DH Reflection 2: Data in Religious Studies

In my first semester of graduate school, I took Debates in Method and Theory with Dr. Russell McCutcheon. In the second half of the course, we read Constructing “Data” in Religious Studies, which was (at the time) the most recent addition to the NAASR Working Papers series. If you have time to deep dive into what it means to ‘do data’ in Religious Studies, then this collection of papers is a must-read. Data is broken into the subcategories: Subjects, Objects, Scholars, and Institutions. Each scholar takes a step back to reconsider the ways that data is constructed and not discovered. 

In Digital Humanities in REL, which I am currently taking, we were asked to reflect on what counts as data for the study of religion. It kind of feels like cheating to bring in a powerhouse source like Constructing “Data” in Religious Studies, but then again, it would be just plain wrong to neglect it. Data — as I have repeated endlessly in other blog posts and in almost every class discussion — does not speak for itself, and beyond that, data does not exist by itself. This is why these subcategories of Data can exist. Social actors employ tools (like subjects, objects, scholars, and institutions) to construct data. 

The debate over what counts as data is not new to Religious Studies, or any academic discipline, really. Every field can likely agree though that the first step of collecting data is deciding what your data is. Broadly speaking, an anthropologist will study people; a mathematician will evaluate relationships among numbers; a psychologist will study the human mind. So then, a Religious Studies scholar should study religion. But, what is religion? It depends on who you ask. Just like history, art, consciousness, language, and every subject in between; Every definition is constructed by the person doing the defining. Data works in the same way. It is singled out as interesting for one reason or another by a social actor and then combined, refined, and edited to fabricate an effective argument. 

I would like to take a second to acknowledge that the sciences do not differ from the humanities in the problem of definition. While STEM traditions seem straightforward (e.g. a chemist studying chemicals) their boundaries are just as messy as the humanities, but that’s a conversation for a later date . . .

To get back on track and to answer “what counts as data?” — I’ll say the whole world is up for grabs in regards to data. 

Anything that seems important or irregular is likely to be noticed and as such becomes data of a kind as soon as it is noticed as different from others. That’s how we get through life: by comparing. We know a chair is a chair and not a desk in part because we know the two objects in relation to each other. But it is more interesting to ponder; if I sit on a desk, does the desk become a chair? Or am I just being very impolite by sitting on your desk? The way you answer that question can tell me a lot about your goals. As McCutcheon puts it in Chapter 1 of Studying Religion: an introduction, “despite the common-sense assumption that the names we give to things reflect, capture or correspond to some key feature of the things being named (called the correspondence theory of meaning), the names we give to things may, instead, tell us more about the namer than they do about the thing being named” (McCutcheon 2019, 16).  This is why there’s so much at stake in deciding what counts as data in Religious Studies. From the seemingly arbitrary naming of things come tangible results. 

Let’s bring in some more big guys: 

I repeat: Data does not exist to be discovered. It is constructed to achieve a particular goal. Whether that be honoring a mentor (and whether intentionally or not; reinforcing colonialist influence) as was the case in McCutcheon’s example, or collecting numbers to report on the positive cases of COVID-19 at the University of Alabama, there is power in naming a particular phenomenon or object as our data. 

While all the papers in the NAASR collection mentioned earlier do excellent work re-evaluating modern Religious Studies scholarship, I always find myself returning to the Scholars section, and especially Craig Martin’s paper, “The Thing Itself always Steals Away: Scholars and the Constitution of Their Objects of Study”. Martin emphasizes the role of the scholar in knowledge production and clarifies misconceptions in and around the Realist vs. Anti-Realist debate. Martin’s essay is important here because it highlights what’s at stake in choosing our data. Reality, objective truth, identity, and social relationships are just a few things that are often studied as data in Religious Studies. But how does one go about studying spirituality, for example? How would you measure that? Could you measure spirituality without employing assumptions about westernized religion? Or even reality —being in the same physical space as another person does not mean you will have the same experience. You cannot leave your habitus at the door and jump into someone else’s shoes. Reality cannot be studied because it is not the same between any two people. 

I’m getting meta here, I know. To bring us back to the ground, consider McCutcheon again, “Standards need to be established and invoked for any judgment to be made about anything” (McCutcheon 2019, 15). The solution then is not to search for some method that eradicates bias or to employ a method of data collection that represents reality as it truly is. Instead — Martin emphasizes — we owe it to ourselves as knowledge producers and consumers to recognize the ways in which data is chosen, collected, constructed, and then all of those things all over again in order to achieve our own goals or the goals of the collector.

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