Fabricating Difference

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Steven W. Ramey
Working with Culture on the Edge
  • Sheffield, England: 
    Equinox Publishing Limited
    , July
     198 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Fabricating Difference looks at “constructions of difference,” that is, ways that “discourse can reinforce ... notions of difference and naturalize assertions of group similarity” (162). It consists of “brief chapters that retain the informality of blogging,” according to its publisher. Its two sections begin with central essays, each followed by shorter responses by early career scholars. The latter “apply the questions and approach to other times and communities in the world” (ix). Thisis the third book in a series produced by the Culture on the Edge collective (CE), a research group associated mainly with Russell McCutcheon and members and students of the University of Alabama department that he chairs.

In the first central essay, anthropologist Mayanthi L. Fernando uses her “object of observation (Muslim French religiosity and political praxis) to access a broader object of study (French secularism and French republicanism)” (18). Consistent with CE’s agenda of interrogating “the historicity of identity” (CE site), Fernando’s goal is to “trace a history of the present as a way of provincializing and de-naturalizing,” by working to “decode” the myths of republicanism and laïcité (19, 28). She concludes that “secular governance significantly transforms Islamic traditions yet nonetheless produces Muslims as inherently failed citizen-subjects” (34).

There are five responses to Fernando’s essay: a reading of a CNN interview with a French Muslim civil-rights activist (Damon T. Berry); a comparison between the discourse of anti-abortion activists and early-Christian martyrs (Tara Baldrick-Morrone); a discussion of the periodization of modernity in light of the work of Bruce Lincoln and Kathleen David (Stephanie Frank); a comparison with Indian secularism (Vincent E. Burgess); and an analysis of how establishing difference helps construct national identity in the US (Andie Alexander).

In the second central essay, Aaron Hughes argues that “groups such as ISIS are summarily and much too easily dismissed as ‘inauthentic’” (78) and that “many scholars of religion” make this mistake (83). This reflects “Protestant-inspired clichés about what religion is” (78): “Because groups like ISIS undermine what we believe or have been told to believe that religion is—that is, internal, spiritual, positive, and as something that is supposed to do good in the world—we have opted to locate them outside of the constructed circle of ‘true’ religious expression” (80). As a result, “scholars of religion are ... stuck in a rut” (79). For Hughes, scholars of religion should stop being “‘lone wolves’ [who] end up recycling public discourse” (91) and become part of an “interdisciplinary group” (91) in order to “discuss the rhetoric of authenticity ... the formation, self-definition, and border maintenance of social groups” (82, 83).

This strikes me as a straw-doll argument. Hughes doesn’t analyze the discourse of scholars of religion to support his claim that “the study of religion gives us little to draw upon” (82): his examples are political and journalistic, with one indirect citation of an Islamicist. Who exactly is guilty as he charges? (Is there a hint when he points to “many scholars in the American Academy of Religion” [85]?) I am not alone in discussing ISIS at length in my first-year classes, and the conceptual tools of the study of religion are quite adequate: for example, conceptions of tradition and authority in Salafism. (Neither Hughes’s essay nor any of the responses note that ISIS, al-Qaeda, and Boko Haram are all jihadi-takfiri variants of this minority Sunni theological stance, though Hughes no doubt knows it well. To the extent that he is right to point a finger at scholars of religion, is the problem perhaps less one of high-level, ideological blindness than of simple ignorance of relevant differences within Islam?)

There are five responses to Hughes’s essay: a reading of Christian anti-gay discourses in the US (Thomas J. Whitley); an analysis of Muslim bodies as sites of racialized, neo-Orientalist discourses of authenticity (Martha Smith Roberts); a discussion of distortions implicit in uses of “Hinduism” (Deeksha Sivakumar); an exploration of views of disenchantment rooted in “the Protestant distinction between religion and superstition” (Ian Alexander Cuthbertson) (119); and a discussion of the publics in which scholars of religion speak, as well as “the limitations to critical discourse ... imposed by those spaces, and how we might overcomes these limitations” (Charles McCrary) (127).

As editor Steven Ramey notes, the book consists of “digestible, short essays ideal for an undergraduate classroom” (viii). There are many fascinating discussions, examples, and insights. Few works are cited, and the authors are limited to sketching their often complex arguments. Instructors will need to provide context and draw out connections.

Ramey rightly underlines that the book “fosters more conversation among the essays than the typical edited volume” (viii). But the conversation is seldom substantive: only one response in each section takes up the two central essays’ focus on views of Islam. The conversation is meant to be unified at the abstract level of CE’s focus on historicizing identity. But why should readers accept the premise that constructing difference is a unified process, the same in all contexts and cases?

The best constructionist studies of the reifying and naturalizing work of discourse analyze that work in specific social contexts. The obvious candidate context here would be the study of religion itself, and some chapters focus there. But most such studies work with different discourses, in different ways, at different analytical levels, in different historical, cultural, and religious contexts. There is valuable overlap, but the “conversation” rests on such general, shifting, amorphous senses of “fabricating difference” that it is often hard to compare cases. The collection highlights differences between social and religious groups, but Ramey argues that the same processes apply to conceptual categorization more generally. One of the lasting lessons of structuralism is that all meaning is based on difference: difference is always already present and constructed. The other lesson is that this insight does not translate easily into a research program. Relations between the discursive construction of social differences and specific social processes need to be nailed down to begin with. In this light, Fabricating Difference is a valuable conversation starter.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Steven Engler is Professor of Religious Studies at Mount Royal University in Calgary. He works on theory and methods and on religions in Brazil. He is co-editor of The Routledge Handbook of Research Methods in the Study of Religion (2011), Handbook of Contemporary Religions in Brazil (Brill, 2016), and The Oxford Handbook of the Study of Religion (2016).

Date of Review: 
June 18, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Steven W. Ramey is professor in religious studies at the University of Alabama, where he also directs the Asian studies program. His specialty is in contemporary issues surrounding identifications in India, which he addresses in his book Hindu, Sufi, or Sikh (Palgrave 2008), where he analyzes specifically the practices and contested definitions of communities identified as Sindhi Hindus. He has extended this analysis to reflect on issues in the academic and public discourse surrounding the category religion and issues of identifications in the United States and other contexts.


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