More thoughts on method and methodology

I have been re-reading the works of Wendy Doniger that explore myth and gender, as part of some research I am doing into the characterisation of the mothers of Indian religious heroes. I love Doniger’s work – the clarity, the colour, and the boldness.

But what struck me this morning was the way she deals with the question of methodology in the study of myth, a topic with which I also have to engage. As I have noted in previous posts, I am generally of the opinion that too much time in Religious Studies is spent discussing method and methodology, sometimes to the exclusion of common sense, and often to the exclusion of real progress in understanding the data. I am interested in understanding early Indian religion, not in refining Western theoretical models for the study of religion; the latter are interesting to me only inasmuch as they help with the former.

Doniger deals with the question of method in her characteristically straight-talking manner at the beginning of her book Women, Androgynes, and Other Mythical Beasts (University of Chicago Press, 1980). She seems frustrated at having to explain herself, declaring (p. 3):

“I do not want to talk about method right now; I want to get on with the job of interpreting the myths in this book and leave the abstract speculations for another time and place. My assumptions will become evident as the work unfolds, as will my definitions and goals. But since so many of my students – and critics – seem curious to know how I myself go about doing what I do and how, if at all, I can justify it, a brief introduction seems called for, if only to state that I do what I do on purpose, not out of carelessness or naivete, though I would rather do it than talk about it.”

I can relate to her frustrations, for a reluctance to engage in etensive discussions of method open one up to such accusations in the present academic climate too. Her “toolbox” approach – being aware of “all the patterns that other scholars have seen in other materials, all the ways in which they have tried to solve analogous problems” (p. 5) and then allowing the material to suggest the most appropriate tool for its analysis – also makes good sense to me.

But the laugh-out-loud moment was reading her reference to an untraced description of Mircea Eliade’s method as: “he reads an enormous amount, remembers it all, and is very very bright” (p.11). As Doniger declares, “[t]his is the model to which we all instinctively aspire, no matter what other methodologies we may hitch our wagon to from time to time” (p.11).

I have been known to describe my own methodology as “reading very slowly, thinking hard”, a habit I believe I picked up from my colleague James Hegarty. Maybe that is a little facetious, but I will nonetheless continue, and meanwhile point inquisitors to the more developed positions of Doniger and other scholars of a similar mould.


About naomiappleton

I work in the Divinity School at the University of Edinburgh, where I research and teach subjects related to South and Southeast Asian religions.
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