The Collective Ownership of Knowledge: Implications for the Study of Religion/s in Local Contexts
The 2021 Conference of the British Association for the Study of Religions coincided with the fiftieth anniversary of the establishment of a degree programme in Religious Studies in the School of Divinity at the University of Edinburgh. After tracing developments in the Edinburgh Religious Studies course, which gradually witnessed a move away from a model based on the world religions paradigm towards emphasising the centrality of teaching about and conducting research on religions in local contexts, this paper argues that discerning future directions in the study of religion/s must begin by examining critically the aims and uses of extracting knowledge from localised communities. The traditional phenomenological aim of Religious Studies was to foster understanding of religious traditions by suspending temporarily the researcher’s pre-formed academic judgements, employing an empathetic approach and then creating structures or typologies for comparative purposes. This method, which was based on the notion that knowledge produces enlightenment, came under severe criticism during the latter part of the twentieth century. Alternative interpretations of knowledge were developed, particularly knowledge as power, which analysed the way knowledge is obtained and how it is used by those in positions of authority. A further stage in research is now emerging that conceives knowledge as collective communal property, thus challenging the pervasive academic assumption that knowledge of local religious traditions is freely accessible to anyone choosing to investigate it. By adopting the concept ‘relational research’, the author argues that fundamental methodological, pedagogical and ethical innovations in contemporary approaches to the academic study of religion/s will result.