Searching for Method in a Sea of Theory; Or, How I Do I Even “Do” This?

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by Stacie Swain

My first experience at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion (AAR) really got me thinking (edit: obsessing) about my own ‘method’ and ‘theory’ as a graduate student in a Religious Studies department, especially since I’ll be TAing in the new year for a course called  ‘Method and Theory in the Study of Religion,’ taught by my supervisor  Naomi Goldenberg. As a Master’s student just finishing my first semester at the University of Ottawa, it’s not expected that I have my own personal ‘brand’ of scholarship quite yet – despite this, I feel an immense pressure to construct one, advertise it, and defend it against the products of others – the “sea” mentioned in my title. I mean “defend it” literally – the current field of Religious Studies gives me the impression that I have to choose sides and establish my position in relation to the rift between those who study something meaningful and essential called ‘religion,’ and those who don’t take that ‘thing’ for granted.

This rift was particularly evident in the NAASR (North American Association for the Study of Religion) program, the theme for which was “Theory in a Time of Excess.” Matt Sheedy reports on several panels here. Likewise, Savannah Finver, an undergraduate student working with Craig Martin (professor of religion at St. Thomas Aquinas College), describes her experience (one that I shared) of talking with scholars whom she’d previously only known through their academic work and intellectual influence here.

In the three post-panel discussions (heated debates!), I could imagine that representatives of various approaches to the study of religion had stepped out of my undergraduate course reader for REL200: Intro to Method and Theory in Religious Studies, Introducing Religion, and engaged in a debate with my reader in REL 400: Advanced Method and Theory in Religious Studies, Guide to the Study of Religion, co-edited by Willi Braun (who taught the course) and critical theorist Russell McCutcheon. The latter course, one that mixed upper undergraduate, MA, and PhD students, introduced me to what I understand as ‘critical religion.’ Perhaps I should offer a disclaimer: if I had to choose the single greatest factor that brought me to graduate school, it would be the potential for productive directions of thought that this course made me want to pursue.

Returning to the present moment, I’m currently searching for the method upon which I might make my journey without drowning in the “sea of theory.” I plan to analyze discourse on ‘spirituality’ and the work that this concept does when grafted onto Indigenous rights discourse in contemporary Canadian politics. It’s tempting to succumb to the heady pull of theorizing theory so to speak, but I don’t feel as if that’s a steady base upon which to rest any hope for an eventual entry into the job market. Nor can I cross back over to the mainland, foggy as it is with un-interrogated ‘religion.’ All of this has made me think about what I perceive as a lack in my own methodological training. One advanced course was simply not enough to do the job, particularly as it mainly polished a critical religion lens (although I’m glad it did).

Due to the analytic dysfunction of ‘religion,’ e.g., that it has “no distinctive theoretical property” as Timothy Fitzgerald (2000: 95) points out, a Religious Studies methodology mightn’t be as clear as that of other disciplines. The coursework for my Religious Studies major backs that up: I either skipped from one cross-listed course predicated upon ‘religion’ to another (Philosophy of Religion, Sociology of Religion, etc.) or chose courses from an outdated “World Religions” and “Other” model, which tended to engage in little, if any, critical thinking. My Anthropology coursework (for a double major) didn’t question the use of loaded terms like ‘religion,’ with the exception of one course in which I first encountered Talal Asad and another on tropes and metaphor. Anthropology trained me in the ethnographic method, that data is what people do and say, or what I observe them doing and saying. Conversely, critical religion taught me that the words that I use to question and my presence as a questioner corrupt that data. Critical religion has also taught me that not only the concepts I use but the very individuals whom I claim to study are socially constructed: called into being by the context in which they occur; interpellated, according to Louis Althusser (1970); or become recognizable and get recognized, according to Maria Birnbaum (2015).

Where does this leave me now, as I start and restart (and restart…) writing the first two of three papers to complete my MA coursework? Material that will help me to construct my own methodological raft floated into view after I followed a citation chain originating in social media connections that I’ve established since the AAR: from a NAASR Facebook post, to a podcast from The Religious Studies Project (TSR), to a blogged commentary on the podcast (also TSR), to a reference within the commentary: Teemu Taira’s “Making Space for Discursive Studies in Religious Studies” (2013). As an illustrative example of practical method(s) complementary to critical theory, I fully intend to tweak select questions from Taira’s article and use them to guide the early stages of my project. Taira’s article also points out that while critical theorists have critiqued current models for Religious Studies departments, as of yet not much room has been made for discursive study such as he suggests–of a type that I find so useful for my own critical approach to Indigenous spirituality. Adding to his point, I would argue that space must be made for methodologies in general amongst the “excess of theory” that NAASR’s theme suggests.

The NAASR presidential panel at the AAR surely begs a final thought: how do ‘method’ and ‘theory’ relate to each other, and how are scholars operationalizing this dual construction (and making it work for them or not), in the construction of themselves as scholars within academic contexts? What does claiming to “do” method and theory establish, and can one not do method and theory? While ‘method’ and ‘theory’ certainly require each other and the scholar requires them for an academic project, a course such as ‘Method and Theory in Religious Studies’ should begin or perhaps end with a nuanced elucidation of the relationship between this so-often married couple and where the scholar stands in relation to their union. I hope to bring some of these issues to light in the undergraduate seminar next year.

Stacie Swain is an MA student in the Religious Studies department at the University of Ottawa. She’s interested in how language and language-use impact social and political engagement, particularly when ‘religion’ and similarly problematic concepts do work within hegemonic discourses in reference to minority groups.

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2 Responses to Searching for Method in a Sea of Theory; Or, How I Do I Even “Do” This?

  1. Thank you so much for your reflections. Even (maybe especially) being a respondent, at times I felt like I was out of my depth and at other times it seemed like I was surveying my REL101 textbook.

    The approach you’re taking to creating your own methodological raft is really a great practice.

    On the job market/professional front, I hope you’ll consider method and theory as an opportunity to show us what you’re seeing in the field. Without you doing you and sharing your perspectives, the academy is just one big long literature review. Thanks again for your thoughts. They really do inspire.

  2. Stacie Swain says:

    Thank you for the kind words, Richard. I look forward to seeing where this all takes me, particularly after I get a chance to get some actual research done. All the best!

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