Religion and Space

Competition, Conflict and Violence in the Contemporary World

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Lily Kong, Orlando Woods
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , February
     2016.
     216 pages.
     $112.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781474257404.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Lily Kong and Orlando Woods are to be thanked for producing a timely and useful resource for scholars of religion. Religion and Space: Competition, Conflict and Violence in the Contemporary World appeals to many contemporary themes and trends, including interest in the material and spatial aspects of religion, as well as the contestation and dynamics of plural societies. By bringing these two elements together, this book not only takes theoretical discussions forward, but also provides a useful text for teaching in this area. A notable feature of the book is the use of boxes to provide short case studies to elucidate the theoretical discussion.

The text is divided into six chapters. The first lays out some general issues around religiously diverse societies, understanding space, and also the relationship between what are often termed the secular and sacred dimensions of space. This and other chapters develop Kong’s work as a noted geographer of religion as well as some of Woods’s previous research, particularly on Sri Lanka. Chapter 2 then moves on to look specifically at issues of conflict and violence, occurring at different levels of intensity. Chapter 3 addresses the place of religion in secular spaces. One thing which might strike some scholars is the relative lack of attention to the construction of the terms secular and religious. The authors’ seem to assume these terms are relatively uncontroversial and do not engage with theory on the construction of these terms. In chapter 4, issues of globalization are addressed, employing the work of Arjun Appadurai to discuss five “scapes”: ethnoscapes, technoscapes, finanscapes, mediascapes, and ideoscapes. This provides a useful way to help think through the issues addressed. Chapter 5 is a much shorter chapter, focusing on the question of social resilience and suggesting ways in which scholarly work may be of practical use in developing this quality within religiously diverse societies. While useful, I feel this discussion could have been developed further. Chapter 6 is effectively a short conclusion, usefully recapping the main arguments of the book across four pages, and for which I expect students will be particularly grateful.

There is certainly much to commend in the book, but also elements that are likely to be contentious. Beyond the points I have raised already, I would note the following: the global case studies are very refreshing given that far too many books focus narrowly upon Western examples (a common failing particularly of North American writers, who seem to assume that their own local case studies are universally revealing). While the case study approach is useful, I would have preferred to have seen longer case studies developed through the book. Some of the case studies in the boxes are extended, but some are just a few lines in length. To be revealing to scholars who may not be experts in the particular region, or to be useful as classroom case studies for students, a fuller background and development of issues would have been preferable.

Another issue, noted in part above, is the authors’ lack of reflexivity around terms. Of particular note is their use of the word cult.  While Kong and Woods come from a background as geographers rather than as religious studies scholars, the way in which the term is generally employed pejoratively to refer to religions that particular state regimes do not approve of is deeply problematic. (This often appears to follow from their Singaporean context.) The problems of the term are hinted at, but in general there is a lack of theoretical awareness on terminology. On the plus side, however, Kong and Woods engage well with theory in areas like material religion and embodiment as key elements for understanding religious traditions. They also complexify what they term “quasi-secular” spaces and note that the division between the secular and religious territories are not readily quantifiable. As such, there is considerable sophistication in the book despite my worries around the definition of some terms.

It is also good to see the discussion on social resilience, which accords with contemporary moves to what is often termed Interreligious Studies. Some scholars of religion strongly resist the idea that there should be any advocacy on the part of scholars and that they should simply be impartial reporters, or critical theorists of others’ agendas. However, for social geographers the idea that scholarship does not impact on social and political agendas would be an alien one. Indeed, the act of refusing to take a political position is itself a political stance. The discussion about the issues concerned with social resilience is therefore to be welcomed in such a work. In summary, while there are parts of this book that could have been done differently, it is on the whole an excellent contribution to scholarly discussion on religion in relation to geography, space, material religion, religious diversity, and contemporary trends in global religiosity.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Paul Hedges is Associate Professor of Interreligious Studies at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technical University, in Singapore.

Date of Review: 
August 30, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Lily Kong is Lee Kong Chian Professor of Social Sciences and Provost at the Singapore Management University, Singapore.

Orlando Woods is a Researcher at Asian Strategies, Singapore.

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