"Religion" in Theory and Practice

Demystifying the Field for Burgeoning Academics

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Russell T. McCutcheon
NAASR Working Papers
  • Sheffield, England: 
    Equinox Publishing
    , October
     2018.
     360 pages.
     $32.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781781796832.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

What is at stake in Russell T. McCutcheon’s “Religion” in Theory and Practice: Demystifying the Field for Burgeoning Academics is nothing less than resuscitating a dying profession. As the humanities job market becomes increasingly precarious, books like these are indispensable guides for pragmatic strategies in the changing workplace. Religious studies scholars across higher education would benefit from reading this book because McCutcheon not only offers practical advice for succeeding in a profession that receives less tax dollar support with each passing year, but also includes descriptions of his own theoretical framework and suggestions for “best practices” in the academic study of religion throughout.

This up-to-date survey is candid about the ever-distant prospect of securing a career in higher education—let alone a tenure-track position—the demands for learning new skills beyond one’s academic expertise, and the need to work with colleagues in a competent and collaborative manner (both for the sake of equitable workload distribution and for galvanizing interest to increase student enrollment). While addressing each of these concerns and more, McCutcheon explicates his own views on how the category of “religion” is itself a construct, and the skills developed in religious studies courses can be applied in any domain of a student’s life, given that humans are primarily social creatures.

Since I fall within the target audience as a second year doctoral student in the United States, this book is an extensive primer for those of us in the precarious marketplace of non-tenured work—a realistic portrayal that does not snuff out my passion but reinvigorates it with practical insight to apply in my own life.

Compared to decades ago and especially before the 2008 financial crisis, a career in the humanities seems increasingly unviable. McCutcheon addresses the challenges wrought by this economically uncertain affair with the objective of equipping students and faculty members alike with the skills and know-how for navigating the many moving parts that constitute academia today. To this end, the book is organized into three sections—“Part I: In Theory,” “Part II: In Practice,” and “Part III: In Praxis: Responses to ‘Theses on Professionalization.’”

Drawing inspiration from a number of religious studies scholars including Emile Durkheim, Jonathan Smith, Roland Barthes, and Bruce Lincoln, McCutcheon’s theoretical framework is foregrounded in part one to advocate for a more empirical approach for understanding “religion” as a primarily social phenomena. Invariably informed by pedagogical genius, part two leverages this sociological approach to suggest a number of strategies for exercising discernment in scholarship without reifying one’s own analytical categories as normative, teaching in the classroom, and working as part of a larger social structure (i.e. as a member of a department and university by extension). Part three comprises twenty-one early career scholars in religious studies who each respond to one of McCutcheon’s “Theses of Professionalization” (2007), a sobering survey of how aspiring professionals following the economic crash of 2008 are dealing with the increased demands of the field and their advice for how to meet these changing needs in the profession.

Without sparing the harsh reality that an academic career is considerably less attainable, this book will equip readers with strategies for improving the quality of one’s scholarship, for sharing those skills with students in the classroom, and ultimately working with students and colleagues alike in such a way that ensures the integrity and continued existence of religious studies as a respectable academic discipline.

McCutcheon sees the work of a religious studies scholar and social theorist as coterminous, effectively calling into question religion as something essential or harboring an intrinsic value without history or cultural context. The study of “religion” as he argues is “but one way into the study of identification and signification” (126). He writes, “What becomes fascinating, then, is how a structure that is itself an historical phenomenon (that is, it changes over time) can be experienced by some of its members as timeless and unchanging and, as a result, as authoritative or natural” (42).

This social phenomena by which a particular group or persons attribute meaning to certain objects, places, actions, or virtually any aspect of life is not limited to some extraordinary or sacred space/time but is always already happening as different modes of meaning-making (40-42, 124-126, 129). As McCutcheon tactfully warns, even religious studies scholars with the best intentions iterate this tendency to reify one’s own categorical schema at the exclusion of others.

McCutcheon is also keen to turn these analytics of social theory back onto university life itself, emphasizing that although the institution divides labor according to a specific structure with set expectations, faculty members can work within these limits to collaborate on problems of defining religion and for the continuity of the department as a whole (86-87; chapters five and seven).

Moreover, the challenge of parsing out the object of study itself from what the scholar him/herself is projecting through the categories of their own method can be addressed with some recourse as to how those thinking bodies themselves are habituated into dispositions that are more or less capable of processing information without naturalizing the categories through which such data is considered.

In the spirit of affirming McCutcheon’s view that it is the acquisition of skills rather than content that is most important for producing quality scholarship, authors such as Richard Carp, Brian Massumi, and Karen Barad would prove productive conversation partners for considering the materiality of observers’ bodies themselves and whether or not they can be disciplined or modulated in certain ways to affect conscious thought differently. While this point of how the bodies of observers are disciplined is missing from his assessment (a question of practice that arguably demands answering if McCutcheon’s objective is to be achieved), “Religion” in Theory and Practice has nevertheless equipped me with skills that improve the quality of my scholarship and my ability to navigate the professional world of research and teaching.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Adam Loch is a doctoral student in Religious Studies at the University of Denver’s Iliff School of Theology.

Date of Review: 
May 20, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Russell T. McCutcheon is Distinguished Research Professor and Chair of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama.

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