Noguchi, Water Garden, NYC via flickr user lao_ren100 What can the study of prayer tell us – about social life, religious institutions and practices, shared and unique concepts of communication, and ethical self-formation? New Directions in the Study of Prayer supports research that seeks to better understand prayer, in its many forms, but that also considers how the varied practices (from the textual to the embodied) associated with prayer may influence broader questions about social and human concerns. This SSRC initiative is thus working to broaden the study of prayer beyond the relatively narrow range of questions that has recently shaped scholarly discourse and interest. Indeed, we have noted that the relatively limited scope of high profile research on prayer reinforces a widely (if implicitly) held view that prayer is of marginal interest to scholars whose work is focused on themes and issues generally deemed more consequential for modern life.

In so doing, the initiative has taken a broad approach to defining prayer, and likewise how it might be understood as an object of study. Prayer is, understandably, defined and described in many ways that impinge, productively, on the disciplines (and tools and theories) used to engage it. As we are well aware, prayer’s boundaries and its distinction from other kinds of activity (meditation, for example) are not always clear. What appears to be a clear and salient definition in the psychological laboratory, for example, may be quite different from the anthropological or legal definitions that are useful and uncontested in other social contexts. An exciting and central part of our program is to engage these linked definitional and disciplinary issues head-on. We thus believe that to produce a more expansive and nuanced body of research on prayer, scholars must develop an enlarged understanding of the variety of disciplinary approaches operative in the study of prayer throughout the academy, and of the distinctive questions, methodologies, commitments, and presuppositions that govern each.

Participants in this project have noted on numerous occasions that practice is a central yet multiply defined concept that helps set the ground for much existing scholarly literature on prayer, produced from a variety of perspectives and academic disciplines. Practices are clusters of human activity that are learned in social contexts (such as families and religious organizations); shaped and sustained by the rules and expectations institutionalized in those contexts; encouraged and guided by hierarchies of rewards and through conformity to the behavior of role models; and engaged in intentionally (although not always with explicit consciousness or awareness of those intentions) and normally with expectations concerning form, regularity, and duration. While some aspects of prayer can be examined through investigations of frequency and content, a richer understanding of prayer necessarily requires attention to the social settings in which it occurs, the relationships that develop among practitioners, and the ways in which practitioners relate their practices to varying conceptions of virtue and human flourishing.

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