Statistics and Essentialism: More to the Story

Everyone loves a good statistic…until they don’t.

We love the convenience of having statistical data readily available in order to defend our arguments. But if you’ve ever been on the side of being someone else’s statistic, then you probably know that there’s more to the story then just the numbers.

Here’s a thought experiment: Go look for statistics on your own identity.

Maybe you come away thinking that these statistics are accurate descriptions of your experience and life as you know it. Maybe the message conveyed by the numbers offends you. In either case, you’re probably saying to yourself that there’s more to the story.

That’s a good place to redescribe the data with tools from the study of religion in culture.

In the past, I’ve called for people to be careful about the statistics they consume about identity–whether speaking of religious identity or some other form. The issue is not the methodology of statistics. Statistics are a great tool. But statistics are kind of like a dictionary. Dictionaries define terms in light of a specific historical context with which the reader identifies.

Dictionaries–save for perhaps voluminous editions like the unabridged Oxford English Dictionary— present words as having fixed meanings when we know (1) that the meaning of words change, (2) that humans use words creatively to mean myriad things, and (3) and that words mean little to nothing when isolated or outside of the context in which they are used. This doesn’t mean dictionaries are useless. But it means we need to think about what the dictionary tells and doesn’t tell us.

So too is the case with statistics.

Statistical data in social surveys rely upon a sense of shared meaning. But we know from our theorizing about religion in culture, that (1) “words make worlds” as Craig Martin puts it, (2) that the meaning of words change over time, (3) and the words people use to describe themselves and others are informed by varying socio-political interests that are conscious and sub-conscious alike.

This is in part why scholars of religion in culture hold loosely terms like “Christianity,”
American,” “religious,” and “atheist.” There’s always more to the story of these identifiers than meets the eyes.

It’s also why a growing number of scholars have come to agree with the political scientist Jean-François Bayart when he says “There is no such thing as identity, only operational acts of identification.” If we are to understand human beings, the groups with which they do and don’t affiliated, and the ways in which they make sense of themselves and others, then talk of “identity” must serve as data rather than final words. There’s more to the story.

When the scholar of religion in culture looks at statistics, the data is not only how respondents answer, but also the questions asked. And so one thing we might do is to deconstruct the essentialist in both.

The point here is not to expose “error” but to reveal what insider or epic groups find “extremely useful, things without which we cannot live on, take changes” (For more on this, see the work of social theorist Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak). What do the identities registered tell us about the worlds in which the observer and observed live? That’s the story.

Martin’s call to deconstruct essentialism in terms of projected hidden essence, labels, characteristics, and social roles is a good way to move from studying identity to operational acts of identification.

And that is precisely what I invite us to with the study below from the Pew Research Center:

  1. Read through the study.
  2. What are your first impressions?
  3. Where do you see connections to terms, concepts, and questions from this course?
  4. Using Martin’s model, how might you redescribe some of the data recorded here? Choose three essentialist labels in the study and deconstruct them in light of what you’ve read.

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