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The Work of Data: Methods in the Study of Religions (1/2)

Panel Chairs: Steven Engler, Michael Stausberg | Monday, August 24, 9-11 a.m. | Venue

Contemporary debates in the study of religion\s often speak of “methodology”. Yet methods—i.e. ways of constructing/collecting and analyzing different types of data/materials in empirical research—are rarely addressed. The Routledge Handbook of Research Methods in the Study of Religion (2011) was the first major international attempt to take stock of and critically review the current methodological toolbox of our discipline. It discussed a range of well- and less well-known methods, and it began to move our discipline toward the level of methodological diversification and sophistication common in others. This process needs to continue. In this double-panel, scholars from Europe and North America look at methods and methodological strategies and tools not covered in the Routledge Handbook. The double-panel will consist of seven papers with 9 speakers.

Oliver Freiberger

Exploring the Methodical in “the Comparative Method”

Comparison, in the narrower sense, has been a common and fundamental activity in the academic study of religion from the very beginning of the discipline. It has also been fundamentally criticized primarily for its potential to decontextualize and essentialize and for being used by scholars with theological, phenomenological, colonial, or other agendas. Yet comparative studies keep being produced—with varying degrees of reflexivity about the comparative process. If comparison is a subject of reflection at all, the discussed points are most often theoretical, sometimes methodological, but almost never methodical. Rarely have scholars suggested concrete and applicable frameworks and techniques for carrying out a comparative study. Summarizing a larger and more complex argument, this paper outlines such a concrete procedure of comparing. After briefly addressing various options for the research design (goals, scopes, scales, and modes of comparison), it lays out a research process that expands a model suggested by Jonathan Z. Smith and includes six steps: selection, description, comparison, redescription, rectification, and theory building. The paper briefly introduces each of these and discusses the potential benefits of the method. Finally it argues that a developed comparative method may once again become, if understood as a second-order method, a distinctive disciplinary feature of the study of religion. Considering the discipline’s long experience with comparison—albeit often employed intuitively and also problematically—a comparative method that is both based on critical reflexivity and practically applicable may even be considered interesting by other disciplines, and thus exportable.

Laura Feldt

Metaphor analysis

Metaphors are prevalent not only in many forms of religious texts (e.g., hymns, prayers, poetry, narrative texts, mystical literature, magical texts, etc.) and symbolic expressions, but may also underlie rituals and institutions. Metaphors play a structuring role in everyday speech, philosophical language, social norms, and broader discourses of relevance to the study of religions. Figurative language is a language form used to describe, model and constitute deities and other transempirical / non-natural beings. For such reasons, metaphor analysis is a relevant contribution to the methodological range of the discipline. This contribution discusses definitions of metaphor, outlines the core research history of metaphor theory, assesses the strengths and limitations of metaphor analysis, and presents a strategy of analysis drawn from the hermeneutically grounded metaphor theory of Paul Ricoeur (La metaphore vive, 1977). This form of metaphor analysis proceeds in a series of steps: 1) identification and classification of the poetic language in the text, 2) sentence-level analysis of the selected metaphor(s) in terms of a) the semantic domains involved, b) the tensional aspects and emergent meaning, and c) the (split) reference of the metaphor, 3) text-level analysis of the extent, status, and impact of the metaphor, 4) consideration of relevant intertextual context(s) / the selected corpus / network. The paper pays special attention to methodological challenges with regard to the analysis of metaphors from foreign or historically distant cultural contexts, and focuses on the representation of deities in ancient Near Eastern texts.

Petra Bleisch Bouzar, Dirk Johannsen, Anja Kirsch

Narratological Analysis in the Study of Religion

Narratological analysis is a method to examine text-immanent forms and strategies of narrative representation (Sommer 2010). While developed in literary studies, it can be applied to any sort of narrative: from fictional literature to factual texts; from traditional tales to communicative interaction; from accounts of the worlds’ creation to those of personal experience. Distinct from the analysis of context and content, narratological approaches focus on “how it is told,” the style of composition. With a variety of instruments, this form of analysis provides insight into the efficacy of narratives, the interpretative biases given by the texts, the schematisation of events within narrative communities, and the textual dynamics of narrative cultures.

Narratology has seen major transformations in recent decades. From a formalist and structuralist endeavour it developed into a set of “post-classical narratologies,” inspired by diverse fields of cultural and anthropological studies. Two lines of research are of particular interest to the study of religion: first, aesthetic narratologies uncovering the formal foundations of narrative efficacy; second, cultural narratologies refining perspectives on the historical and social context of narrative cultures. The presentation will introduce these aspects of narratological analysis and their use in historical as well as in field research: comprising the identification of plots and scripts; setting, figuration and perspective; as well as blanks and “small stories.”


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