario – an area studies department hiring someone with a doctorate in Religious Studies – is rare indeed.

Why should we hire a historian as opposed to a religionist to fill a vacant position?  Why should we hire someone with a PhD in Islamic Studies in a position for a specialist in Islam in a department of Religious Studies?  We might well ask how such individuals will contribute to the general intellectual vigour and identity of the field at the department level, and to the international conversation about the academic study of religion.  If there is to be a serious engagement with religion as a social and cultural construction, what is the point in hiring those whose training is primarily textual and philological, and who have had very little if no exposure to the critical theories and methods associated with the academic study of religion?  We submit that if we are to engage primarily the problematic of “religion” as our object of study we collectively need to rethink our hiring priorities.

Second, if we insist on training graduate students in our departments of religious studies, but then when it comes to hiring decisions choose to hire someone from area studies, what kind of message does this send?  One practical effect is to train a permanent underclass to teach introductory and other widely subscribed undergraduate classes, while reserving secure positions for persons with training in another discipline altogether. Another is to require graduate students engaged in critical discourses in religion to choose perforce their advisor and examining committee from a pool of area studies specialists. If, and when, this is the case, such specialists may well see theoretical questions as actually getting in the way of textual analysis.

The conservative treatment of “traditions” thus comes in the back door and reasserts its pre-eminence. We need to look closely at the politics and processes by and through which a new generation of scholars is being prepared. We are not doing our graduate students any favors if they wish to be employable as full and respected participants in Religious Studies if the departments in which they are supposedly receiving their training neither values it nor teaches it.

Aaron Hughes is professor of Religion, Jewish Studies, Islam, and Method and Theory in the department of Religion and Classics at the University of Rochester. Professor Hughes’s books include:  The Texture of the Divine (Indiana University Press, 2003), Jewish Philosophy A-Z (Palgrave, 2006), The Art of Dialogue in Jewish Philosophy (Indiana University Press, 2007), Situating Islam (Equinox Publishing, 2007), The Invention of Jewish Identity (Indiana University Press, 2010), Defining Judaism: A Reader (Equinox Publishing, 2010), Abrahamic Religions: On the Uses and Abuses of History (Oxford UP, 2012), and the forthcoming The Study of Judaism: Identity, Authenticity, Scholarship (SUNY Press, 2013), and Rethinking Jewish Philosophy: Beyond Particularity and Universality (Oxford UP, 2014).

Randi R. Warne Randi R. Warne is a professor of Religion and Culture in the Department of Philosphy/Religious Studies At Mount St. Vincent University, Halifax. She is also a founding member of MSVU’s Cultural Studies program, one of the three free-standing Cultural Studies programs in Canada. Her research interests include religion and culture, gender theory, and the politics of knowledge. Recent publications include “‘Gender’; Making the Gender-Critical Turn” and a two volume co-edited work New Approaches to the Study of Religion (with Armin Geertz and Peter Antes), published by Walter deGruyter.

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12 Responses to Death by Area Studies

  1. Travis Webster says:

    This is a good point for discussion, but I would broaden it from a somewhat different perspective. As Said noted long ago, the disciplinary conversion of Orientalism from a philological to a social science specialty may be traced to the period around 1945, when “no longer does an Orientalist try first to master the esoteric languages of the Orient; he begins instead as a trained social scientist and ‘applies’ his science to the Orient, or anywhere else” (290). It has not been until very recently that social scientists ( or culture critics) in the field of religious studies have begun to challenge the world religions paradigm bequeathed by nineteenth century Orientalists (mostly Indologists), liberal Protestant theologians, and indigenous elites. Some scholars have problematized the dominant representation of world religions, but more in an attempt to render their various ‘symbols’ more heterogeneous rather than the more demanding task of conceptualizing ‘tradition’ in a manner that does not privilege the imperial structure or colonial patterns of comparative religion. As philology transformed into general or theoretical linguistics, it is true that Orientalism is now carried out by area studies specialists and social scientists in departments of Indian Studies, South Asian Studies, Religious Studies, Anthropology, Sociology, etc., who mostly still strive to decipher the symbolic systems of the world religions. While failing to notice that most social scientists rely on models produced by comparative philology, Said depicts the nineteenth century Orientalist approach as “…making the Orient deliver up its secrets under the learned authority of a philologist whose power derives from the ability to unlock secret, esoteric languages…” (138). In spite of Said’s caricature, however, philologists have long been interested in issues of method and interpretation (e.g. Saussure’s, a professor of Sanskrit largely following Bopp’s approach, crediting as founder of theoretical linguistics in spite of the particular interest in his work since his death). One problem I have noticed is that, without a firm grasp of the material under consideration, scholars will no doubt continue to propagate models generated for them by nineteenth century philologists. It is no coincidence that this is also precisely why some critics of religion make superficial generalizations and are unable to distinguish the ways in which novel religious formations have transformed precolonial traditions. Moreover, the fact that most scholars are not actively deconstructing the world religions paradigm may say quite a bit about the interests supported by its stability, but also suggests it will be a long time before there are any significant indigenous attempts to understand traditions in any other manner. Another point, however, is that while the authors provide important insight into hiring politics in the field, I believe the description of area studies is somewhat inaccurate. I received my doctorate in Indian Studies from the Department of Indian Subcontinental Studies at the University of Sydney, where I was a member of the School of Languages and Cultures, and faculty interests and classes displayed a broad range of critical approaches to tradition, religion, culture, etc.

  2. Donovan Schaefer says:

    Fascinating post. Two questions:

    Would the authors say that the American situation is similar or is there something distinctive in the Canadian system that accelerates this trend there?

    Is there a sense in which this outcome is driven by Smithian discourse critiques of the category of “religion,” where the usefulness of the term “religion” is deflated to such an extent that departments of religion collapse?

  3. Randi Warne says:

    In response to Donovan Schaefer’s second question: I would be inclined to agree, and indeed, I believe I published something that addressed this point 20 years or so ago, when I still believed that there was anything like a direct correlation between what scholars think and what university administrations do. I don’t think that anymore. (for a fuller discussion of how I do think universities operate, see my earlier piece in Critical Questions, round 2, on advocacy and scholarship).

  4. Adam Shear says:

    Interesting, thoughtful, and provocative (and I would expect nothing less from the authors). Some conflation of the impact of hiring PhD’s in area studies and hiring PhD’s in history. (3rd paragraph from end) Worth disentangling?

  5. Amod Lele says:

    A number of comments here.

    To start, the sentence that begins “We are not doing our graduate students any favors if they wish to be employable as full and respected participants in Religious Studies” could really just be ended right there with a full stop. Most graduate students in religious studies today will not be employable in religious studies, and that is no slight on religious studies but on academe in general. We are training too many graduate students and adjunctifying too many jobs. Those we do train, we do a grave disservice if we sustain them in the delusion that they are likely to be professors. But that is tangential to the point of the article, and there are more fundamental issues here.

    It seems to me that the preeminence of area studies is a trend that will get greater and greater as higher education comes to put ever greater emphasis on the job market. Linguistic and cultural competence in specific areas of the modern world is a clearly marketable job skill; along with writing and composition, it is one of the two that vocational defences of the humanities most emphasize. As long as people view higher education as vocational training, area studies and composition will grow and all other humanities disciplines, including religious studies, will shrink.

    But neither of the above points have to do with religious studies specifically. The most fundamental question in this article, it seems to me, is “why have departments of Religious Studies if they are to function solely as an institutional canopy for disciplines in which the category of ‘religion’ is NOT rigorously interrogated?” The followup sentence suggests that the question is rhetorical. But should it be? Presumably, the category of “religion” should be rigorously interrogated by all who use it and related concepts, whatever their disciplinary background. Insofar as they work with the category at all, anthropologists who are critical about the category will be better anthropologists; historians who are critical about it will be better historians. Is this rigorous interrogation enough to base a discipline and its associated institutions around? I have a hard time seeing why it would be. If the core distinction is between those who interrogate the category and those who don’t, that distinction can be made just as well within departments of anthropology, sociology or history.

  6. Thought-provoking article, I think this needs serious discussion inside Religious Studies departments.

    @Amod Lele:

    Linguistic and cultural competence in specific areas of the modern world is a clearly marketable job skill

    Sure, valid point. But what people trained in area studies teach mostly in religious studies programs is not that, but history and classical philology. I personally doubt that this adds more to employability than methods and theory.

    Presumably, the category of “religion” should be rigorously interrogated by all who use it and related concepts, whatever their disciplinary background.

    Yes, this should be the case. But experience shows that doing so requires thorough training. Ideally, religious studies programs would offer this. (To be fair, sociologists dealing with religion are often not more critical towards the use of the category of religion than scholars from area studies are.)

  7. I think the post’s authors have misfired in this post and misfired at the wrong target. While, their experiences at Canadian universities sound difficult given the training they’ve received, I believe there is something other than “Area Studies” (a redundant and derogatory term for cultural geography, imho) going on here. In times of economic crisis, departments and schools will retreat to conservative hiring ground, unaware perhaps of the larger consequence to those who have dedicated their studies to other areas. In the current economic crisis in Europe, universities are devaluing the humanities more broadly, with particular attention for those that provide immanent and oftentimes minimal critique of neoliberal policies. This I believe ought to be the authors’ real target here. It extends from hiring policies, to the fencing off of the academic commons to the devaluation of the basic principles of teaching.

    In a more specific frame however, I have a real issue with the framing of their phrasing that this narrowing will “boundary…data in such a way that the “meta-questions” and critical discourses that characterize much of current intellectual discussion, intentionally or not, will be discouraged or overshadowed, much as Christian studies (theology) overshadowed the field in years past.” Now, I am not sure why Christianity is aligned with theology here but that’s another day’s argument. Critical discourses do not arise in a vacuum but are themselves products of specific forms of knowledge production which can equate criticism with some unreconstructed form of Enlightenment. Much “current intellectual discussion” that passes for critical reflection is made irrelevant by its own abstraction. Meta questions are bloody brilliant but they ought to be ground out in an evacuation of the present conditions as we find them. Religious Studies (inexplicably bracketed at the top of the post) belongs to no one discipline or field of study. It is often difficult to get sociologists of religion to attribute any meaning to the spatial relations inherent religious landscapes (hence my version to Area Studies). ‘All places are the same except when practices occur in different places’ is the common refrain. We need a little more inter-disciplinary solidarity if we are to have any chance at connecting with the reversion to the “traditions” turn.

    Having said all of this, there is much of value here in this post but it needs to be connected with a couple of broader issues of relevance to the ‘meaning of the academy’ we keep seem to be having.

  8. Florence Pasche Guignard says:

    As a “generalist” (?) who likes (for many reasons that I do not develop here) to use specific forms of comparison as a research design, I share your concerns.
    Would anyone comment on the current state of the European job market in the study of religions? Do you see this trend of “death by area studies” in European universities as well? Or is this a North American specificity?

  9. Interesting. I was actually given the opposite advice as an undergrad re: studying Hinduism – a professor advised me to go with Religious Studies over, say, Asian Languages & Lit, saying that schools wanted people who would teach Intro to World Religions, not classes on South Asian Languages & Literature. She said that old school philological and textual skills weren’t as valued as facility with theory. I wonder if this varies by area of study, or if there’s a geographical element at all (US vs Canada…)

  10. Randi Warne says:

    I take Amod Lele’s point that interrogation of the category “religion” *could* be undertaken within departments of anthropology, sociology, or history. Interrogation of the category “gender” could be undertaken in any number of departments (most of them, I suspect). However, it has taken departments in Women’s Studies, and more recently Women and Gender Studies to get that work done. As folks know, I think we should be gender-critical across the board. I similarly think that “religion” is a cultural artifact that requires rigorous interrogation and analysis irrespective of one’s own belief systems or lack thereof. However, as with gender, “religion” seems to be a category where folks think they can garble out any number of un(der)-examined assumptions or beliefs, and do so with impunity. (Tell me this doesn’t happen in the academy.) Yet another complication is the set of biases and assumptions upon which (for example) the social sciences were built and on which they continue to stand – but perhaps that is a discussion best undertaken in another post. My concern is that people who are employed as critical scholars have critical training in the study of religion – just the same way as I think all scholars need to be gender-critical in their analyses, if their analyses are to be sound.

  11. Jeff Wilson says:

    I scratched my head a bit at this post when it was originally posted over the summer, and re-reading I’m still not sure I fully follow the argument. Perhaps the authors conceive of “area studies” in a different manner than I do? Since my program has been mentioned by name here, it seemed worth crunching the statistics.

    The make-up of the Waterloo Dept of Religious Studies is 9 Religious Studies PhDs, 5 Theology PhDs, 1 Th.D., and 1 Asian Studies PhD. On the other side of the joint Waterloo/WLU PhD in Religious Studies, the make-up of the WLU Dept of Religion and Culture is 3 Sociology PhDs, 2 Anthropology PhDs, 1 Religious Studies PhD, 1 Psychology PhD, 1 Women’s Studies PhD, 1 Asian Languages and Literature PhD, and 1 International Relations PhD.

    So almost all of Waterloo’s faculty have degrees in (especially) Religious Studies or (fewer but still significant) Theology, while WLU’s dept is dominated by degrees in the social sciences. That’s a significant difference, and when you look at the history, it’s notable that WLU has shifted in recent years: since the joint PhD program was created, WLU has replaced 4 retiring Religious Studies PhDs with 4 faculty holding other degrees (almost all social sciences), altering the nature of the dept. This seems related to some of the concerns of the original post. Nonetheless, the only area studies that I discern on this list (correct me if you have a differing view of what constitutes area studies) are 1 Asian Studies PhD and 1 Asian Languages and Literature PhD: the former focuses on anthropology of modern Sikhism, not textual or premodern issues as the authors fear, while the latter is indeed an expert on ancient Indian subcontinent Buddhism. Maybe the authors consider Women’s Studies to be an area studies field? That person focuses on ethnography of contemporary witchcraft. Is International Relations an area studies field? That person focuses on contemporary transnational Islam. So, not really a lot of textual or premodern stuff in those two cases. However, if I understand Randi’s reply to Amod, the lack of RS faculty in the WLU dept would still more or less fit her concerns, right?

    When you look more closely at who is involved in delivering the PhD program specifically (i.e. paying attention to the specific faculty members who are supervisors, teach PhD courses, and/or regularly sit on dissertation committees), it is almost entirely the Religious Studies faculty (not the Theology faculty) at Waterloo; the situation at WLU is different because the dept is smaller, so almost all of them are by necessity involved in some fashion, regardless of specific training or area of specialty.

    I don’t know the situation at the other programs listed well enough to comment (I know colleagues at almost all of these institutions, but didn’t graduate from any of them and so won’t presume to speak for them). Maybe if they chimed in, it would further clarify the situation that Aaron and Randi are concerned about?

    Aaron and Randi, is the real issue here not “death by area studies” specifically, but “death by RS depts hiring faculty with non-RS degrees, whether or not those degrees happen to be area studies or some other non-RS field”? Or is there something particular about area studies that is uniquely calling forth this post?

  12. Dan says:

    From the perspective of someone who got a PhD in an area of Asia, our problem is we don’t get jobs anywhere else but in religious studies departments. No matter how much we do history, we can’t get jobs in history departments. Anthro departments won’t have us (we would be better received there if we studied peoples who don’t have texts of their own, or ideas of their own). And to tell the truth we don’t like it that our area of study *only* finds support in religious studies, because this results in institutionalizing a skewed vision of what those areas of Asia are about. They most definitely are not *just* areas with religions, but a lot more besides. And it’s exactly the other stuff that needs to be addressed for anything like ‘adequate representation.’ Thank you religious studies for having us, but really, we’d rather be somewhere else. And Asia deserves better from the academy. Meanwhile, make good use of the area studies people, because they have a lot of interesting ideas about the religions of those areas, honest.

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