Religious Diversity - Research focus

Research focus

The Department of Religious Diversity is devoted to the empirical and comparative study of religious actors, movements, and institutions in Asian societies. We are particularly interested in the intersection of socioeconomic inequality and religious diversity within the theoretical context of discussions of social justice and problems of recognition of religious difference. This implies attention to the politics of religion, to histories of secular state formation, to economic changes, but also to religious conceptualizations of the self and of the good life. The research strategy is to develop a reflexive approach towards Western theoretical assumptions that allows us to avoid pre-conceived universal understandings of ‘religion’ and ‘secularity’. While most of the work in the department is on singular cases the presence of colleagues who work on similar, but different cases elsewhere in Asia leads to a comparative approach. Comparisons are significant when they raise questions that are never or seldom asked by those specializing in the study of one society or site or when they offer alternative explanations for important phenomena from comparable cases elsewhere. The aim is not to arrive at a general model of religion in society, but to illuminate and further the understanding of selected phenomena and processes. Its contribution is a critique of universal taxonomic approaches of, for instance, social stratification or secularism that cannot do justice to the specificities of caste, Hindu religion or Communist Atheism. Comparisons have been explicitly furthered through a number of workshops that have led to collective volumes, like the ones on Religion and Communism in Europe and Asia (comparing Russia, Buryatia, Poland with China, Vietnam, and Korea) or on religion among refugees (comparing Thailand, Burma, Vietnam, India, Korea) or on urban aspirations in Mumbai, Shanghai, Singapore, and Seoul. The department offers a unique setting for connecting ethnographic projects through comparative themes.

For our purposes, comparison should not primarily be seen in terms of comparing societies or events, or institutional arrangements across societies, but as a reflection on our conceptual framework as well as on a history of interactions that have constituted our object of study. One can, for instance, say that one wants to study church-state relations in India and China, but one has to bring to that a critical reflection on the fact that such a study already presupposes the centrality of church-like organizations as well as the centrality of the model of Western secular state formation in our analysis of developments in India and China. That critical reflection often leads to the argument that Asian societies, like India and China (and other societies outside the West) should be understood in their own terms, and cannot be understood in Western terms. However, Indian and Chinese terms have to be interpreted and translated in relation to Western scholarship. Moreover, such translations and interpretations are part of a long history of interactions with the West. This field of comparison has been widely democratized by modern media, so that everyday realities of the ‘immediate’ and ‘distant’ societies are thoroughly mediated and interconnected. Comparison, as it is understood here, is thus not a relatively simple juxta position and comparison of two or more different societies, but a complex reflection on the network of concepts that both underlie our study of society as well as the formation of those societies themselves. In that sense, it is always a double act of reflection. Beyond the individual case studies by junior scholars an explicitly comparative approach is developed by van der Veer, the only senior scholar in the department. After work on religion and nationalism comparing India and Britain, and China and India he now works on a book on comparing post 1945 German-speaking refugees in Germany with post 1978 Vietnamese refugees in Germany. The comparative approach is also furthered by comparing South Asian and Chinese diasporas in South-East Asia, a program that van der Veer coordinates with Kenneth Dean of NUS as well as by comparing cross-border minority politics between Vietnam, Burma, Thailand, and China that van der Veer coordinates with Wu Da of Central Nationalities University in Beijing.

In the research strategy of the Department religion is not a ‘thing’ that can be easily distinguished and separated from the flow of social life. It is rather a ‘lens’ through which one can ask questions about social life that have not been fully taken on board by mainstream social science or by cultural studies which often betray a secular bias by avoiding the study of religion. It is evident that religion is not on the retreat in modern societies and that migration and globalization in general encourage an aspect of religious revitalization. It is also clear that religious movements do not have to be ‘fundamentalist’, ‘anti-Western’ or violent, but that there is a great variety of religious activity that is significant in the social life of large parts of the world’s population, and certainly in Asia.

The aim of the research in this department is to further a social science perspective on religion in Asian societies from the relatively protected vantage point of a German scientific institution. Religion is one of the most politically charged social phenomena in these societies and can only be studied with great difficulties by social scientists that are based in them. While it is not easy to gain access to study religion for foreign-based scholars it is still possible. The task of a foreign research institution under these circumstances is to stimulate collaboration with partners in the societies under study. Considering the state of development of social science research on religion in Asian societies this is much needed.