Humility, Aesthetics, and the Failure of Connecting American Historians to Sociology - Religion and American Culture Conference ~ Praxis Habitus - On Race Religion & Culture

Monday, June 8, 2009

Humility, Aesthetics, and the Failure of Connecting American Historians to Sociology - Religion and American Culture Conference

Dear readers -- a gentle reminder that these brief snippets from last week’s American and Religious Culture Conference in Indianapolis are not summaries as much as my own brief notes of interesting and useful comments from a very, very full agenda. Philip, I hope the panelists's written remarks will be made available to us soon!

Union Station

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Courtney Bender, sociologist from the department of religion at Columbia University, launched into a further discussion of interdisciplinarity. She articulated that disciplinarity is a good thing, yet because academic fields are so heterogeneous (so many debates within, so much theoretical depth to discover), we must understand the unique challenges of working across disciplines.

We live in a world that works fast and we are pressured to do things very quickly. But interdisciplinary work requires us to slow down, take time to make connections, and take on a very different “discipline” of doing two different things. To become interdisciplinary, we must master a different way of waking up in the morning and learn to habitually ask different questions, routinely approaching reality with a different set of lenses.

Interdisciplinarity should also make us humble and modest. (Nervous laughter from these academics.) Although scholars who work across disciplines at first seem heroic as those brave people who bridge the gap and have interesting insights because they boldly move between areas, it is more true that once you get in these conversations you find how much you really don’t know. You quickly find out other people know so much more than you do!

Even when we find ourselves among scholars who think of us as quite different because of the broadness of our engagement, we must recognize that interdisciplinary scholars are often forced to “cherry-pick” arguments from other disciplines. Although we may come to know some things here and there, we should be warned that this does not make us arbiters or brokers between disciplines.

The downtown Indianapolis canal

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Carol B. Duncan from the department of religion and culture at Wilfrid Laurier University works between sociology and cultural studies and has interacted with scholarship from America, UK, France, and the Caribbean. Her own work exists at the intersection of Diaspora studies, Popular culture, and studies of Black Church culture.

Overall, Duncan emphasized the importance of engagement with narrative structure and content -- including actively drawing on insights from artists, writers, and visual cultures.

Duncan described her exposure to novelist Zora Neal Thurston and is now able to incorporate humanistic insights utilizing aesthetic sensibilities. Such appreciation not only sophisticates and enlivens her thinking but also counters the routine approach to human beings she sees in social scientists who view human beings as ahistorical, individual agents.

Finally, David Hall from the Harvard Divinity School revealed that social historians with sociological views exist in Britain, but not in the United States.

Curiously, once American historians start down the path of meaning and uncovering meaning, their work is not connected to sociological concepts but rather anthropology and literary studies. Why is that? Hall speculates that perhaps sociology got set aside in the “cultural turn” but still finds it odd since Continental and British historians certainly engage sociology.

I may add my own speculation as to the failure of American religious historians to more fully draw on sociological insights. Stay tuned...

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