Workshop Towards a Symmetrical Approach: The Study of Religions After

Venue: Brno

Location: Brno, Czech Republic

Event Date/Time: Nov 29, 2012 End Date/Time: Dec 01, 2012
Registration Date: Oct 14, 2012
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Call for papers
David Bloor formulated the principle of symmetry in the sociology of knowledge very simply:
“The symmetry postulate (...) enjoins us to seek the same kind of causes for both true and
false, rational and irrational beliefs.” This formulation has far reaching consequences. With
such an approach, the study of scientific knowledge can be conducted in the same manner as
the study of the knowledge practices of “ordinary” people in everyday situations, including
the variety of practices called “religion”. In this case, the study of ordinary practices as well as
the study of scientific knowledge changes radically; the “Great Divide” (Bruno Latour), which makes
them completely incommensurable, vanishes; they appear side by side, all open to the same kinds of
questions and open-ended research into their complex relations, all treated with the same respect.
“Anthropology comes home from the tropics,” as Bruno Latour put it. Another consequence is that
“there is no privilege (...). [Symmetry] erodes distinctions that are said to be given in the nature of
things, and instead asks how it is that they got to be that way” (John Law).
The principle of symmetry also gives a new meaning to reflexivity in social scientific study.
Reflexivity within this approach does not mean the ponderings of the scientist on his own thoughts
and thought processes. It refers rather to our ability to reflect on our own scientific practices
in the same empirical way as we reflect on the practices of the people we study (Zdeněk
Konopásek). We can study ourselves together with the people whose practices we try to understand
and interpret. There is no second order knowledge that would be pure reflection. We are a part of
the world we study and our activities change that same world (Anthony Giddens). We are part of
our field.
It is thus clear that a/symmetry points to issues surrounding the power of the scientific
ordering of reality as well as to the problems of dominance. Within this framework, adopting
a symmetrical approach does not mean being exactly values-free or dispassionate. It “invariably
subverts the dominant view and strengthens the side of the weak and the marginal (...). [It is a] way
of siding with the oppressed” (Dick Pells). Knowledge cannot be impartial; nevertheless, with
the symmetrical approach, one seeks to include the weaker voices that would otherwise be easily
overheard. An endeavour to enact the symmetrical approach thus has much to do with the wish not
to do harm and to respect the diversity, heterogeneity, complexity and instability of
social life.
The academic study of religions represents, for the most part, an exercise in
asymmetry. Neglecting the voices of women and favouring men’s worlds; preferring the voices of
experts over those of lay participants, of elites over ordinary folk; siding with the winners against
the losers (e.g. through concepts such as heresy) are all important features of the tradition of
the discipline. Often it sides with strong parties in controversies instead of studying the course and
outcomes of such controversies, and their implications and significance for actual cultural practices.
Moreover, a significant tendency towards asymmetry lies in the dominance over
the studied “subjects” (especially – but not exclusively – colonial) facilitated by the promotion of
the concept of religion itself.
As this brief overview indicates, to practice (the) social scientific study (of religions) as
a symmetrical endeavour is a difficult task. Yet we think that it is not only worth trying, but that it
has already been undertaken, however rarely. Consequently, the aim of this workshop is to
promote, elaborate and share ideas and examples of good practice with respect to
Towards a Symmetrical Approach:
The Study of Religions After Postmodern and Postcolonial Criticism
29 November – 1 December 2012 • Brno • Czech Republic
the symmetrical approach in (the) social scientific study (of religions). We therefore invite
presentations on topics such as:
‒ Overviews of particular research projects based on the symmetrical approach, or those
that respect the principle of symmetry in their design and realization, as well as expositions of
their methodologies and theoretical foundations.
‒ Reflections on a/symmetries embedded in field research and in the writing of
reports and papers based on field data; presentations of difficulties in writing symmetrical
accounts and strategies for dealing with them.
‒ Reflections on a/symmetries embedded in the writing of historical accounts/studies
and strategies for writing histories symmetrically.
‒ Theoretical reflections on problems associated with a/symmetries in the social sciences,
especially in the study of religions, and proposals for symmetrical paths to follow.
‒ Reflexivity and its consequences for conducting research and writing reports. How does
respect for the principle of reflexivity shape our research and writing strategies? How can
reflexivity be practised and how can we write reflexively?
We invite students of religions, qualitative sociologists, anthropologists, and historians to exchange
ideas and scholarly experience at this workshop on the symmetrical approach held in Brno,
Czech Republic.
‒ All interested scholars and students should submit their proposals for papers by 14 October
‒ The papers may have the form of either oral presentation or poster.
‒ Detailed information concerning the workshop is to be found at the workshop's website
‒ Any further questions may be addressed to Ms. Lucie Čechovská via the workshop’s e-mail,
We look forward to seeing you in Brno!
On behalf of the organizing committee
Yours sincerely,
Dr. Milan Fujda, Dr. David Zbíral,
Department for the Study of Religions, Czech Association for the Study of Religions,
Masaryk University General Secretary
Towards a Symmetrical Approach:
The Study of Religions After Postmodern and Postcolonial Criticism
29 November – 1 December 2012 • Brno • Czech Republic