New Methodologies (and the Ensuing Yawn)

Kate Bowler

The first time I heard it I was listening to the unforgettable Tim Tyson, author of the hybrid historical drama/autobiography Blood Done Sign My Name. Tyson--in the charming way that only he can do--was brushing off a question about methodology when asked about the way that he combined memoir, extensive interviewing, and archival research to tell the story of a grisly murder motivated by racial hatred in his hometown in 1970s North Carolina. When pressed, Tyson did not point to a guiding methodological framework or a series of theoretical fore-bearers who gave him permission to do what he had done. He simply wanted to write a book worthy of the story itself. And then somebody piped in:

"It's like they say: theory is like underwear. Everyone should have it. And no one should see it."

"EXACTLY!" he laughed. And then we all laughed.

When a master storyteller like Tyson wants to keep his methodological underwear to himself, you applaud him for it. I mean, have you read that book? It's gorgeous. But as our generation of scholars boldly tackles topics in religious history using a variety of inventive tools, I can't help but wonder: how much do we really care about methodology? With uneven standards of what constitutes "interdisciplinary" work and a great deal of confusion around what constitutes basic fieldwork practices or interviewing methods, it's possible that we are not just wearing our practices discretely. Perhaps we are actually methodological nudists.

By all accounts, the field of American religious history is thriving. We are witness to a boom of brilliant scholarship in conversation with diverse fields as never before. Our field is training up-and-comers with the assumption that they will have access to multiple conversation partners--particularly in sociology, cultural anthropology, folklore, art history, and psychology--that allow them to uncover primary sources where traditional historical methods run dry.

But we tend to be utterly unlike those same fields, who hold a standardized (or, at least, obsessed over) methodology that is unveiled over the course of doctoral work. Good graduate programs have a "theory and methods" course. Or perhaps even both a theory and a methods course. However, we may have to admit that, if we are taking stock, there is usually only one resident "methods" person. Further, he or she is frequently uniquely trained by another field. This may not seem odd, but can we imagine a sociology department where only one person understood the basic principles of sampling methods? 

Frankly, I love the fact that our field allows for a mish-mash of practices that are borrowed or stolen from other disciplinary purists. But we are fast approaching the moment when our newest practices, particularly in fieldwork and interviewing, must catch up the sophistication of our archival habits. Give us a stack of yellowing papers, pictures, and letters and we can tell a rich and compelling narrative that teases out the implications of gender, class, context and place. But give us a website or an interview or a site visit and we may not know precisely how far our source can reach.

There are those among us who have made mutual pacts of exacting standards. The micro guild of historians of southern religion, for example, seem to hold one another to account and have produced an exciting historical and historiographical conversation. (It's not proven, but I strongly suspect them of having a secret handshake wearing heavy masonic-like rings.) Ethnographer-historians like Tom Tweed have trained scores of their own students to combine the practices of cultural anthropology with traditional historical habits. But what about the rest of us? Who is holding us to account?

Perhaps, in the end, our apathy betrays our allegiance to a compelling narrative. We are, after all, historians. As the bounds of our discipline expand, I would be disappointed if we all became methodological exhibitionists. But I wouldn't mind a discrete nod to the foundational garments of our own heavily-dressed arguments.


jwc said…
That was me! I said the underwear thing. But, I stole it from the incomparable Anne Friror Scott. I love this post. Thanks, Kate.
Elesha said…
I don't disagree, Kate, and I've pondered these things myself--especially after a sociologist was added to my dissertation committee at the 11th hour. I wonder, though, what we historians think would be gained by more attention to theory and/or method. Is it mainly mutual accountability? And is that currently a problem? Perhaps the losses--in readability, in creativity, in narrative focus, in potential to reach non-specialist audiences--seem so much more tangible than the gains that we just don't want to risk it.
Edward J. Blum said…
as one largely trained in American Studies, I think it helps everyone to show just enough of the theoretical underwear to draw attention, be able to get into parties, and contribute to the realms of undergirding. I like to think in terms of architecture, rather than clothing, since you don't have a building without it.
Edward J. Blum said…
I think it's important, too, to consider that one may be relying upon and contributing to other forms of methodological and theoretical works (not just those deemed "religious")
Kabo said…
(It WAS you, jwc. Forever locked in my mind.) Like Elesha, I think the attention to methodology has to prove its worth and continue to allow us the compelling story lines we do best. And just as Ed said, we should gesture to the foundation before building the whole artifice. But I need there to be a referee when every visit is called "ethnographic observation" or every conversation an "interview" (with a lame, undated footnote.) Whose practices should be our guide? Between oral history, anthro, sociology, folklore, etc. we have too many choices! Which may breed sloppiness.
Great post, Kate! I would just add that I've never been convinced that one must sacrifice narrative and readability for theoretical precision or methodological clarity. We should always be doing both.
Peter S. cajka said…
Great post -- I think this type of reflection is important. I agree with Michael Altman's comment about this not being a choice between theory or narrative; one can have both. At Boston College, where I study,(my name is Pete and this is my ever blog response!) we have a group of historians from the medieval, early modern and modern eras who meet every three weeks or so to read case studies and methodological guides and then discuss how to write about religion. We talk about the usual suspects: ethnography, ritual, secularization, power, culture,experience, spirituality, gender, etc. For my part, I've never found a smoking gun methodology, but I find that engaging the embarrassment of riches we have helps me deepen my analyses of primary sources. Which is supposed to help thinking & writing.