Deep Equality in an Era of Religious Diversity

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Lori G. Beaman
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , August
     256 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Deep Equality is a fresh and lively argument for a new way of thinking about how Western democracies negotiate relationships of inequality, moving us beyond ideas of tolerance and accommodation. The contributions are solidly grounded in Beaman’s formidable readings in at least three different areas: the sociology of religion and related social science disciplines, philosophy, and legal studies. In this wonderfully interdisciplinary text Beaman brings theoretical tools from these disciplines to bear on important questions in innovative ways.

There are three kinds of innovation in this book: first, conceptually; second in terms of form; and third, in terms of normativity. Beaman’s “deep equality” is a new idea. It has resonances in the work of others, but Beaman names it, fleshes it out, and points to the ways others can take it up and use it. She begins with a cogent presentation of the more established perspectives and practices in Western democracies surrounding tolerance and accommodation and shows the ways that they frequently operate from a hierarchical stance that reifies difference. The person or group in the more powerful position grants tolerance or accommodation to the other. In contrast, deep equality is accomplished in micro-processes and non-events; revealed in individual stories of resolution and a desire to find common ground. Beaman is interested in the ways “individual’s complex identities and their interactions in day to day life offer a mitigating or compensating effect that blurs and softens the boundaries of difference” (25). In these stories it is not “sameness” that matters, but the ways that individuals navigate their differences and similarity in the specific situations of their daily lives.

Experiences of deep equality are based in what Beaman, drawing on the work of political theorist William Connolly, calls “agonistic respect,” in which one experiences the agony of having elements of one’s faith questioned, and transforms one’s own questions about the other’s views into a respect for them (94).  In developing this idea, Beaman emphasizes the ways that values are linked to emotional and cognitive registers. One sees the possibility of an inherent value in the other’s position and the need to honor that rather than “tolerate” it. Beaman notes the resonances here with Buber’s notion of the I-thou relation in which people perceive and respond to others as equals. In experiences of deep equality, Beaman looks for openness of the heart. The examples in the text show caring and humor, generosity, and sometimes forgiveness for mistakes and misunderstandings. Beaman offers stories of individual people making things work with others and finding common ground in their everyday lives, and she identifies the transitional moments in many of these stories in which values such as respect, caring, and neighborliness find expression and are also imagined in relation to broader concepts such as justice, fairness, and equality or equity.        

As one might expect from Beaman, there is also attention to the law in this book. Here Beaman uses her discussion of the law to rethink the often prominent place of law in discourses of inequality, writing that “the central project of this book is to de-center law, not by rejecting it, but by holding it, for a time, in a suspended state to facilitate the recovery of some underexplored spaces in which equality, diversity, difference and similarity can be understood” (177).

The second way that the book is innovative is with regard to form, specifically the variety of different kinds of sources used to bring into view the stories of deep equality and create alternative narratives to the dominant ones of difference, competition, and the survival of the fittest. In the social sciences we have seen a major shift towards narrative forms of analysis (although it has not displaced other scientific logics and evidence). Beaman here is participating in that tradition. Yet the conventions about what constitutes “evidence” and how it can be used are still in flux. How does one document these micro-processes in everyday life? There are some expected sources from research projects including interview data and legal documents. Beaman also draws heavily on films and novels, the stories her students tell, her own interactions at home and when traveling, and her observations of neighbors. An emergent counter narrative emerges of deep equality accomplished in micro-processes and non-events, heard in the fragments of individual stories.

This brings me to the third way that this book is innovative: its normativity. In her conclusion, Beaman quotes Kenneth Gergen: “The aim of research would not be to illuminate what is but to create what is to become. ” (194). This is a bold step forward. While it is the job of scholars to theorize and debate, these issues matter to ordinary people, and to non-social scientists. The dominant narratives in many places have become narratives of threat and fear, arguably creating a world that is less safe for everyone. On a daily basis we are all exposed to the amplification of divisive stories of us versus them, with “the people who run the world” (to borrow a phrase from the book) and the mass media fanning fears and a sense of threat. In this book Beaman argues for the emancipatory powers of bringing to light stories about micro-processes of equality as a part of reshaping how we imagine ourselves. In this book she models how to do it. Deep Equality is a thoughtful and graceful evocation of alternative stories.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Mary Jo Neitz is Professor of Women's and Gender Studies at the University of Missouri.

Date of Review: 
February 12, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Lori G. Beaman is the Canada Research Chair in Religious Diversity and Social Change, Professor in the Department of Classics and Religious Studies at the University of Ottawa, and the Principal Investigator of the Religion and Diversity Project, a thirty-seven-member international research team whose focus is religion and diversity. Professor Beaman is the co-editor of Constructions of Self and Other in Yoga, Travel, and Tourism: A Journey to Elsewhere (with Sonia Sikka; Macmillan, 2016), Atheist Identities: Spaces and Social Contexts (with Steven Tomlins; Springer, 2016), and Varieties of Religious Establishment(with Winnifred Fallers Sullivan; Routledge, 2013).



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