Joined by several of my graduate colleagues from FSU, I spent this past weekend in Indianapolis at the Third Biennial Conference on Religion and American Culture. Hosted by the Center of the same name, the conference brought together a variety of scholars broadly interested in Religious Studies in an American context.
One of the most interesting panels was the Saturday session on “Religion and Social Media,” featuring Verity Jones, Kathryn Reklis, Scott Thuma and Jonathan Van Antwerpen. The panelists began by discussing how religious groups have made use of various forms of social media, but the conversation quickly shifted to how scholarly approaches to digital media are informed by our own theoretical frameworks. Reklis challenged attendees to conceive of the digital world as “cyberspace” rather than “virtual,” arguing that “virtual” suggests a degree of un-realness reflective of an old way of thinking about the Internet. Everything on the Internet, Reklis suggested, is very much real. Van Antwerpen employed the vocabulary of Pierre Bourdieu to suggest that social media may best be understood as improvised fields of discursive struggle. The attendees seemed to be split about the utility of social media for scholars of religion. Not surprisingly, that split seemed to be largely (but not entirely) generational.
One of Thumma’s comments stood out to me in particular. He argued that religious communities have a digital presence, and a social media presence, whether they realize it or not. This is undoubtedly accurate. Withdrawing (or abstaining entirely) from the discursive field of struggle does not make the struggle go away. Having taught several courses now which utilize Twitter as a significant component, I can anecdotally confirm that there is a wide variety of information about and by religious groups on the medium. Thumma’s concern was practical: he advised religious groups on how to handle their social media presence, and attempted to get them to see how their conscientious absence from the medium was really no absence at all. My interest was slightly different, though: it struck me how similar this situation was to scholars who claim that they “don’t do theory.” These scholars posit that their intentional absence from discussions they deem too “theoretical” means they are not involved in questions of theory or method. What it really suggests, of course, is a lack of understanding regarding theoretical or methodological concerns: no scholar works without a methodology, though they may not think of it in those terms.
Scholarly approaches to social media (both as scholarly practice as well as studying how our subjects use it) may be related to ongoing discussions about the category of religion. Social media challenges the easy public/private dichotomy which is relied upon for much traditional theoretical work. The use of social media by groups deemed religious collapses simplistic attempts to differentiate public and private by rendering the “public sphere”–say, one’s own Twitter page–simultaneously neither public nor private, but rather something in between. Scholars who were unsure as to whether social media would be useful in their own work (or “meaningful” in the lives of their research subjects) seemed to be the same scholars who spoke of finding a “better” definition for the sacred. Admittedly, this is entirely anecdotal, but it was interesting to watch the conversation develop over the course of the weekend. More than once, I was reminded of Kathryn Lofton’s comment that, “To be trained as a scholar of religious studies is then to practice a postcolonial methodology of a profoundly colonial subject.”*
Another interesting take away from the social media panel was how attendees themselves employed social media, specifically Twitter, at the conference. The gathering did not have an official hashtag, which seemed odd for such a high profile conference in 2013. The hashtag we ultimately employed (#RAAC2013) was crafted by the FSU graduate student contingent (the aptly named #religinoles) while we were en route to the conference, stopped at a Waffle House along I-65. In any case, the conversation on Twitter was limited for most of the conference–indeed, it was largely limited to the graduate delegation from FSU and Chris Cantwell–until a panel discussing social media made mention of it, at which point the online conversation lit up. With only a few hours of the conference remaining, conference-goers racked up hundreds of tweets. Given the already intimate, in-the-round aesthetic of the conference, the paralleling online conversation was similarly dynamic and productive. If you’re curious, feel free to check out the Twitter conversation which is archived (for now) right here.
*Lofton, Kathryn. “Religious History as Religious Studies.” Religion (2008). 384.