Place, Space, and Movement in Historical Research

Trevor Burrows

I want to use my post today to ask an admittedly broad and open question of this blog’s readers and contributors.  The journal Religion has posted an intriguing preview of a forthcoming issue on the theme of “urban Christianities.”  In the introduction, "Urban Christianities: Place-Making in Late Modernity," James Bielo points to Robert Orsi’s seminal collection on urban religion, Gods of the City, as a jumping-off point for the issue, wherein six authors will consider the theme as presented in a variety of locales ranging from Knoxville, Tennessee, to Lagos, Nigeria.  Considering some of the recent posts here that have touched on questions of space, place, and movement - I’m thinking especially of the wonderful posts around Michael Pasquier’s edited collection, Gods of the Mississippi - the issue promises to be of interest to many RiAH readers.

Based on their descriptions, most of the articles appear to deal with more contemporary subjects.  There is nothing wrong or even surprising about this, of course, but it did get me wondering about specifically historical studies that deal especially well and creatively with similar themes.  A number of the essays in Orsi’s aforementioned collection also considered more recent or contemporary subjects (with several notable exceptions, including Orsi’s own contributions and Diane Winston’s work on the Salvation Army).  Over the last several days, I've been chewing on a pretty basic question: which historians, or what texts, have dealt productively with these themes in explicitly historical scholarship?  (I should admit that I'm thinking about this with somewhat selfish intent as I am considering how my own research, which deals with matters of religious pluralism and interreligious dialogue/collaboration in primarily urban settings, might benefit from more attention to these types of questions.)

A few came to mind with some immediacy.  John McGreevy’s Parish Boundaries provides one of the most concrete examples of how religious affiliations and impulses mix with geography, space, and a myriad of cultural factors to create effective borders and boundaries.  In McGreevy’s example, the lines that demarcated Catholic parishes and neighborhoods merged with ethnic, racial, and cultural interests, a combination that guided American Catholicism’s encounter with questions of race and civil rights throughout the twentieth-century.  What I like about Parish Boundaries is its accessibility and narrative, for although questions of space and boundaries are at the heart of the text, these themes are worked right into the telling of the story itself.  It makes for a rich and rewarding read that can be approached on many different levels.

Another immediate candidate, one that is distinctly rural rather than urban, is Richard Callahan’s Work and Faith in the Kentucky Coal Fields.  Callahan’s text examines the role that religion played as a mediator in the lives of twentieth-century Kentucky families, as the region shifted from a subsistence-based economy to a wage-based economy rooted in coal mining.  Callahan suggests that the early worldview of Kentuckians was grounded in, among other things, a spiritualized reading of the landscape that informed their understanding of work, farming, family life, and responsibility; as the region experienced radical changes in its economic base, Kentucky’s workers carried their religiously-inspired worldview forward and used their beliefs to adapt to their new circumstances.  Callahan uses a lived religion framework to great effect in his work and places Kentucky as a landscape front-and-center.  (Is there an absolute connection between “lived religion” and considerations of space/place in effective scholarship?)

A final text that I’ll include here is Wallace Best’s Passionately Human, No Less Divine: Religion and Culture in Black Chicago, 1915-1952.  Among its many accomplishments, Best’s work uses twentieth-century black Chicago and the Great Migration to consider the distinctly urban pulse of modern black religious communities.  Chicago’s urban religious landscape is almost its own character here as Best considers its influence on the shape and content of religious practice for both incoming migrants and pre-established churches.  As much a cultural and social history as an institutional one, Best provides yet another model for considering questions of place and space, as well as movement and migration, in historical research.

But I’d really like to hear about some of your favorite texts that deal thoughtfully with questions of place, space, and movement, especially in matters of religion, where these questions provide more than a backdrop or geographical setting and become a meaningful part of the research and story itself.  Who has worked with such themes especially well?  What methodological or theoretical problems arise in attempting to engage these themes in historical terms?  If these themes are gaining more attention in current scholarship - which they clearly are - what are some of the risks or difficulties of such research?  How have you explored or incorporated these and related questions into your own work?


rys at: June 5, 2013 at 4:51 PM said...

Moses Rischin, The Promised City
Deborah Dash Moore, At Home in America
Deborah Dash Moore, To the Golden Cities
Gerald Gamm, Urban Exodus
Joshua Zeitz, White Ethnic New York

Paul Putz at: June 5, 2013 at 7:43 PM said...

Dochuck's Bible Belt to Sunbelt immediately comes to mind. Another recent work, Benjamin Hartley's Evangelicals at a Crossroads: Revivalism and Social Reform in Boston 1860-1910, incorporates some of the place/space elements you mention, but it also tends to portray the setting of Boston as a microcosm of nation-wide developments. It seems to me that religious and cultural historians have a tendency to de-emphasize the uniqueness of a particular urban place in order to establish claims of broader importance (i.e. "my thesis does not apply to just this one setting, but also to the entire region/country/world")

religion. ethnicity. wired. at: June 6, 2013 at 9:36 PM said...

In historical geography, three geographers, Catherine Brace, David C. Harvey, and Adrian Bailey, have contributed a very interesting historical research project on Methodism in nineteenth-century Cornwall. I realize this is out of the scope of American history, but their work on how to conceptualize religion in historical space has been seminal in geographies of religion. They have papers in Progress in Human Geographer, the Annals of the Association of American Geographers, and Transactions of the British Institute of Geographers. There may be other journals too, but these are some of the major ones from their project.

Trevor Burrows at: June 7, 2013 at 3:41 PM said...

Thanks all for these wonderful suggestions and comments. As it happens, I'm attending the Center for Religion and American Culture's biennial conference today and tomorrow, and one of the panels this morning was dedicated to "Space and Place" ... I will try to summarize some of the discussion that came out of that session soon, as it helped me to clarify some of the questions I have (and encouraged me that I am not the only one with such questions).

Paul, I think your point definitely deserves careful consideration. On the one hand, I think that tendency is somewhat unavoidable for the reason you mention - it justifies the work itself and attempts to extend its meaning (which I think is perfectly reasonable, btw, as at some point we need to jump from the particular to the would-be-whole). On the other hand, attention to difference is certainly necessary and can be illuminating in its own ways. (Dochuk's text is certainly worthy of mention here - and thanks for the Hartley recommendation, that's a new title to me and sounds perfect for some of my interests)

r.e.w., thanks so much for mentioning the work of these geographers. At the aforementioned conference session, geography received some attention; it's great to have some names here to consider.

buffalodoug at: June 10, 2013 at 1:05 PM said...

I tried to deal with some of these issues in my unpublished dissertation. The dissertation, and issues, are briefly treated in Douglas Firth Anderson, "'We Have Here a Different Civilization": Protestant Identity in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1906-1909," Western Historical Quarterly 23 (1992): 199-221.

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