Image by Serge Melki via FlickrPenny Edgell, a marvelous sociologist from the University of Minnesota, spoke about the need to understand religion in a manner that does not constrain us to describing “religion” as a whole, and challenged us to find conceptual ways that accommodate a broader, more flexible, and ultimately more useful manner of discussing the great diversity of religious dynamics in the world.
In particular, Edgell talked about the importance of articulating “religious repertoires.” This involves actively recognizing how we human beings carry out moral projects which lend power to a moral vision to do what is right, ultimately that enable us to follow through on moral imperatives.
In short, rather than talking about capital R "Religion," she emphasizes talking about religious repertoires as fields of practice that include ways of categorizing the world as well as embodied religious practices. By bringing in the word “moral,” she stresses our discovering the embodied, ritualized sense of how we are to act in the world.
Jerry Park, sociologist at Baylor University, shifted focus to describe the difficulty all of us find in connecting seemingly related ideas from different fields.
He illustrated his point with an example from Asian American religion; in his case it was the difference between published work about Asian American religion from a seminary professor and work from a researcher rooted in sociological methodology. While the two researchers appeared to be looking at the same "thing," they actually paid attention to very different dynamics, considered different types of "data" as appropriate, carried different assumptions, and formulated very different conjectures, explanations, and speculations. Park expresses confidence in the possibility to connecting these two realms of question and response.
However, he ultimately suggests that institutional reward structures among academics tend to keep researchers (their work, their dialogue, their relationships) separate. Scholars are pressured to do their work in particular ways, publish in particular venues, and appease particular biases in order to achieve legitimacy (and steady employment) in our disciplines.
Image by joanieofarc via Flickr
Rhys Williams, a sociologist becoming the new department chair at Loyola University Chicago, shifted the conversation about interdisciplinarity again.
Williams asserts that the "gap" within sociology is greater than the "gap" between sociology and other disciplines. In particular, he articulates that the differences between quantitative and qualitative sociologists are based in different epistemological orientations.
The quantitative/qualitative division does not create epistemological division; rather, the division is symptomatic of significant differences in assumptions among scholars: how do people behave? What we can actually learn about human beings? How do we best to express our new knowledge? This realist/interpretive difference constitutes a fundamental, intra-disciplinary gap.
For Williams, disciplinary lines are good. Rather than deterring knowledge, they indeed enhance and accelerate knowledge. I think he means disciplines achieve their cumulative insights by continuing a set of conversations over a shared set of questions over a long time.
Such rooted knowledge (which takes a tremendous amount of time and energy to master) is to be preferred over poor scholarship that often occurs when academics try to work outside their discipline. By implication, this means not only that scholars should clarify and strengthen the grounds of their own inquiry but also exercise great caution before straying into other fields, especially without sensitivity to different sets of concerns, debates, and perspectives inherent to all disciplines.