About the department

The Department of Religious Diversity was headed by Peter van der Veer from 2009 to 2021. Over this period, the department had 60 social scientists, 9 graduate Ph.D. students, and three non-scientific staff. The Ph.D. students all had the Director as their advisor. On completion of their period at the Institute, fellows moved on to other positions in universities and research organizations in Germany, Britain, France, Singapore, China, and the USA.

Religious diversity is a regular feature of modern, complex society. The focus of the department was therefore not on diversity per se, but on the project of the nation-state to create a national, integrated culture. A problematic developed in the department as to how religious diversity is accommodated and governed within secular arrangements. These arrangements are primarily the concern of the nation-state and refer to the place of religion in the national culture. They are increasingly globalized – like religion itself – and so the question has been how globalization (today and in the recent past) has affected secular governance on the one hand and religious movements and networks on the other. This problematic was addressed methodologically by comparing societies and cities (primarily Asian) as well as religions (primarily Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Daoism).

The research program of the department was developed within the ideographic tradition of anthropology and religious studies. It thus allowed for a variety of individual projects aimed at answering questions that were not predetermined by theoretical models but were developed in ethnographic or micro-sociological fieldwork. To contain this variety, a regional focus on South, South-East and East Asia was chosen because of the importance of this region in terms of its share of the world’s population and with the assumption that comparisons could be fruitfully made across this region. This is because common civilizational histories as well as common histories of imperialism and cold war politics have transformed the religious traditions of Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Daoism, Islam, and Christianity into ‘modern religions’ in the Western sense. Work on Asia also allowed us to challenge some of the ethnocentrism that is behind much social theory that claimed to be universal. From the start, concerted efforts were made to collaborate with research institutions and researchers in the societies in which fieldwork projects were carried out. The collaborations that stood out in the period under review were those with the Asia Research Institute of the National University of Singapore (NUS) and with the Central Nationalities University (Minzu Daxue) in Beijing.

Prof. Dr. Peter van der Veer




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