Living with Difference

How to Build Community in a Divided World

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Adam B. Seligman, Rahel R. Wasserfall, David W. Montgomery
California Series in Public Anthropology
  • Berkeley, CA: 
    University of California Press
    , January
     232 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Occasionally, one reads a book that seems to offer something genuinely new to the conversation in a given subject. This is such a book. Based on fourteen years of work running the CEDAR (Communities Engaging with Difference and Religion) program, the authors share their experiences on pedagogy, theory, and practice concerning how to help people from colliding communities and diverse backgrounds communicate across barriers, understand those who are different, and live with such differences. Given their experience of successfully running such programs, this is not simply another theoretical exploration of what understanding is, or a discussion of theoretical possibilities for cross-cultural understanding—though it includes those elements—but a rigorous exploration of what has and has not worked in bringing people together, helping them to reflexively explore their differences, and living with those they may previously have seen as enemies or “the Other.” 

The book has six chapters, alongside an introduction, conclusion, and four appendixes. The chapters address: “The Story of Practice”; “A Pedagogy of Community”; “A Community of Pedagogy”; “Ethnographies of Difference”; “Living with Difference”; and, “On Boundaries, Difference, and Shared Worlds.” Perhaps the short epigraph at the start of chapter 1 best sums up the aims and the kind of experience aimed for and explored throughout these chapters: “A radical Muslim activist from the United Kingdom, organizer of anti-Israeli demonstrations and Relief for Gaza convoys, calls home in dismay when she finds herself participating in a programme with Zionists—and then sums it up after two weeks saying, ‘I learned I could be friends with people I hate’” (15). This gives something of a taste of what the book is about, and across the chapters the methodology and practice of the CEDAR program is explained: to bring culturally, ethnically, religiously, and otherwise diverse groups together for two intensive weeks of programs, lectures, and site visits. These are often in quite contested parts of the world, such as the Balkans, though also in less fraught places such as Birmingham, UK, and in situations of complex diversity such as Indonesia. The explanation of pedagogy will be very insightful to many readers, with discussions of how participants are engaged beyond simply passively receiving information, or visiting places merely as interesting excursions.

Many academic readers, especially in the study of religion, may not be involved in these kinds of intensive programs that seek to build understanding across barriers. Nevertheless, aspects of the pedagogy may be useful for engaging students across worlds of difference. Of course, some instructors may wonder to what extent their role consists in building communities of understanding, rather than simply discoursing on or analyzing such engagements in the world around them. This may be a legitimate area for discussion, but most will recognize that at some time they will need skills to negotiate difficult areas of understanding or communication.

Also, the discussions about theoretical insights on understanding, communication, and exploration across cultural and religious barriers will be helpful additions to the literature. This often builds on other academic work by the authors. Indeed, the fact that this project is grounded in what may be termed the fieldwork of the authors, rather than in a particular theoretical system, also adds value to these studies.

It is important to mention that in the CEDAR program, the aim is not to reach some new common ground or consensus. Participants are encouraged neither to reconcile differences, nor to find some formula for religious understanding that involves them departing from their own existing worldview. Notably, religion is not the only, or indeed the most important, area of contention discussed or raised in these programs; nevertheless, the authors note it does very readily come up, even when they don’t intend to bring it to the table. Rather, people are encouraged to be with others, to experience with them, and to some extent get a sense of where they come from and why. It is from this that any common ground arises, when one may not agree with the other, yet nevertheless recognizes their integrity as human beings and can find ways to accommodate them in one’s own worldview.

I heartily recommend this book to academics, students, and those outside academia. The kind of program described here is surely one from which our communities will benefit. Even if we do not wish to engage in such intensive courses ourselves, or lack the resources and structures to run them, nevertheless the insights on pedagogy and theory will undoubtedly prove insightful and beneficial. Every library should have a copy of this book.

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: 
September 12, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Adam B. Seligman is Director of CEDAR and Professor of Religion at Boston University.

Rahel R. Wasserfall is Director of Training and Evaluation for CEDAR and a resident scholar at the Women’s Studies Research Center at Brandeis University.

David W. Montgomery is Director of Program Development for CEDAR.


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