Religion, Secularization, Heritage: An interview with Marian Burchardt

Professor dr Marian Burchardt’s book Regulating Difference: Religious Diversity and Nationhood in the Secular West  (Rutgers University Press, 2020) just received the Best Book Award from the International Society for the Study of Religion. It is a thought-provoking piece of work, and we are delighted that Burchardt (Leipzig University) agreed to hold this year’s NOSTER Masterclass at the beginning of the bi-annual conference of the Dutch Religious Studies Association, the NGG.

Birgit Meyer (UU) interviewed Marian Burchardt about his trajectory, his ideas and his plans.

Can you very briefly tell us about your trajectory as a scholar? Where did you study?

I pursued my undergraduate studies in sociology, media studies and political science in Dresden, Leipzig and Barcelona. Subsequently, I did my PhD research at the institute of cultural studies in Leipzig, which had a strong influence on my thinking. During that period, I was also a visiting fellow at Stellenbosch University in South Africa and at the New School for Social Research in New York City. Subsequently, I held positions in the African Studies departments at Leipzig and Bayreuth as well as at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity in Göttingen. Since 2018, I have been a professor of sociology with a special focus on transregional studies at Leipzig University.

You call yourself a cultural sociologist. What does that mean for you?

Indeed, I do remain quite attached to that label. For me, doing cultural sociology means to sustain epistemological commitments that refrain from all sorts of determinisms, be they utilitarianist, functionalist, or (historical and new) materialist. Cultural sociology centres on questions of meaning-making in social life, on the ways meanings crystallize in discourses, institutions and powerful forms of subjecthood. These produce social orders that are often unequal and there is a need to understand how culture is a central element in the production of inequality, not something outside of it. Durkheim, Foucault and Bourdieu as well as Weber, Geertz and to some degree Schütz, have provided important genealogies in this regard. At the same time, cultural sociology is about remaining open to the possibility of disorder and contingency, about remaining prepared to see and recognize the unexpected and inchoate forms and occurrences that history produces. And many of these have to do with the ways human agency is framed by spaces, interwoven with materialities and embedded in infrastructures, which – instead of providing durable scaffoldings – may often also disturb intended practices and orders.

How did your interest in religious and ethnic diversity come about?

Diversity is one of the most powerful frameworks in contemporary global society, and it uneasily moves between being a buzzword, a moral discourse, an institutional norm and an analytical category. This protean nature of diversity is perhaps what I found most intriguing. In my ethnographic work, I became interested in how diversity is actually produced, in other words, how understandings of diversity (as a thing to be desired, achieved, implemented etc.) are formulated and begin to circulate in modern institutional and material landscapes, thereby leaving durable imprints on social relationship and power hierarchies. My main point would be to recognize that diversity is never simply something “out there” but that it is actively produced through acts and enactments of categorizations and classifications. The power of naming something, which scholars such as Butler, Foucault and Bourdieu saw as fundamental to both domination and emancipation, is again acquiring major significance in today’s postcolonial world and for me, this power pivots on the discourse on diversity. Religious diversity is not the only but one central dimension in this regard.

What do you mean by saying that religion gets new meanings after secularization?

Classical and neo-orthodox secularization theorists assume that with secularization religion recedes from social life, and in some way of course this is the idea, and partly the definition of secularization. However, such an approach misses the important ways in which, by doing away with powerful institutional forms of religion, such as church-based religiosity, secularization opens spaces for new religious expressions, such as postmodern spiritualities, therapies or reform movements. It also makes space for new social forms of religion, such as “heritage religion”, that in an important sense even depend on secularization. So, it is this multiplicity, this refiguration of religion that we need to understand and conceptualize in order to leave unhelpful binaries, e.g., secularization “or” religious revitalization, behind.

Why should scholars pay attention to the relation between religion, secularity and the nation-state?

Even after globalization, as it were, nation-states remain powerful actors that frame collective identities and cultural affiliations. Both hegemonic and socially subordinated groups rarely side-line the state but instead seek to mobilize its resources and insignia for their purposes. Religion and secularity are good examples of this, both can be marshalled by multiple actors when leveraging claims to recognition.

Can you say in one sentence how religion and heritage relate in your perspective?

When religious practices and artefacts, and the forms of belonging they enable, are turned into heritage, they are both secularized and resacralized, which is why religious heritage always facilitates transcendence: it transcends itself.

What is distinctive for your thinking?

My thinking is often meandering, shaped by my desire to see aspects of social life or certain institutions – religion, sexual relationships, cultural heritage or digital logistics – in their wider context. And in order to do so, it is often important go beyond the confines and conceptual apparatuses of one discipline (the sociology of religion, queer studies, cultural anthropology or infrastructure studies). It is time-consuming and sometimes unnerving but also rewarding. Perhaps most importantly, I would say my thinking is resolutely ethnographic, driven by the endless chain of real-world puzzles with which social life is shot through.

What will be your next project?

From fall 2022 onwards, I will be a fellow in the Humanities Center of Advanced Studies “Multiple Secularities – Beyond the West, Beyond Modernities” for one year. In this context, I seek to develop a better conceptual understanding of secular space, not as something definitive, authoritative and uniform across political geographies but as a form of space that accretes and crystallizes under some conditions and recedes, is unmade and may even resolve under other conditions.