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Cultural History of the Study of Religion Unit

Call for Proposals

The Cultural History of the Study of Religion Unit seeks papers that examine the formation and transformation of “religion” and related categories in social, cultural, and political practice in different geographic and historical contexts and in relation to the scholarly study of religion as that study has evolved over time.

For the 2020 Annual Meeting, we particularly welcome proposals on the following topics:

• “The AAR as Scholarly Guild”—The theme of the 2020 Annual Meeting offers an opportunity to critically reflect on the history of the organization and its attendant units in order to think about what the AAR can do in the present and future. The American Academy of Religion dates to 1963 when the early 20th century organization, the National Association of Biblical Instructors, changed its name. What lingering traces betray this genealogy? And what changes have occurred with regard to themes, policies, units, and people across the decades? We welcome free-standing proposals on the AAR’s history, as well as proposals for co-sponsorships with other units interested in critical reflection on how they have changed over time.

• “Alternate Futures for the Study of Religion”—What are the apparent dead ends that litter the landscape of the field of the study of religion? Why, for instance, have programs in the psychology of religion declined? What accounts for the marginalization of philology or the waning of comparative work in the study of religion? How has religious studies related to more recent disciplines like ethnic studies and cultural studies? How might these pasts be used to reshape our disciplinary future? What new disciplinary intersections lie on the horizon?

• “The (After)lives of Religion and Literature”—Despite its declared demise, interest in the intersections of the literary and the study of religion is having a renaissance. What accounts for this recent development and what are its key thematics? How has the relationship between religious and literary studies been configured in different historical and cultural/religious contexts? What does it herald for notions of truth, credibility, critique, secularity, and fiction? For various practices of reading, the circulation of texts, and the shuffling of authoritative and vernacular genres? For possible co-sponsorship with the Arts, Literature, and Religion Unit.

• “Passages and Possessions”—The on-going colonial migrations of populations, both forced and voluntary, have given rise to some of the most contentious categories and enduring debates in the study of religion. These categories include the fetish, spirit-possession, and syncretism; the related debates have centered on questions of subjectivity, agency, sovereignty, and citizenship. What histories have yet to be told about these discursive and political formations? How might the field reckon with the colonial production of knowledge while yielding to indigenous sources of theory? How should these wider histories inflect how we understand the narrower history of organizations like the AAR?

This group regularly uses its sessions to develop new models for conference conversation. Toward that end, we ask that participants be prepared to write shorter papers for possible pre-circulation or short position papers for roundtable format. We also welcome suggestions for new conversational models.

Statement of Purpose

This Unit is devoted to historical inquiry into the social and cultural contexts of the study of religion and into the constructions of “religion” as an object of scholarly inquiry.


Steering Committee Members



Review Process

Proposer names are visible to chairs but anonymous to steering committee members

Review Process Comments

Keeping proposer names visible to chairs allows us to remain more attentive to questions of diversity and inclusion.