Quaker Studies – a diverse and active interdisciplinary field

This weekend I was at the Quaker Studies Research Association (QSRA) and Centre for Research in Quaker Studies (CRQS) joint conference. QSRA has been running conferences for 25 years, and CRQS (formerly CPQS, the Centre for Postgraduate Quaker Studies) working for 20 years, so we had a joint ‘birthday party’. I am a member of both organisations and was involved in organising the conference, so naturally you’ll assess my opinions in that light, although what I say here is very much my personal perspective and not an institutional one. (Pick up other perspectives with the #QuakerStudies hashtag and get news via the CRQS Facebook page.) There were a few changes from the draft conference programme but that will give you a flavour – and, in particular, make it clear that there were two parallel sessions for almost all the weekend, and so this post is inevitably only really about half the conference.

Overall, it was a chance to observe how diverse and active Quaker Studies is. As an interdisciplinary field – including historians, sociologists, and theologians, but also linguistics, philosophers, literary critics, and others – it’s always going to be diverse in theory, but at this conference the diversity and the benefits of it were clear in practice. For example, this morning Judith Roads gave a paper about early Quaker rhetorical techniques, focusing on how they attempted to persuade people, and Andrew Jack gave a paper about philosophers working in the same period, and why they (almost entirely) rejected Quaker claims. Now, perhaps the philosophers were never going to be convinced by Quaker ideas, and it became clear that the Quakers weren’t using methods likely to convince philosophers (more appeals to emotion than logic), but also that understanding the other forms of writing which were happening at the same time shed light on both sides.

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The Cadbury Room at Woodbrooke on Friday afternoon, with rows of chairs, a lectern and laptop, and display of books against the far wall. The wealth of Quaker Studies publications sent by university presses and other academic publishers was very impressive!

It’s also an active field which is attracting new scholars – not, as you might assume in another field, always young scholars, but often people who are extending their studies in new directions or returning to study or research. We heard papers based on Master’s level research or from those just starting PhD work, and from people who mainly work on something else but happen to have developed an interest in a Quaker (like David Pocta, who usually works on Christian spirituality and is currently researching Thomas Kelly), as well as experienced people like Rosemary Moore, who has been working in the field for more than twenty years.

These aspects of the field have their pitfalls as well, of course. It’s hard to keep up – it’s not a huge discipline and I’d say I’m fairly well-connected within it, and yet over this weekend I met people I’d never encountered before and heard about work on subjects I’d never considered. (Some are just areas I happen to be ignorant about, like revolutionary Pennsylvania; some seem surprisingly but actually obvious outworkings, like the way Patricia O’Donnell’s interest in Quaker material culture led to her research on coffins; and some are genuinely surprising findings, like Stephen Brooks who has found an astonishing 170+ examples of Quakers appearing, as characters or mentions, in TV and films).

Different disciplinary norms also sometimes make for difficult conversations. A discussion about the difference between phenomenology and phenomenography left a few of us agreeing that there was probably something involved which we didn’t understand or understood so differently we couldn’t discuss it. A question about which early Quakers counted as ‘ministers’ had some people trying to explain changing linguistic use, others generalising about those who publish and whose books are saved automatically have a ‘ministering’ role even if not formally named as such, and still others worried about circular definitions. There are also the risks, common in academic studies of denominations or other faith communities, of participants who both study Quakers and are Quaker slipping from one perspective to the other – it’s understandable, but not always helpful to author or audience, if a paper about the history or sociology of Quakers gets responses which aren’t about the paper’s contents but about what it says or should say to practising Quakers.

That said, people mostly handled these issues with patience and generosity – in my experience, Quaker Studies doesn’t usually attract the kinds of knock-down questions, I-know-best bragging, displays of superiority, or other unpleasant behaviour seen at some academic conferences. It’s possible that we thereby lose out on rigour in the discussions: there are times when it’s right to ask a challenging question, to point out a mistake or omission, or to ask for more evidence, and people might be holding back from that in order to be ‘nice’. On the other hand, I heard some questions asked which definitely challenged or pushed in that positive way while remaining friendly and supportive, so perhaps it’s possible to have the best of both worlds.

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