On Interdisciplinarity at the Religion and American Culture Conference

by Gerardo Marti

Many thanks to Linford Fisher for his welcome post highlighting the 1st Biennial Religion and American Culture Conference in Indianapolis. For those interested in more, I've written a series summaries of conference sessions on my own Praxis Habitus blog -- with a few more posts coming this week.

Here, I want to quickly write about the conferences's attempt to reflect on interdisciplinarity.

Bridge over the White RiverImage by joanieofarc via Flickr

Because of the great accomplishments and expansive academic network of the Center for Religion and American Culture at IUPUI, the conference provided a unique opportunity to draw several conversations together. So, it's not surprising that the theme integrating the conference was the question of interdisciplinarity – What are the possibilities for a productive interchange between disciplines that study American religion? The question turns out to be more significant than I anticipated. Although not all fields were represented, the two-day dialogue engaged people who really care about cross-disciplinary work and who, in some degree, have already done it.

To pursue the question, the conference highlighted scholars who have made outstanding advancements in their own discipline. Yet, there is an interesting, unintended consequence of bringing in big-time academics. Here's what I mean.

To be an outstanding scholar very often means confounding the prevailing wisdom of a particular field. When professional boundaries are breached, scholars are forced to address issues and concerns often taken for granted by their own colleagues. Further, when these scholars achieve notoriety, they are caught up in debates (often defending their work) arguing and addressing issues within their own discipline. So when these scholars give 15 minute presentations catching people up to “the state of the discipline,” they end of talking about issues that lie at the very center of their own fields.

White River State ParkImage by navets via flicker

Because panelists spend so much time talking in the context of central issues and debates within their own fields and the conversation happens in such a summary fashion, discussions that may be stimulating to historians (for example) become nearly untranslatable to me as an outsider. On the other side, I felt there was not enough sociologically sensitive discussions to address my own concerns -- at the same time I'm sure historians thought far too much was said about topics that don’t seem to matter much at all.

This has nothing to do with the value of each scholar’s contribution, only with the difficulty of addressing an academically diverse audience. Such are the perils of interdisciplinary conversation. Certainly there are challenges to continuing cross-disciplinary dialogues and making them more productive.

On a friendly note, perhaps future conferences would benefit by greater intentionality to include discussions that addresses confusions and misunderstandings that occur when scholars attempt to cross disciplinary lines. Future conversations might include scholars who explicitly address the process of learning to work the boundaries from those academics who occupy the gaps and successful researchers who have navigated their own disciplinary waters while remaining open to issues beyond their home base.

In my own case, I was sad to see how the rich contributions of sociology are being missed by many scholars of religion, and a bit of "translation work" might unlock those analytical resources. Perhaps sociologists are not doing what they can to make knowledge more accessible. How have scholars in other disciplines learned to productively mine the field?

Indianapolis White RiverImage by vanrooy_13 via Flickr

Other scholars can address similar issues, and I can already see the conversation from other areas that says, "You did what? Here's what you might consider next time..." With sociologists, too many scholars studying religion see Stark and Finke's "Rational Choice Approach" as THE contemporary sociological approach to religion. That's just wrong; the field is much more varied and nuanced, and the critiques against Marketplace Religion can be quite severe. Let's help each other draw out each other's analytical resources.

Besides learning to "think" better, It may also be profitable to mix in younger scholars to address today's challenges of writing, publishing, and funding across the disciplines. They can also speak to the way they have benefited by the sponsorship and mentoring of senior colleagues in the crossing between disciplines -- perhaps venture a discussion on the tensions and conflicts involved in the process.

Also, this conference smartly avoided tales of "the monograph," yet other helpful discussions could have guided us on alternative venues for creating conversational spaces (for example, this blog was mentioned), and the potential for monies of various types of research and collaboration.

These are just a few of my ideas. I'm sure many of you could add your own.

In these and other occasions, I appreciate the progressive broadening of relationships, love the encounter with ever-new streams of research literature, and progressively gain a more substantive understanding of various methodological and theoretical approaches to studying the richness of human behavior. I had a great experience at the conference and am eager for more. And I basked in the very "spirit" of the conference, a gathering of people eager to learn from one another. Whether the occasion is casual or formal, let's all do that a whole lot more.


Seth Dowland said…
Thanks to both Gerardo and Linford for posting about the conference. I was there, as well, and I found the conference rewarding and fun. Thanks to Phil Goff, Becky Vasko, and the faculty & staff at the center for putting together such a wonderful weekend.

Like Gerardo, though, I was struck by a sense that the sociologists and historians were, at times, talking past one another. There was a slipperiness to these interdisciplinary conversations that seemed almost inevitable from my perspective. A few presenters rattled off lists of the scholars that shaped their work. The historians' lists were predictable and familiar to me (a historian), while the sociologists' lists were foreign. That's the product of our training in separate departments; we read different things in graduate school and then write in the spirit of those scholars whose work inspired us. That is, to a certain extent, inevitable. But Gerardo issued a plea in the last session of the conference for all of us to be more aware of the translation work we need to do in our scholarship: we need to tell our colleagues in other fields not only what we've discovered but how it speaks to conversations within our own disciplines.

There's a limit to interdisciplinary work; sometimes we are at our best, as several presenters reminded us, when we're true to the methodologies of our home fields. Plus, interdisciplinary work is often slow and difficult, and younger scholars facing the job market and the quest for tenure need to ramp up quickly. But I think conversations like those we had in indianapolis are worthwhile and invigorating. I know I left with a renewed sense of the possibilities for my own work and an appreciation for the diversity of scholarship in the field of American religion.
rjc said…
As I read these reports (and thanks to Gerardo and Linford for them), I wonder about one discipline that seems to be left out of the discussion: I'm hearing about sociologists and historians, but what about people in religious studies? Were there people at the conference who identified themselves as such, and how did they fit into the interdisciplinary conversation?

It makes sense to me that historians may not be aware of sociological work, given their disciplinary training, and vice versa, but there are also religious studies PhD programs that require students of American religion to be trained in both history and sociology. Obviously, these programs don't create experts in either field, but they don't intend to: they intend to create something interdisciplinary. UCSB and UNC, for instance, are two religious studies programs that come to mind that have produced some excellent scholars of American religion.

Any sense of how religious studies figures into the mix?
rjc said…
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rjc said…
I just re-read Linford's post and see that "religionists" were the second-most self-identified group behind historians, with sociologists coming in third. I assume "religionists" are religious studies folks? I missed that the first time around.

Still, I'm curious about how that discipline (my own discipline) fit into the interdisciplinarity conversation at the conference.
Paul Harvey said…
Seth: Any chance you could put together your thoughts formally and send along a guest post, since you were in attendance and this would give us another view from someone present? Thanks for considering -- Paul
fatedplace said…
At major religious studies department, like UCSB for instance, that the sociology of preference is NOT (and hasn't been for a long time) Stark & Finke. In that department credit goes to Wade Clark Roof for preventing many grads from embracing that path.
rjc said…
That's right, and it isn't only Clark Roof; Roger Friedland and Mark Juergensmeyer, and a little earlier Phillip Hammond, also provide excellent training in social theory and sociological approaches to the study of religion at UCSB, all far from the rational choice models that for some reason American religious historians seem to be more familiar with when they think of sociology of religion.

Unfortunately I was unable to be at the conference, so I am curious to hear more about it from those who were there.