Comparison as Conversation and Craft
This essay argues that comparison as a method of study within religious studies is best thought of in two terms: conversation and craft. As a conversation, comparison has its own history, which has included several major shifts. At present, comparative work would benefit from addressing the fact that Euro-Americans dominate the comparative conversation. This dominance limits conversational data, topics, strategies, and participants. At risk is the relevance of comparative work within religious
... tudies. As a craft, comparative work is creative and idiosyncratic, reflecting the apprenticeship lineage in which the comparative scholar has been trained as well as her individual personality. I have been engaged in comparative research for over twenty years now. It is always tricky when comparison itself becomes the object of study, rather than the mode of study. This is particularly true of comparative work, because it transgresses traditional boundaries of study, creating new research contours. Seemingly disparate religious phenomena become bedfellows. Over the years, I have found this approach to the study of religion simultaneously challenging, uplifting, dangerous, and enlivening. This edited volume offers an opportunity for me to reflect on what I do and how I do it. I started by thinking about the line I always share with my students: "comparison isn't a conclusion; it's a method." I will continue to teach this mantra, because it highlights comparison as process rather than end goal. Over the years, though, I have come to feel that the term "method" is too clinical-my research process is much messier than the term suggests. As I have struggled to express my research process is really like, two words bubbled to the surface: conversation and craft. Throughout the rest of this essay, I hope to explain how I engage in comparison as an ongoing conversation, with shifting topics, trajectories, and partners, but always grounded in a community-wide exchange of ideas. I will also argue that comparison is best imagined as a craft, which involves long apprenticeships, training in specific skills, yielding unique products bearing the stamp of their makers.