Professional Purpose and Goals


The purpose of my professional work is to produce and transmit knowledge in three domains: our empirical-substantive understanding of Latin America and the developing world; our theoretical understanding of culture and agency, and networks and publics; and finally our understanding of qualitative methodology.


Empirical-Substantive Understanding

            At an empirical-substantive level, my goal is to produce and transmit knowledge about the way global political and economic restructuring is experienced at the ground level by everyday Latin Americans, and the way they use culture to confront problematic experiences of these forces and gain agency over them. The political motivation for this project is not a rejection of this global restructuring—a process I think is multi-dimensioned and open-ended—but rather my belief that one important source of bad policy is its being formed on the basis of abstract knowledge of peoples and contexts. Policies left or right not informed by ground-level knowledge lead to all sorts of unintended consequences that thwart their intended goals. While this is the case everywhere, the lack of ground-level knowledge about human behavior is especially true of the developing world, and even more so about Latin America. The great majority of social science research on contemporary Latin America analyzes the “big politics” of state institutions, political leaders, and political parties. This literature has reached a truly enviable level of depth and sophistication. However, it needs to be matched by social science research on the “little politics” of life outside of and around dominant structures. My research projects on religion, politics and protest in Venezuela work towards this goal. In each case I look at the way individuals and groups facing difficult situations structural situations use culture to gain agency over the processes that affect them. Concrete knowledge such as this can help political and societal leaders channel global restructuring towards the creation of more just conditions.


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Theoretical Understanding

            First, I am interested in the way cultural and religious phenomena are conceptualized. Whether to conceptualize them as epiphenomena, autonomous phenomena, or something in between has been a long-standing issue in Western thought. The different ways the issue has been dealt with—for example by utilitarian, Marxist, and myriad neokantian theorizations--has had important effects on the directions taken in social theory. In the current scholarly context, I think the attempt to analyze culture as having a semi-autonomous existence and impact has made combining it to rational, strategic action difficult. While this has not hindered scholars such as Pierre Bourdieu from freely combining them, existing theorizations that work out how this actually happens are underdeveloped. In my book Reason to Believe I use resources from pragmatist linguistics, feminist theory and postcolonial writing on religion to develop a non-reductive theory of agency in religion. In my current project on Christianity and political conflict in Venezuela I am continuing this interest in culture and agency but working more closely with concepts of practice and ritual.

            Second, I am interested in network conceptualizations of social structure. In my research on conversion I saw the explanatory importance of constellations of concrete individuals who interact in predicting who became Pentecostal. I especially sought to understand how networks have their effect beyond the classic social psychological conformity hypothesis. I found that networks frequently had important effects beyond any desire to conform. I also sought to reaffirm the role of human agency in networks by showing that human beings often understand the impact of networks and actively construct their network location. In my current project on Christianity and political conflict I am following scholars such as Ann Mische, Mustafa Emirbayer and Eiko Ikegami to try to reconceptualize the public sphere through network theory. In this perspective “publics” are the relational contexts created when multiple networks overlap, leading people to temporarily suspend their network identities. This network reconceptualization of the public sphere promises to help us move beyond some of the current dilemmas in liberal political theory whereby “civic” and “public” are so separate from “partisan” and “political” that it becomes hard to understand actual empirical cases of political process. In my project on religion and political conflict I am using network concepts to understand political polarization among religious participators, and the concept of publics to understand the influence of religious organizations in Venezuela’s current political process.


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Qualitative Methodology and Methods

            I am interested in advancing our knowledge of qualitative methodology in several ways. First, I am interested in research design. Following my teacher, Wendy Griswold, I believe that reflecting on research design throughout the life of project makes it more likely that the end product will be able to overcome the ethereal quality of traditional cultural research. Second, I am interested in the way participant observation and qualitative interview data are collected and conceptualized. While I understand post-modern critiques of ethnography, I think these can be taken into account in order to do better ethnography rather than abandon the enterprise altogether. By presenting descriptions of interactions in which the ethnographer is a participant and in which actual discourse is presented, the writer presents cultural confrontations rather than unmediated perceptions of culture. Third, I am interested in conceptualizing and justifying inductive scientific research as is used in grounded theory and other protocols for qualitative data analysis. The deductive model of hypothesis testing is still the dominant standard for what counts as “scientific.” However, there is ample philosophical support—in the work of Carl Hempel, pragmatic realists like Margaret Somers and critical realists like Roy Bhaskar, for example—justifying inductive research in which concepts are considered to be bridges between empirical observations in a process that is open-ended. Furthermore, analysis shows that much research that gets reported in a deductive mode—as the confirmation of hypotheses—actually is developed through induction. I am interested in working through the different assumptions involved in, and the consequences resulting from inductive versus deductive models of research. Fourth, I am interested in the potentials of software for qualitative data analysis. Qualitative data analysis is labor intensive insofar as it requires going over the data time and again. Software for qualitative data analysis greatly increases the efficiency of this process not only through automatic coding and search tools, but also by simply making the data rapidly accessible and by conserving and organizing the product of any given moment of analysis.  This greater efficiency means that time can be spent to do even deeper analysis; more adequately tie analysis into existing literatures, or simply analyze more data where a project would benefit from it. Qualitative data not only is labor intensive, it requires a lot of space for authors to present, and a lot of time and energy for readers to consume. This limits the ability of authors to nuance and convincingly substantiate their arguments. While quantitative research can summarize a large amount of data in a table, qualitative research depends on resource-demanding presentation of quotes, ethnographic descriptions, photos, etc. Sooner rather than later, we will be at the point at which qualitative research will come on CD-ROM with (increasingly user-friendly) read-only versions of the software used to analyze the data. In this way the author will be able to make arguments with selected quotes and hyperlink further data to the appropriate point in the text. This has the potential to further increase the reliability of qualitative research. Finally, I am interested in the contribution of quantitative techniques to qualitative research. In my research on conversion I used Charles Ragin’s “qualitative comparative analysis” based on Boolean algebra to analyze my life history data. Such techniques work through the process of analytic inference that is the strength of qualitative methodology, yet provide the data reduction and penetration characteristic of quantitative methods. They also facilitate summary presentation of research results.


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