To continue the series on my PhD project, this post presents my heuristic framework and outlines what I mean by identity, belonging, and religious belonging. In fact, a fair junk of my interest in this project is theoretical (or conceptual, if you hate theory)... In two weeks, I shall add an overview of my methodology, and after that an introduction to my chosen field site: Lucknow. By then, the research visa should be issued, too - and more exciting stories form the field can be told...

Apart from this post on my conceptual framework, there are:
An introductory post to my topic
Another post on my methodological approach
Finally a post on why I chose Lucknow as a fieldsite

"Muslim belonging" is a rather prominent term in my work, yet to realize that I see it when I see it, I need to have a heuristic concept of what it might be. This concept, I think, needs to come from outside the phenomenon under study; only resorting to everyday usages of the term would lead me straight into tautological arguments. We only learn from the contrast of theoretical model and empirical matter, not from either alone, and I am not a great believer in banal inductivism. Neither do I believe in theory for its own sake, however. Given that "identity" is a terribly confuse concept in our disciplines (leading to endless meta-theoretical debates),1 the best - and probably the only viable - way to go about it is arguably to take some conceptual decisions early on and then remain pragmatic about the rest. My major decisions are outlined here. I posit that identity happens between people. Or rather: a) it happens, b) between and c) actual people.

Firstly, I thus understand identity as the everchanging face of processes of identification or belonging, rather than as the outcome thereof, and even less as a property of people, "groups", or "cultures". With this assumption, I am of course not alone: processual understandings of identity since long trump essentialist notions in the social sciences (even though I believe that identity research should incorporate both social processes such as outgroup devaluation and substantive contents such as shared beliefs and practices).

Secondly, I can only apprehend identity as something which has to do with actual people, rather than with groups, or other imagined communities. Human beings, with all their embodied history and contextual biographies, belong. They are embedded in social networks, and it is them - and not the networks themselves - which perform, perceive, believe, enact identities. Everything else contradicts my common sense. The theoretical foundation that I am looking for has thus to be centered around persons as agents, and probably bring a fair amount of psychological insight with them.

Finally, I see identity and belonging as processes happening between persons, rather than between groups (or within individual minds). Thus the picture to today's post represents networks, rather than brain scans or orientalist portraits. Unfortunately, the only theory I am aware of which gets close to this is Buber's notion of the "in-between" as basic unit of the social (please tell me if you know any other).2 What is so unfortunate about him is not his work per se, but the fact that his thinking is so idiosyncratic that one can not easily embed his though in wider discourse (something PhD examiners tend to expect). To develop conceptual and methodological tools to grasp the relationality of belonging and identity might thus well turn out to be the domain in which I hope to contribute most with my PhD.

So where does this take me? In my earlier project, for instance, I took heavy recourse to Rogers Brubaker.3 Yet his theoretical ideas, which I am still very fond of, lost much of their appeal when turned into empirical guidance: I ended up having a rather commonplace binary of formal group dynamics (categorization and groupness) versus substantive beliefs (self-understanding), but could not grasp relationality, nor reconcile processual with substantial aspects.

As I went on to my PhD, I thus looked for a heuristic model which would be less cognitive and more relational in character, a model which would not focus on a dichotomy of group and person but rather emphasizes the dynamics "in-between", and a model in which the formal and substantive dimensions were less clearly separated. On this quest, I came across the work of Joanna Pfaff-Czarnecka, who later became my supervisor (for among others this reason).4 She uses the term belonging rather than identity (for me they continue to be almost synonymous), and argues that belonging is constituted through of perceptions of commonality, practices of reciprocity, and experiences of affinity.

This trinity of commonality, reciprocity and affinity attracted me as both conceptually convincing (by and large) and potentially operationalizable (more on this in a later post). It is thus largely Pfaff-Czarnecka's framework which I intend to put to an empirical test in my PhD project. Two qualifications to her work are important to me, however:

Firstly, I suggest to complement her terms with their negative inversion: difference, exclusion and detachment. This allows for controlled distance inside relations of belonging, which accounts for the fact that belonging might be experienced as deeply ambivalent or ambiguous by those who belong. Indeed, one longing of my interlocutors could well be to be someone else, to belong as someone else. Would such a longing by analytical default imply somehow "lesser" belonging, one would uncritically follow precisely those who exert pressure, power and control to enforce group cohesion. That this conceptual decision blurs the line between belonging and non-belonging is a side-effect I am prepared to accept.

Secondly, I further propose to seek the religious element that I am most interested in not in any additional quality of belonging, but in the involvement of specific personae: an individual, those deemed coreligionists, and the numinous. When people belong religiously, it is not their belonging which changes, but the ones whom they consider common, with whom they practice reciprocities, and to whom they feel attached. Indeed, many of my interlocutors in the Gujarat project did not express any particular kind of religious sensation or cognition which they have of God, but rather spoke in quite anthropomorphic terms of relations to him (or her). To grasp this phenomenon, I intend to treat numinous entities as fully valid nodes in relational networks of belonging. While I am not suggesting to interview God myself (or at least not to write about it), I certainly intend to proceed as if I could; this seems to be most adequate to the phenomenon under study...

While one could of course decide the religious element otherwise, I believe this approach to the religious also has the comparative advantage of respecting diversity in how people express their religious belonging. If I were to define religious belonging by listing inherent qualities, I could see which different people engage therein. If I however define religious belonging the other way round - by listing who engages -, I see in which ways they engage. The former helps in sampling, the latter in analysis - but to achieve both using a single concept is impossible. I for one prefer the second option: better a sample too broad than a concept too homogenizing.

This finally leaves me with the following working definition of religious belonging used in my project: religious belonging is constituted at the intersection of a) common experiences and assumptions of commonness as well as difference, b) practices of reciprocity, solidarity and exclusion, and c) feelings of spatial or material affinity as well as detachment between the personae of an individual, those deemed coreligionists, and the numinous.

Much more could be said, but I'll leave it at that. In two weeks, we will see how exactly I intend to put this heuristic framework to its empirical test (the post is here) - until then, I am curious for your comments, and thank you for your patient reading...