[Editor’s Note: This essay is part of a series in which New Directions in the Study of Prayer grantees reflect on their interdisciplinary conversations about the study of prayer. The series began with Charles Hirschkind’s “Cognition and Culture, at it Again!“.]
One difference between my prayer research and other lines of research I do is the audience I have for the work, even as it is being completed. Because the prayer work is funded through the Social Science Research Council’s New Directions in the Study of Prayer initiative, I share it with my NDSP working group which includes people from many disciplines, with the strongest representation being anthropologists. Because I am collaborating with my former mentor on the work, I discuss all the findings with him. Finally, because the things that I am finding are so intriguing and out of my comfort zone, I am also seeking the council of my religious leader.
You would think that talking to my Rabbi about my research would be the most stressful and odd conversation, but it is not. Hands down, the most stressful and odd conversations are within the SSRC working group.
Why? I am not completely sure, but I am guessing it is due to how completely and fundamentally different our disciplines are. This is odd considering how much we appear to share on the surface. You might think, “Well, you both study the interaction of people and culture, surely that couldn’t be more similar?” Ah, I once thought that myself. Then I engaged in conversations with anthropologists about my work (and theirs). If men are from Mars and women are from Venus, then psychologists are from the entire universe and anthropologists are from one small house, in one small village, with only one kind of person living there.
Here are my overly broad and unscientifically-tested “facts” about the key difference between psychology and anthropology, based on my very limited interaction with anthropologists and the very small corner of the psychological world in which I live:
Psychologists want to take a large construct and reduce it to its smallest parts.
Anthropologists want to take a small construct and increase it to its largest possible understanding.
This is a huge difference. When I think about studying prayer, I want to look at prayer in the broadest, most inclusive way possible and figure out what minute, simple, and quick processes may occur that define it. I hope that those processes will help us understand not just the people I study, but prayer in general—no matter who is doing it.
Anthropologists, on the other hand, want to take one very specific kind of prayer done by one very specific kind of person and understand that particular small thing in the very biggest, richest, and most complex way possible.
Now keep in mind, these are not just errant desires on the part of either group; these are foci in which we are trained for years and years and years. And then we practice—a lot. And then we talk about it to other people who are trained in the same way, and they advise us on how to do it better. They tell us to get even smaller and more specific about the outcomes we are studying (or bigger and more expansive!). They tell us it is only interesting if we can generalize it to lots of people (or don’t generalize to anyone!).
All this inbreeding pushes us further into our ways of thinking until it is all we know and all we can appreciate; until we have created language to describe what we do that completely excludes any outsiders. So what happens when we come together? What happens when the study of a common issue like prayer through an organization like the SSRC forces us to come together to talk to one another?
Wonderful, peaceful, and respectful understanding and growth happen. The discussions are rich and interesting with people listening attentively and shifting their worldviews to incorporate new, exciting perspectives.
Just kidding! Actually we yell at, over, and with one another. We misunderstand one another’s goals and completely don’t understand one another’s methods. We inadvertently (and sometimes advertently) insult one another. We get our feelings hurt and retreat to our corners. Seriously, it can be pretty ugly.
But when I step away from what have been difficult discussions, I have found that some very cool outcomes have slowly, but consistently, blossomed. First, I have found that in small but important ways, my data looks different to me now. I am aware of some of the biases in my approach. I am more interested in the interaction of culture and the limitations of my subject base. And I am a bit more cautious, which is good. Second, I have been able to think of ways that anthropological work might compliment my work and how my approach might compliment anthropological work. So out of these very difficult meetings, seeds of collaboration have been sewn. For example, I am working with Anderson Blanton to explore how his work might expand psychological theories of contagion and how an experimental technique may then inform his work. The novelty of mixing our very different approaches makes it difficult but also exciting and rich with possibility. The beauty of growing collaborations in difficult soil is that IF you manage to get something to grow, your product may very well end up being unique and rife with potential for further growth and expansion.
So has this experiment of putting people with different backgrounds together failed or succeeded? Well, while it is impossible to answer that without a control group (insert laughter from other experimental social psychologists here), I am incredibly grateful to be a part of it. I have learned a lot (and not just that “problematize” is a word). I will never “convert” to anthropology: I love experiments, statistics, and going from an idea to a completed study in a few weeks way too much for that. But I have learned a lot and hopefully will emerge from this process better able to contribute to the study of prayer and religion.
And doing fieldwork seems to have taught anthropologists something which I still have to learn. They have learned that the best way to end a day of professional difficulty and conflict is with an evening of social fellowship and celebration. And you know what? They are really onto something with that. So here is to another round of arguments. And here is to those arguments being followed by an evening of fellowship and celebration. And here is to me putting on my anthropologist pants and staying up late with my colleagues and friends, instead of slinking off early and going to bed mad. And here is to not taking something small and making it big or taking something big and making it small but to just taking things for what they are and then letting them go. Here is to a bit more of that.