Strategic Acts in the Study of Identity

Towards a Dynamic Theory of People and Practice

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Vaia Touna
Culture on the Edge: Studies in Identity Formation
  • Shefield, England: 
    Equinox Publishing Limited
    , February
     256 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Strategic Acts in the Study of Identity is the second collection of essays by the authors of the blog Culture on the Edge and edited by Vaia Touna. To call it simply a collection of essays would be to miss the main emphasis of the first half of the book that is divided into “sites,” which, like the weighty appendix, is divided into three groups: Acts of Classification, Acts of Appropriation, and Acts of Comparison. These first three sections consist of a dialogue between scholars moving from specific application to response and ending with broader theoretical approaches that are applicable well beyond the first application.

Following Vaia Touna’s preface, which lays out the innovative structure of the book, Craig Martin provides a useful introduction to the epistemological stance of Culture on the Edge: “classification and identification are human practices” (2, emphasis original), and “the stuff of the world does not come to us organized according to a priori similarity and difference, continuity and discontinuity”; we are the ones who do this act of classification, as “we divide the world in ways related to our interests” (6, emphasis original). Concerning identification, Martin observes, “our fundamental question will not be ‘what identity?’ but rather ‘who identifies whom as what, and to what end or with what interests in mind?’” (7). Once he has laid this out for the reader, he further breaks down acts of identification into eight useful “strategies.”

The main part of the book, called “sites,” are three sections of three essays each. Every section begins with a rather specific chapter about one way in which identities or labels are created. Steven W. Ramey writes about the creation of the “nones.” K. Merinda Simmons writes a chapter entitled, “Creolization and Intentionality in Studies of Caribbean Religions.” Leslie Dorrough Smith’s chapter encompasses the way in which scholars (typically in the United States and Europe) draw boundaries around the label “feminist” in ways that are not always consistent, depending more on the geographic location of the activists being labeled than their activities at times. These three chapters are then critiqued by another member of Culture on the Edge in a way that moves discussion away from the particular topic to one applicable to a larger swath of scholarship. The original author in the section then replies to the critique of their work. Touna describes the process: “thus this book focuses on how the discourses related to those identifiers are negotiated, challenged, or changed, and by what means” (xi).

I applaud the authors of this book both for their insightful critiques as well as the collegiality with which they embrace this critique. While not every reader will be deeply engaged by the topic of each initial chapter, the subsequent response and counter response should work to make scholars (and a general readership) look deeply at the way in which they engage in the act of classification, even while they might be critiquing such acts of classification themselves.

In an afterword to the three “sites,” Russell T. McCutcheon writes about what he calls “Acts I and II” in the study of religion. He begins with a brief discussion of Mircea Eliade and where he saw the field going and concludes, “it should be evident that there’s considerable distance between Eliade’s early hopes for the field’s future and what the scholars of religion collected in this volume have ended up doing in their careers; for religion has gone from being seen as uniquely privileged to utterly mundane and (as nicely evident in the Appendix to the volume) comparable in a myriad of perhaps unanticipated ways to who knows how many other equally commonplace elements of day-to-day life” (169-70).

McCutcheon concludes that for the authors of the book, “it is our method, and not our object of study, that sets us apart from other scholars of religion, inasmuch as we share a wide (and widely applicable) interest in examining all acts of signification and, when it comes to social life, identification” (171). If the study of the “sacred” was the focus of act 1 of religious studies, then act 2 (as present in this volume) is the way in which this distinction of the “sacred” or special came to be determined. The authors in this volume, McCutchen states, “shar[e] an interest in how social identities came into being, were continually reinvented, and eventually passed out of being . . . we were therefore all scholars who happened to study but, unlike Eliade, we did so a means to another end” (175-76, emphasis original).

The last eighty-eight pages of the book are dedicated to the appendix, a collection of thirty-five entries from the Culture on the Edge blog. These are, of course, readily available online but are here divided up to mirror the three acts of the first section (classification, appropriation, and comparison). Additionally, for those of us who don’t cherish scrolling through online blog entries it is a convenience to have them arranged and indexed here.

I am in equal parts bewildered and enchanted by the structure of this book. Regardless, it contains a great deal of material that is both technical, informative, and readily accessible, and I could easily see using it in a classroom setting as an example of good peer critique and by interacting with the Culture on the Edge entries as conversation prompts and starting points for the method McCutcheon describes. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Nathaniel Morehouse is an Adjunct Instructor at John Carroll University.

Date of Review: 
January 26, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Vaia Touna is Assistant Professor at the Department of Religious Studies at The University of Alabama.


Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.