Interview: Discourse analysis and practical religious studies

What is religious studies as a scientific discipline? How does it differ from theology? And what can discourse analysis contribute to religious studies? These are some of the topics that CRCS staff members Marthen Tahun and Azis Anwar discussed in an interview with Frans Wijsen, professor of practical religious studies at Radboud University, the Netherlands. Last month, during his three-week stay in Yogyakarta, Prof. Wijsen gave a lecture at the CRCS-ICRS Wednesday Forum on what scholars of religion can contribute to water management. In this interview, we discuss two of the main topics of his latest co-edited book Making Religion: Theory and Practice in the Discursive Study of Religion (2016).


What is practical religious studies? How does it differ from theology and religious studies in general?

Religious studies as a discipline more or less developed out of theology. Theology was perceived as a normative discipline which prescribes what people should do or should not do. Religious studies as a discipline wants to be neutral or unbiased. That of course developed in 1970s in Europe at least from the perspective of methodical agnosticism or even methodical atheism. In general, scholars of religious studies, at least if you are trained in Europe, would say, “Well, I describe and explain religious phenomena and I do not go further to evaluate whether religious practices are good or bad, and I do not want to give advice and recommend what should be better.”

I do understand that that movement was needed to make the study of religion more academic and more accepted by other disciplines. But I think we really have to move to the next stage, and this is what I am doing know. Particularly if you work in the southern hemisphere, the principle of methodical agnosticism would be very difficult to use because, for example, if I say to Muslims, “I don’t believe,” I would be met with suspicion. I do not see any problem with saying, “Okay, I have my religious worldview; I don’t propagate it to you, but I want to be open that this is my point of view.” Moreover, I don’t understand why the academic study of religion should not be normative or could not give recommendations. For example, if I am an economist, I do not want only to see how economy works, but I also want to say, “If it is like this or that, it could be better.” I don’t see personally why scholars of religion couldn’t say, when seeing phenomena happening in Indonesia, that people today tend to be more conservative or even more radical, “From certain normative principles that could be accepted by most of us, I think this is not good or this is good, and I recommend going a step further.”

Now for myself, in a scholarly way, I do not want to bring in Catholic social teachings or theology, but I think a principle that we could easily agree on—and I think this is one of the major achievements of Catholic thinking—is the freedom of religion and consciousness. That is a human right. Everybody has the right to have a religious conviction or to not have a religious conviction; to confess that conviction and even to promote that conviction. (Editorial note: Prof. Wijsen is a Catholic.)

So from that starting point, I moved from an empirical or more descriptive, explanatory religious studies to practical religious studies; from the perspective that in our present-day world we are confronted with many issues. I think as scholars of religion we can make contributions to that, and for that reason I moved from the description of religious phenomena to explaining and evaluating religious phenomena to the best of my ability from a certain normative perspective that I think would help and be accepted even by secular philosophers. That is what I understand by practical religious studies.

In 1993, you published the book There is only One God in which you employ an ethnographic approach. But in latest years, you have shifted from an ethnographic approach to discourse analysis, which is still a newly introduced approach in religious studies. Would you explain why you shifted and how discourse analysis is used in religious studies? (Editorial note: the book has been translated into Indonesian and published by Duta Wacana Christian University in 2010 titled Buah-buah Roh)

That book was based on my thesis. I think you are right that in my thesis I used a quite traditional ethnographic method describing how people classify or think about the world; you look at the world from participants’ perspective. At that time, I used language as the main vehicle to understand how people perceive the world and how they classify the world. It was a quite traditional ethnographic method. Now, of course, in my development I came to understand that this is quite naïve, because we take language to reflect something. I have an opinion or I have a self, and I communicate that to other people. That is what ethnographers normally do: I take you very seriously while listening to what you say and I try to make sense of that. Later on I became more critical in the sense that I became a bit suspicious to what people say, because we are very much aware in ethnography that today people say something to you and tomorrow they say something else to other people. How can you make sense of that?

You can make sense of that if you listen beyond what people say: from social position is it said; what interests do they have to say this to you and the opposite to another person? So I came to understand that their language is not simply informative. The way language is used is also related to power—basically this is the idea of Foucault, that people always structure the world from a certain position that is already influenced by power and interests. The use of language is always related to power and, for Foucault, the use of power influences others. That has to do with my shift from empirical religious studies to practical religious studies; empirical religious studies only wants to describe, explain; in practical religious studies scholars also want to change, emancipate, and liberate people. For that we need a different way of looking at social sciences. That brought me to critical language use, to the critical discourse analysis.

You mentioned Michel Foucault as a central figure in discourse analysis. Later on we have such figures as Norman Fairclough. Any differences among them?

In discourse analysis, we can divide twenty or twenty five or even thirty different approaches, which is a weakness of this approach because it does not have a standardized procedure. In statistics, if you want to make a regression analysis or factor analysis, you know what to do; in discourse analysis we don’t have that yet. But we have some principles that I think most discourse analysts would agree on, that is the principle of intertextuality; that the text we produce is related to other texts; also,  what I said earlier, that it has a relation to power; also the idea that language is not informative but performative, which means language does something; language constitutes something. There are discourse analysts who follow Foucault strictly; but there are also those who are critical to him. Well, Foucault made quite interesting points, but there are also some weaknesses, which are the points that Fairclough develops further.

First is that Foucault is a brilliant writer with very interesting books, but he never made a concrete analysis of any text. His writing is abstract. He was a philosopher. Fairclough would say, “Okay, it’s fine, but you have to analyze texts in detail; every word, every sentence, every grammatical structure, and so on. Secondly, for Foucault, truth is relative to discourse, which means you cannot go outside your discourse. This makes science quite relativistic. Now, I think in the university we agree that, at least in principle, we should convince each other that my representation of reality is better than yours. That means you have to go outside your discourse through some kinds of procedures we can agree upon that your representation of reality is better than mine. If you can’t do that, then science becomes relativistic. In university, we try to produce representations of reality that are reliable. So a criticism of Foucault is that he takes the constitutive power of language too far in saying that there is no reality outside discourse. What I found interesting in Fairclough’s work is that he takes Foucault but goes beyond Foucault in what he calls “critical realism”. He would argue that, indeed, in our language we construct realities, but once these realities are constructed, they influence us.

How then are discourse analyses applied in religious studies?

What I said earlier is that most concepts of discourse analysis would take language not as simply informative but also performative; not only informing reality but also constituting reality. I think that is a common denominator of discourse analyses. Also they hold the idea of social constructivism; that is, our social word is lastly constructed and reproduced. This applies to religion. As a scholar of religion, I would say, well, religions are somehow constructed under certain historical circumstances. Some are reproduced, and some are not reproduced, which makes them disappear, like the religion of the Romans. Under certain conditions they are not reproduced so that they are no longer a social reality.

We at CRCS read works by scholars of religion who argue that religion is a social construct. The difficulty we face is how to convey that idea to common people. People is likely to be angry when you say to them that your religion is a construct while they insist that their religion is a revelation from God and not a man-made institution. Any thoughts on this?

Let me make two comments. Firstly, one can make a distinction between different languages games, that is, between what you say as a believer and what you say as an academic. That is exactly the point. We have different speech communities, and what I say as a scholar of religion, for example that “religion is a construct,” might not be in harmony with what I say as believer. And I do not see any problem there because it is clear that these are two different speech communities. If I give an academic lecture in a church, people would think I am crazy, because there is a different language game there. And if I give a religious sermon in a university, people would say “this is not an appropriate way to speak in a university”. That shows that we have different speech communities with different language games. They are not always in harmony.

Secondly, going back to your point about religion as a social construct, I would argue with Fairclough: it is indeed a social construct, but it is also a social reality. The classic example is of course Hinduism. There are thousands of traditions in India but they simply say “this is Hinduism!” So it is a construct, a systematization, or a reification (to use Wilfred Cantwell Smith’s term) of religion. So, yes, it is a construct, but we cannot ignore that there are millions of people that now label their religion as Hinduism. You cannot simply say that it is a social construct and does not exist. That is what Fairclough calls critical realism: once a reality is constructed, it exists, as long as it is reproduced. Hinduism is quite successful in reproducing itself. So, it is social reality, and not only a construct. It is produced, and it is reproduced and institutionalized by people. As a Catholic or a Christian, I would say, Jesus never had the intention to start Christianity. Jesus wanted to renew or reform Judaism. It was Saint Paul who gathered followers of Christ, and it became a religion. I can say, yes, it is a construct; it is institutionalized and reified as Wilfred Smith would say; but at the same time I say it is a reality that I cannot ignore.

Would you explain to us in a nutshell the kind of discourse analysis employed by Norman Fairclough?

I think the main idea in Norman Fairclough’s approach is what he labels as social cognitive approach, while other approaches are purely cognitive. For Fairclough, cognitions are always socially conditioned and they have social effects. His main criticism is that, in traditional ethnography or other approaches of discourse analysis, scholars look at cognitions in discourse but they ignore the social conditions and power relation that influence the way people conceptualize the world and how their conceptualizations influence the world. That is basically his idea about social cognitive discourse analysis. He would always look at discourse from three dimensions; first, the personal and interpersonal dimension; second, the institutional dimension, for example we are members of a university or a religious institution or a political party; third, the societal dimension, when we speak as citizens of a nation. Thus, for him, discourse always has three dimensions, and he always looks at three functions of discourse: the social position or the ‘self’ as he calls it; the relationship, that is, I always constitute myself in relation to another; and the cognition, that is, the way we constitute ourselves in relation to others is always influenced by a belief system or a shared knowledge that we have in my mind.

What do you recommend to beginner students in discourse analysis? How particularly important is it for students of religion?

That is a difficult question, because you choose your method in relation to the research questions. Not all research questions are fit for discourse analysis. I am very much favoring discourse analysis, but I also realize that it has its limitations. Discourse analysis is one of many methods. There might be research questions more fit for traditional ethnography. But if you want to move into discourse analysis or critical discourse analysis, you have to note that there are varying approaches, as I said earlier, that you may find confusing. My advice is to read Fairclough’s book Discourse and Social Change (1992). Chapter three of that book has a summary of the theory; chapter eight has a very practical application. But after all you have to make a choice of what method that is best for your own research.

I found this discourse analysis very helpful for the improvement of common people’s understanding of religion. One thing hard to do is how to formulate convincing arguments for them; that religion is subject to change; that religions we know today are not the same as they were in the beginning. Any last comments?

That is going back to the beginning of this interview. If you show that you yourself are a committed believer, people will take you seriously. That is what I doubt about scholars of religion that employ methodical agnosticism, because in that case you are not going to be taken seriously. Even if you hold that religion to a large extent is a construct, it is also a lived reality and it doesn’t take away your belief. And indeed, if you show that you are a committed believer yourself, I think your conceptualization of religion will be more accepted by your fellow believers. By the way, this is what I really admire about what you are doing at CRCS; that you don’t follow the strictly European model of neutral, unbiased scholarship but you really try to be engaged; not in a propagating way, of course, but you also do not deny religion; your religion is not promoted but it becomes a starting point of perspective to better understand what religion is.[]



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