Who studies religion? This question is surprisingly hard to answer. A brief glance at the literature reveals medical researchers, sociologists, neuroscientists, historians, and many others involved in investigating different aspects of “religion” or “spirituality.” But what do these different approaches have in common (if anything)? While some research strains are clearly related, others appear to be operating in separate academic universes, passing by each other like ships in the night. To reveal the underlying structure of research on religion, this chaotic and complex picture needs an empirical approach that goes beyond overt disciplinary boundaries.
Over the last few years, the team at CMAC has used advanced data analytics and social network approaches to do just that. The Field Mapping team has steadily built a database of publications in the scientific study of religion, including work in the field of Spirituality and Health. This database includes information about co-authorship, publication venues, institutional homes and funding sources. By compiling this information into a single place, CMAC can begin to analyze and investigate the variation in research trends across time and space, answering the questions about who, where, how, and why the scientific study of religion is being pursued across the globe.
At a glance, Field Mapping provides quantitative measurements of publications by author, institutions, country, subfield, and year. Detailed author information yields information on trends in scholarship at different times, as measured by the age of authors or the years of their terminal degrees. From this we have learned that the scientific study of religion now outpaces traditional humanities approaches in terms of publication by quite some distance.
The project also uses a variety of more sophisticated techniques to detect topical and social clustering that can define distinct subfields. For example, the team built a network based on co-authorship of articles that revealed a massive, complex landscape of interaction between different individuals and institutions. This enabled the team to concretely investigate about which fields collaborate more frequently with one another, and which subfields are more isolated. For example, there is almost total isolation between traditional humanities scholarship in the academic study of religion and the scientific approaches to religion.
Field Mapping enables researchers to view the scientific study of religion through a wide-angle lens. The effort has revealed the institutions and funders that are currently key to the scientific study of religion, and illuminates possible trends that will define its future.
This information helps to raise awareness about the bustling fields of inquiry that are not normally considered part of traditional religious studies, such as the massive amount of research in Spirituality and Health.
It also draws attention to systematic problems, such as the fact that, despite dominating publication count in the academic study of religion, the scientific approaches are not benefitting from collaborations that activate the nuance and interpretative sophistication furnished by the humanities disciplines. That in turn can inspire new strategies for designing research studies and organizing university resources.
Ultimately, the results of the Field Mapping Project will encourage greater communication between different fields and promote a more cohesive interdisciplinary approach in the academic study of religion.
Values in Scholarship on Religion (VISOR)
The Values in Scholarship on Religion Project (VISOR) is a project within Field Mapping. This project focuses on gathering information about the values held by scholars of religion (across a wide variety of sub-disciplines) so that we can have a more informed conversation around the academic table. Scholars within various academic fields have significantly varying opinions over questions of definition, methodology, and audience. One of the most obvious places of confusion and dissent surfaces around the belief that scholars of religion should pursue the same sort of intellectual objectivity as scholars in the secular academy. The VISOR team is amassing survey responses at visorproject.org as well as intentionally seeking out consultation and advisement from experts with diverse religious and political opinions.
Over the last few decades, the field of philosophy of religion has been undergoing a quiet crisis about its identity and future. Not only have the number of available tenure-track positions in philosophy of religion steadily declined, but there has also been widespread disagreement over what defines excellent scholarship in the field as well as how the field fits within a modern and secular academy. In spite of these challenges, philosophers of religion continue to produce innovative and diverse research. Given this tension between liveliness and precariousness, the question must be asked: what is contemporary philosophy of religion, and what should it be?
At CMAC, we took a simple yet elegant approach to answering this question: we asked philosophers of religion. Our team created PhilosophyofReligion.Org as a public forum for leading scholars to answer central, field-defining questions in a space outside the strictures of more formal publications and presentations.
In addition to creating a public forum for frank discussion and reflection, the PhilosophyOfReligion.org team is using Nvivo qualitative analysis software to systematically analyze the themes and attitudes expressed in these blogs. This thematic analysis is then compared against a number of demographic and institutional variables, such as the religious affiliation of the university or the age of the contributor. By examining responses through this lens, the team can discover what underlying factors are driving broad disagreements within the field and offer guidance for the future of philosophy of religion in the academy.
See the full project page for PhilosophyOfReligion.org here.
Shults, F. LeRon, Wesley J. Wildman, Ann Taves, Raymond F. Paloutzian. “What Do Religion Scholars Really Want? Scholarly Values in the Scientific Study of Religion,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, January 29, 2020.
Wesley J. Wildman and David Rohr, “North American Philosophers of Religion: How They See Their Field,” in Paul Draper and John Schellenberg, eds., Renewing Philosophy of Religion: Exploratory Essays (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2017): 133-153