A post on this site some time ago highlighted the continuing struggles of graduate students with the categories of theory and method. The author, Stacie Swain, said that she was “searching for the method upon which I might make my journey without drowning in the ‘sea of theory.’” Although my automatic tone for blogging is some flavor of hopefully amusing snark, in the face of this dilemma it is hard to snark away without seeming disdainful, especially when instead I’m feeling sympathetic. Having taught graduate level seminars on the subject, preceded by many years of teaching undergraduate courses in logic, symbolic logic, and critical thinking (okay, so there I’ve established my credibility), I have tried to assist students through this same oceanic disorientation many times. Over that time I have come up with a few summary formulations to help students get a grip on what is going on around them.
These are pretty simple, and so perhaps they look more like life preservers than battleships. These are simply heuristics, or “rules of thumb.” In other words these formulations are not impressive, so you may not want to let anyone know you are using them As heuristics, the usages of terms given here does not necessarily match usages found elsewhere—this is not a “key” to understanding how others use these terms, which can diverge rather radically from how they are used here. Nor is the purpose of this post to reform the languaging of work in religious studies. But these formulations create some ways of thinking through for yourself the different steps of the intellectual project at hand.
First, we all pretty much get into this because we find the subject interesting. Whatever this is, it is the broad subject area within which you will work. Personally, being exposed to the end of the Beats and beginning of Hip in nearby San Francisco, I developed an interest in Buddhism. If you’re reading this blog, you probably are interested in one of the subject areas conventionally considered a specialization within religious studies. I would call attention to the way the last phrase of that sentence is formed, “religious studies.” This identifies it as one of the fields of study, rather than something that would be identified as a discipline.
There are some important differences between fields such as “religious studies” or “ritual studies,” and disciplines such as “sociology” or “history.” Both fields of study and disciplines have some subject matter, but for fields of study that subject matter remains a constant source of discussion and disagreement. One of the historical turning points that led to the creation of any discipline is the establishment of the subject matter in such a fashion as to bring closure to those kinds of discussions and disagreements. I am speaking here of course for those standing within a discipline—for those standing outside, why the subject matter is defined the way it is may well remain a puzzle. A very simplistic example is alchemy—as a field of study it became the discipline chemistry when the chemical elements are identified as the appropriate subject matter. Disputes between adherents of the Aristotelian theory of four elements and adherents of the Paracelsian theory of three were closed off. With closure on how the subject matter was understood, there generally followed a similar closure on acceptable methods for the study of the subject. This is one of the reasons that students in the disciplines seem to have an easier time of things—they “know” what the subject matter of the discipline is, just as they “know” how one properly goes about studying it.
For those of us working in fields, however, both subject matter and the way to go about it are open—and exist in a dialectic. The dialectic is the relation between how we think about our subject matter and how we go about studying it. A contemporary issue is whether religion is to be thought of as a social practice or as individual transformative experience. Choosing one or the other will naturally lead to different approaches to studying the topic. Without some care, the dialectic can become a petitio principii fallacy in which the conclusions one reaches at the end of the study are in fact already present in the way the subject has been defined.
The movement from field to discipline is not, however, a necessary progression. While some disciplines have “evolved” from fields in this way, it is not appropriate to universalize from some instances to all. One important counter-example is Buddhist studies. From its inception in the nineteenth century, it has long been closer to a discipline because of the common acceptance of philology as its method, and doctrine as its object of study. In this it was, as one can see upon reflection, modeled on Biblical studies. In the second half of the twentieth century, however, Buddhism became increasingly the object of study of a variety of other disciplines, such as anthropology, sociology, psychology and the like. This made the object of study more complicated—no longer the study of texts to reveal doctrine, but rather questions such as the role of Buddhism in the lives of contemporary peoples. And in doing so moved Buddhist studies from a (quasi-)discipline to a field of study, though it retains a strong philological/doctrinal core.
Because the subject matters for such fields as religious studies and ritual studies are themselves social constructs, there can be no recourse to an objective reality for bringing closure to the discussions and disagreements. Ms. Swain refers to this quite nicely as “the analytic dysfunction of ‘religion’.” She mentions “the rift between those who study something meaningful and essential called ‘religion,’ and those who don’t take that ‘thing’ for granted.” From my comments above about the social construction of the subject matter of religious studies it may be obvious that I side with the latter group (and in private generally wonder what’s wrong with those other folks?). After about two centuries of struggling in the face of the increasing diversity of what we study, if the former position had any validity we would have come up with something by now.
My own position aside, the point relevant to our discussion here is that one almost inevitably confronts the issue of defining what one is talking about (since no one else has managed to do so except stipulatively, and that only works for the limited scope of the stipulation). This in turn may lead to the quagmire of theories of definition. A lot of time and effort can be expended just on this kind of theory. If that’s the kind of thing you enjoy doing, then have at it. You will not, however, be engaged in doing religious studies, but some form of epistemology. So, right now we will skirt that quagmire, and consider the concept of theory instead. Here is the key formula, I recommend you write it on a 3 X 5 card, tape it to the inside of your medicine cabinet, and look at it every morning:
theory + method = methodology
Theory: any idea about how something works, sometimes also called a “thesis statement.” Formulating this for a research project can be motivated by asking oneself What do I want to convince my readers of? or more fundamentally, Why should anyone read my work? Or, even more colloquially, So what? not in the dismissive sense, but rather in the serious sense of What is significant about this? What is important about this? This is more specific to one’s intellectual project than the general uses referring to background assumptions of the field, or the presumptions of popular religious culture.
One criterion for evaluating different ideas about how things work is scope, that is the breadth of a theory’s application. Another is the elegance of the theory, that is, its clarity and simplicity (see Occam’s razor and the principle of parsimony). (The philosophy of science has a bunch of these if you want more.) Note that these criteria for theories do not include whether they are true or false, but rather strong/weak. They are ultimately stories about how things work, or don’t, and as such are either better or worse than other theories. The point at this point is that theory is a very general, vague concept. As such, there is nothing much further to say about “theory” beyond what’s been said here. Theory, however, needs to be distinguished from theories about things: “theory of X.” Since theories of Xs are better or worse, it would be good to have some method for determining that. Therefore:
Method: how one determines whether a theory is a good one.
One does need to think through just how one’s method serves to evaluate one’s theory. Therefore, there is methodology:
Methodology: taking this really literally, methodology is “talking about method”—that is, talking about is how the method is appropriate for evaluating the theory in question.
That is still an empty framework, so the next step is to look at what hangs this all together.
The question: as I mentioned above, most of us get into this field because of some personal interest. The next step is to narrow your inquiry to a topic. If I may continue to cite Ms. Swain, she has a nice statement of her topic: “I plan to analyze discourse on ‘spirituality’ and the work that this concept does when grafted onto Indigenous rights discourse in contemporary Canadian politics.” This is clear, sounds do-able, and is relevant to contemporary issues. The next step is to develop the question. What question is one trying to answer? It is a well-formulated question that will provide direction and focus in a way that an interest or even a topic can’t. As the wise Scotsman put it to me once many years ago, “Aye lad, there’s many a dissertation gone astray for want of a well-formulated question.”
We of course form ideas about how things work on the basis of many different ideas about how things work. Some of these are intellectual principles, such as the principle of parsimony, also known as Occam’s razor: the principle that the simplest explanation is the best explanation. There are also what might be called pretheoretical commitments, such as “methodological naturalism,” the commitment to develop an explanation that does not draw on supernatural causes (and which then would not be falsifiable).
In the context of a specific research program, the question informs the theory. A theory is proposed as an answer to the question. Maybe the question is something like: Why does the Canadian public respond to claims of Indigenous rights when those are framed in terms of spirituality? A theory that follows from that question might be something like: There is a tradition of asserting that political rights follow from spirituality and religious values. How does one determine whether that is a good theory? This is the methodological step. Perhaps one could look at past court cases that have determined the rights of minorities—that would be a possible method.
Method is also to be distinguished from techniques. The technique used in this instance then might be something like a quantitative content analysis for number of references in court decisions to key terms, such as “God,” “religious values,” “religious tradition,” and so on. Just as one could employ other methods (such as perhaps examining newspaper accounts rather than court records, for example), one can also use different techniques (such as perhaps interviews rather than content analysis, for instance). At the level of techniques, we are dealing with very specific and well-defined tools—tools which we in religious studies borrow from other fields and disciplines. Content analysis is a technique that can be used to answer many different questions formulated in different subject areas. A hammer is a tool that can be used for driving nails, or for breaking rocks. The use of techniques, that is, of tools, requires specialized learning—preparing historical documents for automated content analysis for example, and then also the statistical skills to understand the results. Or formulating the questions to be asked in an interview so as to avoid leading the interviewees to answer in the ways one might hope they will.
interest —> topic —> question —> theory —> methodology —> method —> techniques, and back again.
The key step, and consequently the most difficult one, is to formulate a question for oneself. Any number of dissertations have gotten stuck because a topic alone does not focus one’s efforts in any particular direction.
Bonus benefit: once the question is formulated, then the literature review is also given focus—some things are in, and some are out. One may feel loss at excluding some favorite reading in the area of interest, but it is not going to help answer the question.
I hope that this little sketch, and few simple distinctions in the meaning of key concepts will help. Remember, however, not everyone will have read this, and consequently they may use the terminology employed here in different ways, or even sloppily, such as saying “methodology” when they mean “method.” Good hunting.
Richard K. Payne is Dean and Yehan Numata Professor of Japanese Buddhist Studies at the Institute of Buddhist Studies, Berkeley. The IBS is affiliated with both the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, and Ryukoku University, Kyoto.