Search | Directories | Reference Tools
UW Home > Discover UW > Student Guide > Course Catalog 

Instructor Class Description

Time Schedule:

Michael A Williams
JSIS C 502
Seattle Campus

Religion in Comparative Perspective

Analysis of selected theme or symbols in relation to several different religious traditions. Topics vary. Prerequisite: admission to the comparative religion MAIS program or permission of instructor. Offered: W.

Class description

JSIS C 502 is one of the two core seminars in the Comparative Religion graduate program. The the other core seminar, JSIS C 501, provides students with a perspective on the development of the study of religion as an academic field, sets major approaches employed in the modern study of religion in proper context, and offers the opportunity for a critical assessment of several approaches (historical, phenomenological, anthropological, sociological, and psychological, etc.). JSIS C 502, on the other hand, essentially puts theory into practice, in the analysis of a selected topic in relation to more than one religious tradition.

The JSIS C 502 seminar for Winter 2014 will focus on “Religion, Race, and Ethnicity.” All three of these categories are widely invoked as potent factors in the dynamics of self-definition and social interaction, even though as modes of social definition they can sometimes be difficult to distinguish from one another. Race, ethnicity and religion are today all commonly treated as socially constructed (rather than essentialist) rubrics. In some contexts “race” has come to be replaced altogether as an analytical category in favor of “ethnicity.” In turn, many instances of “religious” self-definition are difficult, if not impossible to disentangle from “ethnicity.” The seminar will give some attention to the nature and reasons for instabilities in the constructions of race, ethnicity and religion. Nevertheless, most researchers do continue to find all three rubrics of some use as defining potentially discrete modes of self- and allo-identification. Moreover, though the arguments for the constructed nature of ethnic or racial (as well as religious) identifications are well-known and convincing, this does not mean that such identifications are less real in their ground-level social or political consequence among populations who take them with utmost seriousness. Nationalism is still another much-discussed phenomenon, and in the modern era (at least) it is often so intertwined with issues of race, ethnicity and religion that we shall need to devote some attention to nationalism’s relationship to questions relating to the other three rubrics.

The seminar will be an opportunity to explore questions surrounding complex interrelationships among these various modes of identification and their significance in the dynamics of communities. The literature on this kind of topic is truly enormous, so obviously it will be necessary to be selective. One focus will be on the role of religion in the creation of race/ethnicity, and many of the readings as well as items in the provisional bibliography have been selected with that theme somehow in view. At the same time, it is intended that from the dynamics of our discussion itself will emerge a handful of specific issues that as seminar participants we deem worth our consideration.

Only a few examples of some of the kinds of questions that might be explored: The importance of multiple identities, for individuals and even communities, is well-documented in research, though it is still too frequently overlooked or undervalued in popular, journalistic and even scholarly discourse. But what mode of identification is foregrounded in a given instance (race/ethnicity, religion, national identity?), and why? One often encounters the assertion that a certain religious tradition is more “ethnic,” while this or that other religion is “trans-ethnic” or “universalistic.” Is this true? If so, then to what extent, in what sense, and for what reasons? It has also been argued that “ethnic” communities or traditions can sometimes come to articulate their communalism and differences from “others” more in terms of religion than ethnicity. What is happening in these instances, and what circumstances account for it? What roles have been and are being played by religious traditions themselves in the creation and reinforcing of racial and ethnic identities? Many instances of modern violent conflict (the Balkans; Iraq; Sri Lanka, etc.) have been characterized as the boiling to the surface of ancient ethnic or religious frictions or hatreds (though perhaps catalyzed or released by other, external pressures). Other analysts have argued that such assertions mischaracterize the true dynamics and actual sources of conflict by overlooking long histories of notable multicultural tolerance. We shall have opportunity to devote some attention to this issue of the relevance of religion and ethnicity for understanding situations of violent conflict.

The first few weeks of the seminar will be organized around a selection of common readings, most of them on case studies, with students having the responsibility to lead discussions of certain selections on assigned dates. In these initial weeks we shall attempt to develop a basis for a shared conversation on this topic, and a set of common issues to which the seminar participants can contribute from the vantage points of their individual areas of special research interests.

In the latter part of the seminar, student members will present larger research papers that explore the seminar theme more deeply through the lenses of specific case studies, which may be drawn, if desired, from primary and secondary sources representing the student’s field of special interest in the study of religion. Though these research papers may be focused especially on one religious tradition, they should strive to incorporate comparative insights and dimensions, which can be informed by other materials read and discussed in the seminar.

Student learning goals

Enhancement of critical skills in assessing theoretical models against real life cases studies

Exposure to a variety of interesting religious traditions and cultural situations in the course of exploring the seminar topic

Greater understanding about issues surrounding some important aspects of the relation of "religion" to cultural identities in general.

General method of instruction

Seminar presentations and discussion

Recommended preparation

Students should come with earlier study of and current research interest in at least one or more religious traditions, or in the topic of race/ethnicity and the dynamics of cultural identity. Success in the seminar is largely dependent on devotion to careful thought, critical analysis, and a willingness to work hard.

Class assignments and grading

Each student can expect to be assigned responsibility for leadership in at least one of the early seminar discussions on the common readings, and this will include preparation and circulation electronically in advance of the seminar meeting a brief discussion paper on the reading(s). Each student can be expected also to be a respondent, at least once, to such discussion papers.

Each student will also write a larger research paper for presentation during the latter portion of the seminar, which will be critiqued by other seminar members and then revised before final submission. All seminar members will receive copies of all final versions.

Writing and participation.


The information above is intended to be helpful in choosing courses. Because the instructor may further develop his/her plans for this course, its characteristics are subject to change without notice. In most cases, the official course syllabus will be distributed on the first day of class.
Last Update by Michael A Williams
Date: 10/22/2013