U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Disestablishment of American Religious History

The following guest post by Cara L. Burnidge is a response to Ray Haberski’s “Why Academia Found God” and John Fea’s “Biography and American Religious History.”

This past weekend, Florida State University held its first Religion and Law Conference. The Religion and Law student group had the pleasure of hosting Winnifred Sullivan who, during her keynote address, asserted that the history of religion in the United States is a narrative of establishment(s) and disestablishment(s). Using Richard Cover’s foreword to the Harvard Law Review’s summary of the 1982 Supreme Court term as the basis to her remarks, Sullivan explained that our approach to studying religion and law is best understood as “Nomos and Narrative”: “the codes that relate our normative system to our social constructions of reality and to our visions of what the world might be are narrative. The very imposition of a normative force upon a state of affairs, real or imagined, is the act of creating narrative.”[1]

This rubric can also be applied to the historiography of American Religious History. As a doctoral candidate in American Religious History and frequent reader of USIH, I appreciate Raymond drawing attention to the “tsunami” of monographs engaging American religions. What makes this wave so interesting and, perhaps even overwhelming, is not the amount of recent monographs that engage the topic of religion (though from my vantage point that is refreshing), but rather the ways in which scholars now engage religion. As Andrew Hartman rightly noted via the resulting twitter conversation, this new wave of scholarship is disinterested in its approach to studying religion in American history. Indeed, the historiography is at a point in which a critical mass of scholars have distanced themselves from a confessional model of religious history, in which the historian’s religious affiliation no longer drives their study of religion and these historical approaches no longer consider “religion” to be, primarily, a matter of the religious affiliations of historical actors.

On two counts then American Religious History finds itself disestablished: first, as more scholars are religiously unaffiliated or separating their faith traditions from their methodologies; and second, as the field generally regards studies of churches (individuals and their institutions alone) as outdated. For instance, earlier this month Randall Balmer gave the Plenary Address at the Southeastern Commission for the Study of Religion’s Annual Meeting in Greenville, South Carolina, providing his own narrative of the “Rise of the Religious Right” and the resulting culture wars. A Christian historian studying the history of Christianity, Balmer did not concentrate on the theological perspectives of historical actors, or for that matter himself; instead, he narrated the Religious Right through an economic and legal lens via Bob Jones v. United States (1983). The distance from a church history model has grown so wide that at the Winter Meeting of the American Society of Church History outgoing President Laurie Maffly-Kipp’s Presidential Address asked members to consider what has been lost since members abandoned the model in the late twentieth century [2]. ASCH members as well as the field at large turned away from “church history” because of the convincing work by Robert Orsi, David Hall, Colleen McDannell, Catherine Albanese, R. Laurence Moore, Albert Raboteau, and others who pointed to the limited nature of textual analyses that focused on white, Protestant ministers and their institutions as the center of American Religious History while neglecting lay people, religious minorities, non- and anti-institutional traditions, and Christian traditions other than Protestantism (especially Catholicism, African American Christianities, and transnational Christian traditions). While recognizing the need for this turn away from church history, Maffly-Kipp noted that these methodological approaches left the social structures historical actors themselves valued unattended. It is a telling historiographical moment when ostensible church historians need to be convinced that histories of churches still matter.

Raymond rightly pointed to the Young Scholars of Religion Program as one of the sources of this historiographical turn. A scroll through the roster of YSR classes reveals the wellspring of “new” religious histories. [Sullivan, Mafly-Kipp, Dochuk, Sutton, Thomas Tweed, Phillip Goff, Paul Harvey, Edward Blum, Kathryn Lofton, Julie Byrne, Kathleen Flake, Sylvester Johnson, Tisa Wegner…the impressive list goes on and every work is a product of and continuation of the tsunami]. This is the wave of American Religious History scholarship that blends historical method with theoretical developments in Religious Studies. As a result, these histories of American religions are disestablished from the notion that theology is alone a “force” of causation and are sensitive to more complex interpretations of “religion”—as a category of thought, as lived experience, and as immaterial reality made known through material life—that emerges in other “forces” within history, like law, economics, consumerism, diplomacy, labor, and so forth. Those of us submerged in the tsunami (for instance, graduate students at Florida State with former YSR mentors John Corrigan and Amanda Porterfield) often take this turn for granted, because it is our normative understanding of the field. For instance, it is less surprising to recognize “religious undertones” as “thoroughly secular,” because of Culture and Redemption by former YSR mentor Tracy Fessenden, who persuasively argues “secular” space was framed by an implicit Protestant perspective. While headlines suggest that Americans are losing their religion, we know better. Affiliation may be on the decline, but the data is not. The naming and claiming of what is and is not properly “religious” continues, perhaps even is on the rise, as Americans distance themselves from formal institutional affiliations [3].

These historians of religion must not be confused for religious historians. “Religion” is not a personal descriptor of the scholar, but the topic of one’s scholarship. The religious persuasion of a historian, while as relevant as any influence that potentially shapes a narrative, is less meaningful than the conceptual framework applied to their notion of religion and the rigor with which critical inquiry is applied to historical topics. Consequently, I find John Fea’s assessment that “many American religious historians study religion because they are religious or were raised in religious environments” an outdated assumption of the field and also an odd rubric with which to assess scholarship. Fea is certainly not alone in this anecdotal conclusion (which he readily admits was less “theoretical” than others supplied in the comments section of Raymond’s post). In the wake of the tsunami, I find it more interesting that encounters “with religion”  (as if it is an object to possess or an identifiable space one can enter) is considered to be authoritative evidence in the first place, as in the statement “it is striking that so many [American religious historians] have had religious experiences in their lives or attended very religious schools.”

While Fea notes that not all American Religious historians are religious and that it is, at base, a matter of intellectual inquiry (I agree on both counts), I find it curious that this reasoning surfaces at all. For instance, do we assume that economic historians went into their field because they interacted with money during their lives? Or walked into a bank? Are labor historians interested in labor history because they or their parents were labeled “blue collar”? Perhaps this is the case in these subfields, but also perhaps not. My point is that I doubt this same reasoning would be taken seriously in any subfield other than history of religion. This form of analysis is something Religious Studies folks wrestled with—and disestablished themselves from—decades ago: treating religion as a special category that self-evidently reveals anything (about an object, a person, an event, an experience, etc.) is untenable.  It is its own form of “nomos and narrative” that preferences a certain normativity about who studies religion and who does not [4].

Admittedly, there is confessional work in American Religious History; there are scholars who do church history models; there is scholarship that continues to privilege religion as a unique category of existence that must be defended. I do not argue that these streams of scholarship do not exist nor do I mean to imply they are not valuable to the field. The historiography of American Religion would not be as robust as it is without each of the scholars named in Fea’s post or the discussions generated from their work. I do, however, want to challenge the notion that scholarship in this vein is primarily the work of American Religious historians and that this kind of approach to religious history continues to be the center of the field [5]. In the wake of this tsunami and theoretical advancements in Religious Studies over the past thirty years, the formerly established center has shifted.

[1] Richard Cover, “The Supreme Court, 1982 Term—Forward: Nomos and Narrative,” Harvard Law Review 97:4 (1983), 10, an online version of which can be found here: http://digitalcommons.law.yale.edu/fss_papers/2705

[2] Maffly-Kipp’s remarks can be found in the forthcoming June 2013 issue of Church History: Studies in Christianity and Culture

[3] For instance, see Steven Ramey’s post at the Bulletin for the Study of Religion, “Creatio Ex Nihilo: Pew Forum and the “Nones,” https://www.equinoxpub.com/blog/2012/10/creatio-ex-nihilo-pew-forum-and-the-nones/

[4] A brief example of the consequences of the politics of “religion,” can be found at another Steve Ramey post at the Bulletin for the Study of Religion,  “Critical Theory and the Importance of Religious Studies,” https://www.equinoxpub.com/blog/2012/12/critical-theory-and-the-importance-of-religious-studies/.

[5] See, for instance, the discussion on Mark Edward’s recent post, “Is There a Christian Approach to History” for Religion in American History in which theitinerantmind stated “that in many academic circles, to veer too far into this territory is to forfeit all credibility” (http://usreligion.blogspot.com/2013/03/is-there-christian-approach-to-history.html ).

21 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Thanks for a fascinating guest post, Cara.

    I don’t think that the connection (real or supposed) between religious scholars and religious history is unique to this subfield. For instance, there’s long been a connection between the military and military history, both in its production and its function. And you see something similar in diplomatic history (as evidenced by the State Department’s Foreign Relations of the United States series).

    There are also an awful lot of, e.g., Jewish scholars of Jewish history and African American scholars of African American history….and, for that matters, US citizens studying US history in general.

    In short, there are at least two phenomena at play in connections like the one you discuss: 1) institutions (churches, the military, the State Department) do indeed have a particular interest in understanding their own histories and invest time and resources in producing histories of themselves; 2) people are very often (though hardly exclusively) drawn to study other people like themselves.

    • Thanks, Ben.

      I take your point that we see this cross over in other subject areas, where people are drawn to the study those resemble them and where institutions/interest groups invest in their own institutional histories. My purpose in writing was to assert, however, that American Religious History has moved _away_ from this model in ways that are not fully acknowledged outside the field. Where, as the comments of Mark Edwards’ post reveal, Christian historians studying Christianity in America feel like they are taken less seriously than their colleagues who do not belong to or admit a faith tradition, a phenomenon that illustrates a disestablishment of sorts.

  2. Excellent post. I can envision this comment section going any number of directions. Here are my thoughts:

    Even when one’s confessed faith guides a person to study some historical aspect of her/his own faith (or other parallels/connections mentioned by Ben above), that study can be fruitful if led by a spirit of inquiry, what’s sometimes called a critical spirit. It all depends on the questions asked, and then the full, multidimensional honesty of the answers forwarded.

    Even so, the reason this kind of connection seems to matter is the same as why people of all stripes study religion: its power. That power can cloud the ability of a scholar to reason objectively. It represses some assumptions, and smudges others. And because Christians, for instance, are tasked with evangelization, the reader can rightfully ask whether the text produced by a Christian scholar touches on that mission. It’s a bar of skepticism the scholar-inquirer has to overcome with an informed reader. – TL

    • And because Christians, for instance, are tasked with evangelization, the reader can rightfully ask whether the text produced by a Christian scholar touches on that mission.

      True. But I think Fea’s musings aren’t just a one-size-fits-all. For all who do the religion history thing, although I’m sure there are those who stayed theologically where they started, there’s also the drive to reinterpret what they’ve already learned over a lifetime, either a deepening or a falling away—

      A person well-versed in the text of the Bible speaks the lingo better than those for whom it’s a second language, with the tools to dig deeper into the text and its historical interpretations–or simply to understand what it’s like to live one’s life as though God is an immanent reality, not just one fungible proposition among many.

      I would think many “confessing” historians believe their scholarly work has brought them closer to their religion or their God: It’s not just A I Believe> B I’m a Confessing Historian. It’s more an AB.

      And I dunno about you, Tim, but I can barely count the number of ex-fundies [church, home or school] I’ve encountered in these discussions who now play on the other side of the ball.

      Quite spiritedly. ;-}

      • Tom, do you think there are any and/or enough scholars of religion that are not on either side of the ball? (or perhaps even playing this game?) Part of what concerns me about the way people talk about those who study religion is that their careers are framed as “either a deepening or a falling away” of a faith tradition as if scholars of religion are only those who apply the history of religion to a personal “religious” journey of some sort.

      • Don’t know, Cara. Do people become psych majors to heal or to figure out their own mental health issues?

        Of course there are exceptions [perhaps your ownself!], but on the whole, I don’t think there’s any way around affinity or aversion.

        Which is OK, I reckon. It’s possible to pick up the patterns of thought of a sect or a community or a “school” as an outsider, but at age 31, Michael Jordan just couldn’t learn to hit the curveball. I’m sure it’s possible to pick up Thomism, but it helps to have been brought up in the Catholic milieu, where it’s the music if not the words. And it sure doesn’t hurt any scholar to know the relevant scriptures.

        My own observations about the religious history academy is that it’s more about religion than history, more about the present than the past–sort of a fight over the possession of prevailing norms between the Affins and the Averts. [The Reformists tend to side with the latter, IMO.]

        This is in no way a closed book. As commenter Brian Connolly pointed out recently, the work of [non-Christian] scholars such as Talal Asad and Saba Mahmood is opening the door to a post-secularism, which gives religion at least some place at the table.

        So let 1000 flowers bloom, and god bless ’em all. And those who stomp on ’em too…

        Thx for asking.

    • Good point. This is why I think it is so valuable that scholars from a variety of backgrounds study religion–or any topic, really–so that one perspective (and its biases) does not become ingrained as its own normativity or naturalized as the “objective” standard, as the historiography has seen previously with the old church history model.

  3. Is there a webpage for the FSU conference? I’d like to see the program to get an idea of what sort of things students of that field get up to. Being a layman, I’m curious.

    • Unfortunately, there is not. I’ll talk to the organizers to see if they can post one on the FSU Religion Department page or, at least, send you a copy.

  4. Thanks for this post, Cara. A couple of thoughts:

    1. Balmer may have had a cool detachment from his Christian faith in Greenville, but he first advanced this thesis about the Rise of the Religious Right in a book called *Thy Kingdom God: An Evangelical Lament*. The book is very personal and Balmer writes from a particular confessional stance. He also explains, in *Growing Pains: Learning to Love My Father’s Faith* how his upbringing in evangelicalism has shaped his work and the intellectual questions he has chosen to pursue in his scholarship. This leads to my second thought:

    2. When I said that many scholars of American religious history found their way to the field because of their religious backgrounds, I was not implying that such scholars always still believe in the faith of their upbringings. Many historians turn to religion to try to make sense of their roots. I think most, if not all, of the historians I mentioned in my post have either rejected, refined, or changed their childhood faith in one way of another. Balmer still calls himself an evangelical, but his evangelicalism is very different from the fundamentalism of his Evangelical Free Church father. All I am saying here is that biography can often be (and has been) an important factor in the topics we choose to write about. My post was not a statement about believing historians vs. detached historians. I would hope that all good American religious historians, whether they are supportive of religion or hostile to religion, would treat their subjects in a fair and detached way. Even Marsden and Noll–self-identified evangelicals–would say this. Which leads me to my third thought:

    3. I’m not sure I agree with you when you say that religion is the only subject in which biography plays a role in the choice of topics. I think a lot of labor historians, economic historians, military historians, African-American historians, immigration historians, etc… choose their topics or their methodologies because of their backgrounds. You write that “‘religion’ is not a personal descriptor of the scholar, but the topic of one’s scholarship.” I could not agree more. But I do think that topics are often chosen because the scholar has had an experience (either a positive or negative experience) with a particular sub-field.

    4. In the end, I think your post implies that people of faith or people who were raised in faith traditions cannot do detached American religious history. I am not making this distinction. I would wholeheartedly agree that church history (as traditionally defined) or confessional history is no longer at the center of the field of American religious history. (As you correctly note). But that does not mean a person of faith or a person with a religious background can’t do it. My post lists several scholars who have.

    Thanks again for the post.

    • Thanks for the comments!

      I’m going to skip to #4 because I think it is the most important point of clarification: I do not mean to imply that people of faith cannot “do” history well. The rough draft of this post focused on George Marsden in part because I build off of his work in my dissertation (and find it valuable) and, related to the first, the afterword included in the revised edition of _Fundamentalism in American Culture_ focuses on this point. In it he claims that “one’s theological stance” is more influential than “one’s identification of the historical conditions in which [historical events] arose” (260). In other words, the faith of the scholar is what *adds* value to his/her perspective.

      This defense of historians of faith, it seems to me, would no longer be the approach young historians who are religious take. Instead, they (as I think you do here) defend their ability to be detached. This is the fascinating historiographical moment–and not a statement about the value of religious historians–that I wanted to capture. Often those outside the field looking in (not you or I), assume that historians of religion maintain Marsden’s stance when, those of us inside the field recognize that it has shifted where detachment from religion, regardless of one’s “starting” point, matters most.

  5. This is a very interesting post, but I’m a little bit confused about what makes religious history a distinct sub discipline based on this account. Theology, institutional churches, bodies of organized belief that outline a set of texts and doctrines: these all seem to belong to the old school historians of religion that the newer historians have turned away from. Religion here appears to be so thoroughly entwined in lived experience, material practice, economic, political and social life, that it’s hard to see what it is. The new scholars “are sensitive to more complex interpretations of “religion”—as a category of thought, as lived experience, and as immaterial reality made known through material life—that emerges in other “forces” within history, like law, economics, consumerism, diplomacy, labor, and so forth.” There is an irony here: in rejecting the old religious history defined by a conception of the faith and identity of the historian, the newer historians appear to have broken down the barrier separating the secular and the religious, infusing religion into the entire domain of social experience, and sacralizing ordinary experience. The great success of the history of religion in the last two decades may be beset by growing pains, since religion now appears to be everywhere and nowhere.

    • Indeed, “religion now appears to be everywhere and nowhere.” I read (perhaps mistakenly?) as sort of lament to that sentence. As a doctoral candidate in RS (but who developed an interest in religion in America through a History Dept), I find it neither a matter of the success of Religion scholars nor the loss of real religion (I recognize the latter is not what you’re saying, Dan) because of what Mike outlines below, especially the notion “religion is a cultural construction and the study of religion involves analysis of the political, social, cultural, and economic impact of various culturally constructed phenomenon labeled religion. The question becomes religion for whom, why, and to what end?” In other words, I concur with Mike’s and Charlie’s statements below.

  6. I’ve been tweeting around the edges of this but I want to jump in now.

    American religious history finds itself at an interesting confluence of academic waters. On the one hand, there are those trained in history departments and on the other there are those, like me, trained in religious studies.

    Now, what I find interesting is that most of our “confessing historians” come from history departments. Even the post-confessing folks who are trying to explain their roots to themselves are in history. It seems the question within the halls of the history departments is one of objectivity. Does a Christian historian face challenges to his or her objectivity because of their faith? Also, among historians the disestablishment seems to be a move away from church history as institutional history and towards social and cultural histories of religious people.

    Now in religious studies the questions seem different. There are certainly folks writing historically about religion in American culture in religious studies who have religious commitments or backgrounds that they are upfront about—oddly many of them are Catholic (e.g. Bob Orsi). But most are not writing from a “confessing” posture. This is because the major argument in religious studies during the 80s was whether religion is best studied by those “inside” a religious tradition or “outside” of it. In short, should a Buddhist teach the intro to Buddhism class? Here the question is not one of objectivity but, instead, of authenticity. Who can give is the best description of *real* Buddhism.

    The response to this debate, most notably form J. Z. Smith in the 90s and more recently from Russell McCutechon and others, has been that there is no *real* Buddhism. In fact, there is not *real* religion. Following this school of thought, religion is a cultural construction and the study of religion involves analysis of the political, social, cultural, and economic impact of various culturally constructed phenomenon labeled religion. The question becomes religion for whom, why, and to what end?

    These questions about the construction of religion are the questions that I see missing from many works in American religious history penned by those trained in history departments. Religion is often taken for granted and undertheorized in their accounts. This is an especially easy trap to fall into when one writes about mostly Christians and even easier when one writes about mostly Protestants.

    This is getting rambing, but last thought. There are Catholic Studies program studies around the country wherein Catholic scholars study Catholicism. Mormon studies has a similar model in many ways. But there isn’t an “evangelical studies” institutional structure in the same form. Nor is there a “liberal Protestant studies” to speak of. Rather, there are evangelicals and liberal Protestants working in history departments within the field of American history doing basically “Protestant studies.” I find this interesting, though I’m not sure what to make of it. I will say, that as a student of religion in America trained in religious studies, I find the work of confessing history to be an interesting subject for analysis. Confessional histories of America would be, in my view, primary material for the religious studies scholar.

    • “These questions about the construction of religion are the questions that I see missing from many works in American religious history penned by those trained in history departments. Religion is often taken for granted and undertheorized in their accounts.”

      I just finished reading Gavin Langmuir’s *History, Religion, and Antisemitism*, which was basically his effort to identify and think through the problem of “religion” for the historian – that is, the particular problems faced by historians when they confront religious phenomena. Written in 1990, he felt uncomfortable with the fact that historians had not really wrestled with religion, and particularly with how to approach it in what he called “rational empirical” terms, in the way that other fields had. Historians are usually content, he wrote, to describe rather than interrogate: to describe a set of beliefs, for instance, rather than to consider the source and the reason for such beliefs. So in the text, he works through Bellah, Geertz, Berger, and others, to try on other theories of religion and see if they meet his needs as a historian, to see if they enable him to move beyond mere description toward more rigorous and ostensibly objective analysis.

      I mention this only because, as I read through Langmuir, I couldn’t help but think that despite the “tsunami” of scholarship in American religious history, the problem that Langmuir tried to address twenty years ago has not really been tackled. Langmuir was writing as a historian of European and Jewish history in the Middle Ages, but his point is applicable here, too. There are very few works that explicitly deal with the problems that arise when historical research intersects with people/institutions/practices/ideologies that are typically labeled “religious.” Most of the theory historians read in this regard is going to come from outside the discipline: from sociology, psychology, anthropology, religious studies. As a graduate student looking out and realizing just how many other grad students/new scholars are participating in this boom, I wonder whether we might soon enter a period of more explicit questioning as to the what, how, where, and why of “religion” as an object of inquiry for historians.

  7. I think this is exactly right, especially this part: “These questions about the construction of religion are the questions that I see missing from many works in American religious history penned by those trained in history departments. Religion is often taken for granted and undertheorized in their accounts.”

    I think Fea is right about many historians of religion having some contact “with religion” (again, whatever that means). But I wonder if this interest in biography–and the idea that it’s relevant or significant–has something to do with the treatment of “religion” as an object of study without much effort to theorize it found in many historians’ works, including a number of those who went through the IUPUI program [insert caveats, exceptions, qualifications, etc.]

    In other words, this heightened awareness is all well and good, but I think it’s sometimes misapplied. I’m not interested in whether or not Balmer feels ok calling himself an evangelical. I am interested in what Balmer’s understanding of the term does to the way he constructs categories, selects topics, and, ultimately, crafts influential historical narratives. Many historians (again, more so in history depts than religious studies) do seem more interested in the first sort of concern than the second.

  8. What does the “new” religious history of, say, the Reformation look like? Is there such a thing? As the resident early modernist here I should be the one to answer that, but the Reformation is too early for me. Anyway, I wonder if all the various new approaches discussed here on the blog lately are being applied to religious history generally. Or to put it another way: has academia found God everywhere, or is this a local cult, as it were?

  9. Thanks so much for your thoughtful post and responses, Cara! Sometimes, when phrases like “old church history model” are thrown about, it suggests that not simply the approaches, but the SUBJECTS themselves, of past religious historiography (who’s “old?” Mead and Miller, or Hutchison and Marty, or Noll and Hatch, Fea? Is “old church history” code for “intellectual histories of religion” or “histories of theology”?) are now to be disregarded as the elitist WASPS they were. I don’t think you, Mike, and Trevor are saying that. What we need are new rigorous and empirical ways of approaching the old subjects, right? Sort of what Matt Hedstrom and Elesha Coffmann are doing for liberal and mainline Protestantism. For example, everyone should stop writing about Reinhold Niebuhr as a self-generating, undetermined “intellectual,” but that doesn’t mean they should stop writing about him–as though we already know all this is to know. I assume the same goes for Dewey, James, and other usual suspects of intellectual history.

    • Although it is primarily the *approach* that could use a more explicit self-awareness concerning methodological and theoretical problems of studying religion, changing one’s approach will almost certainly lead to different questions and consequently different subjects (or at least a different frame for those subjects). I am very much looking forward to reading Maffly-Kipp’s remarks in this regard, and I think Cara’s original observation is very astute: it says something about the field when we need to be reminded that religious institutions mattered to their members and communities and thus should matter to the historian.

      Like you, however, I think that a lot of the more recent literature is proof that “old” subjects still have life in them (and will always have life in them). I just (finally!) finished working through Hedstrom’s text as well as the majority of the essays from the Schmidt collection, “American Religious Liberalism,” both of which are great examples of that. Both books bring very fresh perspectives and methods to the study of religious liberalism and offer substantially new interpretations in the process. And as Cara’s post noted, there is now a good body of scholarship that “blends historical method with theoretical developments in Religious Studies.”

      That being said, what I was trying to get at in my earlier comment was that, *despite* the field’s relatively recent broadening of both subject and method, “American Religious History” has not produced much (theoretical?) work dealing with these questions in a transparent or self-conscious way. The boundaries and content of religious subjects are often treated as self-evident. I don’t want to see the field overdose on theory, but I *would* like to see more persistent engagement with some of the unique problems that arise when we turn the lens of history upon matters relating to religion. I enjoyed reading the aforementioned text by Langmuir if only because he was trying to openly wrestle with these questions, and to commit that wrestling to the page, in a way that few historians have.

  10. I have thoroughly enjoyed reading this post and the ensuing discussion(s) in the comments. For me the conversation points toward a set of problems that I have spent some time thinking about on slightly different terms, or perhaps on slightly different disciplinary ground. On Saturday I’ll be putting up a post that will (I hope!) highlight some of the themes that have emerged from this discussion (as well as the discussion on Ben Alpers’s post in the Kerwin Lee Klein roundtable), but from a slightly different angle. In the meantime, it has been a real pleasure to watch this substantive interdisciplinary conversation unfolding on the blog.

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