Principles of the Cultural Studies Approach

Note: The English version differs slightly from the more current German version.

10 Fundamental Principles of the Cultural Studies Approach

The religious studies approaches in Heidelberg are committed to a cultural studies perspective: religious beliefs, practices and materials are products of historical developments, which have to be considered in their respective historical, cultural and societal contexts. Questions of general as well as period-specific religious history and contemporary religious developments are equally considered in research and teaching.

In order to give new students a concise insight into the cultural studies perspective, as well as to remind advanced students of the way religious studies is carried out in Heidelberg, 10 Principles of cultural studies will be presented in the following. Students in their first semesters will come across these principles again and again, learning how to better understand and apply them in their studies. Advanced students can cross-check their work using these principles and also independently extend and supplement the following points using their own expertise. The fundamental principles should also be topic of the departments mentoring programme and flow into individual discussions.

I. As a rule, we do not make normative statements about our object of research in academic work.

  • The objective of religious studies is to describe, that is to descriptively explain religious discourses. We refrain from making reductionist statements and show relationships empirically.
  • As scholars of religious studies, we disclose our academic presuppositions, for example, in form of theories of religion, culture and history.
  • We are aware that religious studies is indebted to the humanist legacy of the enlightenment and thus, can take up normative positions, for example in order to bring attention to human rights violations in the name of religion.

II. We research the intention of actors by questioning them and reflecting their statements in respect to the practices and observations about the social reality which surround them.

  • Cui bono? Who profits? We ask this fundamental question because we assume that individuals, collective bodies and institutions benefit from certain statements and practices or hope to gain an advantage through them, for example, when religious narratives are assessed for worldly (e.g. wealth) or otherworldly (e.g. better post moral existence) success.
  • We accept the self-positioning of actors, however triangulate these with our academic presuppositions, for example in form of theories of religion, culture and history.

III. We reflect concepts of history. As integral parts of historical scenarios religions are not monolithic. They undergo local, geographical and temporal changes, which can be retraced.

  • History is not an objective sequence of events or a causal connection between individuals, collective groups and institutions. Instead, we assume that every history that is told forms a conception with a context. The latter must be investigated in order to understand why a certain perspective on historical events came about.
  • Instead of relying on existing conceptions of history and religion, we trace existing conceptions from the present into the past, looking for continuities and discontinuities. This makes clear that only processes and not the essences of Judaism, Christianity, Islam etc. can be found in history.

IV. We consider the social reality of all actors, not just the written discourses of religious experts. To this end, there are a number of methods available for religious studies working with a cultural studies approach (see "Diversity of Methods").

  • The social reality of religious actors is the reality that is lived by religious individuals. This may diverge from or overlap with the discourse of the religious experts, should however always be investigated in its own right.
  • Religious studies scholars working with a cultural studies approach are able to approximately capture the meaning of religious practices for actors by conducting field work which involves taking part in religious practices. Researchers are also able to compare their findings to the expert discourse.

V. We make ourselves aware of the methods that are made available by religious studies working with a cultural studies approach. On one hand, these methods are the result of interdisciplinary exchange with other subjects, whose approaches can be adapted for religious studies. Interdisciplinary is essential for religious studies because the history of the discipline of religious studies means that 'religious studies methods per se' cannot exist. On the other hand, religious studies has developed its own corpus of methods, that must be constantly developed further.

  • The methods of religious studies are a mixture of qualitative, philological and discourse-analytical methods, which have been adopted from neighbouring disciplines such as philology, ethnology, history and philosophy. The psychological and bodily experience of individuals is at the forefront of qualitative methods and is captured using participatory field work and interview techniques. Here the material religions approach, which investigates the interplay between cognitive and material elements, known as sensational forms, can also be employed. Philological methods are used to understand written primary sources and necessitate a sound understanding of the respective languages of the sources. Through understanding the original religious texts, the discourse of religious experts can be successfully reconstructed. At the forefront of discourse-analytical methods lies theory driven research into history and the present, which use empirical proofs to illustrate the continuities and discontinuities between individuals, collective bodies and institutions. As the method which spans qualitive and philological methods, discourse analysis enables the statements of actors to be contextualised using primary sources.

VI. As researchers we self-reflect. This means that we question our individual position towards our object of research. How does our own worldview influence the construction and depiction of scenarios in religious history? How can religious studies research influence its own object of research? How are religious studies works received by the public and religious actors? How can researchers gain access to actors whilst upholding ethical research principles?

  • Every researcher has a position to their own research. According to our biographical imprinting and the consequent normative ideas we have about religion, we are predisposed to exclude or include certain elements of our object of research. In order to address this, it is necessary to undertake a detailed self-reflection, which takes us as individuals and researchers into view and lays out our presuppositions.
  • As religious studies scholars are also concerned with normative discourses about religion, the reception the academic works of religious studies by religious actors are of interest to us. As an example, we refrain from using the negatively connoted term cult and instead speak of (new) religious movements. We observe if religious studies academic work is being used by religious actors or institutions for legitimisation or to delegitimise others and are aware that our work may be decontextualised. Religious studies scholars try to take a pragmatic middle-way between forming alliances with actors by serving their religious or anti-religious discourses with research findings and antagonizing religious actors, by focussing on the accurate description of discourses and practices.

VII. We work with heuristic definitions of 'religion'. We reflect these definitions in respect to observed social realities and the statements of actors.

  • Heuristic definitions are hypotheses about how religion manifests itself in history and today. So-called substantive und functional definitions of religion, but also discursive definitions of religion, can help to heuristically grasp the object of our research. We do not assume that theses definitions are the only or the most adequate definitions of religion.
  • Because we assume that the term 'religion' can be filled in with any meaning, we work with the definitions of actors for analysis purposes and compare these to our heuristic definitions. We accept that our objects of research will never be clearly defined.

VIII. Religious studies with a cultural studies orientation has a critical potential. This must be recognised in order to find a well-founded speaker position. At the same time is necessary to pragmatically restrict critical positions and to deconstruct religious discourses without satisfying our own desires to criticise.

  • The critical potential of religious studies comes from religious studies analyses of historical and contemporary constellations. The statements of religious actors are compared to observable social reality and historical narratives are surveyed for discontinuities and concealment. This often leads to differences between religious studies research and religious discourses, as both have differing aims.
  • We neither wish to legitimise or to criticise religion(s). Instead, we analytically deconstruct religious discourses with the aim of representing an objective perspective on religion(s), whilst refraining from satisfying our own religion-critical ambitions.

IX. We reflect historical and contemporary power structures. For example, religious studies researchers ask how the category gender influences the self-optimisation of religious actors or how the perception of orientalism and post-colonialism have an effect on global entangled histories.

  • Gender is a very relevant discourse category for religious studies research. We can identify the dominance of male perspectives in female realities all the way into the twentieth century; female perspectives could not be asserted. We lay out this prevalent asymmetry of speaker positions, so that female perspectives in religious history and today can be justly perceived. We assume the plurality of gender constructions, that transcends the duality of male and female and allows for a spectrum of identities.
  • Orientalism is an influential characteristic of recent religious history. Through European colonial discovery of, or, put more accurately, military domination of large parts of the globe, the dominated cultural systems were classified as religions according to the ideas of the colonial rulers. The ascriptions to foreign religions which emerged in this process, mirrored European fantasies of distant and exotic worlds and only partially corroborated the perspectives of the actors under colonisation. In the course of cultural interactions, hybrid discourses, which trace back to partly colonial, partly local influences, were formed. The effects of orientalism, which can still be felt today, and new orientalisms are part of the post-colonial perspective that is taken up by religious studies working with a cultural studies approach.

X. We are aware of certain ethical and methodological principles and ensure these are communicated in both our field research and written work. In spite of these principles, such as avoiding normative statements or working with heuristic definitions of religion, deviations from the principles may occur for practical, ethical or individual reasons.

  • Normative statements about religion(s) and religious actors cannot always be avoided. On one hand, this is connected to the fact that we cannot control how our work is received and interpreted. Descriptive religious studies can be understood as criticism and therefore become normative. On the other hand, religious studies has its foundation in the humanistic enlightenment, meaning that certain practices and discourses cannot be described/ assessed completely neutrally.
  • In some cases, it is necessary to adjust the prefabricated ethical and methodological principles. For example, when weighing up with what methods it is possible to make contact with actors or when assessing if it is ethical to remain neutral in the face of human rights violations.
Inken Prohl, Laura Brandt and Dimitry Okropiridze, translated from German by Marlies Weileder (2020)

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Letzte Änderung: 22.01.2021