Fabricating Identities (Sheffield, UK: Equinox Publishers, 2017)
Interview with Russell T. McCutcheon
What is the main argument in this book?
This edited book is a collection of short essays, written for a wide readership, half of which originated on the blog for the research group, Culture on the Edge; they were revised and a group of new respondents were invited to work with each chapter—not just to reply but to apply it, comment on it, even critique it. The chapters all revolve around rethinking how it is that we study identity. This has been the main preoccupation of this research group for the past several years: moving from a commonsense or folk model (in which identity is assumed to be an inner sentiment somehow pushed outward into the world and thereby understood as expressed symbolically), to a more technical and sociologically-grounded model that understands identity to be the trace of prior situations and environments, ascribed to people by others, thus making identity a social and historical (that is, contingent) effect all the way down. So I guess the main argument, across all of the chapters—and put explicitly in the book’s substantial Afterword—is that scholars normalize and authorize the social worlds that allowed group members to think of themselves as a this as opposed to a that if they don’t take seriously that to study identity means to study the settings and strategies that identify people. Simply put, there’s nothing private about identity.
What motivated your work?
This is the third volume is a book series edited by Vaia Touna (all of which have pretty much the same format), but it’s the only one so far to focus explicitly on the topic of identity—or, better put, on the identification techniques that usually go overlooked when we say someone “is Canadian” or “is single.” (The other volumes are on related topics, though, such as how we create the impression of difference or how we use discourses on origins for practical effect [e.g., “Why, when I was a kid…”]) As I said above, this is the topic of our research group since, though we’re all scholars of religion, we’ve each been frustrated by how not only religion, but also, more generally, identity, is generally assumed by scholars to name some inner element, private experience, or personal affectation that is somehow pre-social and, as I said above, only secondarily pushed into the world (in a fashion that’s prone to misinterpretation). It’s an old model, of course (think of William James’s famous definition of religion—a definition that, though over 100 years old, is hardly out of fashion among current scholars); but with advances in social theory over the past few generations (not to mention much earlier writers, like Emile Durkheim, of course), it seemed time to try to press the shortcomings of that approach, at a wide variety sites that might strike readers as familiar but which could be redescribed in a more rigorously social manner—all in order to challenge readers to rethink how they talk about identity, or at least how they, as scholars talk about it, since the commonsense model we use in day-to-day life likely plays an important role in normalizing certain identities and in managing the very real possibility that you or I could start to be something else with surprising ease. Not that it’s all based on how you comb your hair in the morning, but that often overlooked labor that we expend each morning, “getting ready for the day,” more than likely plays a key role in at least one form of identity maintenance. For anyone who has, say, changed a hairstyle (or, thinking of myself, when I shaved off my longstanding beard, unexpectedly, back in my own wintery Kingston days) knows how this can throw a curve to the world around them, one that bounced back onto themselves—my fiancé at the time (and my wife since 1985) wasn’t quite sure who I was when I suddenly popped my beardless face out of my big winter coat and long scarf that cold day when we met up with each other on the sidewalk on William St. So the larger work of our research group, which lies in the background of this little volume, was premised on a wish to complicate a seemingly simple thing, since that’s what I think scholars are supposed to do. And we aimed to do that in blog posts, but doing it in a little, affordable volume, that involves even more people, who can draw on even more examples, and doing so in a way that might be useful to novice readers in this area (whether in or outside a classroom), also seemed like a good idea.
What theory or theorists inform your method and methodology?
I’ve touched on that a bit already, I know, but, to be more specific, it was the work of Jean-François Bayart that got us going down this road—specifically, his book, The Illusion of Cultural Identity. My good friend, Willi Braun, at University of Alberta, brought it to my attention about 10 years ago, so, as a group, we decided to focus on his argument (which greatly complicates our casual saying that someone does X or thinks Y “because they’re Italian…” or some such poor attempts at causal analysis) in our effort to rethink how it is that scholars talk about identity. But other authors come in as well, of course, such as Rogers Brubaker (see his new book, Trans, for example, let alone much of his previous work) or Joan Wallach Scott (such as her still crucial 1991 essay on experience in the journal Critical Inquiry), not to mention Judith Butler, of course, and many others. So although Bayart was an important focus for us, such as his provocative statement that, “There is no such thing as identity, only operational acts of identification,” this alternative model is hardly new and hardly limited to just one or two social theorists. But we found that it is applied inconsistency by scholars—hence our scholarly initiative.
How might the book be used in a classroom?
The books in this series are all pithy, by design, which helps to make them affordable but which also precludes building a whole course around them—not unless the instructor uses them as case studies rather than as a textbook. So, as someone who has never been fond of using a textbook, and thereby ceding to someone else the authority to determine what it was I was trying to do in the class and thus what students needed to read to get there, the book’s all strike me as wonderfully useful in teaching—so long as instructors can see a way to use them, as well as other things, to get their students somewhere. So I could easily see someone putting together some readings so that students had an example of how scholars traditionally talk about identity, then moving to some of the authors named above, to provide an alternative approach, while reserving a book like ours for a final unit on application—because the chapters vary widely in the e.g. they discuss. Then students could tackle an analysis of their own as a final project. For example, in one of my own chapters I talk about nothing other than crossing my legs, and how I now realize that I’ve moved in the ways that I do it, over the years, finding myself now sitting “like a gentleman” at times, or whatever you’d call that one posture, with more tightly closed-in, cross-legs, while, as an 19 year old, I never would have sat that way. I probably would be seen it as threatening to my then developing sense of self, my sense of masculinity. So what did (and what does!) that pose do to me, my sense of who I was, the way I’m seen or treated by others when I happen to be sitting somewhere, more than likely not thinking much about it. (Though sometimes we think a great deal about how we sit, how we stand, right?) So the examples each chapter uses brings home the theory, doing so in a way that might invite a student to understand that seemingly benign actions nonetheless have effects that can sometimes be far-reaching. So perhaps the student will learn how to make data of themselves and their own taken-for-granted worlds.
How do you think students would most benefit from your book?
Well, as I just said, actually: the everyday is pretty interesting if you look at it the right way. Too often, though, we pass right over it, because it’s familiar or routine, making it mundane and uninteresting. As much as we might criticize them now, we’re not all that different from our colonial-era intellectual predecessors in some ways, those who were so fascinated by the exotic “Other.” For as the French sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu, once remarked, it’s a lot more work to make the ordinary interesting. So I think this little book, like the others in the series, tackle that very challenge.
Why did you decide to have junior scholars respond to senior ones? How might this format contribute to student learning?
Indeed—that’s another intentional hallmark of this book series. So the original members of Culture on the Edge (since the book was completed the group has expanded), Merinda Simmons, Craig Martin, Steven Ramey, Vaia Touna, Leslie Dorrough Smith, and myself, all wrote two main chapters and, as already noted, each has a respondent, who is rather earlier in their career—from still being a graduate student to people who have only recently earned their PhD degrees. So an international group, including David Robertson, Sarah Levine, Chris Cotter, Anja Kirsch, Candace Mixon, Ian Alexander Cuthbertson, Sarah Dees, Emily Schmidt, Richard Newton, Jason Ellsworth, Stacie Swain, and Matt Sheedy, took each of the main chapters in different directions, hopefully exemplifying for anyone who tackles the volume that career stage isn’t necessarily a barrier to doing interesting and innovative work in the academy. In fact, sometimes it’s people at much earlier stages that are doing the really interesting work. And if you consider the challenges now facing young scholars in the Humanities and some Social Sciences—what with declining government funding for education in many countries, and thus increasing costs and declining job opportunities—it makes a lot of sense for more senior scholars not to forget the chances that were surely presented to them, early on in their own careers, which helped them to get a leg up, as we say, and thereby become the people that they are today (again, not a bad example of the approach modeled in the book, no?). So while I’m not ready to hang up my saddle quite yet (I’ve got a couple books of my own coming out in 2018, actually, both collections of essays [one from Equinox and the other from Walter de Gruyter], plus a book I edited with Willi book due out from Oxford) this is a responsibility that I take pretty seriously. The book that I recently edited with Aaron Hughes, Religion in 5 Minutes, also comes to mind as a good example—flip through that book and you’ll see a pretty diverse number of contributors. And, again, hopefully making clear that good work is being done by a lot of interesting people in the academic study of Religion, some you may have heard of, sure, but others…? Well, you’ll probably be hearing a lot more from them in the future.