August 29, 2006

I’m in the Religious Studies department at Arizona State, but that doesn’t really say much about what I study or how. Some time in another post I’ll write about what it is that I study. Here is a note about how.

Religious Studies, as a discipline, arose like many others in the 1800s as part of the modern project to know and improve humankind. It started very much as sort of an armchair pursuit in which august university dons would gather ethnographic writings from sailors and other adventurers and draw elaborate conclusions about the religious practices of “savages.” In many cases, they proposed to prove that western European Christianity was the zenith of a long line of religious evolution beginning with some sort of grunting and wondering near the back of a cave.

Since then, things have changed significantly. World religions these days are–generally–not understood as steps in an evolutionary process. Research is now expected to based in actual fieldwork, if ethnographic or anthropological. However, Religious Studies as a discipline also draws on other research methods including such diverse sources as psychological accounts, historical archives, and comparative literature. More recent moves have questioned some basic categories, such as “religion” itself, and have also called into question any sort of conclusion that claims universal application.

All this is to say that Religious Studies is more of a topic area than a method. We draw on other methods–historical, anthropological, psychological, rhetorical analyses–and apply them to religious questions. In my own research, I draw on historical sources and ethnographic material. As yet, I have not done any of my own fieldwork and am not sure that this will ever be necessary as I currently deal with an era before the present. I am interested in cultural and ethnic studies that both describe and analyze. “Ethnohistory” probably best characterizes what I try to do in my own studies. By looking at ethnographic records (loosely conceived), in conversation with other historical sources, I hope to better understand how certain ethnic groups behaved religiously and in other ways in their contexts of time and place.

The American Academy of Religion, the principal guild of Religious Studies, maintains a website about the many benefits of our work.


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