korteweg and yurdakul, the headscarf debates

The Headscarf Debates: Conflicts of National Belonging,by Anna C. Korteweg and Gökçe Yurdakul, is a detailed and thoughtful work of comparative cultural sociology. It focuses on four debates in Europe about the wearing of headscarves (in all four cases, actually niqabs, misrepresented as burkas, as the book nicely explains). Using extensive analysis of media and legal discourse, it shows similarities but, more interestingly, differences among the debates in France, Turkey, the Netherlands, and Germany. These differences highlight persistent cultural differences in the relationship between state, citizens, and religion: differences the book describes as “conflicts of national belonging.”

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long live the fact/value distinction

Phil Gorski’s argument that the fact/value distinction is bankrupt is out in Society, along with a marquee of big-name responses. Phil and I had an interesting and productive exchange on the article this fall. The exchange follows here, with Phil’s permission. I still think I’m right!

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on teaching durkheim at the high holidays

Many Septembers I find myself teaching Durkheim right around the Jewish high holidays (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur). I’ve often felt a degree of connection between the two: the juxtaposition between ritual and scholarship that characterizes the high holiday services, the emphasis on separating the holy from the ordinary, the sacred from the profane. My point in this post is not to establish that Durkheim’s work is in some way essentially Jewish, but to highlight this affinity. I also want to emphasize that I am no expert in Judaism; these are impressions I’ve noticed. Continue reading “on teaching durkheim at the high holidays”

butler, parting ways: jewishness and the critique of zionism

This is another in a series of notes on things I read this summer. Toward the end of the summer I read Judith Butler‘s Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism (Columbia UP, 2012). Then, as I was preparing to write these thoughts about it, I ran across the Jerusalem Post’s attack on Butler’s receipt of the Adorno Prize and Butler’s response to that attack. So my post will start with my thoughts on the book, then circle around to discuss the controversy over the Prize.

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bad science not about same-sex parenting

There’s lots to say about the recent article by Mark Regnerus on outcomes of adults who remember a parent having had a same-sex relationship and the other articles and commentaries surrounding it in the journal, and much has already been said. The bottom line is that this is bad science, it is not about same-sex or gay parenting, and strong but circumstantial evidence suggests its main reason for being is to provide ammunition to right-wing activists against LGBT rights. In this (long!) post I offer my evaluation of the scientific merit of the paper as well as the politics surrounding the papers’ funding, publication, spin, and evaluation.

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on the value of religious experience to sociology

Krippendorf asks why I suggest:

I think lacking religious experience of some sort probably makes it harder to be a good sociologist.

The short answer is that religious experience is an amazingly widespread social phenomenon, and it has a sui generis quality to it that makes it difficult to explain without some sort of experiential link. Continue reading “on the value of religious experience to sociology”

sociologists behaving badly

David Rubinstein, emeritus at UIC, has now made far more waves as a self-styled “whistleblower” than he ever made as a practicing sociologist. In that career he was apparently undistinguished and even lazy, having rarely updated the sociological theory classes he taught (“who wouldn’t?” he sniffed in his defense. I would!) and produced virtually no scholarly work of significance. His swan song: a small-minded expose of the “cushy life” he leads as a retiree, peppered with tired old saws about the ideological homogeneity of the discipline, largely discredited by serious scholars but trotted out reliably by hacks like Dr. Rubinstein.

Others have written convincing retorts (see here, here, and here).  The bottom line: tenure is a gamble entered into by a university convinced that a scholar has the record, skills, and approach to continue to be productive given the latitude offered by tenure. This is, sadly, a gamble that can be inappropriately exploited by irresponsible people, as appears to be the case by his own admission of Dr. Rubinstein. The point of tenure is not to offer intellectually and literally lazy Ph.D.’s a cushy work and retirement life. The point is to trust intellectually curious and talented Ph.D.’s to create and communicate knowledge free of the tethers of immediate economic necessity.

Meanwhile, my colleague Philip Cohen writes about the latest intellectual dishonesty perpetrated by Brad Wilcox, religious True Believer in the virtue of religiosity and sociological lightweight. Philip’s careful dissection of Wilcox’s shoddy analysis is great, and there’s no need for me to summarize here. But the final paragraph asks about whether and how sociologists ought to be willing to act as experts: that is, to comment on matters that go beyond specific data we’ve collected or analyzed. I think we should be willing and able to do that; to act as a public intellectual, IMHO, reasonably includes commenting in a learned manner on matters on which we might have important things to say, even if we haven’t directly researched those areas ourselves. The problem with Wilcox’s MO, to me, is not that he does this, but that he makes specific empirical claims that (as Philip demonstrates) are simply not warranted.

So here’s the question: Rubinstein and Wilcox both show downsides of tenure: people who jump through the hoops set up to warrant scholarly quality, then either kick back or abuse the privilege to add scholarly gravitas to wishful thinking. Is there a reasonable intervention that might prevent some of these cases while preserving the remarkable breadth of discovery and intellectual productivity enabled by tenure?

science and morality, harris-style

Sam Harris is back. Since writing The End of Faith, apparently while an undergraduate at Stanford, he wrote Letter to a Christian Nation; he’s also been completing a Ph.D. at UCLA’s interdisciplinary neuroscience program. In his new book, The Moral Landscape, he seeks to bring his new field to bear on one of the thorniest problems in The End of Faith, a book plagued by thorny problems. The issue is whether science alone can provide morality. The End of Faith asserts that we don’t need religion to be moral, but doesn’t actually offer an alternative. The Moral Landscape is an attempt to provide that alternative.

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bender, the new metaphysicals

The Immanent Frame asked me to participate in a discussion/forum on Courtney Bender’s great new book, The New Metaphysicals. The book, like the discussion, is really interesting and a fun read on its own. Also interesting, from a disciplinary-boundary sort of perspective, is the way in which this portion of the study of religion transcends the humanities-social sciences boundary, with productive results.

The whole discussion is at http://blogs.ssrc.org/tif/category/the-new-metaphysicals/ and my post is at http://blogs.ssrc.org/tif/2010/06/22/grasping-for-authenticity/ .

theodicy, politics, basketball, and progress

A year ago, we had recently inaugurated an African-American president who ran on a visionary, if not radical, platform. Health care reform looked truly within reach. And the Heels had just won the NCAA national championship.

A year later, that president is in hot water, health care reform passed only by being an essentially Republican plan without any Republican support, the Heels didn’t make it to the NCAA tournament, and to cap it all off, the bad guys won the championship.

All this strikes me as (a) requiring a certain theodicy to make sense of it all; or at least (b) challenging the idea of unilinear progress.

the strong program in the sociology of religion

The Immanent Frame has an interesting working paper by David Smilde and Matthew May on the state of the subfield of the sociology of religion. Highlights, quickly, are that there’s a lot of work on the sociology of religion; that most of it focuses on the US and on Christianity, and in particular on Protestants; and that the prevailing paradigm is a “strong program” treating religion as an independent variable predicting other outcomes. Studies that are funded are more likely — by a lot — to find that religion is “good” for people in some way, but the funding source (government vs. foundation, e.g.) is not a factor.

I am not a scholar of religion, though I am interested in the field, so approach this largely from the outside. While I find the independent-variable approach worthwhile, I do worry that religion as a dependent variable deserves lots more consideration too. This is both as a function of time (changes in religious matters over time) and in terms of understanding the origins and development of modalities of religious belief, thought, and practice. It’s too bad that, apparently, the “strong program” seems to have come at the expense of understanding the origins of variation in religiousness. (By the way, the “strong program” term comes from Jeffrey Alexander, who wishes it upon cultural sociology, except that in Alexander’s world culture doesn’t really cause or get caused — it just is, on its own, sui generis. The sociology of religion is to be commended for avoiding that trap.)

I wonder, too, if there’s an institutional explanation. Over the time period covered by the Smilde and May study, there’s been something of an explosion of data available for analysis on religion, particularly in the United States. Much of this data is cross-sectional, which encourages analysts to treat variables as fixed and causal (a.k.a. “independent”). To the extent that religion is a dependent variable, a temporal dimension is a virtual necessity, since one is looking for the etiology of an observed state (whether observed individually or societally).  Religion, like other social measures, is also treated in standardized ways, which again encourages analysts to think of it as relatively static.

I would love to see similar studies in other subfields as well. My guess is that over the same time period sociology in general became more causally oriented, used more secondary data analysis, and considered less the development of social states–thus I would imagine that the sociology of religion probably mirrors much of the rest of the discipline.

one scoop of my book, with tina topping, please!

The ASA conference will be an extravaganza of awesome, what with the blog party, the blog baseball game, and the fabulous sociology people everywhere. But wait! There is even more still. For those particularly hard-core conference-goers, who will stretch their visit to San Francisco well beyond the bounds of the conference dates, please consider attending the following event:

religiousrightcoverHow the Religious Right Shaped Lesbian and Gay Activism

by Tina Fetner
A Different Light bookstore
489 Castro St., San Francisco (near Market)
Wednesday, August 12 at 7:30pm

I hope to see you there!