What is wrong with…?

From Markus Davidsen, “What is wrong with pagan studies”[1]:

The academic study of religion is a fragmented discipline in which most scholars identify more strongly with their field of specialization than with their mother-discipline. These ‘field identities’ are sustained by independent conferences, journals, and in some cases even field specific degree programs and departments. Pagan studies is a good example of a field with a strong field identity.
Field-directedness is not a problem if it is tempered by initiatives and forces promoting the integration of fields into the discipline of the study of religion. But rather than countering the fragmentation of the study of religion, many universities institutionalize field identities by locating research on particular religious traditions under area studies and/or by systematically appointing insiders (Jews for Jewish studies, pagans for pagans studies and so on). As a result, many scholars of religious traditions lack an identity as scholars of religion and hence an interest in method and theory as it is formulated on discipline level. A comment from some of the participants in a recent PhD workshop on method and theory in the Netherlands illustrates the point nicely. They said that though methodology was an interesting “theme,” it was not directly relevant for their particular projects. Clearly, these young scholars viewed method and theory as a field apart rather than as the shared foundation of the academic study of religion.

Markus Davidsen’s article is well worth the read and a good illustration of what someone who identifies as a “scholar of religion” can and should write. He is not afraid to stir the bonfire, and we should not be surprised if this article sparks some heated discussions here and there (I mean, if it doesn’t – his point is pretty much proven right). While Davidsen’s torch is primarily directed to "insiders" in the field of Pagan studies, he remarks (in the above) on the dualistic thinking which asserts (theory and) methodology as something detached and even restricting to what is observational and empirical. To illustrate this point further. I have many times (over)heard both Master’s and PhD students speak of theory & methodology as something secondary and somewhat isolated from their research and observations[2]. These sentiments are usually revealed in the idea of having a “theory chapter”[3] and stating in project descriptions that one is afraid(!) to “choose a theory” or go into “theoretical discussions” from early on, because this may “restrict and limit the observations”. These students are the same who challenges your assertions of “objectivity” with the statement that “there is no such thing as ‘objectivity’”. But how can they know?

I’m convinced that we all go into the study of religion\s with theoretical assumptions both poorly and well articulated. Part of our job as students – undergraduate or Phd – is to identify, challenge and improve all our theoretical assertions about our subject manner. And, fortunately, there are many ways in which this may be done. One of them, as Markus Davidsen so elegantly has demonstrated, is to peak into another field and identify, challenge and improve on some basic assumptions and assertions being made there. Some may call that being pretentious, I prefer to see it as scholarship.

  1. Davidsen, Markus Altena. 2012. “What Is Wrong with Pagan Studies?.” Method & Theory in the Study of Religion 24 (2) (January 1): 183–199. doi:10.1163/157006812X634881.  ↩

  2. To me this seems to be a larger and broader challenge, not just to the study of religion, but – I suspect – for most fields within the humanties and\or higher education.  ↩

  3. I found this the best translation from Norwegian teorikapittel, because these chapters are –often — not theoretical, but just the place where theory is presented and endeavoured to be “applied on” the various empirical findings in the project.  ↩