Method as Identity

Manufacturing Distance in the Academic Study of Religion

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Christopher M. Driscoll, Monica R. Miller
Religion and Race
  • Lanham, MD: 
    Lexington Books
    , November
     2018.
     264 pages.
     $95.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781498565622.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Method as Identity: Manufacturing Distance in the Academic Study of Religion, by Christopher M. Driscoll and Monica R. Miller, challenges the idea that religion can be studied through methods that are independent of the identities of the scholars working in the field. Further, throughout the book the reader is drawn to examples illustrating how this impossible ideal has long privileged academics who are white and male and placed their research and methodologies as normative.

Throughout the text the authors make their case by drawing from a broad and varied swath of examples—from some of the earliest writers in religious studies who measured the emerging field against theology to much more recent statements and stances from representatives of current professional organizations, such as the American Academy of Religion itself or the smaller North American Association for the Study of Religion. Importantly, the authors provide suggestions as to how individuals working in the field could recognize these deeply entrenched historical and current biases and move forward in a manner that offers freedom from these historical and institutional constraints.

The book is organized into seven chapters, including a thorough introduction that firmly establishes the relevancy of this book’s premise. The first three chapters focus on the term method and the ongoing debates, particularly voiced by academics in the field with authorizing power, over what constitutes correct method in religious studies. Within these early chapters the authors lay a framework for discussing the current fascination with method as they provide a thorough analysis of the historical developments in the emergent field of religious studies and some of the professional organizations and university departments.

Further, the authors proceed to establish how constructions of race and Otherness have been evident from the inception of the field and closely tied to the concept of distance. Included in this discussion is an examination of how academic discourses around “Black religion” have revealed white dominance in the field and normative attitudes about whiteness. The final chapters of this text continue to consider current contexts and are focused on the contemporary use of language, code switching, and the production of identity. The book ends on a thoughtful and hopeful note suggesting that scholars studying religion might utilize the self-reflexive and self-conscious elements of religious studies as perhaps offering possible ways to move forward within the discipline.

Method As Identity has a great deal to offer scholars at varying points in their academic careers. For a student just beginning studies, this book contextualizes and offers a framework to situate information that is learned in classes and early research. It offers a glimpse into the history of the field’s development and insight into the ongoing debates of some of the largest and most influential professional associations focused on the study of religion. The book has just as much to offer the established scholar, who may well find some of the systems described as all too familiar once they are brought to attention. This volume repeatedly invites the reader to reconsider the way scholars discuss academic work in religion, particularly how the proclaimed ideal of distance in religious-studies research is a marker of identity that has particularly privileged whiteness and maleness.

It is worth noting that much of what Driscoll and Miller offer in this volume, particularly as they invite the reader to examine how accepted approaches to method perpetuate the exclusion of particular groups of people from participating and advancing in academic environments, is directed specifically to the field of religious studies. However, scholars outside religious studies, working in other areas in the humanities or social sciences, might find this book and its examination of power structures and authority in academic systems useful and relevant as well.

Driscoll and Miller have written a book that is sometimes challenging in its subject matter. It draws on a number of fields, and the authors curate a wide breadth of examples that punctuate their discussion, but the book remains approachable and engaging. While it impressively sums up historical developments in the field of religious studies, it is a book that is immensely relevant in the current day and naturally encourages self-reflection and awareness as a response from the reader.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Melody Everest is a doctoral student in religious studies at the University of Alberta.

Date of Review: 
April 21, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Christopher M. Driscoll is assistant Professor of Religion Studies, American Studies, and Africana Studies at Lehigh University.

Monica R. Miller is Associate Professor of Religion Studies and Africana Studies and Director of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Lehigh University.

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