Research Focus

The Department of Religious Diversity was devoted to the empirical and comparative study of religious actors, movements and institutions in Asian societies. We were particularly interested in the intersection of socioeconomic inequality and religious diversity within the theoretical context of discussions of social justice and problems of the recognition of religious difference. This implied giving attention to the politics of religion, histories of secular state formation and economic changes, as well as religious conceptualizations of the self and of the good life. The research strategy was to develop a reflexive approach towards Western theoretical assumptions that allowed us to avoid preconceived universal understandings of ‘religion’ and ‘secularity’. While most of the work in the department took the form of individual case studies, the presence of colleagues working on similar, but different cases elsewhere in Asia made possible a comparative approach. Comparisons were significant when they raised questions that were never or seldom asked by those specializing in the study of one society or site or when they offered alternative explanations for important phenomena from comparable cases elsewhere. The aim was not to arrive at a general model of religion in society, but to illuminate and further the understanding of selected phenomena and processes. One contribution of these studies was to critique 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 had been explicitly promoted through a number of workshops that had led to collective volumes, for example, on religion and communism in Europe and Asia (comparing Russia, Buryatia and Poland with China, Vietnam and Korea), religion among refugees (comparing Thailand, Burma, Vietnam, India and Korea) and urban aspirations in the cities of Mumbai, Shanghai, Singapore and Seoul. The department offered a unique setting for connecting ethnographic projects through comparative themes. 

For our purposes, comparison should be seen primarily not in terms of comparing societies or events, or of institutional arrangements across societies, but as a reflection on both our conceptual framework and the history of the interactions that have constituted our object of study. One could, for instance, suggest studying church-state relations in India and China, but this involved critical reflection on the fact that such a study already presupposes the centrality of both church-like organizations and the model of Western secular state formation in our analysis of developments in India and China. Such critical reflection often leads to an argument that Asian societies like India and China (and other societies outside the West) should be understood in their own terms, and can 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 the everyday realities of ‘immediate’ and ‘distant’ societies are thoroughly mediated and interconnected. Comparison, as understood here, was thus not a relatively simple matter of juxtaposing and comparing two or more different societies, but a complex reflection on the network of concepts that underlie both our study of society and the formation of these societies themselves. In that sense, a double act of reflection is always involved. Beyond the individual case studies of junior scholars, an explicitly comparative approach was 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 continued working on a book comparing post-1945 German-speaking refugees in Germany with post-1978 Vietnamese refugees in Germany. The comparative approach was also furthered by comparing South Asian and Chinese diasporas in Southeast Asia, a program van der Veer had coordinated with Kenneth Dean of NUS, and by comparing cross-border minority politics between Vietnam, Burma, Thailand and China, a project van der Veer had coordinated with Wu Da of the Central Nationalities University in Beijing. 

In the research strategy of the department, religion was not a ‘thing’ that can be easily distinguished and separated from the flow of social life, but 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 cultural studies, which often betray a secular bias by avoiding the study of religion altogether. It was evident that religion is not on the retreat in modern societies and that migration and globalization in general are encouraging religious revitalization. It is also clear that religious movements do not have to be ‘fundamentalist’, ‘anti-Western’ or violent, there being a great variety of religious activity that is significant in the social life of large parts of the world’s population, including certainly in Asia. 

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

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