Chronicle Nr. 1

Breaking the category

Phd student Vanja Mosbach wants us to reflect over how we use categories in the research about religion - and how categorization in itself can shape a category like Muslims.

As Nadia Jeldtoft and Jørgen S. Nielsen point out in their recent anthology on methods in the study of Muslim minorities, it is interesting to look back at how social science research on immigration first began to divide migration groups in the 1980s by religion once these populations had grown to the extent that their ethnic and national origin no longer served to make them analytically manageable.

However, this seemingly practical shift towards categorizing groups in alignment with their real or alleged religious identity among scholars, unfolded at the same time as the public debate started to take a narrative turn that put the revival of religion in the limelight. Among many things, this elicits the reciprocal relation between research, the public debate and to put it simply, but philosophically problematic, the empirical world.

For the majority of researchers engaged in qualitative research, there is of course nothing new or alien about recognizing that the surrounding political and societal discourses along our philosophical stands, epistemological assumptions and theoretical frameworks, influence how we categorize, interpret and explain our material. But considering the politicized landscape within which the presence of Muslims in Europe is negotiated, it is crucial to be reminded that this process is not politically neutral and that politics can be more enmeshed in epistemologies than in conclusions.

In academic studies within the field, it is often taken for granted that the variables mentioned above shape the interpretations surrounding Muslim life. But the point that they also shape and are shaped by the process of categorization - the precondition for the interpretations and explanations made – is discussed only marginally.

The categorization of Muslims that scholars, regardless of their theoretical or ideological approach, often seem to embrace implications both politically and for the production of knowledge. In the public debate, Muslims as a category remain collectively identified from the outside as “Muslims” regardless of their internal diversity, I would dare to say much because scholars randomly still use the category Muslims (whether because it makes it easier to receive funding for research projects or for other reasons) even if their focus is directed precisely towards the heterogeneity of that “group.”

This also suggests that the lines between the scientific categorization and the social categorization of “Muslims” are detrimentally blurred. On another level, categorizations require meaningfulness in order to contribute constructively to the ethically wobbly practice of producing knowledge. The question is if the unfathomably vast, anonymous yet highly politicized category “Muslims” serves that purpose, or if it is time to abandon, or at least to refine the use of that category.

Two steps towards this end is to consistently bring to the forefront the clusters already embedded in the category of Muslims and to no longer allow the methodologies to take the back seats, which still seems to be a recurrent feature in empirical studies on Muslims in Europe.

Vanja Mosbach

Chronicle Nr. 2

The legal categorization of religion needs to be further explored

The legal framework of freedom of religion has been little explored in Sweden until recently. This is puzzling, since issues that touch on this freedom are constantly on the agenda in various contexts.
In my doctoral thesis, which I defended in the fall of 2013, I discussed the relationship between theory and practice regarding freedom of religion in the Instrument of Government and the European Convention on Human Rights. Theory, in this case, meant the intentions by lawmakers in regards to freedom of religion, while practice was illustrated by the law makers’ enactment of various legislation, which may infringe upon or otherwise affect the freedom of religion. I studied three areas of law: religiously motivated slaughter, religiously motivated circumcision on boys, and religious symbols in the public sphere. In the last case, I focused on religious symbols in schools. This is an interesting issue in the Swedish context as well as internationally. The school is, from a legal point of view, a unique environment, which has been pointed out by both Swedish courts and the European Court of Human Rights. The impact of this uniqueness is however unclear; I am currently looking into how it may affect the freedom of religion of the schools’ pupils, in a new interdisciplinary research study.

But what, then, is religion as a legal concept? One of the fundamental questions during my dissertation project, and, as it turned out, one of particular importance when applying this freedom to concrete acts of legislation, is what it is, and how the concept of religion should be understood, from a legal point of view. To put it in concrete terms: can the law consider the way you dress or what you eat to be your way of practicing your religion? There is very little guidance on this point, which leaves the field open for the critical question: how a rule, based on the prerequisite religion only, should be interpreted and applied.

This question of what religion is or how it is categorized is of foremost importance when it comes to the freedom of religion in the Swedish constitution, since this freedom is absolute. This means that it cannot be restricted. As a consequence, all phenomena which fall within the limits of religious freedom should have an absolute protection. However, if the phenomenon can be regarded as one of the other freedoms of opinion in the catalogue of rights, it may not have absolute protection. Instead, the rules pertaining to that particular right apply. For example, if wearing a religious symbol is considered a religious freedom, the right to do so cannot be restricted. If on the other hand, it is considered freedom of expression, the right to do so may be weighed against other rights.

How we categorize religion, culture and tradition will thus determine if a certain action can be seen as an absolute right, or just as a custom which can be practiced within the boundaries of the law. How these categorizations are done by lawmakers and courts is a matter that requires additional research, research that I, together with scholars from other fields, am working on right now in a new project within the Impact of Religion-programme.
Victoria Enkvist, LL.D. and Impact-researcher

Chronicle Nr. 3

Spiritual and Organizational Health in Organization - Does it IMPACT Stress and Burnout?

Organizations are an important part of our society. Stress is a major challenge to employee and organizational health and performance. The traditional approach to stress has been to focus on work load, leadership, and other organizational characteristics.

However, within the Impact network, we have expanded the way we look at stress by including existential and spiritual dimensions. Individuals and organizations are largely facing the same basic questions:  What is the meaning of life? Why are we here? How can we be good citizens? Individuals, organizations, and societies currently face fundamental challenges to the way we live, work, and interact. Stress is a common response to such conditions.

Stress is basically an alarm reaction. Watch out, something bad is – or might be – happening to you. Mobilize your resources! However, if our resources do not suffice, we develop adverse stress reactions, including moodiness.

We know that organizations that have a clear sense of vision, mission, goals, and strategies, are much better to cope with challenges. In a recently published Impact paper, Drs. Matt Ventimiglia, Pamela Beech, Valerie DeMarinis, Johan Lökk, Judith Arnetz, and myself, wanted to study whether employees’ spiritual values and practices in the workplace attenuate occupational stress and burnout. We defined spirituality broadly as “one’s existential pursuit of meaning and purpose regardless of religious faith”.

We studied over 600 employees in secular and non-secular organizations in the United States. We found that employees that applied their spiritual values in the workplace reported better mental health and less stress. We also found that organizations that are open to spiritual practices in the workplace exhibit less burnout among their employees.

Thanks to Impact, and its transdisciplinary approach to important and fundamental societal challenges, it became clear to us that stress research need to consider spiritual and existential domains as well.

Bengt B. Arnetz, MD, PhD, MPH, MScEpi
Department of Public Health and Caring Sciences,
Uppsala University, and
Wayne State University School of Medicine

Chronicle Nr. 4

"Religion" - To Be Or Not To Be

Per-Erik Nilsson, Historian of Religion, about how the category of religion was created - and how it is constantly re-created by scholars. 

I've just finished reading Brent Nongbri's fascinating book Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept (New Haven and London, Yale, 2013).* In the book Nongbri presents a theoretically appealing and empirically detailed genealogy of the category of ‘religion’. Nongbri forcefully shows how the understanding of ‘religion’ as a private, individual, textual, and faith-bound matter for salvation, is a modern construction in large part forged by Protestant and Enlightenment thought during the emergence of the modern nation-state and European colonialism. 

That this understanding of ‘religion’ today is reproduced by a bundle of discourses, most notably the World Religions discourse, should come as no surprise to any reader familiar with the work of scholars like Talal Asad, Timothy Fitzgerald, Tomoko Masuzawa, and Russel McCutcheon. Nongbri however deepens the understanding of the formation of the category. Perhaps most interesting is his discussion of the abandonment of a heresiological mode of classification as a manner to designate Christian others was one fundamental piece of jigsaw puzzle in allowing for the emergence of the World Religions discourse. Nongbri dates this shift to the 16-17th century. Up until then Muslims have had for example been conceptualized as Christians - e.g. heretical or deeply flawed Christians. 

Nongbri moreover makes a much sought for analysis regarding how the category of ‘religion’ has been employed, or more accurately, absent from many of the ancient texts that today are cited by historians as ‘religious’. Through a meticulous reading of these texts Nongbri reveals how categories like dēn (Aramaic and Hebrew),din and milla (Arabic), religio (Latin), and thrēskia (Greek) all have come to be translated with the category ‘religion’ by modern scholars whereas the local and contingent meaning of these terms was far from resembling any modern understanding of the category. 

As I read Nongbri's book, it encourages on the one hand students of ‘religion’ to redeem parts of what has been lost in anachronistic translations; but also, on the other hand, and perhaps more importantly, that we should direct a great deal of attention to what gets produced through the sort of anachronistic projections Nongbri deconstructs. Understood in this way, the book could serve as a great point of departure for discussing how the category of ‘religion’ is being employed, scrutinized, and reproduced within the Impact of Religion Programme.

Per-Erik Nilsson, PhD, History of Religion
Impact of Religion, Uppsala University
CHERPA, Sciences Po Aix

Last modified: 2022-02-21