[Editor’s Note: This essay inaugurates a series in which New Directions in the Study of Prayer grantees reflect on their interdisciplinary conversations about the study of prayer.]

Does the study of prayer allow us to say anything interesting about universal human attributes or faculties? Some of the disagreements that have emerged among New Directions in the Study of Prayer grantees in our group discussions would seem to pivot on how we answer this question. The dialogue, as I have heard it so far, goes something like this (I leave it to the grantees and other discussants to extend and/or correct it):

Ms. Social-Cultural: You cognitivists do not reflect sufficiently on the normative assumptions (drawn from American folk understandings) that inform your methodologies and theoretical models. In failing to do so, your work uncritically discovers and validates those norms.

Mr. Cognitive: Okay, let’s say you are right to some extent, that our work embeds certain cultural assumptions (a problem which your theoretical reflexivity, we have been told, exempts you from). Be that as it may, the patterns of thought, perception, and experience which our analyses reveal nonetheless tell us something about human cognition. It may be difficult to free our interpretations of that something from our cultural biases, but not intractably so. Indeed, the point of our experimental methodologies is to reveal patterns not recognizable within, or reducible to our normative interpretive grids, so as to better understand the structuring force of our human cognitive equipment.

S-C Chorus: There is no neutral interpretive standpoint from which you can vouchsafe your claims. Whatever you discover and describe, you do so in accord with the protocols, concepts, and moral norms of the specific field of inquiry you work within, a point made by Thomas Kuhn years ago and confirmed by every half sane scholar ever since!

Mr. C (with apparent irritation): Can you really subscribe to such a strong relativistic standpoint?! Do you think polio is a product of the way we construe it in discourse? Really?

Ms. S-C: Actually, yes. The object, polio, as identified by modern medical science, has been constructed by means of a distinct set of knowledges, medical technologies and techniques, the international institutions that regulate health and disease, the pharmac…

C Chorus: Wait! Your deconstructionist delight has got the better of you! Clearly all of those institutions and knowledges would have no ability to curb whatever is meant by “polio” if their interpretation of the disease was totally at odds with the epidemiology of the nasty bug itself. But this is a dead end…

Mr. C.: Indeed. Let’s stick with prayer. Listen: we run a set of experiments, asking 100 undergrads to pray under certain controlled conditions. On the basis of the results, we build or modify hypotheses about human cognition in order to explain the data. If the findings are interesting, we expand the study, increase the size and diversity of the sample, perhaps collaborating with scholars abroad, so as to further mitigate the role of cultural and historical factors. The more the test results we discover can be repeated and confirmed across heterogeneous and larger samples, the stronger the explanatory force of our models, and hence, of our understanding of how the human mind works. Period.

Ms. S-C: Look, you don’t get it. Your entire research model takes American Protestantism is if it were universal. All of your test questions about prayer presuppose ideas about prayer, language, and subjectivity specific to an American Protestant context and of questionable validity beyond it!

Mr. C.: You perhaps don’t know very much about experimentation (an understatement if I’ve ever uttered one!). A good experimentalist does not just design the experiment in such a way as to ensure it confirms her hypotheses. Experiments, when well designed, often produce startlingly unexpected results. Do you think Jackson and Rieff knew beforehand that when you alternate red and blue on a screen at tenth of a second intervals, 80% of the viewers will see only the red? Was the experiment shaped by the institutional protocols and concerns of a specific American field of knowledge? Certainly, but we learned something new and unexpected about human perception.

Ms. S-C: But…

Mr. C.: I’m not finished! You would probably accept that our perceptions are structured in ways by neurology and physiology (hence, why a frog can see the buzzing fly clearly but not the slow turtle that is about to step on it). At the same time, you make the assumption that, however much this bio-neuro-physio structuring occurs, you don’t need to take it into consideration when you are analyzing, say, prayer practices among Wall Street bankers. This assumption, however, is not grounded in any particular knowledge about, or reflection on, the physiology of perception (something you clearly know little about), but is simply a disciplinary norm, integral to the way socio-cultural anthropologists ask questions and pursue research.  And if a question is raised—by one of “us,” for example—then you simply claim we are unreflexive, and intellectually unequipped to grasp the issue. But the question remains: isn’t there a certain neuro-bio-physio normativity undergirding your own analysis, presupposed but never reflexively engaged? Doesn’t the contemporary turn to cognitive approaches, in part, stem from a recognition of the problem of anthropology’s disembodied subject?

Ms. S-C: That’s unfair!

* * *

[Editor’s Note: Follow the ongoing conversation proceeding from this post, here.]