The REL Journal Group: Health or Perceived Health Benefits

The following exchange between Prof. Russell McCutcheon and Sierra Lawson, a graduate student in our MA program, reflects on the recent meeting of REL’s monthly journal reading group, part of our Religion in Culture MA.

Russell: Sierra, in your undergrad here at UA you did a double major in Anthropology and Religious Studies, and I know that you have an interest in medical anthropology. So presumably that helped direct your choice of this article for our journal group (written by our UA colleague, Jason DeCaro, a faculty member here in the Department of Anthropology) and one of their recent doctoral grads, Becky Read-Wahidi)?

Sierra: Yes! I attended the University of Alabama, starting in the Fall of 2014, under the assumption that I would study biological/physical anthropology. While this has morphed a great deal, leading to my current interests, the issue of health and wel-lbeing has consistently been of interest to me. So this article seemed to be a good fit for the reading group because it dealt with religious behavior — but not from a traditional Religious Studies point of view. This is what I thought made it an accessible example for our Department to wrestle with broader issues regarding how something called ‘religion’ is conceived and studied by other departments in their research.

RM: During the discussion I recall a few times when disciplinary issues were on the table, such as people asking you some questions about how Anthropology might understand this or that topic or use this or that method — so, are there points of overlap between the two fields that you now see, or maybe points of divergence that catch your attention?


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Choking Down the Red Pill

In my undergraduate career I was fully convinced something called ‘culture’ existed out in the world, waiting to be delineated and studied if only I could acquire the right tools. As I expanded my methodological repertoire and explored seminars on theory and philosophy, the impossibility of the existence of subjects and objects beyond the systems of discourse and language that call them into being seemed increasingly attractive. For fans of The Matrix, I was taking the red pill and pondering the function and construction of my experience of my own existence.

When bound up in a particular version of reality it can be difficult, and at times feel nearly impossible, to reflect critically on the role of processes that – despite their convenient anonymity –largely determine the version of reality you are exposed to. The structures informing our daily lives often operate undetected because, over millennia, they have been refined to adhere to pre-existing mental structures. It is difficult to reconsider the world you inhabit (and have inhabited for some time now, i.e. your entire life) as highly constructed and inherently contingent. The animated American sitcom Rick and Morty gets at this in one of their episodes in which they face off against aliens, headed by Prince Nebulon, who trap them in an alternate version of reality and even admonish the duo for believing they have escaped only to realize they were in a simulation within a simulation.

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Viewing (and Dividing) the World through Eclipse Glasses


If you, like millions of Americans, took time on August 21st to view the total solar eclipse, you likely adorned the necessary protective eyewear. Immediately following the cosmic spectacle, radio broadcasters, journalists, and other figures of mainstream media began suggesting these glasses be donated, specifically through Astronomers Without Border, a U.S. based organization, to ‘children in South America and Asia’. This seemingly altruistic effort to further scientific knowledge and thus enhance the experience of science by ‘children in South America and Asia’ becomes problematic when we become critical about the social constructions it reinforces and the ways it undermines local agents.

Looking critically at AWB’s developing donation program, and, in a broader sense, the way American news outlets cast foreign countries as distant and distinctively dissimilar to the United States, it becomes obvious that certain complexities are being glossed over for the sake of mass-communication. Sensationalist headlines regarding AWB’s efforts are reaffirming the existence of a distinctly other population who is inherently less developed / has impaired access to resources. References to these Other populations are not just mere references, they are re-presentations of a lived reality. The tendency in Western media to be referential avoids clarity and explicit intentions by being irresponsibly, and randomly, selective about the ways vast geographical spaces are defined. References like this rely on a binary in which individuals either belong to this area or do not, thus creating a hierarchy that places Europe and North America above Asia and South America.

Claiming “children in Asia and South America” as the recipients of their goodwill makes AWB complicit in the Western based worldview, with a Eurocentric history, that further ostracizes the non-Western world. The “goodwill and understanding” AWB claims to foster through its self-insertion into the third world assumes the existence of a certain universal morality, thus subverting local conceptions of morality.

This is a contemporary example of how the construction of space and ability to reference it – such as ‘Asia’– is contingent upon the individual agents and their political positioning in history. Orientalism is a concept that often refers to the representations of the ‘East’ by the ‘West’. It is the basis for distinguishing between populations over there that are inherently different than us over here and, as Edward Said succinctly stated in his book entitled Orientalism, it “…was a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient.”

Dipesh Chakrabarty in his book Provincializing Europe, argues that authority held over the past is never limited to the past alone. Claims to authenticity about what has happened are essential in the development of what will happen in our present and future. If we assume time to be singular with linear progression, then the passing of time becomes an instrument for measuring cultural distance and reinforcing this essential difference between those less developed countries over there and the developed countries over here. Representations of places and people accepted uncritically as truthful and objective, such as AWB’s reference to ‘children in Asia and South America’, are one aspect of the autocratic manufacturing of the past that imposes an evolutionary model placing Europe closer to the ‘completion’ of development. According to Chakrabarty, questioning versions of history taken to be normative can restructure habits of thought to be more inclusive.

The colonial encounter created a space in which European explorers could pass judgments about an observed population derived from their linear understanding of progress. ‘Us versus them’, Orientalist mentality was adopted to provide clear criteria for who was to dominate and who was to be dominated in colonialist efforts and, as Chakrabarty highlights, this tendency to view Europe as the original site of modernity has hardly abated.

Beyond AWB, there exists a pattern of individuals, almost invariably men of European descent, employing an Orientalist worldview and gifting foreign children repurposed items and telling them to gaze into the cosmos. Rhetorical reinforcement of an inferior Orient who requires a European savior is evident in neo-colonial attempts at redistributing the knowledge and wealth of entities that, historically, benefitted from colonial exploits. AWB is but one thread of a greater tapestry.

So, certain conditions must be in place for individuals to perceive themselves, and their plight, as unproblematic. The redistribution efforts of AWB serve as one example of the rich data demonstrating how sensationalist headlines imagine the populations they speak of as existing in the periphery while simultaneously authorizing the centrality of groups making claims about said populations.

Structure and Agency in Starbucks

Recently, I was denied closure at a Starbucks drive-thru when a specific group, working within the structures of society, interrupted my daily caffeine ritual. As my 1997 butter-colored vehicle creaked to the pick up window, the hand that usually supplied me with my beverage was instead holding a bright card with bold turquoise lettering that read “Something extra to show you God loves you.” Operating within the structures that favor standard American English, my barista briefly explained my purchase had been taken on by a third party as my drink mechanically moved from their hand to my cup holder and I pulled away.


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Barometers in the Field: Another Student Report from the Regional AAR

I was most pleased with my experience at the Southeastern Commission for the Study of Religion (SECSOR) because it provided me with the opportunity to see what is, and what is not, happening in the academic study of religion. As someone completing a B.A. this Spring and entering an M.A. program in the Fall, I believe the connections I made at SECSOR could be foundational to the work I hope to do in the near future.

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