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Interdisciplinary Disadvantage for Religious Studies


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I'm curious to hear if people have the same experience I've been encountering more and more. It seems that religious studies PhDs are seen as the lesser PhD in a lot of fields. In my sub-field (History of Religion in the United States), most of the scholars and professors have PhDs from history departments, NOT religious studies departments. A lot of scholars do religion within history departments, and can transition easily into religion departments. Furthermore, a lot of the texts we read are written not by folks with religious studies PhDs, but with history PhDs. In the larger scheme, you see a lot of people with history PhDs in religion departments, but next to no religious studies PhDs in history departments. 

Likewise, I've heard some people doing ethics/theology in religious studies departments who have to compete with folks from Philosophy departments. I've also heard the same is true for religious studies PhDs focusing on eastern religions, having to compete with Asian Studies folks for positions. So, my question below:

1. Do you find it the case that religious studies PhDs have a hard time getting into other departments while people with PhDs from other departments have an easier way of getting jobs in religious studies departments? Or are there instances where this might not be the case?
2. What are the practical advantages of studying religion in a religious studies department over studying religion in a philosophy/history/other social sciences department?

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It really depends on the subfield. I can say that hardly any of the faculty in my subfield (broadly "ancient history") have a PhD from an "history department." Most come from religion/religious studies, classics/classical studies, or ancient (near eastern) studies. But you move even close to "medieval history" and a PhD in history seems to be common, if not the expectation. I wouldn't focus too much on subfields that are not your own. The info below your name says you're in American Religious History, which I know basically nothing about as a discipline (post this in the history subforum, too?). My advice, for what it's worth, is to a) ask your advisers these questions (but don't take their answers as fact--many of them are the exception in this rapidly changing academic world) and b) read a lot of CVs from faculty in your subfield.

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I'd echo sacklunch by saying that this is really subfield dependent and that having an ongoing conversation with your advisor(s) is really important.

I'll say it is generally true that religious studies departments are more friendly to people who have a PhD in a different field, but the reverse is rarely true. Philosophy and history departments are especially "title protective" in this regard--they really only hire people with PhDs in their field. It's also true though that those departments tend to care very little about religion qua religion (whatever that really means). Ironically, perhaps, these disciplines tend to simply assume they know what religion is when and if it is engaged, which is usually not an assumption made in religious studies. To me, that's the primary difference. Broadly speaking, religious studies scholars are interested in the construction of religion as a category (to varying degrees, to be sure), whereas other disciplines tend not to interrogate the concept in this way.

I have a colleague in the history department at NU who started in my cohort in religious studies and transferred after his first year to history. He also does American Religious History. He kept his advisor (Bob Orsi) but was spared having to engage the theoretical aspects of religious studies in coursework and exams. He probably sits somewhere between history and RS disciplinarily. Orsi is a good example actually of an American religious historian with a PhD in history who fits much better in a religious studies department and has spent most of his career in RS departments rather than history. Not all history PhDs could exist in a religious studies department, even if they study "religion" primarily. They'd have to be conversant with the history of the field (both RS and ARH in the context of RS) and at least familiar with some of the theoretical stakes in RS. Many of the more well-known American religious historians, as I'm sure you know, have PhDs in religious studies, not history. John Modern, Katie Lofton, Curtis Evans, John Corrigan, Jason Bivins, Sylvester Johnson (his is actually in theology), etc. All PhDs in religious studies.

So to answer your second question, it's hard to say there's a real practical advantage. Practicality and a humanities PhD don't exactly go hand in hand, which is to say that a PhD in religious studies may improve your ability to be hired in an RS department, but that's not really saying much since the job market is so bad across the board. Whether your PhD is in history, religious studies, philosophy, etc., your chances of getting a tenure track job are pretty much all equally bad. From a disciplinary/scholarship perspective, an RS department should (at least ostensibly) familiarize you with the kinds of general theoretical conversations I mention above--you're not likely to get that at all in a history department.

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Thanks for the thoughtful replies @sacklunch and @marXian. Sacklunch, I like your recommendation to ask the folks in the History sub-field for their take on this. From what little interaction I've had with history folks (especially those trying to tread between economics and history), they also have a hard time getting economists to take their historical approaches seriously.

I appreciate the list of folks Marxian mentioned as a helpful counterbalance to the list of people I have in mind (people like Kathryn Gin Lum, Catherine Brekus, and several of my advisors for starters). Off the top of my head, I can add to that list Tisa Wenger and Heather Curtis (latter has a ThD). I also think you're right though, Marxian, that the dismal job market is a concern for everyone across sub-fields which might help to explain this sub-field anxiety that I'm sensing from the folks I've been in conversation with. It seems that a key takeaway might be to play to the strengths of the religious studies departments in our research. 

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20 hours ago, MarthUser said:

It seems that a key takeaway might be to play to the strengths of the religious studies departments in our research. 

Yes, I think this is exactly right. My colleagues who engage "the field" itself, try to situate themselves as a "scholar of religion," etc. have tended to do well both for fellowships/grants and jobs.

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Just to butt in here and echo @marXian's comments. I think the primary difference between History and Religious Studies (and to that matter, American Studies for you), is that History is a methodological discipline while Religious Studies is a categorical discipline. Religion people are seldom hired in History because they generally don't know the historiography and methodology required to fit in the department (i.e. teach undergraduate survey or research methods seminars). On the other hand, a historian can teach classes on religious history, and but might not grasp the theoretical concerns of being a religionist. That being said, there are some historians who do that wonderfully, and others for whom it's not really a concern. Historians and philosophers tend to care a lot about their methodology, which is why they tend to be unreceptive to religion scholars, unless they can prove their mettle. Same with area studies: religion scholars are worthless in Asian Studies etc. unless they earn their philological chops. Furthermore, because of the whole theology/religious studies debacle, Protestant bias, and lack of methodology (that's not just borrowed from anthropology, history, or literature), the onus is really on religion scholars to 'prove' themselves.

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18 hours ago, cheaterpen said:

Just to butt in here and echo @marXian's comments. I think the primary difference between History and Religious Studies (and to that matter, American Studies for you), is that History is a methodological discipline while Religious Studies is a categorical discipline. Religion people are seldom hired in History because they generally don't know the historiography and methodology required to fit in the department (i.e. teach undergraduate survey or research methods seminars). On the other hand, a historian can teach classes on religious history, and but might not grasp the theoretical concerns of being a religionist. That being said, there are some historians who do that wonderfully, and others for whom it's not really a concern. Historians and philosophers tend to care a lot about their methodology, which is why they tend to be unreceptive to religion scholars, unless they can prove their mettle. Same with area studies: religion scholars are worthless in Asian Studies etc. unless they earn their philological chops. Furthermore, because of the whole theology/religious studies debacle, Protestant bias, and lack of methodology (that's not just borrowed from anthropology, history, or literature), the onus is really on religion scholars to 'prove' themselves.

This is well said.

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  • 4 weeks later...

Hi all,

I have sort of a related question: do students with MAs in Religious Studies stand much chance of being accepted to TT programs in something like History? I'll likely be applying to PhD programs this fall and am finding that the scholars who work on things most closely related to my interests are sort of split between Religious Studies and History; my CV, though, won't really contain any formal training in History.

While we're at it, can someone maybe explain to me the practical differences between how one might study a given religious movement at a particular historical moment as a historian vs. how one might study the same thing as a scholar of religion? The idea of "methodological discipline" vs. "categorical discipline" mentioned above is really helpful in thinking about the two fields, but I'm still struggling to think through what that distinction would look like when it comes to research topics and approaches. Or does the difference lie more in what scholars are expected to know outside of their own specific specialties, rather than in how they approach those specialties?

Sorry, that's a lot of questions all tied together. I've been doing too much macro-level thinking about what it means to study Religion and am finding myself more and more uncertain...

Thanks!

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Full disclosure, I'm not really in any position that allows me to speak on this matters with lots of experience. That aside, to be honest, there could be as much difference and as little difference between a historian and a scholar of religion. It really all depends on your methodology and what type of work you do. Depending on the person, you really could be producing the same work. A religious studies person could do historical work and a historian can study religion. However, a religion-ist will probably be expected to have a broad knowledge of religion and religious studies and a historian would have a broad knowledge of history, but in terms of YOUR research, I think that's pretty much up to you. 

A second consideration that this bleeds into would probably be teaching expertise. Assuming that most of your teaching experience will come from your home department, do you want teaching experience (and thus possibly a job teaching) Introduction to World Religions or World History (or insert whatever disciplinary intro class)? 

As for selecting graduate programs, from what I hear, it really depends on who you work with and the type of training you receive in the program. The advice I received is find people whose research you like and apply to work with them. Faculty probably matters more than program (unless you're talking about wildly interdisciplinary programs). As to getting in, well that's a mystery no matter what field. My guess that having little to no prior coursework in history would make it more difficult, but not necessarily impossible? Again, probably depends on the department. Honestly, it might behoove you to just email potential faculty and ask them yourself, which also has the added benefit of them knowing who you are before the application hits their desk. 

 

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On 7/6/2018 at 12:55 PM, hannibal254 said:

Hi all,

I have sort of a related question: do students with MAs in Religious Studies stand much chance of being accepted to TT programs in something like History? I'll likely be applying to PhD programs this fall and am finding that the scholars who work on things most closely related to my interests are sort of split between Religious Studies and History; my CV, though, won't really contain any formal training in History.

While we're at it, can someone maybe explain to me the practical differences between how one might study a given religious movement at a particular historical moment as a historian vs. how one might study the same thing as a scholar of religion? The idea of "methodological discipline" vs. "categorical discipline" mentioned above is really helpful in thinking about the two fields, but I'm still struggling to think through what that distinction would look like when it comes to research topics and approaches. Or does the difference lie more in what scholars are expected to know outside of their own specific specialties, rather than in how they approach those specialties?

Sorry, that's a lot of questions all tied together. I've been doing too much macro-level thinking about what it means to study Religion and am finding myself more and more uncertain...

Thanks!

I can only speak from my own field American Religious History. Top history programs rarely (if ever) admit students coming in with a religious studies Masters program. In my own experience, I had two Master's degrees in the study of religion and when I applied to History departments, they almost always recommended I go through their Master's program first and then reapply to their PhD program. However, some history programs in religiously-affiliated schools like Notre Dame and Baylor University are more open to students coming in with an MA in religious studies. 

Methodologically, scholars in my subfield and historians take similar approaches to their research. Some slight nuances might appear in the particular theories informing their work. While historians might feel comfortable using the term religion, scholars of religion might feel the need to elaborate on their theoretical approach, perhaps sometimes even avoiding the term altogether.

One good example might be the Branch Davidians. Historians might not think a "cult" like Branch Davidians falls into the presently-understood category of religion. If it was to be studied, historians might include it in a history of violent government military interventions in civilian activities. However, scholars of religion might find the Branch Davidians' "religion" as worthy strong example of a movement that troubles the boundaries of the category "religion." Religious studies folks are invested in the history of religion as a category constantly constructed, reinvented, re-imagined, and imposed by society and institutions (in the case of the Branch Davidians, government-intervention distinguishes between "appropriate" religion and "cults". This troubling of terms by exploring the periphery, which relies on works by philosophers like Michel Foucault and Judith Butler, is something historians might not be as concerned with. 

Edited by MarthUser
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